Saturday, 5 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 3: Nursery Cryme

By 1971 the drummer's door had stopped revolving, and Phil Collins was safely established into the Genesis family. As the band's popularity grew they did more gigs: sadly this led to the departure of Anthony Phillips due to massive stage-fright, which forced the band to search for a new guitarist. Eventually the space was filled by Steve Hackett, and thus was born what became known as 'the Classic line-up' (although they only made 4 albums together).

The first of these was 'Nursery Cryme', an album which was to see the band increasingly stretching the popular song to greater lengths and in all kinds of wierd and wonderful directions. This work opens with the band's first foray into 10-minute+ song writing with The Musical Box. Like Stagnation on Trespass, this is a song with a back story, which is told on the sleeve notes - a macabre tale of nursery infanticide and ghoulish lust between Henry Hamilton-Smythe minor and Cynthia Jane De Blaise-William, which provided the inspiration for Paul Whitehead's iconic cover art. The opening musical phrases of the song are played on both guitar and piano giving it the feel of an old musical box, and from there Henry begins to tell his tale as 12-strings gently play behind the occasional ethereal wail of Hackett's electric guitar. The song at this point has an almost folky, pastoral feel, enhanced by Gabriel's lilting flute. As the tension, and Henry's desires, begin to mount, so the music picks up in energy & tempo, with guitars and organ bouncing off one another bolstered by Collins's drumming, until Hackett launches into a soaring, at times discordant solo before resolving itself into an almost panting guitar rhythm as the Musical Box plays its song. The song continues to build, with Banks' organ giving backing to the final crescendo before the final climactic end leaves us all breathless. The Musical Box actually began life as a demo of Anthony Phillips's, called F# (the opening track on his recent 'Harvest of the Heart' compilation), and the guitar solo was written by Phillips' short-lived replacement Mick Barnard, who was replaced by Hackett.

By contrast, For Absent Friends is a gentle word picture of a couple of widowed pensioners (one assumes) wiling away a Sunday evening sitting in the park before tottering off to church to remember loved ones lost. In two short verses and less than 2 minutes a story is evoked which could easily spark a short story, or even a novel (one of my many dreams): a wonderful gem of lyric writing, enhanced by the simple guitar and piano accompaniment. Although uncredited, this song marks Phil Collins' lead vocal debut for the band - a taste of things to come.

The Return of the Giant  Hogweed brings us another tale from the bizarre collective mind of the group, which finds humanity under attack not from rogue nations or even alien hordes but from killer weeds. The lyrics alternate between present panic in the face of this horticultural onslaught, with louder, more dramatic music; and back-story telling of how the mighty weed came to make the journey from the Russian hills to the leafy lanes of England, portrayed in a quieter vein, as if these are dreamy flashbacks. Musically the song is the first recorded instance of Steve Hackett using his two-handed tapping technique which was to become somewhat of a trademark of his, long before Eddie van Halen brought it to the notice of a wider audience.

The ebb and flow of the album brings us another quieter song next, Seven Stones, which tells of fate, chance, superstition and consequence as an old man reminisces on the vagaries of his life. The music trots along below the lyrics with running arpeggios from the organ alongside muted guitars, and during the choruses it seems to promise a little more before reining back to keep the mood more contemplative. The use of Mellotron here maintain the dreamy air to the end.

Harold the Barrel, which follows, is pure pantomime with a touch of George Formby. It is the story of the disappearance, possible madness and eventual suicide of Harold, 'a well-known Bognor restaurant owner', told as a news report. Deliciously British, equally deliciously barmy.

The last of the short, quiet songs, is Harlequin. This is the most Ant Philllips-like of the post-Phillips era, being a simple 12-string-heavy ballad with only the occasional flute, even rarer (if any) keyboards and no drums at all. The harmonies in the vocals are pronounced if not all that spectacular, and Collins' voice has a tendency to come to the fore in a couple of places.

For the final track the band turn to Greek myth for their subject matter in The Fountain of Salmacis. This is a saga of forbidden love between Hermes & Aphrodite, and unrequited love (on his part) between their offspring, Hermaphroditus and the naiad Salmacis. It begins with lilting, crashing waves of mellotron, organ, cymbals & guitar before Gabriel's voice comes in over the organ arpeggios, which then give way to the full band. Rutherford's bass line is noticeable here for its invention and relative complexity, and in this - along with Hackett's guitar adding fresh textures to the music and Collins' drums being less of a rhythm section and more of an instrument alongside the others - we begin to see the band coming into their own musically: it is remarkable to see how far they've come in just 2 years. The story builds as the demi-god is drawn into the nymph's trap, and the instrumental crescendo with the soaring solo keyboards is simply stunning. As the song reaches its resolution the full symphonic might of the band emerges, bringing promises of things to come.

This album, for me, takes the progression that the band made from their first to their second albums and moves it on further into the realms of monumental story-telling, instrumental experimentation and the beginnings of virtuosic dexterity. Not quite yet the finished article, Genesis have now pulled together a group of musicians and song-writers who will go on to carve a unique niche in the British and indeed the world music scene. The 'epic' is starting to become their forte: what is to follow in the next 3-4 years will cement their place in rock history, and songs such as The Musical Box, The Return of the Giant Hogweed & The Fountain of Salmacis will continue to be seen as classics of the genre (and still be played by Steve Hackett today).