Debate Club 

Genesis: All Full of Ball

GENESIS Simultaneously soaring and silly.

GENESIS Simultaneously soaring and silly.

WELCOME BACK to Debate Club, the printed equivalent of two lengthy, pointless filibusters happening at once. In this edition, illustrious local musician Dave Depper and Mercury Music Editor Ned Lannamann argue about Genesis for an ungodly length of time. The impetus for their conversation: an upcoming Portland appearance by the Musical Box, a Genesis tribute band—stop giggling, there is such a thing—from Montreal that painstakingly recreates Genesis shows from the early 1970s, an era when Phil Collins stayed safely behind the drum kit and lead singer Peter Gabriel donned all sorts of ridiculous costumes.

The Musical Box performs Thursday, February 27, at the Aladdin Theater, recreating Genesis' 1972-1973 stage show, which followed the release of their Foxtrot album. Pointy-headed prog-rock nerds unite!


NED LANNAMANN: We should probably begin by stating for the record that you and I have both seen this tribute band before.

DAVE DEPPER: And boy, am I excited to see them again. We drove up to Tacoma to see the Musical Box do The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [Genesis' 1974 double concept album] back in October 2011. They had the same slides and stage set and costumes that the band used. We were seeing what is as close as you can possibly get to an old Genesis show. I think Genesis has gone on record as saying the Musical Box does it better than they actually ever did it. And that's something.

NED: Yeah, you could almost zone out and pretend you were at the real thing. This time, they're doing the Foxtrot tour. Foxtrot's an earlier album, from 1972. On this tour, they're also alternating dates by doing 1973's Selling England by the Pound at certain shows, too.

DAVE: I was heartbroken to realize that Portland wasn't going to get the Selling England by the Pound show.

NED: Well, let's lay it out, then. I am of the opinion that Foxtrot is a better album than Selling England by the Pound, and you feel differently.

DAVE: Absolutely, yes.

NED: Has Selling England by the Pound always been your favorite Genesis album?

DAVE: For the most part, yeah. There are parts of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway that get close. I think it's that classic fantasy of The Lamb being cut down to one record with all the best moments, it would be the best Genesis record.

NED: Interesting, because my problem with Selling England by the Pound is that it's got filler on it. You could severely trim it and it would still be long enough to be a full-length album.

DAVE: I would not lose a second of Selling England. Except maybe parts of "The Battle of Epping Forest," which gets a little bit esoteric for me. The thing that I like about Peter Gabriel-era Genesis the most is their poppier side, oddly enough, and I think Selling England is where that kind of came to fruition. The songs are just beautiful on there—just really beautiful moments, one after the other, and fiery playing to back it up.

NED: Wow, I agree with you and also completely disagree with you. My favorite thing about early Genesis is their poppier element, too. But Selling England, to me, is their proggiest album. It's way less poppy than some of their other stuff. It's got "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," which is totally proggy right down to the song title, and "Firth of Fifth," which is also super proggy. And "The Cinema Show" starts off as a nice little folk-rock song, but then it goes into a fucking 7/8 prog jam at the end. And the poppiest song on the album, "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)," is actually a song I don't like all that much.

DAVE: Really??

NED: It's great except for that chorus, which is just four notes up and down the scale. Boring. It doesn't do much for me.

DAVE: It does a lot for me. I first heard it as a kid, on that terrible Genesis live album, The Way We Walk, Volume Two: The Longs.

NED: I saw that tour—the We Can't Dance tour—at Giants Stadium.

DAVE: Oh my gosh. Was it great?

NED: I was a kid, so of course it was fucking fantastic. But you could not put The Way We Walk on right now and have me be okay with it.

DAVE: Well, you're just wrong about "I Know What I Like" not being a good song. So I'm feeling pretty good about my side of things.

NED: Well, let me poke some more holes in your "pop" argument. I think "Supper's Ready" from Foxtrot, which is their longest song by far, is, in actuality, seven short, great little pop songs all stitched together in a really smart and interesting way. And the sum total of "Supper's Ready" is easily my favorite moment in all of Genesis. It surpasses all of Selling England by the Pound, it even surpasses all of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It's just perfect.

DAVE: Well, here's where I drop the bomb, Ned... I don't really like "Supper's Ready" all that much.

