Category: Foxtrot

“How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,”  the fourth section of “Supper’s Ready,” is quiet and sibilant, almost rhythm-less due to the absence of any percussion. It ends without resolution, and then the fifth section jarringly crashes in like the Kool-Aid man barreling through the wall. “Willow Farm” is conspicuously opposite of the section before it – loud, bizarre and madness-driven. Peter Gabriel sings with just a hint of insanity. When “Willow Farm” is performed live, Peter’s showmanship is cranked to 11; he struts around the stage wearing his famous flower mask, his head made to look like the stigma. The music reminds me of a demented carnival, and the lyrics have a Lewis Carroll-like childishness to them, sort of like a Cockney rhyming scheme. “There’s Winston Churchill dressed in drag! He used to be a British flag! Plastic bag! What a drag!”

As to what the song is about, its twisted logic makes it difficult to discern. As far as I can tell, it’s about a sort of camp or retreat center like a fat farm, where people pay to go and be morphed into something else – fat to skinny, man to woman, animal to plant, living to dead and back again. Willow Farm is like a psychotic Jenny Craig’s. It’s Peter Gabriel’s first exploration of the transmutation of things (changing from one form to another), which will be a centerpiece of Genesis’ 1974 concept album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

“Supper’s Ready,” being Genesis’ greatest musical achievement, has as its subject the biggest topic they’ve tackled yet – the end of the world and the salvation of mankind, a parallel to the book of Revelation with a Genesis flare. While we’ve had hints of it previously, this motif gets its grandest and most high-stakes treatment with the next section, “Apocalypse In 9/8.”

Peter Gabriel as Magog

It starts on an eerie tone with a flute solo from Peter, the second on this track. In the live performances, however, the solo is played on a synthesizer while Peter goes backstage to don another of his most famous costumes, Magog. “Apocalypse In 9/8” is filled with tension that’s simply electric, briught on by it being played in not one but two time signatures. Most of the band is playing in 9/8, like the title indicates, but Tony Banks is playing the keyboards in 4/4. The entire band is playing at the same tempo, but thanks to mathematics, Phil, Steve and Mike get more and more out of step with Tony. For the first 8 beats, it’s all cool, but by the 9th beat, Tony is already moving on to the beginning of the third measure while the rest of the band is just finishing up their first. But thankfully, math works like a circle, so eventually they come to a place where they’re all finishing their current measure at the same time.

I can sense your eyes glazing over, so I’ll move on – no need to thank me.

“dragons coming out of the sea”

Anyway, this section features imagery pulled (for the most part) directly from the book of Revelation. Magog, seven trumpets, dragons from the sea, and 666 are all references to that book of the Bible. Now, the lovers from the first part have come to where all the secrets are revealed, which is what the word apocalypse means.

“Apocalypse In 9/8” has the subtitle “Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet.” Much has been made of this over the years (who is this Gabble Ratchet, and what makes his talents so delicious?), allow me to put it to rest. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Gabble Ratchet is not a person at all but another name for Gabriel’s Hounds, which is really just another name for wild geese.  You heard right. Legend says that the sound wild geese make is actually the souls of unbaptised children. Genesis uses a Mellatron sound effect of wild geese at the end of instrumental piece right before the second verse of “Apocalypse In 9/8.” Gabriel’s Hounds sharing a name with Peter Gabriel doesn’t hurt, too.

“Lord of Lords, King of Kings, has returned to lead His children home, to take them to the New Jerusalem”

Finally, there’s chimes and a drum roll, and a refrain of the chorus from “Lover’s Leap,” heralding the seventh and final section, “AS Sure As Eggs is Eggs (Aching Men’s Feet).” This is the completion of the cycle, and the final victory of good over evil. Evil has been having its day ever since “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man,” but the Lord of Lords and King of Kings has finally returned, with absolute certainty, as sure as eggs is eggs. “Aching Men’s Feet” is yet another Cockney rhyme, this one meaning “making ends meet.” The music uses the melody of “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man” in a more victorious and operatic motif. And thus, “Supper’s Ready” ends, 23 minutes after it started, with God taking his children to the New Jerusalem.

