Genesis, a band that’s been around longer than Crosby, Stills and Nash and has produced three times as many albums, is now enjoying a period of historical renovation. The recent documentary “Together and Apart” (that’s the BBC title, anyhow) featured new interviews with the entire classic lineup, sometimes together, which is itself historic. They have a new compilation album out and several “where to start with Genesis”-type articles are peppering the internet. This isn’t one of those, but rather a discussion of one of the key albums in their catalogue, 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
For the benefit of those not familiar with their history, Genesis was formed at Charterhouse independent school in the late 1960s. A classic English boarding school featuring cock races, smart uniforms and perfect received-English accents, Charterhouse nevertheless didn’t escape the siren call of rock music. Among the upper middle-class student body were musicians Michael Rutherford and Anthony Phillips, who had a rock-oriented band called The Anon, and Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel, whose jazzy outfit was called The Garden Wall. The Anon was looking for a new keyboard player, and Banks was already well-known as a first class pianist, but he invited along his childhood friend Gabriel, who liked to sing. Soon enough, the two groups merged and became Genesis, issuing their first album in 1967.
A few lineup changes followed, most significantly in the loss of guitarist Phillips to health concerns, and the recruiting of professional outside musicians Steve Hackett and a longhaired drummer named Phil Collins. By 1972, the classic lineup was in place and through albums such as Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound, they established a reputation for virtuoso playing, oddly surreal and deeply English lyrics and Peter Gabriel’s fantastic costumes and stage antics. Listening to them now from this period undercuts the popular perception of them as a “soft” folk band who wrote silly songs inspired by fantasy novels. Indeed: listen to a track like “Watcher of the Skies” or the latter portion of “Cinema Show” and you’ll hear a band on par with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin for pure heavy power, albeit with far less blues influence and more classical and jazz inclinations.
By 1974, the band was reaching the height of its power and popularity, particularly in the United States (they were always popular in Canada). Had they produced a strong commercial album at this point, with more songs like their hit “I Know What I Like”, which cracked the top 40 the previous year, they probably would have been elevated into the top ranks of progressive rock, alongside Pink Floyd and The Who. Instead, Peter Gabriel insisted on taking a firm hand with the new album, expanding it into an ambitious double LP with a lot of high concept, and creating a character for himself to play throughout the whole piece. Gabriel’s only real opposition within the group was Banks, who was used to having a larger say in the writing. But for this one time, Gabriel won the day and wound up linking all four sides of the LP into one story. What this created was an album that essentially had to be performed in its entirely to make any sense, the opposite of the sort of album they had to make at this point in order to move to the next level of success.
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway basically destroyed Genesis, at least in its most legendary incarnation. Gabriel announced halfway through the elaborate tour to support the album that he was leaving the group. Banks, by this point, was incredibly frustrated by being stifled in his role and the announcement was bittersweet. Collins, the only non-writing musician in the group at the time, was feeling frustrated by Gabriel’s costumes and stagecraft getting in the way of the music and even suggested that the band simply become an instrumental group. (He was quickly taken to task by the other members.) As rock history records, Peter Gabriel went on to great success in his solo career after finally departing in 1975, and ironically Phil Collins, the member most interested in pure music, who suggested they play with no vocals at all, became the group’s best-known singer.
The album itself captures the group in the process of trying to grow, artistically and commercially. Selling England by the Pound can be considered the ultimate expression of “early Genesis”, with fantasy-inspired lyrics and shorter songs mixed with longer pieces, with Gabriel playing a variety of characters steeped in the landscape of the English Imagination. After four albums in this style, the group was due for a change of focus, but lacked direction. Gabriel gave them a direction, although as we’ve seen, it might not have been the right direction. But at least it was different.
The Lamb, rather than being set in the English countryside, is a gritty, urban album on the streets of New York City. The lead character, rather than a medieval dictator (as in “The Knife”) or a metaphorical old man listening to a children’s toy (“The Musical Box”) is a tough street kid from Puerto Rico named Rael. In one of the many literary jokes/references, the character’s name is an obvious anagram of “real”, which sets up the story’s main theme, that of identity. Rael stars the story by waking up in the morning, fighting through various psychological and surreal traps (such as witnessing an insane parade of 1974 popular culture, escaping from a cage, crawling through an insect-infested carpet to a chamber with 32 doors and having to choose the right one, etc). As time goes on, Rael emerges out of the urban landscape into a river, with a waterfall, where he swims with eels who have beautiful faces until he’s turned into a “Slipperman”, a slimy creature who must lose his penis in order to become normal again. The final haunting image is of Rael confronting his doppelgänger, almost drowning in the river and finally emerging into a new understanding (“IT is real! IT is Rael!”, as the last song says).
