Friday, January 22, 2021

Ranking the early Genesis albums

2014 documentary interview: Gabriel, Hackett, Rutherford, Collins, Banks

Genesis released six studio albums in 5 1/2 years with original lead singer Peter Gabriel. It is remarkably easy to delineate this band's growth in that period just by listening to those records in consecutive order. They get their feet wet with From Genesis to Revelation. They plant their flag with Trespass. They fill in the missing pieces with Nursery Cryme. They hit their stride with Foxtrot. They polish their sound to create a classic with Selling England by the Pound. And they shake their audience to its core with the epic The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

Most of these albums I've known by heart for decades. I've spent a bit of time over the past couple or three weeks listening to and studying the first two so as to give an honest evaluation of them in context.

If you're not familiar with this period in the band's history and are looking for a good entry point, I would suggest Genesis Live, recorded and released in early 1973. It features excellent performances of classic tracks from the second, third and fourth albums and will let you know right away if this is music made for you. If you want to stick strictly with one of the studio albums, either Nursery Cryme or Foxtrot would be great places to start.

Like I did earlier with The Doors catalog, I am not ranking these albums by pure artistic merit. Rather, I am ranking them by how likely I would be to turn to a particular album on a random day when I am in a mood to listen to some Genesis. Put another way, I suppose, these rankings are based on how close to my heart each of these albums live.

The first of three Paul Whitehead drawings

No. 6 (least likely). Trespass (1970):
This is the first album Genesis recorded as a functioning band, after spending a few months working on these songs in front of live audiences. Most all Genesis fans would find this a controversial choice for the bottom. But I can't find much here to hook onto. With founding member Anthony Phillips and his 12-string guitar and yet another in a string of barely competent drummers, this sounds like something I'd rather hear at a renaissance festival. "Stagnation" gets some attention as a favorite -- Tony Banks says it's one of his favorites from this era. But I could take it or, mostly, leave it. The best track by far is "The Knife," but that one is much better with the Steve Hackett-Phil Collins lineup on Genesis Live. Trespass is what it is, a historical curiosity.

1976 reissue of the first album

No. 5. From Genesis to Revelation (1969):
This was recorded by a group of teenagers who thought of themselves not as a band but as a songwriting collective. You get some hints here. Gabriel does show some chops as a capable lead singer. Banks gets a few extended piano interludes that signal his classical sensibilities. Those things are easy to detect in hindsight. But there's nothing here to suggest that this album should have sold more than a few hundred copies in its day (which it didn't). A few earworm choruses do pop up now and again, giving me at least something to hold onto. But, like Trespass, this album's only value is as an artifact.

A drawing inspired by Gabriel's childhood home

No. 4. Nursery Cryme (1971):
Now we're getting some rock in the prog. Hackett was still too new to contribute much. But Collins had been around long enough to help Genesis step up their game, and he made a huge difference. The first Genesis classic, "The Musical Box," kicks off the album. Collins has his first lead vocal on the second track, "For Absent Friends," an OK song he wrote with Hackett, nothing special. "Return of the Giant Hogweed," the third track, endured as a Gabriel-era favorite. The rest of the album features a few nice moments, but the power dissipates considerably by the end of Side 1. "The Musical Box" is much better on Genesis Live, which also has a good performance of "Return of the Giant Hogweed." So I have little reason to listen to Nursery Cryme often.

No. 3. Selling England by the Pound (1973): Now that we've jumped over that huge gap in front of Nursery Cryme, we're into hairsplitting territory ranking the Top 3. Any of these could be my favorite Genesis album on any given day, depending on which of these very different albums strikes my mood. If I were to make a list of my favorite Genesis tracks, half of this album would make the cut. "Firth of Fifth" is the track 1970s late-night FM radio was invented for. This album is Hackett's favorite, as is understandable -- it's the only Genesis album that gives his lead guitar the space to dominate. Two considerations limit Selling England by the Pound to my No. 3 slot. The closing track on Side 1, "More Fool Me," Collins' second turn at lead vocals, is inconsequential filler, a huge letdown after the great three-track run that gets us there. And the Side 2 opener, "The Battle of Epping Forest," can be tough to get through with Gabriel's stunt of cramming 16 minutes worth of lyrics into a 12-minute track. That and the following instrumental, "After the Ordeal," leave the superb "The Cinema Show"/"Aisle of Plenty" just hanging out there by itself at the album's close.

The third consecutive Whitehead cover

No. 2. Foxtrot (1972):
This was the first great Genesis album. The opening track, "Watcher of the Skies," is a signature piece of that era. The 23-minute suite "Supper's Ready" is the band's masterpiece, essentially a collection of song fragments tied together by a lyrical theme. Think Side 2 of The Beatles' Abbey Road but with a linear narrative. Foxtrot is the only Genesis album that maintains its momentum start to finish. There isn't a weak moment anywhere. Why do I have it only at No. 2? No good reason other than the fact that I don't have it in my heart to demote No. 1.

No. 1 (most likely). The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974): This was my first Genesis album, and I have been mesmerized by it since Day 1, a little more than 46 years ago. I try to find fault with it, and sometimes I do. But then every time I listen to it again, as I did a couple of times earlier this week, it blows me straight out of my brain. Every damn time. I try to put Foxtrot or Selling England by the Pound ahead of it, but I can't get there no matter how hard I try. This album is one astonishing achievement, especially when you understand it was made by a band on the verge of a breakdown. Sides 1 and 2 have Genesis rocking harder than they ever had before, with Gabriel pretty much carrying the show. Sides 3 and 4 belong more to Banks, leading the band home through some marvelously adventurous musical paths. It's tough to compare this to other Genesis albums because there was no real precedent for this. All the bands' albums before this were quite British in tone. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is American-style aggression. Because this album is so seamless in its concept, it's not easy to cite individual tracks as highlights or lowlights. I think more about particular moments than I do song titles. But if I must, "In the Cage" is a banger, as is "Back in NYC." "Carpet Crawlers" is one of the most beautiful songs Gabriel has ever sung. This is not a perfect album. The ride gets bumpy through much of Side 3. All of the first half and the stretch run through Side 4, though, are magnificent and more than make up for the rough patch.

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