Showing 31 posts tagged Genesis

Narrative: In The Beginning

Hello! My name is Jake and I’m going to be writing about Genesis this week.

When most people think of Genesis, they think of the multi-platinum arena-pop juggernaut of the 1980s led by Phil Collins.* That is not the Genesis I’ll be writing about—though I do have a fondness for that iteration. There is another, older, less-familiar Genesis that walked the earth between the years of 1971 and 1975, whose lead singer was an extremely weird public-school lad named Peter Gabriel. This incarnation of the group released four albums that are heralded by progressive-rock fans as some of the best in the genre. These are the albums I’ll be writing about this week.

Genesis is by no means an obscure band, and even its older, lesser-known work has been analyzed, appreciated, and repackaged exhaustively, especially after the turn-of-the-millennium explosion in reissues and remasters; an exponential increase in online music writing, especially about niches and subcultures; and a burgeoning respect, however guarded, within the critical establishment for the artistic merits of early-1970s progressive rock. I’m humbly adding my voice to the rabble and volunteering my efforts to make some sense of this particular corner of prog-rock arcana, hoping that it will be of some interest to the uninitiated and casual fan alike, and that even the die-hard Genesis heads, who might not see or hear anything this week that they haven’t before, will still come along for the ride.

Another reason I asked Hendrik if I could write about Genesis is that I want to bring the band’s early music into the twenty-first century in a way I haven’t quite seen anyone do yet: to connect a seemingly ancient, musically esoteric, and arguably extinct ensemble to some of today’s more adventurous pop and rock performers, unlikely or even unwitting beneficiaries of the Genesis lineage. I will be making the case this week that Genesis—at least, the early 70s version I’m writing about—is more musically relevant than ever.

The other reason I’m writing about Genesis is purely selfish: I want to try and reify, once and for all, what it is I like so damn much about the band, and why I’ve been returning to them in my listening habits, writing, and musical career for the past twenty years. I’ve discovered many bands since Genesis, of course; bands that are arguably more relevant and fashionable and downright important to me now. But you never fully graduate from the first band that changed your life, and for me—after the Beatles records that my parents played for me when I was still a toddler, as any good parents should—that band was Genesis.

My Genesis obsession began in Ann Arbor, Michigan when I was ten years old. My father, a college professor, was on a year’s sabbatical doing research at the University of Michigan, and the house we rented had MTV—something our home back in Iowa lacked. I’d seen snippets of MTV at the homes of friends whose parents were either kind or laissez-faire enough to subscribe to cable and let their children watch it. I’d seen larger doses of it at my grandmother’s house, which we visited every summer in Washington DC, and so I knew that some of my favorite music at the time was being created on synthesizers by men and women with brightly colored hair and a fondness for fog machines. This is probably how I first encountered Genesis, which, in its poppy 1980s configuration made some of the first and most ambitious music videos of the decade. When I caught glimpses of Phil Collins playing the drums in those videos, something about his whole aesthetic—his huge drum kits, his fluid style, his smug-bastard smirk—furthered my inevitable trajectory toward taking up the drums, probably catalyzed a few years earlier when I first heard the Beatles and zeroed in on Ringo’s simple but unflagging drum parts.

Our rental house also had a semi-furnished basement—another strange amenity we weren’t used to—which became a rec room for my brother and me. On a visit to Toys-R-Us, my mother caved and purchased a toy drum kit for me. It was made of something close to aluminum and its heads were little more than thick paper. I took it home and wailed away on it in the basement, playing with the radio or whatever tapes I had—which at that point were limited to the first two Tears For Fears albums. I played this twenty-five dollar toy drum kit as if it were real. This was a problem from a practical standpoint, since its paper drum heads couldn’t withstand such force, but promising from one of musical development, because even at age ten I played with a steady deliberation that was confident and unquestionably rhythmic. One of the most valuable traits of a good drummer, almost as much as an innate rhythmic sense, is confidence: It is very hard to draw sound out of drums by half-measures, or assemble a groove from tentative, simpering strokes. Good drummers always look and sound like they know what they’re doing, even when they don’t. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Phil Collins’ confident playing—and if anyone knew what he was doing, it was him.

