Monday, January 18, 2021

Genesis: An era comes to an end

1974: Rutherford, Hackett, Collins, Banks, Gabriel

The cover of Genesis' fourth album, Foxtrot, gave Peter Gabriel an idea for spicing up the band's stage show (Genesis: The classic lineup settles in). A booking agent for Charisma Records suggested to Gabriel that the band should have someone in a red dress and fox's head in the street in front of their concert venues to draw attention. But Gabriel took it a step further. His wife had a red dress that looked like the one on the album cover, and he found a big furry fox head in a costume shop.

Without telling anyone, Gabriel stashed his new makeshift costume backstage for the group's show in Dublin, Ireland, in September 1972. He walked off stage during an instrumental passage in the band's encore, "The Musical Box," squeezed into the dress and fox head and reappeared to perform the song's climax. His bandmates were as surprised as everyone else in the hall. A writer for British music publication Melody Maker was at the show. He also was stunned. And he wrote about it -- on the front page. Word of Gabriel's stunt spread like wildfire as the tour continued, and Foxtrot, released a couple weeks later, marked the band's first appearance on the UK album charts. So his bandmates checked their displeasure as Gabriel quickly added several costumes to his wardrobe.

Charisma, hot to take advantage of Genesis' growing audience, released Genesis Live in July 1973. That one hit the Top 10 in Britain and was the first Genesis album to land on the charts in the United States. I'm generally not big on live albums, but this one is a gem. It's a great place to start for someone unfamiliar with the early and mid-period Gabriel years. All five tracks are classics, and the performances are letter-perfect. The two tracks on Side 2, "The Musical Box" and "The Knife," are stronger than the studio versions. (The cover photo has Gabriel in costume performing "Supper's Ready," which is not on the album.)

The band entered the studio in August to record the next album, Selling England by the Pound, which became their commercial breakthrough on its October release. It hit No. 3 in the UK and No. 70 on the Billboard 200 in the States. They had a hit single in the UK with "I Know What I Like," and a few key FM stations in the US picked up on "Firth of Fifth."

I have gone back and forth over the years on Selling England by the Pound. At one time I considered it Genesis' best album. But I don't any more. Half of its eight tracks are among the band's best. But a long stretch -- from "More Fool Me" through "The Battle of Epping Forest" and "After the Ordeal" -- doesn't hold up well and is fairly cumbersome.

Back on the road, an emboldened Gabriel was taking more and more control of the band's otherwise non-existent stage show. His cast of costume characters was growing. He was taking considerable time in the spotlight telling fantastical stories to set up songs. And his increasingly charismatic act was casting a giant shadow, much to the irritation of his old schoolmates and band co-founders Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford. But they weren't saying much about it. All the attention was being focused on Gabriel, but the band was sharing in the rewards. The notoriety got them booked for an October 1973 concert on British TV, and Genesis got invited to Los Angeles in December for an appearance on the influential U.S. TV show The Midnight Special

Genesis' star was ascending quickly with all the newfound attention. But things didn't go smoothly when they began work on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, their planned two-disc grand statement to the masses. Just as they were gathering to begin work, Gabriel's wife had an extremely difficult delivery of their first daughter, who was touch-and-go in intensive care for the first several days of her life. While the rest of the band was getting down to business, their lead singer was a couple hundred miles away most of the time tending to his family. Banks and the other band members were frustrated with Gabriel's absences, and Gabriel was resentful that his friends weren't very sympathetic. Around the same time, Gabriel got an offer from film director William Friedkin to join his staff as a scriptwriter, and Gabriel asked his bandmates for some time off to pursue that opportunity. That request didn't land well at all, and the band's management prevailed on Friedkin to rescind his offer so Gabriel would feel free to work on the album and take it on tour.

The Lamb -- both the album and the tour that took Genesis across the United States and Europe -- was a huge success for the band. I wrote a post earlier about it ("It's only knock and know all, but I like it"). Artistically and commercially, it became the band's enduring legacy from that era. But to this day, none of the guys remember the time fondly. Gabriel isolated himself during the writing and recording process -- he and Banks couldn't see eye-to-eye on anything. On the road, Gabriel's elaborate stage sets and costumes caused too many technical issues for drummer Phil Collins' comfort, and Banks and Rutherford seethed over being cast in Gabriel's shadow. Guitarist Steve Hackett was irked by all the drama.

And everyone got angry and confused when Gabriel told his bandmates, just as they were hitting the road, that this tour would be it for him. He said he wanted to stay home with his family and stretch his creative wings on his own terms. Banks, Rutherford, Collins and Hackett were stunned that they were losing their lead singer and central character just as they felt the band was breaking through commercially. None of these guys were yet 25 years old, but they all suddenly found their lives in crisis.

Nearly a half-century on, we know it all turned out great for everyone. Gabriel went home to recharge while Genesis carried on without him. Hackett stuck around a little while longer before going off to do his own thing. And by the time another decade passed, Gabriel became a global superstar in the music and activism arenas. Genesis as a trio and Collins with his side gig as solo artist became hitmaking machines. Rutherford made a dent with his side project, Mike + the Mechanics. Banks has done some side work but mostly has remained the glue that has kept the Genesis ship sailing. Hackett found his happy niche writing and recording with a bevy of collaborators -- and became the one guy keeping those old Genesis songs alive with his Genesis Revisited albums and tours. We'll get to all that down the road. But next up, I'll have a ranking of those six Gabriel-era studio albums.

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