The classic era of Genesis examined: 1971-1975

By Ken Downie

When the uninitiated think of Genesis, what comes to mind is often a slightly edgier version of Phil Collins’ gazillion-selling 1980s pop. But the legacy that has endured with musicians and the group’s most dedicated fans belongs to the band’s earlier incarnation: the classic lineup of vocalist Peter Gabriel, keyboardist Tony Banks, bassist and guitarist Mike Rutherford, lead guitarist Steve Hackett, and, of course, Phil Collins playing the heck out of the drum kit.

STEVE HACKETT’S guitar virtuosity during the classic Genesis years was a major influence for many popular musicians to come, from Trey Anastacio to Eddie Van Halen. Photo byLaurens Van Houten/ Frank White Photo Agency

It’s been 40 years since the quintet recorded “Nursery Cryme,”, the album that cemented the early Genesis sound, and one considered by many to be among the greatest artistic achievements of progressive rock’s golden era. Along with contemporaries Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis pushed the boundaries of rock music both lyrically and instrumentally. All of the essential elements of what has since come to be known as “prog” were present on “Nursery Cryme”: fantastic, often bizarre lyrics; long, thematic songs; an obvious classical influence and departure from blues-based traditions; and unparalleled musical virtuosity.

The band married some of the heaviest jams of the day to acoustic, pastoral passages to create a tapestry of light and shade, which confused some American audiences at first, says guitarist Steve Hackett. “Our idea of a guitar-based tune usually meant that the 12-string [acoustics] carried it,” he says. “Often we would have three 12-string guitars playing at once — Mike, Tony and me — which created a sound like a harpsichord, and you couldn’t really pin down what you were hearing. Mike Rutherford was very into Joni Mitchell at the time, which also influenced our acoustic side. Unfortunately, we tended to get shouted down in America on our first tours during some of our quieter moments, because people wanted to hear boogie music.”

Members of Genesis drew their inspiration from classical and folk music as much as rock and blues, says Hackett, who began his musical journey as a blues harmonica player. “I grew up listening to the blues and Bach, and I never thought that they would meet and create a third thing,” he says. “The two styles seemed to be at odds with each other.”

The Classic Genesis lineup (clockwise from left): Banks, Rutherford, Gabriel, Hackett and Collins. Publicity photo

Although it’s hard to hear much overt blues influence in early Genesis, Hackett points out that most of the innovation sonically and musically on the electric guitar in the 1960s and early 1970s came straight out of the blues. Even the most eclectic rock guitar heroes of the day were still firmly rooted in the blues. The music of Genesis—and Hackett’s guitar playing in particular—offered an enticing alternative for rock fans who were becoming bored with standard beats and I-IV-V chord progressions. “Nursery Cryme” explored odd time signatures, modal compositions, and introduced a new technique to rock music that would redefine electric guitar playing in the next decade: two-handed tapping.

“I came upon the tapping technique when I was trying to play Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue,” says Hackett. “I realized that I couldn’t play it the way I wanted to hear it using standard technique, so I started tapping onto the fretboard with my right hand. I used that technique all over “Nursery Cryme including parts of ‘The Musica Box’ and ‘The Return of the Giant Hogweed.’” Tony Banks sometimes harmonized Hackett’s legato lead guitar lines on the keyboard for dramatic effect, often using a distorted amplifier or fuzz box to achieve a similar sound. “We had a guitarist who was trying to sound like a keyboard player and a keyboard player who was very good at sounding like a guitarist,” Hackett observes.

Part of the reason that the English progressive rock bands of the early 1970s drew from such varied influences was the wide variety of music broadcast on British radio prior to the deregulation of the airwaves. “Radio was in very different shape when we were young, and I think that that helped to color the progressive music that followed,” says Hackett. “Today, many stations only play one style of music, and I suspect the people who grow up listening to this stuff may be subject to less-wide musical tastes than the ones that we had while developing our musical base. We were listening to blues, rock and jazz from America, and we were also hearing our European roots, all on the same station.”

An essential ingredient in the Genesis sound that was shared by other progressive rock bands is the use of the Mellotron, an electro-mechanical ancestor of the modern synthesizer, to achieve an orchestral sound. “We weren’t trying to sound classical, but the spooky, eerie quality of the Mellotron flutes and violins became a big part of our sound,” says Hackett. “I was in love with the sound of it for a very long time — although they were incredibly temperamental and took four men to lift, like pallbearers.” Gabriel also occasionally played flute with the band, adding yet another dimension to the sound.