That Christmas I got my first Walkman.** It weighed several pounds and cost fifty-five dollars. I also talked my mother into signing me up for Columbia House, the mail-order music clearinghouse that offered six whole tapes for only a penny and hoped you didn’t read the fine print. With that single cent I managed to increase my music collection by three hundred percent; two of my new tapes were Genesis’ self-titled 1983 album, and its follow-up, the ubiquitous Invisible Touch, whose five hit singles played seemingly nonstop on MTV. I started playing along with these albums too, down in the basement.

I needn’t dwell too long on the challenges of discovering and acquiring new music before the Internet. Anyone my age or older knows that you were pretty much at the mercy of the radio and MTV if you wanted even an inkling of an idea of the music out there, and even then it was a very small, mainstream, largely uninspired inkling. If you lived in a small rural Iowa town with no proper record store, no mall, and no cable television, you were pretty much screwed. It meant that every trip out of town, every sojourn in Ann Arbor or DC was another crucial opportunity to broaden your musical horizons and soak up what you then considered culture.

So how did I get from tapes of Invisible Touch and the video for “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” to the older, weirder, proggier version of Genesis? It took a few years, and  sedulous combing through the record stores at malls in DC and Des Moines, but I eventually found a cassette of the band’s 1982 double live album Three Sides Live, whose third side contained, after an hour of their more popular eighties hits, that most backhanded sop to the die-hard fan: a medley of the band’s “old stuff.” Here was a towering amalgam of some of the band’s finer moments from Selling England By The Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Wind & Wuthering. Here were songs that credited Peter Gabriel as a songwriter. Here were songs that sounded epic even as they were truncated and wedged into a medleyed hodgepodge, with loads of odd time signatures and thirty-second-note synth flourishes and two drummers going full-bore at once and long instrumental passages. Here, in other words, was the good stuff.

So let’s get to the good stuff.


* (whose widely loathed public reputation as a solo artist, Tarzan-soundtrack composer, and Alamo enthusiast I will neither comment upon nor attempt to defend, except to say that even his detractors tend to admit, when pressed, that he is one of the finest drummers ever to have lived, and that is the Phil Collins I will be discussing and honoring this week)

** I promise that eventually this blog is going to be more than merely an enumeration of the consumer indulgences I coaxed from my parents in 1986.

"I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" (Live at Shepperton Studios, 1973)

I’ve shared this song first because I think it embodies nearly everything I love about Genesis: the Englishness evoked by most of the band’s early music; manipulated instrumentation and sound effects married to deceptively conventional pop song forms; and a sinister hint of the deeply bizarre lurking just below an ordinary veneer—call it the David Lynch effect.

"I Know What I Like" might be the quintessential Genesis song. I was going to say the quintessential early-70s, Gabriel-era Genesis song, but I think it also embodies the musically ambitious, lyrically subversive qualities that made 80s Genesis successful, if in doses more palatable to the mainstream.

The lyrics are the testimony of a young groundskeeper with a terminal lack of ambition who chafes at the social strictures of his middle-class surroundings. He’s content to mow lawns and nap on benches—the central image of the painting that constitutes the album’s cover—and so it would seem Genesis has essentially penned an early slacker anthem.

If Selling England is considered as a loosely unified concept album, there’s a layer of political commentary applied to every song. “I Know What I Like” is a snapshot of British working-class resentment in a culture that was still relatively stratified according to postwar notions of class, and the boys in Genesis were among the first generation of strivers who turned that structure on its head, aesthetically and culturally. Educated in straight-laced public schools, they came charging out of the schoolyard gates with long hair and electric guitars determined  to fuck shit up, musically and otherwise. Of course, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks had already led the first noisy charge into the breach, and by the early seventies the Establishment was already becoming inured to the countercultural firepower of rock music, so bands like Genesis, King Crimson, and Gong had to rebel even further by turning rock music’s weirdness factor way up, incorporating androgynous theatrics, extensive sound manipulation, and expansive suite-like arrangements.

Genesis was perhaps not as bombastic* or wide-reaching in this regard as its contemporaries, but perfected the prog-rock ethos of the era: A wide-scale perversion of the intended purposes of traditional rock instruments, the baroque conventions of classical music, and the meticulous craft of formally honed musicianship. When combined with Peter Gabriel’s twisted lyrics, costumed roleplay, and mischievous misuse of technology (the lawnmower sound was supposedly generated when he was futzing around with the low notes on Tony Banks’ Mellotron), it was a quiet, ingenious kind of rebellion.