NED: You're... so incredibly fucking wrong.

DAVE: Don't get me wrong. I enjoy it. But it doesn't convince me. It doesn't hang together. Maybe what you like about it is exactly what I don't like about it. I feel like it's just a random collection of snippets that were just put together because they thought it would be clever—as opposed to something like "The Cinema Show" or "Firth of Fifth," which are also collections of snippets, but at that point they had learned how to weave them together in such an amazing and seamless way, you're like, "Am I still listening to the same song? When did this change?" With "Supper's Ready," I just feel like, "Oh yeah, here's the part where he sings about being a flower." It's almost an endurance test for me.

NED: Wow. I could not feel more differently. For me, it's the idea of Side Two of Abbey Road, but improved. It's the formula of a rock suite, perfected. And they make use of some repeated themes. "The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man," which is such a great song to begin with, makes a reappearance in "New Jerusalem," or "As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs," or whatever that part is called. And it sounds glorious coming in at the end. There's no other word for it: glorious. But I think you're right, that is how they composed it. They had a bunch of short little bits, and it started off as a dumping ground for a lot of ideas. But I think because it goes from the slow, languid part in "How Dare I Be So Beautiful?" into "Willow Farm," which is the total opposite, this clumsy, loud pop song—on paper, that's a dumb move. It's not a smart musical choice. But it works so well because of the shocking contrast. It re-contextualizes all the parts that came before, and everything that comes after it is just fucking monumental: "Apocalypse in 9/8" and "As Sure as Eggs Is Eggs"—that's the peak. When I went to college and started smoking weed, I would listen to it on headphones, stoned out of my mind, and it gave me shivers.

DAVE: I think we can both agree at this point that Genesis is one of the best bands to listen to stoned.

NED: This is supposed to be Debate Club, but I won't argue with that.

DAVE: All that being said, I'm really excited to see the Musical Box play "Supper's Ready." I think it's gonna be badass. And maybe that'll turn things around for me.

NED: Getting into the lyrics is kind of a bad idea with Genesis, but that song deals with some huge issues. It's about life and death, and good versus evil, and war, and love, and myths and legends. But it's also just a dumb song called "Supper's Ready." It has these elements of grandeur and also a throwaway, jokey quality that works perfectly for me. It's a bold statement, made nonchalantly.

DAVE: I agree with everything you're saying. It's a colossal achievement and it's very impressive, but ultimately it doesn't stick the landing. And for me, it's a somewhat unconvincingly stitched-together series of pop songs that are not really that interesting on their own.

NED: No, I don't agree. Let's say you unstitched them. "The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man" is so unbelievably great. And in the "Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men" section, there's this part where both Tony Banks and Steve Hackett play these interlocking arpeggios. It's fucking fantastic. It might be the best part of the entire 23 minutes.

DAVE: Yeah, it very well could be.

NED: How do you feel about the rest of Foxtrot?

DAVE: It comes roaring out of the gate with "Watcher of the Skies," which may be Genesis' best moment, in my opinion.

NED: It's up there. There's no other song in the world that sounds like it.

DAVE: Yeah, right down to the choice of the mellotron patch at the beginning. It's this very distinctive, weird blend of the mellotron brass and string voices. It's interesting, those layers that Tony Banks had in his head, and that chord progression is just totally incredible. As a composer of music, I would never think to come up with what he came up with on there.

NED: So that song's great. What do you think about the rest of Side One of Foxtrot? The next song's "Time Table," which is a nice song, but nothing too special.

DAVE: The lyrics bug me. "Sipped wine from goblets gold." I know that the album I'm defending includes a song called "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," but...

NED: The line in "Time Table" that sticks out to me is the part about "arbours cool."

DAVE: "A time when honor meant much more to a man than life," or whatever. Obviously he's singing about knights and stuff on "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," but there he's telling some dramatic story whereas on "Time Table" he seems way too committed to this weird vision. I get the sense of him being in the Society for Creative Anachronism and going to a Renaissance fair and singing this.

NED: What about "Get 'Em Out by Friday"?

DAVE: I love "Get 'Em Out by Friday."

