I make no apology for the run of three Prog albums in a row – this is the music I first properly loved, and 1972 is pretty much the peak for Prog. I could have chosen other Prog albums from the early seventies, but these are the ones – and this one in particular – which speak to my experiences at the time, and perhaps illustrate why all of this has its hooks in me.
To understand why Foxtrot has to be the Genesis album in this list, you have to come with me back to fourth year (or fifth; they kind of merged), and the study of what I suppose we were calling ‘Modern Poetry’. We had already been through the Romantic poets, some of which stuck, and most of which slid by to the point that I really struggle to tell Wordsworth from Keats from Browning from Byron – Coleridge I knew, though; long, narrative poems with striking imagery worked for me (I imagine you can see where this is going).
Then at some change in term (and there’s no point asking me to pin it down too precisely), our poetry textbooks became the collected works of Auden, Yeats, and Eliot. I went from being mildly annoyed by having to learn chunks of 19th century verse to being absolutely gripped by these stories. I know now why that was; I was mystified by it at the time. The truth is that the music I loved (and was perhaps sheepishly disowning in favour of louder, shoutier stuff, as this must have been about 1978) had been written by people who had also read this stuff and been inspired by it. Listening to Foxtrot now, it’s as plain as day that the lyrics are poems in the style of the mid-20th Century works we tried to pick apart in our English classes.
When we were finally let loose on The Waste Land, with warnings that we wouldn’t understand all of the allusions, and that it might be a little advanced for our teenaged brains, I know I wasn’t the only person who pored over the text, imagining how you might set it to music, and what that music might sound like. I know that, because I had heard Foxtrot - and Supper’s Ready in particular - by then, and I understood that this was how music like this got made.
Foxtrot also encompasses other fascinations of my 15-year-old self; dystopian science fiction, warped English fantasy and a slightly mystical vision of British history. I was reading, if not always understanding, the likes of JG Ballard and Michael Moorcock, and I eventually came to understand that the resonance this album, and the ones either side of it, has for me is that it covers much of the same ground; it’s rooted in the things I was interested in, and written like the poetry I liked. I mean, I’m not suggesting that Genesis lyrics should be on the curriculum or anything, but they worked in the same way, and it was only later that I understood that.
Listening to it now is a mix of nostalgia and feeling like I need to do more homework; unlike some of the albums on this list which work just as well as background music, Foxtrot demands my full attention; I’m trying to understand odd time signatures while parsing the lyrics for hidden meanings I’ve perhaps not noticed before.
Watcher of the Skies begins with melodramatic Mellotron chords; while the notoriously unreliable Mellotron was being supplanted by synthesized sound by 1972, this is exactly the sort of thing it was made for – kicking off the album with a disorienting, off-kilter soundscape which doesn’t quite sound like anything else.
Like many of Genesis’ more romantic impulses, I can take or leave Time Table; the melody is gorgeous, but there’s something close to pastiche about it; I know I’m being unfair to perhaps the only piece on the album which tries to reach out to the world beyond the album-oriented world of Prog. Thinking about it now, I wonder if it was on any other Genesis album, I’d like it more. Even back in the Seventies, I’d find myself thinking ‘hurry up and get to the satirical stories’.
Back when I used to carefully unpick songs and try to understand what made them work, I had a theory that the best songs were the ones where the words had obviously come first, and the music was forced to work around them. I’m not so sure that’s true any more, but I know that Get ‘em out by Friday is a prime example of what I meant – Peter Gabriel had written a short story about unscrupulous landlords, and the seemingly inevitable future of profit before human dignity (thank goodness he was wrong about that, eh, readers?) - and the rest of the band had to somehow set it to music. Of course it sounds a little forced in places, but I think that is the charm – it feels in such a hurry to tell its story in multiple voices that the music struggles to keep up.
I don’t know how long it took me to realise that Can-Utility was a direct reference to Canute, even with the lyrics basically telling the story. Sometimes, I think, it’s easy to look too hard at something and miss the point entirely – such are the risks of writing about music, after all.
Only when the needle lifts at the end of side one do you look at your watch and realise with a start that nearly 25 minutes has gone by. There’s nothing unusual about that these days, of course – albums regularly sprawl well into their second hour without anyone wondering how it’s all going to fit on 12 inches of black plastic. In 1972, however, an album this long was something unusual – it’s only about five minutes shorter than the entire first Beatles album, for example – and it is a miracle of mastering that it sounds as good as it does.
