Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 7: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

1974 was to be a pivotal year in the life of Genesis, in that it would see the break-up of what we now know as the 'classic line-up' of the band. Much of the reason behind that fracture stemmed from their sixth studio album, 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' and the subsequent tour that accompanied it.

Just as 'Selling England...' had seen a marked shift in the musical direction of the band, so 'The Lamb...' also saw much change (progression?). This was the band's first double album release, clocking in at a mammoth 94 minutes; it was their first foray into the world of the 'concept album', where an overarching theme or narrative embraces the songs throughout the album; and it was the first time that they had used Hipgnosis to design the album sleeve.

The story of the album is another of Peter Gabriel's bizarre, psychological tales (like that on the sleeve notes to 'Genesis Live'), concerning a half-Puerto Rican New York street punk by the name of Rael who embarks on a mysterious journey of self-discovery, which strays into areas of religion, sexuality and consumerism. Lyrically almost all of the songs were penned by Gabriel (the exception being 'The Light Dies Down on Broadway', which is a Banks/ Rutherford work), though he had very little to do with the music on the album, due to other commitments away from the band, apart from 'Carpet Crawlers'.

The story opens with the title track 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway', which leads off with cross-handed arpeggios on the piano, building to a crescendo as the vocals enter to tell the story of Rael, with crashing drums and throbbing bass driving the song forward. A keyboard riff that will return later in Carpet Crawlers flows beneath a quieter section, as Hackett's airy guitar cries over the top, before the band picks up again. We segue gently into 'Fly on a Windshield', a studio jam where Steve Hackett comes to the fore (and which still features in his live sets), which itself powers into 'Broadway Melody of 1974', laden with American cultural references, puns and culminating in the line "the children play at home with needles... needles and pins" with the last three words sung to the same notes as in the Nitschze & Bono song of the same name (made famous by The Searchers among others). A gentle, lilting guitar interlude then takes us into 'Cuckoo Cocoon', with some distortion to the vocals, interesting harmonies and picked guitar, with a flute solo midway through. This is very reminiscent musically to me of 'Stagnation' from Trespass in places - nicely nostalgic. 'In The Cage' finds Rael facing up to his predicament, trapped in some subterranean prison and contemplating his future (or possible lack of one). The latent spirituality that inhabits parts of Genesis's music resurfaces as  a 'childhood belief brings a moment's relief. But [his] cynic soon returns and the lifeboat burns.' Here one of the key components of the story emerges, as Raels' brother, John, appears, and we will find him popping up throughout this tale until its startling conclusion. This song races along, driven by Collins' powerful drumming and the counterpoint of Banks's organ, and has within it one of the better keyboard instrumental sections of the band's canon.  And yet another citation (both lyrically and melodically) of a early '60s hit, this time Del Shannon's 'Runaway'.

'The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging' has a wonderfully steam-driven, industrial feel to it, with interesting effects on the vocals and an intensity which builds throughout the song. This takes us into 'Back in NYC', a rollicking romp predominantly in 7/8 that takes us far from the latent spirituality of earlier into the beginnings of a baser carnality, both in violence and in sexuality, that will grow as the story proceeds. Gabriel's voice is perhaps at its rawest here, and this song has more recently been covered by the likes of Jeff Buckley and Tin Spirits. 'Hairless Heart' is by contrast a quiet instrumental piece, with lilting keyboard runs and acoustic guitar, leading to a Mellotron solo, and provides a natural link between Back in NYC and 'Counting Out Time', a somewhat comical tale of disastrous sexual experience, which again sees the humour of the band coming out and makes the point that intimate human encounter is more than a mechanical process. 'Carpet Crawlers', the only major musical contribution by Peter Gabriel on the album, begins a sequence where Rael is, along with others, searching for ultimate meaning in life. There is much powerful imagery here: the upward glance, the stairway spiralling out of sight, the wise and foolish virgins (who in Matthew 25 are awaiting the return of the Bridegroom) and the needle's eye winking and closing on the poor (reference to Jesus' assertion about the difficulty of the rich gaining access to the Kingdom of Heaven?). The oft-repeated line "We've got to get in to get out" is almost a mantra by the end of the song, which builds to a stirring crescendo in this desperately beautiful song. That search continues in 'The Chamber of 32 Doors', and carries with it an air of futility that leads to desperation as every avenue simply leads Rael back to where he began - "I need someone to believe in, someone to trust", echoes our hero, but so far to no avail. The song ends with a perceptible musical sigh of despair.

