Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976



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Genesis's Foxtrot (*)

One of the most ironic developments in Billboard chart history occurred in July 1986, when Genesis, basking in the success of having finally scored their first (and only) U.S. #1 hit with Invisible Touch were knocked out of the top spot just one week later by their former frontman Peter Gabriel, who, in turn, scored his first (and only) U.S. #1 with Sledgehammer. While I must admit to having a personal affection for their later records, I think it is safe to say that most fans would prefer to forget the slick, synthesizer-driven pop that characterized much of Genesis’s output in the 1980s and 1990s, and instead look back fondly to the first half of the 1970s — the golden age of British progressive rock — when the group was famous for crafting epic rock pieces in which the multiple shifts of texture, affect, tonality and groove echo those typically found, say, in a large-scale symphonic work by Liszt or Holst. Like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Soft Machine, Henry Cow, and their other compatriots in British progressive rock during this remarkable period, Genesis did not set out to create music that was immediately catchy or danceable (although one can certainly imagine dancing, however awkwardly, to many of their odd-metered grooves). Theirs was serious music intended for serious listeners. Indeed, as John Covach has put it, “there was the perception [among fans] that these musicians were attempting to shape a new kind of classical music — a body of music that would not disappear after a few weeks or months on the pop charts, but would instead be listened to (and perhaps even studied), like the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, for years to come.” (Covach, 1997: 4)
Figure 1 shows a chronology of Genesis albums released through October 1977, when guitarist Steve Hackett left the group and the three remaining members decided to continue as a trio. In this article, I will focus on their 1972 album Foxtrot, the second release from the “classic” Genesis lineup of Tony Banks on keyboards, Phil Collins on drums, Peter Gabriel on lead vocals, Steve Hackett on guitar, and Mike Rutherford on bass. The Foxtrot album, and the European tour supporting it, represented a key phase in the group’s development, as Gabriel’s penchant for mime and onstage theatrics — complete with elaborate changes of costume to portray some of the various characters as they appeared in the songs — began to give their concerts a distinctive style that set them apart from the other British progressive rock groups. (1) Genesis had already attracted quite a cult following in the U.K., but in 1972 they quickly found themselves major stars on the continent, especially in Italy. (2) Genesis biographer Armando Gallo has aptly diagnosed this phenomenon, noting that “[t]he Italians had never really identified with the twelve-bar syndrome of rock ’n’ roll, and young fans and musicians who had grown up within Italy’s strong classical and operatic traditions suddenly responded en masse to the English progressive scene.” (Gallo, 1980: 40)

Figure 1: Chronology of Genesis albums through 1977 (U.K. releases)

Although their frontman’s new-found flamboyance was undoubtedly a key factor in Genesis’s sudden rise to stardom, Peter Gabriel — looking back on this period — has insisted that “whatever else was going on in the visual department, our central interest was always … the writing, the composition of the music.” (3) Figure 2 shows the track listing for Foxtrot, along with the CD timings for each track. The lengths of the tracks are telling: with the exception of the brief acoustic guitar prelude Horizons, which opens Side 2, only the second track on Side 1, Time Table, even comes close to the four-minute mark. All of the tracks, moreover, are identified as having been composed jointly by the five band members, a practice that would continue through The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel’s last recording with the group. From a compositional standpoint, Genesis’s working method was not unlike that of many other rock groups then and now: while the initial musical ideas for sections of tracks might well have originated with an individual band member, the working out of these ideas into a finished piece was largely a result of group improvisation. (4) I will offer a detailed analysis of the first and last tracks on Foxtrot, although, in the interest of teasing out those style features that are most important in defining Genesis’s idiolect, I will also relate these tracks along the way to some other key pieces from the group’s early period.

Figure 2: Track listing for Foxtrot

Example 1a shows the beginning of Tony Banks’s signature keyboard introduction to the album’s opening track, Watcher of the Skies: a series of lush, hymn-like “string” chords performed on a Mellotron. (5) Following its mainstream debut in early 1967 as the instrument played by Paul McCartney to create the famous introductory “flute” passage for John Lennon’s Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever, the Mellotron soon became a staple within the arsenal of many progressive rock keyboardists. The Mellotron used a standard keyboard to engage selected banks of magnetic tapes, of actual sustaining orchestral instruments or voices, in between pinch rollers and an elongated capstan rod that pulled the tapes across heads. As each tape was only a few feet long, sounds could be sustained only for about ten seconds before a spring reset the tape with a snap. Mellotrons were notorious for malfunctioning on the road, as one might imagine, but, in the age before digital sampling, they were really the only practical way for the early-70s progressive groups to simulate the sound of a full choir or orchestra in their live performances. (6) Beginning with Trespass, Tony Banks exploited the instrument to its fullest capabilities throughout the early Genesis records, not only to create striking introductions (as in Watcher) but also to add orchestral weight at especially climactic moments in the songs (such as the finale to Supper’s Ready, discussed below).
Let us focus now on the harmonic design of this Mellotron introduction. I will be dwelling on aspects of harmony in Genesis’s music for a large portion of this article, since, perhaps more than any other single musical feature, I would argue that it is Tony Banks’s eclectic harmonic palette, with its frequent chromatic twists and turns, that contributes most markedly to the distinctive "Genesis sound." Over a held pedal tone F-sharp in the left hand, the opening right-hand progression oscillates three times between B major-seventh and C-sharp chords. This suggests an alternating IV7–V progression over a tonic pedal, and yet we are made to wait over two minutes, until the onset of the song’s main groove, for the opening progression to resolve finally to its tonic; instead, the initial swerve away from this opening vamp is to a harmony that is completely unexpected — a B-flat major chord in second inversion (for ease of reading, I have chosen to spell the chord as B-flat major rather than its enharmonic equivalent, A-sharp major [III#], so as to avoid a complicated tangle of double sharps in the spellings of the subsequent chords). Though the effect of this harmonic move is quite abrupt and surprising, its voice leading is actually remarkably smooth: the bass slips down by semitone from F-sharp to F-natural, while, in the upper three parts, the middle voice is held as a common tone (E-sharp, enharmonically respelled as F-natural) as the remaining two voices ascend by step.
Two chords later, a doubly-chromatic mediant progression connects a B-flat minor to a G major triad, which initiates a brief chromaticized descending-fifths sequence leading via C major to an F-sharp major triad. By this point, of course, the introduction has drifted far from the tonic key of F-sharp major suggested by the opening vamp; accordingly, this F-sharp chord in context does not sound like a tonic arrival, but functions instead — however fleetingly — as the dominant chord of B minor. The subsequent progression moves through yet another series of chromatic chords, this time with the uppermost voice held on G-sharp as the lower voices snake up and down by step. I have labeled these chords above the staff according to their roots and quality, but since this progression again seems consciously to defy classical tonal syntax I have not attempted to make a functional harmonic analysis. As Kevin Holm-Hudson explains in a forthcoming article devoted to the subject, such “maximally-smooth” chromatic progressions were an integral feature of Banks’s harmonic language, similar to that of many late-nineteenth century composers, and therefore made “Genesis’s music notably more Romantic — in an authentic sense — than such contemporaries as Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer.” (7) I will have more to say about Banks’s neo-Romantic harmonic language a little later, but, for now, let us move on to consider some other musical aspects of Watcher of the Skies

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