Look out Ziggy, there’s a new alien in town, one with an even weirder wardrobe, and his name is Peter Gabriel.
Genesis’ debut had been something of a commercial failure. Their second LP, Trespass, saw the group expand their sound, while on third effort, 1971’s Nursery Cryme, the band’s strongest line-up was firmly in place. However it wasn’t until fourth album Foxtrot, released the following year, that Genesis established themselves as true heirs to the progressive rock throne. ELP might have had their Brain Salad Surgery and Rick Wakeman The Six Wives of Henry VIII, all neuron tickling excursions to be sure, but Genesis was truly something else. Gabriel had a voice that definitely lived up to his name sake, while other members, Tony Banks (organ, mellotron, piano), Steve Hackett (guitar), Michael Rutherford (bass) and Phil Collins (drums), were as brilliant as they were seemingly telepathic when it came to performance.
Beginning with “Watcher of the Skies”, Tony Banks’ gloomy and ominous mellotron intro announces the arrival of Gabriel and his fellow space travellers. The song itself is drenched in cosmic keyboards and Collins meticulousness drumming. What it’s about I have absolutely no idea, and yet strangely, it manages to make sense. “Time Table”, in comparison, fails to register, in spite of the quality playing throughout. Gabriel makes his first serious foray into social commentary on “Get ‘Em Out By Friday”, a song which has more complicated twists and turns than an Umberto Eco novel.
“Can-Utility and the Coastlines” points to future Genesis endeavours, such as Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The acoustic instrumental “Horizons”, written by Hackett, makes for a pleasant Bach-like interlude, before album epic “Supper’s Ready” steps in with its semi-medieval undertones and Baroque piano. Basically 23 minutes of English whimsy, the song is akin to a musical labyrinth for the first time listener, in that one never really knows what’s around the corner, since it consists of several suites, each of them unique. There are some Beatles moments throughout, a la “Penny Lane” mixed with the darker, more acerbic energy of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, proving just how influential the Fab Four remained in popular art. Gabriel’s absurdist lyrics are as visual as ever, painting a near disorienting narrative concerned with the struggle between good and evil in all its biblical proportions (allegedly inspired by his wife’s possession by a supernatural force).
Foxtrot was Genesis’ first major creative breakthrough, hence why it broke into the Top 20, even if the album didn’t contain one single song worthy of popular FM radio. But then this was the era when even an LP such as Tubular Bells could become a best seller. Because in the early ’70s proggy concept records were big, until ABBA came along and fucked the whole thing up. Intellectual rock was increasingly being usurped by shallow pop. However Gabriel’s cross-dressing theatrical bent combined with the other members’ musical sophistication meant that in the interim Genesis was destined for stadiums the world over.
As Steve Hackett put it: “It was an attempt to fuse together American and European influences in one melting pot. You’ve got a band that are experimenting with time signatures, jazz, folk, classical music – the whole shebang.”