But I believe that the music’s staying power, and its slightly greater palatability than a Yes or Emerson Lake & Palmer song from that era, is due to the fact that Genesis could be quite pretty when they wanted to. Their use of 12-string guitars and neoclassical piano parts gave the music a softer edge, and Gabriel’s mid-range voice, for all the bluster of his lyrics, was famously throaty and even soothing at times, able to transform from a rebellious howl to a world-weary melancholia within a single verse. “I Know What I Like” includes agreeable melodies; a singalong chorus; and playful, almost twee, musical and vocal delivery. It is subversive but not confrontational; if you were a British teen in 1973 you even could play it for your parents (maybe). If you wanted to do drugs and freak out, you’d listen to In The Court Of The Crimson King; if you wanted to do drugs and chill out, you’d listen to Selling England By The Pound.

My first exposure to “I Know What I Like” came from a very brief clip from the Shepperton concert included in the documentary Genesis: A History, which I tracked down on VHS in junior high. Everything about this performance—Gabriel’s odd hat; his palsied lawnmower-man lurch; the song’s spoken-word introduction—encapsulated what was so weird about early Genesis, and it knocked me on the floor when I first saw it because I had no idea, up till that point, that Genesis could be so weird. And then, as soon as Gabriel yelps, “I can always hear them talk,” the band kicks in and goes into a propulsive midtempo groove, relatively conventional and undeniably poppy, with Gabriel slapping a tambourine and Collins providing backup vocals in his painter’s overalls. That tension, between the weird and the mainstream, the soothing organ chords and the prancing sitar-sounding guitar, the band’s outré moves and Top-40 aspirations (the song was released as a single and reached #21 on the UK Singles Chart) informed its entire aesthetic.


* (Though to my knowledge, no one in King Crimson or Pink Floyd took the stage wearing red sequined dresses or a bouquet of hypertrophied phalluses, as Gabriel would during this era.)


The Knife





This is a 1973 live recording of the band playing “The Knife”, from 1970’s Tresspass. This song, the finale and highlight of that album, became an early live staple and has all the signatures of the early Genesis sound: an epic structure, large-scale lyrical content (a graphic account of war), and extended instrumental passages where Steve Hackett’s guitar solos and Gabriel’s crude sound effects mimic the chaos of battle.

The song was composed before Hackett and Phil Collins joined the band, but their contributions transform the song from its ambitious but dated studio version into a galloping warhorse of shifting rhythms and bellicose, effects-laden guitar squeals. The song’s working title was “The Nice” since Genesis was intentionally trying to emulate that band. As with “I Know What I Like,” Gabriel sought a countercultural theme in the lyrics: Ostensibly an anti-war song, he was driven by the notion “that all violent revolutions inevitably end up with a dictator in power.”

Especially notable in this version are Phil Collins’ drum parts during the final, midtempo instrumental section. He borrows heavily here from the syncopated funk playing of early Motown and early fusion drummers, keeping the kick drum just a sliver behind the groove, and filling in the off-beats with plenty of extra snare hits. For all of Genesis’ staid prog-rock Englishness, Collins helped the group swing, smuggling proto-disco and hip-hop beats into its music.

You can also hear plenty of Peter Gabriel’s non-vocal contributions to the early Genesis sound—the extra bass drum that he pounds on to accentuate the song’s more militaristic passages, and the flute that he plays during the quiet bits. “In live performances I was still blasting away on the bass drum,” he says in Genesis: Chapter & Verse, the oral history published in 2007. “During solos I didn’t feel I was the world’s most gifted dancer … so I needed something physical to do.”

Gabriel also loathed awkward downtime between songs, so he began telling elaborate and often vulgar stories (sometimes in French, in which he is fluent). “The storytelling had emerged as a means of filling in the gaps when we had thirty-six strings being tuned by people who weren’t very good at turning them,” Gabriel says. “During those moments everyone looks at the singer to fill in the gaps.” The next logical step, in his mind, was a costume or two (or ten), to help illustrate the already theatrical songs’ various characters and themes.

But “The Knife” here is a bit rawer, in structure and presentation, than the compositions that would come even a couple of years later, and so serves as proof that the band could shut up and rock just as easily as it could drop craft subtler, ornate music.

Genesis in 1973: Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett, and Phil Collins.
Please note Pete’s reverse mohawk. High-res

Genesis in 1973: Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett, and Phil Collins.

