Genesis – Foxtrot – 10/6/1972

Genesis was heavily involved in the genesis (he-he…) of what’s termed “progressive rock.” By the early 70s, rock and roll had been around long enough that it needed to be stretched to keep the audience (and the musicians) from getting bored. Some wanted specifically to expand rock’s artistic credibility and give it more weight. Bands like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer took disparate influences like jazz and classical and combined them with rock to create a little Frankenstein’s monster, but that was only the beginning. Simple as that may sound, it’s actually very complex.

Prog rock is less of a categorically distinct genre as it is a collection of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. Some rock musicians are just stranger than others, and their influences include some pretty far-reaching stuff. Some concomitants include odd time signatures like 7/8 or 13/8, frequent changes in time signature as well as tempo and key, songs that don’t fit the blues standard of verse-chorus-verse, and weird musical instruments or weird things done with standard ones.

But perhaps the most notable quirk of prog rock, at least from this period of the early to mid 70s, is lyrics that draw from mythology, fantasy and science fiction. And the best at this, bar none, was Genesis. While Chuck Berry was singing about his ding-a-ling, they had out songs about a magic box that rapidly aged the person who opened it, giant intelligent plants that wanted to destroy the human race, and the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. And their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a colossally strange odyssey through weirdness after weirdness that’s like a cross between Larry Niven and William S. Burroughs.

The album Foxtrot is a prime example of what makes prog what it is, particularly the lead-off track “Watcher of the Skies.” It starts with dramatic organ sounds; doomy chords being played with no sense of tempo or rhythm, hitting you like a sledgehammer with every change. After the 90 second keyboard intro, the volume drops and then slowly builds back up; I thought something was wrong with my CD the first several times I heard it. But it’s only so the drums and guitar can build to a towering inferno from the lightly nervous tone they start out on.

Guitar player Steve Hackett performs a mighty feat with this song, hard-charging and vicious in his rhythm parts, blistering in his solos. Phil’s drums beat out a merciless barrage of notes that never lets you get comfortable, despite the song being in the fairly standard time signature of 6/8. Tony Banks drives the song on keys, though he occasionally sounds like the organist at a baseball game.

The lyrics are about a space alien who comes to a post-apocalyptic Earth, one where humans are extinct and the cities are just wasted ruins, returning to nature. Frontman Peter Gabriel wrote them while the band was on tour. One morning he woke up in his hotel room and looked out the window to see a barren landscape, one where he couldn’t imagine there being any life. It was like he was the only person on the planet, looking down on a world that once was, but is not anymore.

Peter is one foxy lady… get it?

With Foxtrot, Peter Gabriel started something that was a Genesis standard all the time Peter was with the band: costumes. Its genesis (okay, I’ll stop now) was with the cover for Foxtrot, which featured a woman in a red dress with a fox’s head. Paul Whitehead, the artist for every Genesis album from 1970’s Trespass until Foxtrot, suggested half-jokingly that they should have a woman with a fox’s head on stage with them. Peter heard that and thought, “well, if anyone’s gonna be on stage on costume, it’s gonna be me!”  He then appeared on stage in a red dress wearing a huge plaster fox’s head; he didn’t even tell his bandmates he was going to do it.

Other costumes soon followed, like the bat-hat for “Watcher of the Skies,” a centurion for “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” the Magog costume for “Apocalypse In 9/8,” and his most famous get-up, the flower mask for “Willow Farm.”

If scholars a century in the future were teaching students about progressive rock, and they had to pick one song that crystallizes most of the peculiarities of the genre (without being close to half an hour long), that song might be “Watcher of the Skies.” It’s one of Genesis’ best songs, and though a fan and concert favorite, it’s far from being their most famous. In my mind, however, it perfectly captures what I love about Peter-era Genesis.

Next: an announcement from Genetic Control.