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Sunday, 4 May 2008

Written in granite: Play me my song

Back in the Dark Ages (i.e. before Punk threw us into the glare of a light), received wisdom has it that we were all FORCED to buy prog rock albums. We didn't want to do it but what choice was there? We were all heartily sick of these dinosaurs with their lengthy solos, vastly complex time signatures and lyrics cribbed from the back of ancient Tibetan cigarette packets. When we heard the Sex Pistols et al we jettisoned our Yes LPs joyfully that very moment and succumbed to the joys of the Vibrators. Didn't we?

I've tried very hard to remember it that way but I just can't. I suppose there might've been a few people whose first exposure to popular music just happened to coincide with the release of New Rose in late 1976 but I imagine that most people already had records by then. And if they tell you that the only records they owned were the first Ramones album, Horses, the Stooges, MC5 and Velvets and, if pushed, that they also had some Bowie, Roxy Music and T-Rex... Do not believe them, for they lie. Nobody, but nobody was that prescient. I didn't actually hear any punk until early, possibly mid-1977. I was only 13, for goodness' sake. My family moved to London from the Norfolk coast in February 1977, and there was one boy in my new class who was into punk. He was generally derided in March, April and May, although by June people started to like The Stranglers, by July-August The Jam were acceptable... And so it went. There were definitely battle lines drawn, you either loved punk or you loathed it, but the process of switching from one camp to the other wasn't necessarily instantaneous. There was certainly a period of coexistence during which I bought the latest Yes album, Going For The One but also quite a few punk singles and, eventually, albums. By early 1978 the process was complete and I sold all my prog albums for the princely sum of £22. In an irony of which I was totally unaware at the time, I sold them to a bloke called Hugh who'd been in a Hawkwind-related band called Catapilla and who ran a shop of the same name. I then took my £22 two doors down to a junk run by the brother of our PE teacher at school and exchanged the cash for a truly cheap and nasty Japanese copy of a Telecaster called a Jedson for exactly that sum of money. It was a year before I could afford an amplifier to go with it.

That should've been that. The albums I sold that day certainly included Yes' Close To The Edge and the aforementioned One, most of Genesis' work up to A Trick Of The Tail, probably a Floyd LP or two... I probably also offloaded my Led Zeppelin albums at the same time. To get £22 in 1978 money I must presumably have sold the best part of 20 albums. However over the last decade or so, via fortuitous, circuitous paths, I've been led back to a lot of them. Close To The Edge sounds fantastic but Jon Anderson's lyrics are absolutely dreadful. I returned to Led Zep barely a decade after abandoning them, there is something in the DNA of most British males (and it's probably not limited to the UK) which makes them irresistible for long. You might as well tell us not to put vinegar on our chips or Marmite on our toast: there's some possibility we might be persuaded to stop for a little while but we're going to lapse and sooner rather than later. As I was young at the time I wasn't deeply immersed in prog, so I only really discovered Van Der Graaf Generator later (and they were so mad as never to truly be prohibited)...

All of which brings us to Genesis. That's Genesis the prog group... Except that early Genesis are much more of an art-rock band, really, aren't they? When they inevitably succumbed to the fashion for a track lasting the whole of one side of an album it was actually a whole load of songs strung together – as is also the case with VDGG and their Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers. Its lineage is blindingly obvious, the second side of Abbey Road, rather than the classical/jazz pretensions of, say, Yes, who really were coming up with single pieces lasting 22 minutes or more. Frankly these are rarely Yes' finest work, are they? I don't think many people would cite Tales From Topographic Oceans as their favourite Yes LP. Personally I find it as baffling now as I did when I first heard it in 1976 (when I was 12). I didn't own Trespass, I had a double LP, an import, which had Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot packaged together, then I also owned Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The latter is another of those prevalent trends of the time, a kind of "rock opera" or a "concept album". Like most of its ilk its plot is pretty much unintelligible, a bit like an episode of Doctor Who scripted by a VERY stoned William Burroughs. It does, however, feature a few cracking songs. There's a bootleg called In The Glare Of A Light which, on its second disk, has a kind of shorn Lamb, and it's really rather terrific, I play it more than the official double LP.