The vinyl copy I have now is a single sleeve rather than a gatefold – it’s a second-hand copy, but not in the original packaging, and I can’t tell if it’s how the Canadian version was originally released, or if there’s something else going on. I mention this only because I had intended to wax lyrical about the 1970s gatefold sleeve at some point, and had imagined this would be it, but, you know, Supper’s Ready…
Before we can get to the main course, however, there’s a tiny palate cleanser in the form of Horizons, a delightful piece of Steve Hackett whimsy which has reminded me since the day I first heard it of Camberwick Green, in turn reminding me to point you at Peter Jones and Tiger Moth Tales at some point.
Not now, though, because now we have to consider what actually would have happened if someone had tried to set The Waste Land to music, and how different that might have been had they also heard Supper’s Ready first.
I keep returning to this theme, knowing that I will be far from the first to have seen the parallels, but the rapid switches from the pastoral dreamscape of the opening session to the allegorical figures in the second section, through battlefields real and imaginary, via a visit with Narcissus, a quick evisceration of the post-war ideal view of Britain and its stultifying structures, to and through the images of the Book of Revelation and out the other side, where the supper is revealed to be, not the Last one, or the mundane “meat and two veg” implied by the opening, but the one promised after the Second Coming in the New Jerusalem - all of that must have been inspired in part by TS Eliot.
And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of everything going on. If there’s an Eliot influence, there’s also the second side of Abbey Road in here, with the way all the parts fit together, and there are lines which call back to previous Genesis albums. It’s a mighty, almost impenetrable beast of a thing – in so many ways the quintessential Progressive Rock song; not the first to fill an entire side of vinyl, nor the most eclectic or technically difficult; it is however, the one against which all the others are measured.
And few, if any, come up to scratch, because none of them pack the emotional punch of Gabriel’s release as he ties the song back to the beginning with a heartfelt variation on the first verse, before leading us home and on into the promised New Jerusalem.
(And if you’ve ever been unlucky enough to hear my patented Phil Collins rant, you’ll understand why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend ‘Seconds Out’ when we get to the ‘live albums’ part down there – I usually make reference to him singing the ending with all the emotional investment of a man reading out his shopping list. But that’s for another time…)
Ultimately, if you already know Foxtrot, you probably love it like I do (although I’m not certain it’s my favourite Genesis album), and if you don’t, I’m not likely to have swayed you with all that rambling. But maybe you’ll feel the urge to try Supper’s Ready one day, and if you bear in mind that it’s a product of a time, place and education system which no longer exists, maybe you’ll hear the things in it which I do.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Bearing in mind my ‘Phil Collins rant’; my personal selection of Genesis albums is fairly slim; this one and the ones either side of it – Nursery Cryme and Selling England by the Pound pretty much cover it (I find The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway a bit overblown, ironically enough for a Prog album). Post-Gabriel, I hear diminishing returns until Duke, and then I really don’t get on with the Eighties stuff (although I’m sure there are gems in there I’ve never heard).
I do have an abiding love for Follow You, Follow Me, however, as you may well already know.
Compilations to consider?
Insert stock Prog Rock answer (just listen to the whole album, slicing it up doesn’t work) here, with the added warning that Genesis compilations tend to have the words “The Hits” after the title, and are therefore vanishingly unlikely to have anything from Foxtrot - or before 1980 - on them.
I mean, there’s Genesis Live, which was a budget-priced, too short and not particularly well recorded album which was popular only for the surreal short story on the back; Seconds Out which features a lot of things I like, unfortunately sung by you-know-who, and Three Sides Live, which actually isn’t as bad as I remember, but still doesn’t really give the whole story. Not that anything could, really – Genesis were at least three entirely different bands, and it’s perhaps unfortunate for me that the one I really liked was the first one, which has been kind of overshadowed by everything which came after.
Anything else? I’ve never read a Genesis biography, and I’m struggling to think if there has ever been one. The documentary film Together and Apart is interesting – it’s not quite what it claims to be, as it focuses rather blatantly on the bits of history which sold millions of records, and rather skates over the more interesting bits – while Peter Gabriel gets fair coverage because he’s famous, Steve Hackett ends up mostly looking like some bloke they’ve asked along to fill a stool off to the side, and I think the story suffers somewhat as a result.