Please note Pete’s reverse mohawk.

Narrative: Aisle of Plenty

July, 1991: I came charging triumphantly toward my father and brother to share the good news: The Sam Goody here at Beltway Plaza in Greenbelt, Maryland had two classic Genesis albums on cassette. My ten-year-old brother sucked on a Coke from the movie theater. Our blood sugar was high and we were pretty jacked up by the matinee we’d just seen of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. But the main goal of our trip, in my mind, was a pilgrimage to the mall’s sonically abusive, shamelessly overpriced retail music outlets, where I’d gaze longingly at the shimmering racks of compact discs arrayed in rows down the middle of the store, opulent in their glossy cardboard longboxes, all of the latest releases available right alongside the Genesis and Yes CDs, available to anyone with the money and the means to play them.           

I was not one of these people. My parents were infuriatingly slow to adopt new technology, so we didn’t have a CD player yet, and albums were getting harder and harder to find on tape as the cassette sections were shrunk and balkanized against the store’s walls. Especially rare were the obscure twenty-year-old progressive-rock albums I lusted after. So I tried to impress upon my father the serendipitous wonder of discovering not just one, but two classic Genesis albums on cassette. I think he was just relieved: two tapes at $15 a pop seemed a small price to pay for finally getting out of the goddamn mall.

The two Genesis tapes! that I acquired that day were Foxtrot and Selling England by The Pound, two of the band’s best and most critically lauded albums from 1972 and 1973, respectively. By this point I had grown out of paper-and-tin drum sets and Genesis’ 80s oeuvre and had a passable used drum kit that sat in our basement back in Iowa; as soon as we returned there at the end of the summer, I took it downstairs to play along with it on my new drums.

I couldn’t have found a better disembodied drum instructor than Phil Collins. The summer between eighth and ninth grade provided a host of watershed moments when I would attempt to play along with early Genesis albums like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and A Trick of the Tail. The drum parts on these albums were my introduction to the unconventional musical grammar of syncopation and odd time signatures. Straight 4/4 meters were few and far between on these albums, and I assiduously rewound those tapes and played along with them, first with great frustration, and then gradually mounting gratification, as I mastered, at age fifteen, brain-bending, wrist-cramping meters like 5/4 and 11/8.

In retrospect I was probably at just the right nexus of kinesthetic perspicacity, musical literacy, and the overweening teenage ambition to become an kickass drummer. A year earlier, and I wouldn’t have had the drum kit or the Genesis tapes to push myself into the next tier of ability; a year later, and I might have yielded to peer pressure by playing along with more popular but arguably simpler music, and never learned to master the hard stuff. (Or, even more likely, I would have gotten bored and gotten into trouble—at that crucial juncture music really was my anti-drug.) This isn’t to say I was a prodigy, by any means, or that my own flailings and contortions down in the basement weren’t extremely rudimentary and cumbersome imitations of Master Collins. But it was a crucial moment, a step in the right direction.

Most teenagers, if they’re lucky, have that moment, that magical place where a watershed discovery and adolescent obsession intersect. Whether it was Tolkein, Metallica, Michael Jordan, or Jesus, this new fixation (hobby is too soft a word) launched my peers and me on an immersive journey that shielded us from the cruelties of puberty, high school, bullies, and heartbreak, and kept (most of) us sane long enough to graduate without killing ourselves or spiraling into addiction and other bad behavior. My talisman, my anti-drug, was the unfashionable, effete antics of five well-behaved, fiendishly talented young blokes in the early seventies.          

I have expended several hundred words now on my dull adolescent biography in an attempt to show you how one naïve musical beginner can become inducted into a band’s music and mythos, how the music we hear when we’re most absorbent and pliable stays with us long after we’ve become less so. You have that band too, or at least I hope you do. (It probably isn’t Genesis.) But go ahead and try listening to that band as if you’re hearing it again for the first time, as if each note you hear is just as precious and novel as it was in the beginning. In an age of immediate accessibility, of critical ennui borne of the proliferation of a million music blogs, of multi-gigabyte torrents containing a band’s whole discography (plus rare bootlegs!), it’s sometimes instructive, even redemptive, to remind ourselves that music wasn’t always this prosaic, this easy to track down. And I probably valued it more, on the whole, when it wasn’t.*        

We never fully get it back, the awe and fear that accompanies our first really big musical discovery, but I do still, thankfully, have mind-blowing moments of discovery when I hear something new. I am not a haggard thirtysomething come to tell you that music stopped being good, coincidentally, on the same day I turned nineteen. But I am here to share with you the souvenirs from my personal musical awakening, which I submit is part of the of the wonderful license given to a new person each week on this blog.