Genesis circa 1972-73 were fantastic. They made three superb LPs. There's another bootleg featuring an In Concert performance and a Top Gear session, both recorded for the BBC in 1972 and this is a band at the height of its powers. The wonderful thing about live Genesis bootlegs is that, in addition to the songs, you also get some of Peter Gabriel's monologues, which don't so much explain the narratives in the songs as augment and sometimes obfuscate them. The BBC set includes a wonderful set-up for The Musical Box, the extraordinary opening song on Nursery Cryme. The Top Gear session includes the 'b' side Twilight Alehouse and ripping runs-through of Watcher Of The Skies and Get 'Em Out By Friday from Foxtrot. Gabriel tells stories, and although there's an element of fantasy to them, they are rooted very firmly in reality. Nowhere more so than on 1973's Selling England By The Pound. On the surface some of this might seem like the English disease of chronic whimsy, but dig just a very, very little deeper and you'll find something far more cogent and infinitely stranger: English suburbia. I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) is one of the oddest of all hit singles, apparently sung by a lawnmower, there's a fantastic story of gang warfare in The Battle Of Epping Forest... This is wonderful storytelling and the narratives make sense, to the extent that they need to, which was the problem with the following year's Lamb which, frankly, didn't. Those three albums are amongst the finest of all English records, and they are almost totally English, a real rarity in itself. There are eminently British records... the obvious one that springs to my mind is Fairport Convention's 1969 milestone Liege And Lief, made apparently as a kind of "if you can't beat them on their own turf try taking them on at home" riposte to the first Band album, but it features songs covering all of the British Isles – Tam Lin is very Scottish. And L&L is all the better for it, but so much "English" stuff is all whimsy. Not that there's anything wrong with a little eccentricity, the country is founded upon that, amongst other traits, but if the only representatives of a firmly English muse were to be the warped nursery rhymes of Syd Barrett and the cut-glass diction of Kevin Ayers (both of whom I love, before the protests start pouring in) then that's not a true picture, is it? Nor is the doomed "born in the wrong century" poesy of Nick Drake. However some of the artists we've looked at in this series do broaden the perspective a little: from Bill Fay and Fairfield Parlour to Mark E. Smith, factor them in and we start to get something a little longer on detail and fabric.

After Lamb Gabriel left, eventually embarking on a solo career, although he never really returned to the narrative wonders of 1972-73. Genesis too carried on. Their first post-Gabriel album, A Trick Of The Tail is a very curious beast. I really liked it at the time and recently – and not without some trepidation – I treated myself to the 1975-1982 boxed set. Listening to that album for the first time in almost 30 years was a peculiar experience. You can almost hear the conversation, with Phil Collins saying that he'll need something to sing, so what did Gabriel used to do and one of the others mumbling that it was all kind of fantasy or sci-fi stories... A bit like Narnia or Day Of The Triffids, so the lyrics for the new album were all about strange creatures and... straight out of Narnia, in fact. However they completely miss the point of Gabriel's lyrics, which is that they are rooted firmly in the real world, as is the case with all of the best fantasy and sci-fi. For this and the following album, 1977's Wind And Wuthering (cue tenuous links to Emily Brontë, completely overshadowed by Kate Bush that same year) they attempted the narrative before quietly ditching it as they prepared to invent the horrors of the 1980s pop sound, all gated snares and sounds so harsh they set my teeth on edge. I found the last 2 albums in the boxed set absolutely unlistenable. But this piece isn't about denigrating later Genesis, it's about celebrating their purple patch. I've found myself listening to Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound a lot over the last 3-4 years, and enjoying them on levels I never suspected when I was a 12-13 year-old boy waiting for punk to happen. Except, of course, that I wasn't. There, I've said it. Don't we all feel better?

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