NED: That's actually the rockiest point on Foxtrot for me. It's a cool idea, a story with all these characters singing different lines of dialogue, and a plot in which they have height requirements on all the apartments so they can fit more floors per building. That's just funny satire. But the song bumbles around a little too long.

DAVE: I've never had a problem with that song. I like it. It's not a patch on "The Cinema Show," say, but I like it. It's one of my favorite moments on Foxtrot.

NED: And there's "Can-Utility and the Coastliners," which I love. It's a song that never gets discussed. I think the Musical Box will play that one, possibly?

DAVE: Well, if we're seeing the Foxtrot show, they'll play it.

NED: But no, they don't actually do the whole album start to finish. What they do is replicate the setlist of the tour from that era.

DAVE: Oh, gotcha. So we're gonna see "The Return of the Giant Hogweed" and stuff.

NED: Yeah, and "The Musical Box" and "The Knife."

DAVE: Oh, fuck yeah. This is great. Put my surprised astonishment and joy into this article, please.

NED: My fingers are crossed for "The Fountain of Salmacis." But I don't know if that was still in the setlist at that point. I did some research today, and it's hard to find old Genesis setlists from that era. There are a number of incomplete recordings, and some shows right after Foxtrot's release in which they didn't do "Supper's Ready"—which is baffling. Maybe when the album first came out, they hadn't quite figured out how to play it live.

DAVE: So "Can-Utility and the Coastliners"—I also love it. I think the only thing I don't like about it is the title, which I hate. Why didn't they just call it "King Canute and the Coastliners"? Why put this stupid pun in the title? It's so irritating to me.

NED: Genesis never shied away from wordplay in their lyrics. The Lamb is full of it, too.

DAVE: Anyway, it's a great song. It has so many great moments. And it has Mike Rutherford's bass pedals ringing throughout the whole first part. So great.

NED: It's almost like a mini "Supper's Ready." It's like four short little songs all strung together.

DAVE: Well, since you bring up "Supper's Ready" again, that's a microcosm of my problem with Foxtrot as a whole. It's just a collection of moments, with the exception of "Watcher of the Skies," which is totally amazing. Even the other songs we've been praising, like "Can-Utility" and "Get 'Em Out by Friday," I'm not fully compelled by those songs in their entireties. But on Selling England, when "The Cinema Show" gets going, I am rapt from start to finish. Same with "Firth of Fifth." It all flows together. With Foxtrot, I feel like they hadn't quite gotten their transitions down. It's a collection of really great moments—Foxtrot has some really amazing moments—but I just don't think they hang together. And "Supper's Ready" is the culmination of that.

NED: No. The way "Supper's Ready" builds, and the way it concludes, is so majestic and gorgeous, it kind of hurts a little bit.

DAVE: By the time I get to that point, I don't care anymore.

NED: I think Phil Collins wrote a song about that. Okay, smart guy. "The Cinema Show," as great as it is, has some fatal flaws, too. The transition from the first part to the second is totally abrupt. I'd say it's a worse transition than anything on "Supper's Ready."

DAVE: Okay, so we get one unconvincing join instead of 11.

NED: Well, maybe we should talk about their checkered legacy. It seems like Genesis is still one of those bands that people truly seem to hate, even to this day. People who are familiar with the early stuff often love it, but most people still think of them as the band that did "I Can't Dance" and that video with the puppets.

DAVE: Well, you sell your soul to the devil, that's what you get.

NED: I refuse to defend "I Can't Dance," but a lot of the Phil Collins era is not as bad as people make it out to be.

DAVE: As far as '80s bands go, sophisticated synth pop doesn't really get much better. It's amazingly well written, amazingly well produced, amazingly well played. People crucify them for the sins of Phil Collins' solo career, which definitely gets pretty dicey. For a lot of people, there's not much distance between "Sussudio" and "Invisible Touch." And maybe there's not, but I think there's a level of craft to Genesis that isn't present in something as shamelessly commercial as "Sussudio." Something like "Invisible Touch" seems brainier and more interesting to me.

NED: There are all the hairier albums that predate Invisible Touch, too. Some of them are even sort of prog-rock-ish, like Duke and Abacab, which have some really weird things on them.