Sam Goody closed most of its stores years ago, and probably had it coming. I have now owned those two albums in too many formats to count; right now they exist only as the luxe box-set reissues I finally ponied up for recently. By now, a lot of the mystery is gone: I know how these drum parts work, I’ve been in bands, I’ve seen the ugly underside of the recording and touring processes. I could easily take this music for granted, but I’m trying to listen to it as closely today as I did when I first stumbled upon it twenty years ago, when stakes were high and every musical experience felt like cultural life or death.


* I’ve been reading Simon Reynolds’ excellent if dispiriting Retromania while preparing for this week of blogging, and he discusses at great length the devaluing effect that the explosive availability of streamed and downloaded music has had on our listening habits—a sort of hyperinflation that results in diminished returns on the memorable listening experiences for today’s average listener. While I may not consider the situation as dire as he does, I can’t deny that a $15 cassette in 1991 was worth way more in my personal psycho-spiritual economy than a $3000 computer full of my entire digital music collection is worth today.

"Dancing With The Moonlit Knight" (Live at Shepperton Studios, 1973)

I am an Anglophile. Ever since my mother’s sister moved her family to a small village north of London thirty years ago and began regaling us with stories about the peculiarities of English culture, I’ve been fascinated. Like most Americans my age, my  childhood received steady doses of British pop culture via Dangermouse, Paddington Bear, The Great Muppet Caper, and, of course, the New Wave invasion, with MTV beaming garishly dressed Brits and their synthesizers into American living rooms throughout the early 80s. As an adult, I traveled to the UK several times, spent a semester there in college, and probably still show considerable bias to British musical acts, who can get away with things aesthetically that I would find tacky or boring were the perpetrated by Americans. This extends to almost any genre—pop, techno, and especially progressive rock.

Prog rock, at least in its early-70s form, was an almost exclusively British phenomenon. (In the States, you had Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, though I think these bands were slightly more indebted to jazz than prog.) There are many theories to why this is, and I won’t pretend to have a firm grip on any of them. My own guess is that, as I discussed yesterday, progressive rock—and rock music in general—was a relatively easy way for the young postwar generation to rebel. Perhaps, where young American musicians turned to folk music as a means of creative dissent, Brits turned to prog.

Genesis and its contemporaries found plenty of raw material to satirize and savage in the hypocrisies of the English establishment, and 1973’s Selling England By The Pound, their fifth and most fully realized album, was a subtle indictment of the British government and a prescient portrait of economic crisis,* with songs populated by humble characters brought low by socioeconomic realities: The layabout gardner in “I Know What I Like,” the farmers in “Firth of Fifth,” the violent hooligans in “The Battle of Epping Forest,” the woman outside the saloon in “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight,” or the wayward Tess in that song’s reprise, “Aisle of Plenty.”**

“I was very keen to try and focus our Englishness because Amerian music at the time was the critics’ darling and I thought it would be nice to respond with something of our own,” Gabriel says in Chapter & Verse. “The idea was to see how parts of an older Britain had been absorbed and taken on new life within a modern world; ‘The Battle of Epping Forest,’ for example, tried to graft an English gangland scene onto a slightly Hogarthian landscape.”

“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” might be one of the band’s most classically British songs, filled with references to English culture (Green Shield Stamps, Wimpy Burgers). In the live clip above, Peter Gabriel announces himself as Brittania, the British Isles’ female personification and “the voice of Britain before the Daily Express,” which gets a knowing chuckle from the audience: The Daily Express being one of the country’s oldest tabloids, it’s hard to imagine British culture—any culture, really—before tabloid news. This little aside reinforces the sense that the song, and Genesis’ music in general, is of another time. Early Genesis didn’t seem overtly nostalgic or retro, but perhaps, by dressing himself so regally, Gabriel hoped create the juxtaposition he discusses above, in this case between Britain’s stoic history of nobility and its crass, late-twentieth-century state of affairs.***

And I haven’t even gotten to the music yet. The instrumental passages in “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” are among the most technically accomplished and intricate the band ever composed; moving at a brisk gallop, the players are firing on all cylinders, with Mike Rutherford’s metallic Rickenbacher bassline reinforced by scissoring cello notes, which he also plays. Steve Hackett hits frenetic, disparate notes high on the fretboard, then just as quickly moves to volume swells and finger-tapping; later in the song, Tony Banks’ synth plucks out a playful, sitar-like melody while the rhythm section discards beats from 4/4 measures seemingly at random. The band whirls through it all so quickly that the floaty, harp-laden coda (which the band affectionately called the “Disney” section) gives the impression that maybe the preceding seven minutes of high-speed call and response were just a dream.

