In 1973, Peter Gabriel was concerned about including some sort of English conceit in the title of Genesis’s next album. He was aware that there was a sentiment among their English fandom that they were getting too American. I’m not really sure what that looks like, but I think I can imagine what getting too British might be. If Bruce Springsteen were to suddenly take an interest in cricket or start saying “bloody hell” in more than an ironic sense, I might get suspicious.
In reaction, Peter and the rest of Genesis doubled down and made their 1973 record Selling England By the Pound particularly and conspicuously British. The cover art was by a British painter, the first two songs had a British feel to the lyrics, and the title both had “England” in it and was drawn from a contemporary English political slogan. There ya go – English fans sated.
13 months later, that concern was apparently all gone. Just as their 5th album had “England” in the title, their 6th had “Broadway” in the title. What American isn’t familiar with Broadway? And just as Selling England featured Britain and British attitudes, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway centers on New York City and things Americans understand. The main character of this concept album lives in Manhattan! The story starts in Times Square! If Gabriel is still trying to soothe his British fans into thinking he’s still British, he’s doing a really crappy job.
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a concept album, which as I’ve explained before is a mostly useless term. In The Lamb, however, it finds its most useful definition, as well as other albums like it. The term “rock opera” better describes The Lamb and other albums like it (Quadrophenia and Tommy from The Who, Snow by Spock’s Beard, The Hazards of Love from the Decemberists, as well as the multiple Amory Wars albums by Coheed and Cambria). They do more than simply tell a story – Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust do that, but they’re not really in the same division as rock operas.
The Lamb is one of the only rock operas I like. The rock opera is fraught with peril – when you write one, you’re balancing on the razor edge between legitimate and ridiculous. What’s meant to be serious can very easily come off as stupid. The slightest miscalculation on your part, and your audience becomes aware it’s all a show, and starts to laugh. When that happens, you’ve lost them. It’s like a marionette show – the best ones are the ones where you can’t see the strings.
On The Lamb, Genesis plays some pretty risky games with plot and characterization (like the only cure to a horribly disfiguring disease being castration…), but it comes out clean on the other end due to… I’m not really sure what. The only explanation I can come up with for my high regard for it is that I first experienced it when I was a teenager, after my gaga-for-Genesis phase, but before I became a really critical thinker. I still swallowed some things whole, and Genesis still had that sugary candy coating. And I guess it’s still there in my stomach, unlike most other rock operas which sped through my system quite quickly.
But I also love The Lamb because it’s so fascinating. Every inch of it takes deep analysis and concentrated study to understand, and even then you only scratch the surface. In that way, it’s very similar to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; isn’t it ironic that what draws me in about The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is the same thing that keeps me at arms’ length from “The Waste Land”?
Next: Rael, Imperial Aerosol Kid