Music can’t be completely pinned down to an objective perspective, much as we may try. Songs hit people in different ways because no one is in exactly the same place as anybody else. But as subjective a pursuit as music is, there are some things that remain as true as 2+2=4. One of them is this: Genesis’ best song is “Supper’s Ready.”

Longplayer being played

That’s kind of an ironic statement when you consider that “Supper’s Ready” is actually more like seven different songs all strung together. As such, it totals out at almost 23 minutes. It’s cited among the world’s longest pop songs, along with songs by Dream Theater, Jethro Tull and Valient Thorr. But if it’s pure length you want, and don’t care about the song having a shred of musicality, look to Longplayer. Not strictly a song by any particular music group, it’s more of a compositional project started by composter Jem Finer. It started playing at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1999, and will continue uninterrupted until the final moment of the year 2999. Bet you can’t dance to it, though…

Starting with the tour after their previous album, Nursery Cryme, Peter Gabriel would intro some of their more epic songs with a story: a prose composition of his own creation, sometimes having nothing to do with the song itself. The story was bizarre, funny or off-putting, often all three, and would end with a segue into the song. The story for “Supper’s Ready” was among Gabriel’s weirder; it involved earthworms coming up from underground because they think it’s raining (it’s actually just a naked man drumming on the ground), and getting eaten by birds, for whom “the supper is ready!”

Just listening to “Supper’s Ready” is a mammoth undertaking; it’s best if you don’t have a lot of distractions. It’s meant to be listened to all at once, so a small time commitment is necessary, and it’s definitely not ideal for background music. Listening to it in the car is fine, but not with passengers. It also will require more than one listen to really understand, but you shouldn’t just put it on repeat – for one thing, that will eat up at least close to an hour.

I know, I know – I’m not selling this very well. The truth is, I can’t. “Supper’s Ready” isn’t easily digestible like other pop songs. It requires patience and resolution. But if you don’t mind, I’ll hold out hope that the modern music listener still knows what those are.

Given its length, I was expecting it to have a long build-up like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” but it jumps right into the action with the first section, “Lover’s Leap.” While Steve, Mike and Tony all play an eerie/folksy arpeggio part of 12-string acoustic guitars, Peter sings with double-tracked vocals about an actual experience he had one night with his then wife Jill, and Genesis producer John Anthony. The three of them were having a conversation when Jill had some sort of possession experience – she started talking in a different, otherworldly voice. Peter thought he saw another face superimposed on Jill’s and held up a makeshift cross (a candlestick and something else), and Jill reacted violently, scaring the crap out of the other two. They eventually calmed her down and put her to bed, but neither Peter nor John slept a wink.

Another part of the lyrics come from an experience Peter had while at his wife’s parents’ house, where he looked out on the lawn late at night and thought he saw seven robed and hooded figures marching across it. Amazingly, he had this experience with no drugs or alcohol in his system. That time where Jill got possessed, the three of them were staying up late, but no drugs or drinking was involved there, either.

That rather straightforward story ends with a chorus that indicates the song’s name with “hey babe, your supper’s waiting for you.” The 12-string guitars continue in a hypnotic, cloud-like reverie, and Tony goes to his organ and plays a solo. That progression segues seamlessly into the second section, “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man.” Five and a half minutes into the song, this is where it really starts to pick up. It turns from an ethereal dreamscape to a grandiose anthem with a sing-along chorus, despite its rather awkward title and tagline.

The main character of this section is a “fireman who looks after the fire.” He’s a sort of anti-Christ figure, a charismatic Messiah who makes wild promises of salvation and commands the attention of many kinds of people. He’s the leader of a high-brow scientific religion that demands complete devotion, basically the definition of a cult. Scientology, anyone? The lyrical imagery is astounding, cramming a great amount into just a few minutes.

Steve Hackett doin’ his thang

After that comes a sudden stop, a flute solo from Peter, and the third section, “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men.” The music picks up even more, becoming a full-fledged rock song. It even has a bitchin’ guitar solo that features Steve Hackett doing tapping, a full six years before Eddie Van Halen ripped it off. The lyrics talk of a great battle, presumably from the point of view of the army of this Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man. This starting to sound like the book of Revelation, a concept we get even surer of as the song goes on. Meanwhile, our lovers watch as this battle progresses, ending in victory for this Band of Merry Men.

There’s a brief pause with the next section, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,” which is no more than a delayed guitar effect and Peter’s soft vocals. The title is a reference to Narcissus, a figure from Greek myth that fell in love with his reflection and didn’t want to stop staring at it; he died of starvation. The battle of the previous section has left only chaotic and smoking ruins and a mountain of dead bodies, but a lone figure remains, staring into a pool at his own reflection. His existence begs the question: who is to take responsibility for a defeated army after they’re defeated? If no one takes responsibility, what will they become? …A flower?

More on “Supper’s Ready” and what happened to Narcissus after he became a flower… tomorrow!

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