When I first heard this album at age fifteen, I didn’t get any of the lyrical allusions or sardonic digs at English politics and culture. Back then, Great Britain could still do no wrong in my eyes, and no brutal history of worldwide colonization or commercial crassness could unseat Genesis, and their homeland, from its place in my imagination as an exotic but earthy paradise where smart British lads created escapist album-length fantasies.


* The country’s economy, having flourished since the end of the war, was about to take a nosedive thanks to the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent market crash.

** That last, very brief song, a melancholy pastiche of instrumental and lyrical motifs lifted from “Moonlit Knight,” is rife with wordplay on the British supermarkets Safeway, Fine Fare, and Tesco: “Easy love, there’s the safe way home / Thankful for her fine, fair discount / Tess cooperates.” This closing imagery of prosaic retail humdrum brings the listener firmly back to earth at the end of the album’s whirlwind journey, especially after “The Cinema Show’s” epic instrumental rhapsodies.

*** (One wonders what Gabriel’s Brittania would think of today’s WAGs and glassings.)

The Cinema Show (From Selling England By The Pound, 1973)

Until eighth grade, I didn’t realize songs could be any longer than “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Pop radio and MTV, my main musical sources, certainly had no patience for epic flights of fancy. I was still too innocent for “Kashmir” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Comfortably Numb.” So when I acquired Selling England By The Pound, the length of its songs was just one of many qualities that blew my mind. 

Maybe that’s how my fascination with song lengths began. Before compact discs, of course, there was no means and no reason for a casual listener know a song’s duration. Occasionally an album’s song lengths would be printed on the cassette’s tiny paper sleeve, which seemed silly and unnecessary. But on the occasions when they weren’t, I tracked down a stop watch and timed the songs myself, then wrote their lengths on whatever blank surface the sleeve afforded. Somehow I became obsessed with knowing precisely how long a song was, and thanks to Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd, the longer the song, the better.

I soon realized that I had memorized, with an almost Aspergerian completeness, the lengths of most of my favorite songs, down to the second. This is why I can still tell you that “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” is eight minutes and three seconds long, “The Cinema Show” is ten minutes and forty-one seconds long (not including the one minute and fifty-eight seconds that comprise “Aisle of Plenty,” into which the former song segues), or that “Supper’s Ready” is a whopping twenty-three minutes and six seconds long. In case you were wondering.

Long songs held added value for me for obvious reasons: I was a nerd, and enjoyed big, difficult things. I assumed that a longer song equaled more ideas, more ambition, more solos. Long songs were just intrinsically better, and they were a bold repudiation of the disposable ephemera that flitted across the radio dial in three-minute chunks. I also secretly hoped they served as aesthetic signifiers of my refined taste: people would see that I liked my art challenging, and assume I’m smart.* Epic works demand respect; even people who hate Phish will begrudgingly acknowledge the stamina it must take to jam on “Tweezer” for forty-eight minutes. In much the same way that we show hushed deference to War & Peace or Remembrance of Things Past (even if we haven’t read them), the epic compositions of progressive rock tempt us with the notion that there must be something worthwhile going on in all those minutes.

All too frequently, there wasn’t, which is why so much prog-rock chaff abounds in remainder bins, and the genre is rightly maligned for the phallic hubris of its seemingly interminable songs that took seventeen minutes to communicate thirty seconds’ worth of ideas. (“Have you ever written a song so epic, that you were being influenced by your own song, because it happened so much earlier in your career?” Stephen Colbert asked Rush when they appeared on his program.)

Fortunately, Genesis boasted a compositional economy that makes even its longer songs seem to pass quickly—though I’m obviously biased. Perhaps nowhere else is are ideas dispatched more efficiently or effectively than on “The Cinema Show,” the last full song on Selling England by The Pound. Its final section is a through-composed instrumental driven by Tony Banks’ organs and synths, which render complex chord changes underneath intricate solos.