When confronted with a story like that, reactions tend to fall into three camps: a) “What does it all mean?” b) “What crap! He’s just making it up.” [translation: “I don’t understand it, therefore I will lash out.”] and c) “I’m going to figure this thing out if it’s the last thing I do.” I’ve been listening to this album for 23 years (I got it for Christmas in 1991 and listened to it three times that very day), and I’m somewhere between camps a and c. I still don’t really know what it all means, or whether that’s even the point anyway. And besides, just regarding the story is less than half the experience.
The music on The Lamb was mainly by Rutherford and Banks, with Gabriel adding lyrics and melodies, sometimes chord structures. You can hear this all over the album, with Banks’ wonderfully light and melodic classical touches in “The Lamia” and virtuoso synthesizer playing on “In the Cage”, and Rutherford’s muscular Rickenbacker bass and guitar riffs all over the place, particularly “Fly on a Windshield”, “Lillywhite Lilith” and “Back in NYC”. (It’s a bit odd to think of such a monster rock musician as Rutherford later becoming the leader of Mike & the Mechanics, but rock music is an odd thing sometimes.) Collins is fantastic all the way through on drums (just listen to “IT”) and provides his distinctive high vocals as a nice complement to Gabriel. Steve Hackett, the lead guitarist, was unfortunately injured at the time, severing his left thumb tendon while crushing a wine glass, so he isn’t as audible on this album as on others. Still, he gets a few good moments in, such as the solo on “Anyway” and his funny experiment with an early guitar synthesizer on “Counting Out Time”. This makes The Lamb all the more remarkable in that it’s probably the only major early 70s rock album that didn’t feature that much guitar soloing. Keyboards were, and are, the main solo instrument in Genesis.
And all of that can’t be separated from Gabriel’s vocals, so diverse and powerful on this album, screeching on “Back in NYC” to singing the finest gentle ballad on “The Lamia” to playing an odd fantasy character in “The Colony of Slippermen”. On stage, Gabriel was unstoppable in this period, sporting short hair (ye Gods!) and a leather jacket that seemed to place him more in the punk era than 70s prog rock. His costume changes for Lamia and Slippermen did indeed get in the way of the music at times, but that reflects a surplus of ideas and ambition, an enviable position for any artist to be in. After all the elaborate production on this tour, Gabriel’s solo tours went a different way, using more small-scale and subtle visuals, at least until things came full circle in his 1993 Secret World tour, with elaborate sets, and his 2002 Growing Up tour in which he sang one song from within a a giant rubber “egg” (he was playing a “sperm”).
A double album, a world tour, perennial cries for the original lineup to get back together and play it again (they came close in 2006, with Gabriel backing out at the last minute), at least two major tribute bands who play the album in its entirety: one feels as if it should all add up to something. But what? Many other concept albums from the period, such as Rush’s 2112, The Who’s Quadrophenia or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, have strong, clear messages that resonate through the imperatives of rock music and rock culture, namely, “Be yourself and stick it to the Man!” Other messages exist in those albums, of course, but that’s rock’s ethos distilled into its purest form and it can easily be found in most rock concept albums. Not The Lamb. This is more of an album of self-discovery, of imaginative maturation. It has some of the signposts of rock in it, such as the prancing anthem “Back in NYC” where Rael struts his stuff, but on most scores it’s almost anti-rock, such as in the song about sex, “Counting Out Time”, which is played for laughs as a virgin anxiously tries to find his way around a woman’s body. The surreal imagery later of seeing your own reflection through the mist, of chasing a white lamb (or, to coin a phrase, a white “rabbit”) through a highly metaphorical landscape that brings you ultimately to an understanding of yourself suggest a venture into pure psychedelia.
But Gabriel, and Genesis, were never drug-oriented, just imaginative in that educated British private school way. For them, chasing giant hogweeds through the countryside, or evoking the image of “Six saintly shrouded men moving across the lawn slowly… the seventh walks in front, with a cross held high,” is an extension of that cultural and literary tradition. It seems a bit out of place at times in the New York urban environment of New York, but it’s there, along with a growing sense of yearning for freedom.
In the end, that’s what resonates with The Lamb, especially when you know the back story: Peter Gabriel searching for a way forward, to escape, to forge a new identity. For him, the exercise worked. Just listen to “Solisbury Hill”, from a couple of years later, after Gabriel had spent a year away from Genesis and rock stardom, living in a commune. That’s the sound a guy who had figured a few things out. The Lamb is the clattering sound of a young man trying to grow up, or at least move ahead. In that it is singularly preoccupied with progress, it is a true milestone of Progressive Rock.