Faux harpsichords and orchestras aside, however, there are musical passages on “Nursery Cryme” (e.g., the screaming guitar in the middle section of “The Musical Box”) that are as prototypically heavy metal as anything by Sabbath, Zeppelin or Purple. To achieve those heavy guitar sounds, Hackett used his trusty Les Paul Custom through a Hiwatt stack with various fuzz boxes and an octave divider. He also used a volume pedal to precisely control the dynamics of his guitar to fit the album’s many moods. “Sometimes I’d be playing distorted rock guitar weaving through these delicate textures, so I had to play very quietly,” says Hackett. “I’d be playing pastoral rock guitar, if that’s not an oxymoron. Often I had to play almost like a reed instrument. At times, I even tried to sound like a synthesizer or like a voice.”

The complex music of Genesis required a team player approach from Hackett, which usually led him far afield of pure bombast. “With the core team of Mike, Phil and Tony forming the nucleus of the sound and turning out those dense, very beautiful textures, it was often difficult to be able to impose anything on the music that was relevant,” says Hackett. “So sometimes I’d beef up the bass line; other times I would highlight part of what was going on with the piano. I think that approach helped to create interesting textures, and it did enrich the sound. I was trying to think like a producer or an arranger, which has little to do with guitar heroics. I was very concerned with subtlety, perhaps more than I am today.”

Lyrically, Genesis usually shied away from “the mating ritual,” as Hackett dryly puts it, in favor of fairy tales and mythology—a direct contrast to the approach that the Rolling Stones and other English groups were taking at the time. Some critics complained that the band’s lyrical approach felt more like research than soul-searching. “It’s not that we weren’t writing romantic music,” says Hackett. “It was just romantic in a different way—we were romancing something else. Our lyrics were often third-hand and not based on personal experience, which is quite typical of the progressive approach. That’s not the approach I’ve taken post-Genesis—personal experience is much more in evidence—but these were early days, and we took a lot from literature.”

The “progressive rock” label did not exist at the time, Hackett points out, and the emerging style was often tagged “art rock” or “theatrical rock.” Indeed, Genesis was one of the first groups to combine rock and theater, a strategy that made the band’s surreal lyrics easier for audiences to digest. “Once we got our own light show and stage set and took control of the visual aspect of our performances, Peter decided that he wanted to be the literal depiction of the action,” says Hackett.

Gabriel’s thespian talents helped differentiate Genesis from the other prog acts of the day, and he used masks and bizarre costumes to bring the songs to life. “Peter had always approached lyrics rather like an actor, so it was a natural evolution,” says Hackett. “But it wasn’t a decision he ran through the band in committee. He just showed up one night and that’s the way it was on stage.” Audiences loved it, or at least paid attention. “When we were starting out, often we would be second or third on the bill, and people would be milling about, ignoring us, going to the bar,” says Hackett. “That changed as the show became more theatrical, with Peter acting out the parts.”

“Foxtrot,” the follow-up to “Nursery Cryme,” continued in the same musical vein and generated better sales as Genesis started to make a name for itself in the UK. By 1973’s “Selling England by the Pound,” the group had earned itself some high-profile fans. Hackett describes an enthusiastic Peter Gabriel bouncing into the rehearsal room after hearing that John Lennon had mentioned in an interview that he “loved” the new Genesis album. “We were incredibly proud of that,” says Hackett. “At a time when we could still hardly get a gig in the States, we had a good review from a great man. We thought, ‘Wow, maybe we’re good.’”

In hindsight, the group may have reached its creative zenith by 1973. “Selling England,” most critics agree, perfected the blueprint that “Nursery Cryme” had established two years earlier. The musicians were at the top of their game, and compositions flowed easily despite the stylistic shifts and challenging subject matter. “A song like ‘Dancing with the Moonlit Knight’ really runs the gamut stylistically,” says Hackett. “It goes from a Scottish Plainsong to English hymnal to jazz fusion to something we used to call ‘Disney,’ or more of a tone poem approach.”
Although Genesis toured relentlessly, the band was not focused on success as an end game in its early years. “Our concern was quality, and we had a lot of support from our management and record company behind the premise that if we aimed for excellence, success would follow as natural consequence,” Hackett explains.

One common misconception about early Genesis is that Gabriel wrote all of the lyrics. This was not the case until his last album with the group, 1975’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” “We all contributed lyrically, until Peter decided that he wanted to write all the words he would sing, and that’s understandable — things often tend to sound best when a singer is singing his own lyrics,” says Hackett. “I was quite happy to concentrate on being the guitarist. You have to be very flexible if you’re in a band, especially when it’s a band of writers; you’ve got to be prepared to wear certain hats and take the hats off, from time to time, to make room for someone else.”

“Lamb Lies Down” also marked a major change in the group’s sound, taking Genesis out of the English countryside and into more modern, chaotic, urban imagery.

“It was a little closer to mainstream rock, and I was concerned about how that would go over in America — you know, taking New York to the New Yorkers,” Hackett recalls.