DAVE: Duke and Abacab are two of my favorite Genesis records. I love them. But yeah, I still encounter more people than not who don't know Genesis was a band fronted by Peter Gabriel at one point. Peter Gabriel has never really lost his sense of cool. Meanwhile, Phil Collins became a figure of hatred in the '80s due to his ubiquity. His videos were really hammy...

NED: And his baldness was weirdly offensive for some reason. This is how I think of it: Peter Gabriel made Passion, while Phil Collins made Buster.

DAVE: Ha, yeah.

NED: Phil Collins has been publicly maligned more than almost any other musician. Except for someone like Michael Bolton, maybe.

DAVE: It's too bad. All he wants to do is play the drums, man.

NED: Except that he stopped doing it! I've always thought that the fact that he stopped playing drums for Genesis' live show in order to be the singer is a huge tragedy, in my mind. He was a phenomenal drummer. Truly outstanding.

DAVE: Yeah. Lost in all of this is what a complete and utter badass Phil Collins is on the drums. One of the greatest drummers of all time.

NED: People need to know that.

DAVE: When I've played Peter Gabriel-era Genesis for people, the first thing they say—after "Whoa, Peter Gabriel sang for Genesis?"—is "Wow, this is pretty good. Who's drumming?" It's Phil Collins, and he's absolutely slaying it. They're always surprised.

NED: Since we're on the topic of musicianship, we should talk about Tony Banks, too. He really is the heart of Genesis. Always has been, since day one. He's the reason "The Cinema Show" has a seven-minute keyboard solo.

DAVE: And it's an amazing keyboard solo. It's compelling the entire time. I don't really have much time in my life for a seven-minute keyboard solo, but it's really great. And the playing of the band behind him and the composition is really amazing. It's not a seven-minute solo over, like, a blues progression. It's this hyper-composed thing. Tony Banks was definitely the greatest keyboardist of the prog era. Rick Wakeman gets all the accolades—and he was great—but Tony Banks just wipes the floor with him. And Keith Emerson was just a showoff.

NED: The development of Tony Banks' sound over the early albums is pretty fascinating, too. By necessity, he started off playing just electric piano and organ, but he was able to get super inventive with both of those. Then the mellotron appears prominently on Nursery Cryme, but the first synthesizer doesn't appear until Selling England by the Pound. Judging by "The Cinema Show," he was already a master. And then The Lamb has crazy weird synths all over it—noises that have not been made by man since. So it's not just his technique, it's also his incredible approach to making new sounds.

DAVE: Which, of course, is something Peter Gabriel got into on his solo career, for his part.

NED: So Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel were best friends at school. And during their time in Genesis, they apparently argued constantly and butted heads, kind of like siblings. In some ways, Tony Banks had the upper hand, because he had his army of keyboards to convey his musical ideas. All Peter Gabriel could do was sing. You can see Gabriel trying to get more skin in the game—picking up flutes and kicking on drums and dressing up in these outlandish costumes, and all that stuff, as some way to maintain the balance of power. Maybe it's the fire and friction between those two that makes all that early Genesis material so alive and passionate—and then it gets elevated by Phil Collins' explosive drumming. And we haven't even really talked about the other two guys. They really were five fucking phenomenal musicians.

DAVE: It's hard to pick a weak link. Oddly, I think Steve Hackett might be the weak link.

NED: Which is insane.

DAVE: I know, because he's a truly amazing guitarist.

NED: And totally unique, too.

DAVE: Yeah. He was doing two-handed tapping, like, 10 years before Eddie Van Halen.

NED: People don't know that!

DAVE: It's amazing what Steve Hackett's doing. It's kind of obvious from the outset that he was marginalized in that band. He doesn't get a lot of showcases. From what I understand, he didn't do a lot of the writing...

NED: Right, although my understanding is that he came into his own on Selling England by the Pound. I think he wrote the riff for "I Know What I Like," and he wrote "After the Ordeal" and parts of "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight." And then there's his guitar solo on "Firth of Fifth," which is his crowning achievement with Genesis.

DAVE: It's great. It's not a technically difficult solo, but it sounds awesome.

NED: And it's perfectly played. Full of soul and magic.

DAVE: That's what makes him a very special guy in the prog world. While everyone else was trying to prove how fast they could play, he was more interested in texture. Which is why he might be seen as the marginalized member, because everyone was playing circles around him. But he was calmly keeping it all together. Which is cool.

