Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976
Genesis's Foxtrot (*)
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.”
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.
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.