“Walking across the sitting-room, I turn the television off/Sitting beside you, I look into your eyes/As the sound of motor cars fades in the night time/I swear I saw your face change, it didnt seem quite right.”
Song lyrics are like a treasure trove of memories; good, bad, happy, sad, proud, embarrassing. This particular quatrain kicks off the epic Suppers Ready from the 1972 album by Genesis, Foxtrot, itself a progressive rock landmark for many fans. Well, we used to sing this particular opus from start to finish in a style uncomfortably similar to that later adopted by the guys in Waynes World when reprising Queens Bohemian Rhapsody. So thats good, happy and almost certainly embarrassing, then.
When you dust off a record that made its first impression on the world some 38 years ago, its tempting to think you can put the clock back at the same time. Thinning hair and middle age spread may tell an opposite tale, but memories can at least be rekindled. In those days, you could recite Genesis and Yes songs word for word, irrespective of their length, and still have time to fit in Monty Pythons Four Yorkshiremen or The Spanish Inquisition in character. And think, The Holy Grail was still to come! All of which suggests that if a piece of music or indeed a comedy sketch held such resonance way back that you can recall it by association right now, it probably wasnt half bad.
Well, Foxtrot is not half bad. In fact, its a great record even if I did fail to shoehorn it into the CoS Top 100 Albums Ever. Its the one where all the promise of their three initial albums is delivered in a cohesive and compelling fashion. Pull out the original vinyl and you get four songs on side one and one on side two. OK, two if you count the lovely 1:41 guitar piece, Horizons, which acts as a prelude to the 23-minute splendor that is Suppers Ready. Its a mighty record full of inscrutable lyrics wholly redeemed by fantastic imagery and enlivened by a surfeit of puns, whimsy, grandiose melodies, eccentricity, instrumental virtuosity and immense vocals. Its held together by a structure that is simply intuitive. Individually there may be stronger Genesis songs elsewhere in the band’s catalog than the four that collectively build toward the main event on side two but its the contribution to the greater whole that works here.
Foxtrot signals the appearance of one of rocks odder hairstyles; the center parting with a section shaved out of the front which, aided by the heavy eye make-up gave singer Peter Gabriel an alien look. Gabriel has always been an innovator and prone to theatricality, not least in this phase when he used to don a foxs head atop a long red evening dress with Spanish flounced sleeves. Somewhat like the image on the front cover, but without the tits. Guitarist Steve Hackett, bass player Mike Rutherford, together with Tony Banks on keys and Phil Collins, before he rediscovered Motown, on drums, offer a studious as much as stunning canvas for Gabriels tongue in cheek histrionics.
The album, though, passed many people by and only reached no. 12 on the U.K. charts while failing to land at all on the U.S. equivalent. It may have lacked the accessibility of the more commercial prog-rock offerings of the time. It was music to sit cross-legged alongside in awed appreciation, rather than to fully rock out to. In many ways, Foxtrot is a logical outcome of its more darkly introspective predecessor, Nursery Cryme, which deserves a dusting off of its own. That album was most notable for its ambitious 10-minute opener, The Musical Box, which paves the way for the episodic, song-within-a-song mastery that was to come in the shape of Suppers Ready.
The opening track on Foxtrot is similarly uncompromising. The grand, Mellotron-charged Watcher of the Skies runs for a full two-and-a-half minutes before Peter Gabriel sparks into life and tries to cram the most words into a short line until Michael Stipe voiced “Call me when you try to wake her up” in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight. Time Table, with its musings on the transience of life and sense of resignation at lessons unlearned, and the peculiar, pun-laden tale of futuristic corporate greed of “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” establish a theme of life repeating itself through different ages. This link is metaphorically extended when we get “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” replaying the legend of King Canutes fateful attempt to turn back the tide.
Side one is littered with scintillating instrumental breaks and symphonic virtuosity that keeps you enthralled, while Gabriels vocal twists and turns, taking on a raft of different personae in his inimitable style. The feast is then delivered by the majestic Suppers Ready, which takes you from a kind of Genesis to Revelations, the humdrum of a TV dinner through to a joyous post-apocalypse, decorated by glorious anthemic hooks and stings. This audacious song is structured in seven parts (lets not go there) and its huge achievement is to override the pretension that it easily could have fallen foul of. Be prepared to ride a whole gamut of emotions as we encounter love and war, false prophets, man and nature, myth and legend. The transitions between sections are so cleverly worked that the result is almost seamless, despite the mood switches and character take-ons.
A masterpiece, pure and simple.