He needn’t have worried, as the album still stands as one of the group’s most critically acclaimed works. “Of course, we had our equipment stolen and ransomed at the beginning of our U.S. tour in true New York fashion,” Hackett quips. “We had to fight for it every step of the way.”

Although Hackett would stay on to record two more excellent albums with Genesis, the now-classic “Trick of the Tail” and “Wind and Wuthering,” the band’s sound changed as Collins ably carved out his identity as lead vocalist. “Genesis spanned a lot of eras, and as the lineup changed, the sound went in an increasingly commercial direction,” says Hackett. “The earlier stuff was more idealistic, I feel, in that what we were trying to do was original music—and that’s what seems to turn on musicians the most. It’s been 40 years, and those early albums keep selling. I’m happy to have been a part of that history.”

Genesis Records, From The Classic Era

12-Inch Singles
ATCO
7013    The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway/Counting Out Time    1975    50.00
7013 [DJ]    The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (stereo/mono)    1975    30.00

ATLANTIC OLDIES SERIES
OS 13239    I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)/
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway    197?    10.00
—Reissue

CHARISMA
103    Watcher of the Skies/Willow Farm    1973    80.00
26002    I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)/Twilight Ale House    1973    50.00
26002 [DJ]    I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) (stereo/mono)    1973    30.00

Albums
ABC
ABCX-816    Trespass    1971    15.00
—Reissue of Impulse album; black label
ABCX-816    Trespass    1974    12.00
—Reissue; concentric yellow/orange/purple “target” label

ABC IMPULSE!
ASD-9205    Trespass    1971    30.00

ATCO
SD 38-100    Wind & Wuthering    1978    10.00
—Reissue of SD 36-144
SD 38-101    A Trick of the Tail    1978    10.00
—Reissue of SD 36-129
SD 36-129    A Trick of the Tail    1976    12.00
SD 36-144    Wind & Wuthering    1977    12.00
SD 2-401 [(2)]    The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway    1974    15.00
—Originals have yellow labels (other labels worth less)

ATLANTIC
80030    “Nursery Cryme”    1982    8.00
—Reissue of Charisma LP of same name
81848    Foxtrot    1988    10.00
—Reissue of Charisma LP of the same name
81855    Genesis Live    1988    10.00
—Reissue of Charisma LP of the same name

BUDDAH
BDS-5659 [(2)]    The Best … Genesis    1976    20.00
—Reissue of ““Nursery Cryme”” and “Foxtrot” in one set

CHARISMA
CAS-1052    “Nursery Cryme”    1971    15.00
CAS-1052    “Nursery Cryme”    2000    25.00
—Classic Records reissue on 180-gram vinyl
CAS-1058    Foxtrot    1972    15.00
CAS-1058    Foxtrot 2001    25.00
—Classic Records reissue on 180-gram vinyl
CAS-1666    Genesis Live    1974    15.00
CAS-1666 Genesis Live 2001 25.00
—Classic Records reissue on 180-gram vinyl
CA2-2701 [(2)]    “Nursery Cryme”/Foxtrot    1976    15.00
—Repackage of the individual albums of these names
FC-6060    Selling England by the Pound    1973    15.00
FC-6060    Selling England by the Pound    2001    25.00
—Classic Records reissue on 180-gram vinyl

LONDON
PS 643    From Genesis to Revelation    1974    25.00
—First US release of debut album

5 thoughts on “The classic era of Genesis examined: 1971-1975

  1. Frankly, the best Genesis records were Selling England, Trick, Wind and Wuthering & Seconds Out. What preceded were rehearsals and what followed was treacle.

  2. Amazing Music God!
    Genesis is the Best and the 1970-75 is the better era, the better lineup.
    The Lamb, Nursery, Foxtrot and Selling England are great but Trespass (1970) is a fantastic album, too.

  3. I have to thank a friend who moved to our small town 30 some years ago from Cleveland Ohio, for introducing us to Genesis , back then or we would still be listening to Ac/Dc .Turn it on again was the first Genesis song i heard on the radio, but my friend let us listen to all of the albums from this era of Genesis. Se returned the favor by taking him to Pine Knob outside of Pontiac Michigan , where they were doing a small tour to promote 3 sides live.Listenig and watching them perform Suppers Ready was unforgettable. ” A flower ” .

  4. Hey Genesis collectors…I believe I have a one-of-a-kind(perhaps…the only 1 in the world FOXTROT album)!!! It is truly amazing… and cannot figure out how it came to be!!! All I can say is that I have a “double” play watcher of the skies LP!!! Mint condition…plus another mystery to this album you have to see to believe! This is so rare I have never seen another album like it…………………….ever!!!

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