Friday, 29 April 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 8: A Trick of the Tail

The decision of Peter Gabriel to quit Genesis in 1975 came as a huge blow not only to his fellow band members but also to their growing fan base. How would the band respond? For a while a couple of them took some time out and worked on solo and side projects. Steve worked with Phil & Mike and others on his first solo recording, 'Voyage of the Acolyte', while Phil developed his jazz-fusion band, 'Brand X'. But eventually they came back together to begin the next phase of their life as a four-piece with Collins assuming the role of singer and front-man. The first result of this renaissance was 'A Trick of the Tail'.

The album sleeve, another Hypgnosis design, depicts vignettes of the songs on the disc in artwork by Colin Elgie. Also, for the first time, individual song-writing credits are given (previously all songs were credited as band compositions), and it is worth noting that Tony Banks is the only band member with a credit for every song. With Gabriel's departure, it seems as if he has assumed the role of band leader.

That said, the album opens with a group composition, 'Dance on a Volcano', a rocky number written in 7/8 time which features some catchy guitar riffs, soaring keyboard runs, thundering bass pedals and driving drum work. There are echoes here of the work that Collins was doing with Brand X around that time - he'd recorded their debut release just before the band got together to make this album - as well as a music hark-back to 'Back in NYC', which was in a similar time signature. The drumming seems to be more involved than hitherto, as well. The song builds nicely during the instrumental section, before resolving into a typical Genesis sound of 12-strings and organ. A great opener!

In contrast to the bombast of 'Dance...', 'Entangled' is a serene waltz penned principally by Steve Hackett with help from Banks. It evokes feelings of waking from a dream, or more probably from sedation or general anaesthetic, as the lyrics have a medical theme to them. It begins with picked 12-string, which builds as the vocals enter and develops to strummed 12-string by the chorus. By verse 2 the Mellotron makes an appearance, albeit fleetingly, and after the second chorus we move into an extended instrumental section, where keyboards and Mellotron choir contrast the guitars, and there are echoes of 'Ravine' here as the song builds to its crescendo. As far as I can hear, there are no drums and no bass in the song, just 12-strings, keyboards and vocals: but a stunningly beautiful song.

'Squonk', however, hits you straight between the eyes from the off with bass, drums, guitars and keyboards - the full band! But still somewhat gently - there's nothing raucous here. The tale unfolds of the mythical creature, the Squonk, which when captured protects itself by dissolving into a pool of tears - not, perhaps, the most sensible of defence mechanisms - but the song may also be a critique of hunting perhaps. The structure of the song is on the whole quite simple, but the final verse has the feel of something separate, almost tacked on, with quite an abrupt transition.

'Mad Man Moon' has always been the stand-out track on the album for me. Unlike 'Squonk', this is anything but a simple song, in both its structure and its chord sequencing, and demonstrates the start of a distinct change in Banks's writing style. Lyrically poetic and slightly obtuse, it is a song which evokes the British weather but also seeks to make sense of the seeming lunacy of love sometimes. Musically the piano is to the fore, as perhaps one would expect of a Banks composition, with Mellotron & other keyboards evident. What seems to be almost (though not completely) missing is guitars, with Steve's trademark electric soloing only really surfacing in the passage leading into the final verse, and even then only briefly.

So (in old money) we move to side two, and to 'Robbery, Assault and Battery', a song from the school of dramatic and comic story-telling that Genesis made their own in the past with such gems as 'Harold the Barrel' and 'The Battle of Epping Forest', and which gives Phil Collins the opportunity to put his stage school training to good use. Guitars are more to the fore here, particularly during the chorus, but Banks gives himself an extended keyboard solo mid-way through, over some off-beat drumming. And is this the first instance of a (perhaps mild) profanity in the lyrics, when the parentage of the perp is questioned!

The ebb & flow/ light & shade/ loud & quiet of the album continues with the elegiac 'Ripples', a lament for the transient nature of beauty and a collaboration between Banks & Rutherford. 12-strings are again to the fore to begin with, with piano coming alongside by the second half of the verse and the chorus. After the second verse, the piano takes over, with Hackett's guitar singing mutedly over the top and other keyboards picking up a counter melody before the chorus returns to bring the song to its fading conclusion.

I've mentioned in earlier reviews the breadth of inspiration that Genesis have for the subject-matter of their songs, and for the title track, 'A Trick of the Tail', they turn to the writings of William Golding and his 1955 novel 'The Inheritors'. The song, in a quite jovial musical way, explores issues around xenophobia, suspicion and even matters of faith & doubt, and identity. This is another piano-led song, quite jaunty and light, and surprisingly released as a b-side to 'Entangled', where it might have fared better as the lead track. It is maybe the beginnnings of the band developing more along 'pop' lines rather than 'prog', a trajectory that would become more pronounced ovr the next couple of years and beyond.

And so we reach the end of this collection, returning almost full-circle to where we began with 'Los Endos', a band-penned instrumental that drives along at a cracking pace and allows all the band members to show their abilities. As a closing track it picks up a number of themes from earlier songs, notably 'Squonk' and 'Dance on a Volcano', and also (perhaps) wraps up the '(continued)' from the end of the lyric sheet for 'Supper's Ready' on 'Foxtrot' with Phil singing 'there's an angel standing in the sun' a couple of times as the track fades.

This is very mucha transitional album, laying down the benchmark for how the band would develop as a four-piece unit. Phil's drumming is developing as he brings into the band the fruit of his jazzier side-projects; Tony is nurturing a more distinct sound to his compostion; Mike continues to provide the bedrock of the sound with his 12-string, bass and bass padel work; Steve's electric work seems to me to be a little muted in this collection of songs, though this will change in their next venture. But maybe this was the first step on the band's road to becoming the pop-rock superstars that they became in the 1980s.