Its first half is simpler, though no less ambitious, with lyrics that borrow heavily from TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Greek mythology, intertwining a narrative of two young horny people named Romeo & Juliet with the world-weary lamentations of Tiresias, the transsexual prohet, who explains, in Gabriel’s reading, that “Once a man, like the sea I raged / Once a woman, like the earth I gave / But there is in fact, more earth than sea.”

Perhaps this is a gentle rebuke to Romeo’s sexual predations, or an attempt to invoke the scope of the song itself: Its first half is all chiming 12-strings and meandering flutes, like the expansive earth, its second half a stormy elemental interplay, raging like the sea. (As we’ll see throughout the week, Gabriel’s lyrics often made sport of libidinous young males who are thwarted by their own sex drives [or, in some cases, by supernatural agents] and I can’t help but wonder if this—combined with his effeminate costumes and stage presence— was his attempt to correct, even just a little, the egregious gender imbalance in progressive rock practitioners and devotees.)

If I owe my long amateur drumming career to any single song, it’s probably this one. When I first heard it inserted in a medley on a later live album, and then when I absorbed the breadth of its instrumental section, I seized on the relentless 7/8 groove that unifies the players’ parts. I might not even have known, back then, that it was in 7/8, or even in anything other than 4/4—I hadn’t taken any drum set lessons yet, and middle-school jazz band didn’t offer too many opportunities for odd-metered workouts.

Ultimately it wasn’t important that I knew it was in 7/8, or that I didn’t ever take any actual lessons on drum set. Phil Collins was the only teacher I needed and his groove on “The Cinema Show” was a thorough primer in odd-meter playing, more holistic and hands-on than trying to mentally suss out the metronomic math.** So I took Selling England By The Pound into the basement with my Walkman and began playing along with “The Cinema Show.” This is how I figured out that playing in seven (in a 7/8 or 7/4 time signature) is incredibly fun and, if you play enough prog, becomes as second-nature as playing in four. 7/8 is basically the 4/4 of prog. ***

Over the following years I’d figure out exactly what happens in the left hand during the fifth, sixth, and seventh beats that makes Collins’ part so ingenious, and I would painstakingly tease out each fill and variation until I could play them nearly perfectly. But in that moment all that mattered was getting the groove right. That single leap in my playing—that determination to learn and master these drum parts, might be what propelled me from a novice dabbler to a dedicated student of the drums who still plays today.

All told, it was a pretty good way for me to spend ten minutes and forty-one seconds (multiplied by several thousand) of my life.


* In high school I invited to my house a girl in whom I was interested, and I thought I’d impress her by playing “The Heavenly Music Corporation,” the 21-minute improvised dronescape created by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno in the early 70s. (I know, I know—I was a stud.) When she asked what we were listening to and I told her, I explained, “I like music when it’s intelligent. I like music to be intellectually challenging.” She didn’t stick around for long after that, for some reason.

** A well-kept secret among drummers is that many of us, Collins included, don’t pay much attention to how many pulses are in a measure; it’s not necessarily important to know that a song is switching from 15/8 to 4/4 to 9/4 unless you want to use this knowledge to impress people, which trust me it won’t. “What I try to do is make the time signature as simple as possible so that they don’t really know it’s a complicated thing,” Collins told Drums & Drumming in 1987. “And obviously I’m better at doing that now, because in the early days I wanted to tell everybody it was a complicated time signature, so that everyone would see how clever I was. Attitudes change.” Like Collins, my attitude has changed since high school, and I am more likely to internalize the meter of the song by feel rather than counting. You don’t need to know the numbers as long as you listen to what the bass is doing, weave the measures together without slipping a stitch, and above all, keep the groove going—NEVER STOP is as good a mantra for drummers as any.

*** “Playing in 7 is very natural for me,” Collins told Drums & Drumming. “‘Cinema Show,’ for example, and things like that. But I’ve never been that versatile in terms of playing in and out of time signatures. Obviously 3/4 is pretty straight. 7 I can go in and out of and sort of fool around with, but 11s and 9s, I always need something to latch onto.”

(If you’ve read this far; congratulations, you are officially a drum dork. Your clip-on mullet and Zildjian sweatband are in the mail.)