The idea that Phil Collins single-handedly ruined Genesis by turning them “pop” has long been disproven, not least by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, who happily claim equal credit. The other idea, that they just went rubbish after Peter Gabriel left, was also a myth, at least regarding the first few, rather beautiful, post-Peter albums.
Yet there remains a unique charm to Genesis Phase One, where a very English sense of melancholy and melodrama pervades the wilful Prog complexity, underscoring the emotion. Their intellectual whimsy and surrealism may never be cool or sexy, but there’s an enduring magic to their escapism. And within that idyll the young Gabriel addressed all manner of hot topics, from marketing to masturbation to the housing crisis, from birth to lawnmowers to the apocalypse…
10. Get ‘Em Out By Friday (1972)
It wasn’t all elves and wizards, you know. This muddled but mesmerising epic from fourth album Foxtrot chooses as its subject the corporate greed of private landlords: thank goodness that’s not something we have to worry about these days, eh? Of course, this being Gabriel, it’s not that simple: the main characters may be a bailiff and a to-be-evicted tenant, but after the instrumental break we flash forward to the future – 2012 – where all humans are shortened to four feet in height, so that Genetic Control can squeeze twice as many into housing blocks. Sci-fi? Social realism? Just your average Genesis song.
9. A Place To Call My Own (1969)
Before they’d properly found their feet (they sound like early Bee Gees) and before then-manager Jonathan King was disgraced, the young Charterhouse schoolboys – it’s safe to say their memoirs could never be titled “Our Struggle” – were rushed into debut album From Genesis To Revelation, over which King bunged a load of strings without their knowledge. The song-writing is strong, but it’s the two-minute coda which really haunts you. Gabriel, in soulful voice, appears to be singing a standard, flowery, I-love-my-woman ballad. However it transpires that he’s inside her womb. And is her baby. And likes it there because it’s warm and cosy. Either that or it’s the weirdest lyric about shagging ever.
8. The Musical Box (1971)
Those attending Steve Hackett’s splendid Genesis Revisited shows in recent years will have been charmed, or perhaps alarmed, by the sight of thousands of men of a certain age enthusiastically yelling,“Touch me! Touch me! Now, now, now, now, now!” at the climax of The Musical Box, originally from third album Nursery Cryme. The delicate eroticism was back then supported onstage by Gabriel wearing a geriatric old man mask for the section and unzipping his top. Hot diggity! In a scenario resembling a Victorian fairy tale, we hear of a girl lopping a boy’s head off with a croquet mallet and a lifetime’s lust being compressed into one moment (by the musical box). Hey, I don’t write this stuff. The music is ridiculously powerful.
7. Broadway Melody of 1974 (1974)
By the time of double album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Genesis were pulling in a bunch of conflicting directions, resulting in a work that’s somehow both confusing and a masterpiece, both a pinnacle of Art-Prog and a spiritual precursor of Punk. Among the experiments is this concise, literate dramatic diamond. It seems straightforward, but try singing along and you’ll realise it’s in a tricky time signature which throws you off. Such nuances are the Genesis forte. Nothing Tolkienesque here: Gabriel whispers of Lenny Bruce, Groucho Marx, Marshall McLuhan, Howard Hughes, blue suede shoes and heroin. Insanely addictive.
6. Carpet Crawlers (1974)
By contrast, this is one of The Lamb’s most moving, emotive ballads. There’s that lushness of atmosphere which only Tony Banks’ keyboards can convey, yet it’s pure and minimalist in its arrangement and instrumentation. Basically it’s another shining example of why most things most people think about Genesis are mostly wrong. Gabriel gets this whole narcotic dream-world thing going – he did that so well – and whatever its enigma might mean, you just want that melody and chorus (yes, it has a chorus) to come back again and again. The sonic equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.
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5. Firth Of Fifth (1973)
Oh, Tony Banks. You will perhaps never be hailed as a dark, Satanic, whiskey-glugging, drug-abusing, woman-bothering, bath-needing Lord Of Rock, yet when you are doing your piano thing at the peak of your powers, with those chord changes of yours, there is nobody in your league, even if you do wear boring jumpers. The intro to this evergreen fan-favourite from Selling England By The Pound is so exquisite that it’s plain odd the band had rejected it from the previous album. OK some of the time signatures here are just showing off, but like most Genesis, once you’ve learned the language it feels like home. Steve Hackett’s solo is one of his career highs.
4. The Cinema Show (1973)
Another jewel from Selling England By The Pound, that album title being another piece of incontrovertible evidence that fusty old posh boys Genesis were politically on point – prophetic, even - way before it was fashionable. As it glides through its movements, this tale of a modern-day Romeo And Juliet getting dolled up for their date fuses with a section inspired by T.S. Eliot to lay waste to your lands of scepticism. Man is the sea, woman is the earth, and Gabriel finds the sweet spot between vulnerable and declamatory amid musicianship so fine it’s criminal. An arthouse blockbuster.
3. The Lamia (1974)
As protagonist Rael navigates his way through the trials and traumas of The Lamb Lies Down – stalactites, stalagmites, wanking, losing his virginity, having his heart removed and shaved – he now finds himself in a languid pool with three Lamias, seductive snake-like sirens who have their wicked way with him, drink his blood, then die, leaving him a distorted, grotesque Slipperman. He’s having quite a day. Gabriel was inspired by the Keats poem of 1820, but the Lamia had been around since Greek mythology. Again this track is ruled by Banks’ piano, but when the band come in the melancholy-ometer goes off the scale. One of Gabriel’s most fluid vocals.
2. I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) (1973)
The only Gabriel-era hit single. An obvious commercial smash, in hindsight, given its everyday chart-friendly tale of a gardener who refuses to grow up because he’d rather push his lawnmower around forever. It’s probably psychedelic rock, and definitely has not only a chorus but a massive, brilliant, fuck-off, altogether-now one. It also has – whisper it – a groove, probably down to its initiation during a jam between Collins and Hackett. And let’s not undersell Phil during all this – his harmonies with Gabriel give the vocals an extra shade, and his instincts are always an advantageous counter to Banks and Rutherford’s scientific finesse, keeping them mowing blades sharp.
1. Supper’s Ready (1972)
The Mona Lisa, the Guernica, the Ulysses, the veritable Mac Daddy of Gabriel-era Genesis epics. At 23 minutes, its seven sections with recurring motifs mash up classical symphony, rock restlessness and a breath-taking ambition to build the music to end all music: “a new Jerusalem”. On paper, its pretentiousness should fall flat. In fact, it flies ever higher till it catches fire among the stars. Gabriel has said it was fuelled by nightmares his wife had while sleeping in “a purple room” and by the Bible’s book of Revelations, though we also visit Lover’s Leap and Willow Farm and experience an apocalypse…in 9⁄8 time, obviously. Somehow, via alchemy, there’s a thrilling through-line. I once asked Banks why nobody makes music like this any longer. “Well…,” he pondered, “you’re not allowed to”. A feast of creativity; a supper supreme.