On 18th November 1974 Genesis released an album that was to be a turning-point in the life and history of the band - The Lamb Lies Down of Broadway. The band's first double album, it fits into the often uncomfortable and much-maligned category of 'concept album', having running through it the narrative of the story of Rael, a Pueto Rican street punk from New York city.
Genesis were no strangers to story in their songs: their repertoire up to this point had been strewn with tales of wolves (White Mountain); nymphs & demi-gods (The Fountain of Salmacis); futuristic genetic engineering (Get 'em Out by Friday); and London gang warfare (The Battle of Epping Forest) to name just a few. Indeed, one of the strengths of their music is its narrative style. This, though, was the first time that they had committed themselves to tell a story over the length of an entire album.
This was a bold decision by the band, particularly in the aftermath of relative commercial success with their previous collection 'Selling England by the Pound', which had spawned their first - albeit minor - hit single "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)". But what emerged was a musical and theatrical tour-de-force which would remain a firm favourite with fans over the decades which followed.
The story is essentially one of the search for identity and for meaning in life. Rael's journey through the strange underworld, into which he mysteriously disappears, is one which explores matters of religion, psychology & sexuality as possible keys to understanding our nature and purpose. To help us hold the narrative frame in mind, Peter Gabriel provides us with a short story in the sleeve notes which more prosaically relates Rael's adventures than the lyrics of the songs. I remember first encountering this tale as a 15 year-old and being both baffled and captivated by it.
But this is not just a story: it is a rock album, a collection of songs & tunes. Have they stood the test of time over the passing 40 years? Well, many of them featured in the band's live set for a number of years after the release of the album, and Steve Hackett has included a number of the songs in his recent 'Genesis Revisited shows to great acclaim. Others too are taking this music and making it live for today: the late Jeff Buckley and, more recently, Tin Spirits have covered 'Back in NYC', and I had the great pleasure of attending the Italian band The Watch's performance of the entire album (except for The Waiting Room) at Maltby last month, which was really excellent.
Sadly there seems to be little if any chance of the 'classic' line-up of Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett & Rutherford reforming to play this material live again, but 'The Lamb' will stand for many years to come as one of the classic albums of the early Progressive Rock era, a defining statement of a derided but now resurgent musical genre.
I said at the start that this album was a turning-point for the band. It was the last album that Peter Gabriel would make with them, and though it would be a truism to say that from this point Genesis were never the same again, it might be said that they were never as good again either. The band still continued to tell stories, but never, to my mind, with the same air of experiment and adventure as they had up to and including 'The Lamb'. Perhaps as a parting shot, this was Gabriel's best way to say 'goodbye'.