The mood lifts with the advent of 'Lilywhite Lilith', the music excited and hopeful as Rael's blind guide shepherds him out of his endless cycle and leads him into a big round cave where he awaits the next stage of his mysterious adventure. Throughout this album the skills of the five members of the band have been gently augmented by the experimental 'twiddlings' of Brian Eno, but these come to the fore now with 'The Waiting Room', a piece quite unlike anything else in the band's canon: a collection of ambient sounds, tinkling bells, distortion & sound effects that create an air of unreality and suspense, which eventually resolve themselves into a pulsing, rhythmic melody. As Rael is confronted with his own mortality yet again, we move into one of Genesis's (to my mind) most under-rated songs, the sublime 'Anyway'. Starting out light and flowing with piano to the fore, this song builds to an explosion - a rage against the dying of the light? - mid-way through into some of Banks's best piano work outside 'Firth of Fifth', complemented by some almost brassy guitar harmonies, before settling back into its earlier gentle mood. 'Here comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist' is almost an instrumental track, with just a brief vocal section at the start. This is quite a jaunty piece (bearing in mind it's about the approach of death!), with Hackett's guitar riffs providing a strong lead. Instead of finding himself dead, Rael journeys onward through a long passageway to a perfumed pool in which he encounters 'The Lamia', feminine serpentine seductresses who take him to heights of pleasure never known before. The music is quite pastoral throughout, with piano dominant for the greater part of the song, and the echoes of 'Trespass' are quite clear here to me. We move into the sad, elegiac 'Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats', an instrumental dominated by Mellotron choirs and a lilting guitar riff which slowly fades as the lights are dimmed.

The story continues with almost rubbery, playful sounds as we launch into 'The Colony of Slippermen', a three-part tale of the consequences of Rael's romantic encounters with the Lamia. The playfulness continues in the melody, as Rael arrives, wandering 'lonely as a cloud', and encounters the Slippermen, bemused by their appearance until he discovers that he himself is one of them. His only hope is a visit to the Doktor, whose solution to the problem is to 'dock the dick'. Musically & lyrically this section is quite staccato in its feel, with much alliteration. The intensity of the song increases with the arrival of The Raven: the music drives along during the first verse and takes off during the keyboard solo which swoops and soars until the bird pounces and flies off with Rael's tubed member. The song concludes with a reprise of the opening melody as Rael seeks in vain to persuade John to join in in pursuit of the bird, and hurries off only to see the tube drop into the river and disappear. The final instrumental track, 'Ravine', follows: a moody, ambient piece using quiet strumming guitars behind synthesiser sounds of winds and what sounds like a musical saw (which puts me in mind, in a less developed and rhythmic form, of 'Unquiet slumber for the sleepers...' on 1977's 'Wind & Wuthering'), and that takes us into 'The Light Dies Down on Broadway', a slower, more melancholy, minor key version of the opening title track in which Rael contemplates returning to the life he once knew, but is then faced with a counter-choice of saving brother John who is now flailing in the waters below. This dilemma is faced at an even tempo, musically, in contrast to the frenetic pace of earlier, which gives it a kind of dreamy feel. 'Riding the Scree' has a scurrying, urgent feel to it, and as the instrumental section kicks in towards the end it takes on a kind of playful tone - Rael is almost enjoying this! But by the time he hits the water and is 'In The Rapids' the tone is quieter. The strident 12-string chords and the tone of Gabriel's voice here conjure up a chill in the raging waters. There is a quiet desperation in the song, and Gabriel's voice is perhaps at its most soulful than at any other point in his time with the band (as that time comes to its end). The song climaxes as Rael saves John, only to discover that it is in fact himself he has saved!, and the synth's siren wail ushers in the finale - 'it'. What is 'it'? It is what he has been searching for all along, what we all search for but so often can't elucidate: it is identity, it is love, it is intimacy; it is looked for (and found?) in food, in drink, in drugs, in travel, in religion, in sex, in money - in everything and in nothing. Yes, it's only knock and knowall, but I like it!

Genesis's largest studio project, 'The Lamb' has (like many similar concept albums) been held up as a great creative masterpiece, a work of great philosophical and existential exploration and also as a pretentious, over-indulgent, incomprehensible mess. Over 40 years on people still wonder about what the heck it's all about, but you can't deny that it is a piece of musical and lyrical inventiveness and creativity, that still holds its own alongside the other great works of the progressive genre. Perhaps just (just) a little too long, it is, of course, the album that ended the creative partnership of Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett & Rutherford after only four years and four albums. But what a legacy that 'classic' line-up left us!