NED: His sounds are just unearthly. Notes that go on for 20 seconds.

DAVE: And Mike Rutherford is obviously a complete monster, too, playing 12-string guitar and bass pedals at the same time.

NED: In the early days, yeah, he really was more of a 12-string guitarist than a bassist. He played 12-string on almost everything.

DAVE: That's another hallmark of Genesis—the amount of 12-string on all those early records, which isn't true of any other prog band that I can think of. It makes them sound very rich and folky.

NED: There are numerous passages where Rutherford, Hackett, and Banks are all playing 12-string guitars.

DAVE: There's that one perfect moment in "The Cinema Show" where that's happening, maybe about a third of the way through it. I think it's one of the prettiest moments of recorded music, ever. You can put that on record.

NED: Perhaps another problem with Genesis' legacy is that, up until the late '90s, they never released a greatest hits album. They never had that user-friendly album where newbies could start off. Almost every other band, except for maybe Led Zeppelin, had either an obvious classic album that was head-and-shoulders above the rest, or a handy greatest hits album that had a bunch of their best songs. But with Genesis, you'd have to just pick any random album and dive in. I suppose you can't really trim down their early period to the bare essentials—if you were making a greatest hits, you'd put "Watcher of the Skies," "I Know What I Like," and "The Musical Box" on side one, and "Supper's Ready" on side two, and boom, you're out of space.

DAVE: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway definitely has several shorter songs that could have been hits. "Counting Out Time" should have been a hit.

NED: And "The Carpet Crawlers" is a complete masterpiece. I don't think there's anyone who could listen to "The Carpet Crawlers" and not be touched by it. But in order to hear it, you need to dig through all four sides of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway—not exactly the most user-friendly album ever recorded.

DAVE: You don't hear their old stuff on the radio. Yes has "Roundabout" and "I've Seen All Good People." Genesis was just like, "Take us or leave us."

NED: And almost without exception, their best stuff is the longest stuff. You need a good half-hour just to hear three songs. But even in the prog-rock world, they're unique. Their early stuff does fit nicely into that category of early '70s British prog rock, and they have good company there with Yes and King Crimson, and tons of bands like that. But even so, they're set apart in a weird way—they're not Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They are their own breed, and "prog" is unfortunately the only word for it.

DAVE: It's interesting, because they were simultaneously more proggy than those bands, yet poppier as well. Their poppy moments were really pure, really catchy—and yet a song like "The Cinema Show" has a seven-minute keyboard solo. There weren't even Yes songs at that point with that sort of thing happening.

NED: Genesis' weirdness stemmed almost entirely from their songwriting, as opposed to an instrumental approach. I think some of those other prog bands were much jammier, like, "Let's play, we don't care what the song is. We just wanna play really fast and do lots of flashy runs and complicated fills and fancy shit."

DAVE: Genesis and Yes are probably the two most spiritually connected bands from the prog era. Their songs are hyper composed, as well. In this day and age, it seems more unlikely than ever to be able to turn someone on to old Genesis. Our attention spans are a minute long.

NED: They'd have to be the type of person that torrents the entire discography, and then slowly makes their way through the albums. The other problem is that all the Genesis albums were remixed a few years ago, and the original mixes—which are much, much better—are largely out of print. I don't know if you can buy the proper version of Foxtrot now, without diving into the used-record bins. The version on iTunes is the new remix, and it's just wrong. The levels are wrong, the sounds are all wrong, and they use alternate vocal takes for a lot of "Supper's Ready." It's a real, real shame.

DAVE: And now the only way to see them live is through a bunch of imitators.

NED: We need to address the weirdness of a tribute band going to such great lengths to recreate those old Genesis shows in such exacting detail. Because it's a big red flag. You couldn't drag me to see Dark Star Orchestra for a million dollars, for instance. But we're going to voluntarily watch a small French Canadian man put batwings on his head and do all of Peter Gabriel's old moves.

DAVE: I know. Why is it that we are drawn to see this Genesis tribute band? Why on earth did we drive up to Tacoma to see them a couple years ago?

NED: I don't know. But I loved every second of it.

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