Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Peter Gabriel and Genesis

Let me preface this with a couple of very clear statements for context: (1) I am a serious prog-head -- a fan of progressive rock. I studied music theory intensely in college, finishing two years of theory in just one year, spending breaks between classes playing piano and composing. My list of favorite bands includes brain-twisting, inaccessible bands ranging from Yes to Anekdoten, from Emerson Lake & Palmer to Änglagård, from Cathedral to Porcupine Tree. (2) My feelings on the topic of Peter Gabriel and Genesis are very mixed. Do NOT misinterpret the following as coming down on either side of the issues discussed. If you think I'm either side, you have either exaggerated the importance of one statement, or underestimated the importance of another. I am absolutely stuck right in the middle, despite the intensity of my mixed opinions. Now, with those two points in mind, let's get on with it. A friend posted today that she had "Solsbury Hill" stuck in her head. It's my favorite Peter Gabriel solo-career song. It feels and sounds just like a Gabriel-era Genesis song; it could have sat perfectly among the tracks on Selling England By the Pound or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I commented on what "Solsbury Hill" is about -- Gabriel's anxiety and excitement about striking out on his own without his old bandmates. She commented that it was a good thing he left Genesis. Was it really a good thing that Peter Gabriel left Genesis? This is where I have intensely mixed feelings. Selling England By the Pound, the next-to-last of the Gabriel-era Genesis albums, is one of my favorite albums of all time. In the catalog of Genesis, only Foxtrot comes close. I've always felt that Genesis got steadily better and better after their meandering first album. By the early 70's they were one of the most sophisticated, intelligent bands on Earth and among the finest musicians and composers in popular music. Growing better and better through Trespass (1970) and Nursery Cryme (1971), they eventually recorded a true masterpiece in the album Foxtrot (1972), and then exceeded even that with the unmatched prog masterwork Selling England By the Pound (1973). But I separate myself from many Genesis fans at that point. Many believe that the next album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) was the best album Genesis ever recorded, surpassing all previous work. But the band were falling apart during the writing and recording of the album, and to me it really shows. The album loses the forceful sense of direction present on the previous albums, and the disharmony in the band is palpable in the music, which seems disconnected, detached, and overblown. The members of Genesis had kept each other in check on previous albums, one always stopping the other from taking any one good idea too far, and editing out the bad ideas. By Lamb, though it has a lot of fantastic tracks, sometimes displays the lack of editing, belying that the band mates no longer were listening to each other and editing each other. Peter Gabriel was not even present for much of the work on the album. His absence and the internal troubles really show in the finished album. To me, Lamb is a fantastic album -- better than many prog bands could ever hope to achieve -- but by Genesis's high standards, Lamb is simply not on par with Foxtrot or Selling England. Genesis peaked with Selling England, and then, although still strong, showed signs of slipping a bit with Lamb. And then Peter Gabriel left Genesis, and both he and his former bandmates began the drift away from sophisticated, intelligent, challenging prog rock toward radio-friendly, bite-sized nuggets of sweet, easily-consumed pop music. Both initial solo outings (Peter Gabriel's unoffically-titled "Car" and Genesis's "A Trick of the Tail") were quite progressive. Tracks like Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" and Genesis's "Dance on A Volcano" sounded virtually identical to old Gabriel-era Genesis. But Gabriel continued to drift further and further into short, marketable pop songs. And Genesis soon lost their other great prog giant, guitarist Steve Hackett, and fell into a directionless morass before finding their own quirky pop style. Is it really a "good thing" that Peter Gabriel left Genesis? I suppose it's naive, but I wanted the Genesis of Foxtrot and Selling England By the Pound to go on and on. I want more like Selling England, but it can never happen. And, to be realistic, just looking at the Lamb album it's obvious that it couldn't happen. Why is it that great bands, with very few exceptions, after achieving great artistic success then fall into bitter internal arguments and stop communicating? It happened with the Beatles, who erupted into petty sniping and rivalry during their last couple of albums before going their own ways. It happened with Pink Floyd after their tremendous mid-1970s successes, when the band split into factions, eventually becoming notoriously bitter rivals by the mid-1980s. Of course there are exceptions. Though they've had some brief rocky moments and have shed a few members along the way, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have never had any particularly bitter breakups or fights. And one of the greatest exceptions of all is the seemingly-immortal prog triumvirate Rush, whose band members have both remained together and remained close friends ever since their final member change after their debut album in 1974. If only bands like Genesis, the Beatles and Pink Floyd could have maintained their personal relationships and communications as well as Rush! I wish there could have been many more Genesis albums like Selling England By the Pound, but from the troubles that arose during Lamb it obviously could not happen. And furthermore, there's no debating that both Peter Gabriel and the post-Gabriel era of Genesis contributed a lot to elevate pop music out of the sheer stupidity that so often plagues radio-friendly pop. From the late-1970s to the present day, with a few embarrassingly daft bumps aside (please don't ask my opinions on "Sledgehammer" or "Invisible Touch"), Gabriel and Genesis have put out some smart, musically-challenging pop music, making it clear that pop music does not have to be all thoughtless bubblegum love songs and teen angst. They raised the overall I.Q. of pop music and have achieved a lot of good in their solo careers. But I would have rather had more in the vein of Selling England By the Pound. The fact that it was impossible doesn't make me want it less. If you read this, you deserve some good stuff. So here are some videos from Peter Gabriel and from Genesis: "Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel "Cinema Show" by Genesis (with Peter Gabriel in 1974!) "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight" by Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" by Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) part of "Supper's Ready" by Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) "Dance On A Volcano" by (post-Gabriel) Genesis "Dodo/Lurker" by (post-Gabriel) Genesis. Possibly my favorite later-era Genesis track. "Digging In the Dirt" by Peter Gabriel

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