With a song as thick with imagery as this, me interpreting it for you would be (1) a mammoth task that would require its own blog, and (2) taking all the fun out of it for you. After all, this is one of the joys of music, and poetry, and paintings, and any kind of art: the ability of spectators to take part in the act of creation by creating their own interpretation. So now I’ve laid it out for you; have fun.

Next: You think 23 minutes is long? You ain’t seen nothin’…

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!

Ages Past

Tables have perfect memories, so it’s a shame they don’t have voices. They have a complete and inerrant record of a family’s life, but no way of expressing it. The simple act of sharing a meal at a table binds and unites us, breaks down our walls, and makes us a little more of a family. Seriously, if you want fellowship with another person, sit at a table with them, and have food in front of you.

This is something Genesis understood, I think. The second track on Foxtrot is a song called “Time Table,” which speaks of “a carved oak table” that played host to kings and queens who “sipped wine from goblets gold.” Ages have passed, the kings and queens are dead and gone, and yet the table remains. The etchings left by all the dings and scratches over time tell a rich story, if only one would imagine it.

“Time Table” has more meaning than just that, however. It’s also a critique on the tendency among humans to start a noble enterprise and ruin it through gradual neglect. The kings and queens who sat at this table were valorous and honorable, high-born and deserving of their station. However, they solved their problems through violence, the simplest and least effective way possible. Who was right depended on who had the biggest lance or the sharpest sword, and who was last standing on the battlefield. Eventually, the ideals that made them kings and queens in the first place are forgotten.

The chorus asks why people kill each other over the belief that their people group (the song uses the language “race”) is superior. The answer the song gives, I think, is insufficient; it boils down to “that’s the way it’s always been.”

King Cnut

The most interesting thing about “Time Table” is its positioning right after “Watcher of the Skies.” We have a futuristic vision of a world where humans are extinct, and then a rewind into what made the humans go extinct: their own ignorance and infighting. “Time Table” takes us through history to a time when “only the rats hold sway,” which is perhaps the very time that the Watcher arrives on earth. I like to think “Time Table” is told from the first-person perspective of the main character of “Watcher of the Skies.”

The characters presented in “Time Table,” those kings and queens who perished in arrogance, could take a lesson from Cnut, King of England in 11th century A.D., and subject of the fourth track on Foxtrot, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners.” King Cnut’s name is sometimes spelled Canute, which is probably where “Can-Utility” comes from.  The Coastliners would be his courtiers the rest of his royal court. Honestly, I’ve always thought “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” sounded kind of like a cover band of 50+ guys who didn’t play anything made later that 1964.

The story which the lyrics lay out comes from history, or at least records from such antiquarian historians as Goscelin and Henry of Huntingdon. Some of it may have never happened. King Cnut was being flattered uproariously by his courtiers, as kings usually are. In some cultures, kings were treated as gods or divine avatars. If a person is told a lie enough times and often enough, they’ll start to believe it.

So King Cnut took his throne and his courtiers down to the beach at Southampton, planted his throne at the water’s edge and commanded the tide to halt. As we in our modernity can imagine, the tide did not halt. In the words of Henry of Huntingdon, “…it dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’”

The “Him” Cnut was referring to was of course God. After that, he took of his crown and hung it on a crucifix, never to put it on again. This was a sign to all the people to fear God, not the king. Some historians recast Cnut as a much wiser man, knowing that the waves wouldn’t obey his command to stop, but staged the whole thing to rebuke his courtiers and their profuse flattery.

Genesis tell this story with much grandiosity, matched only by their obscurity. It took me a lot of digging to figure out what the heck “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” means. But the song is great art, the lyrics particularly highlighting the irony of a man pretending he’s God. The lines “crown him, crown him” remind me of the old hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” which is probably exactly where my mind was meant to go.

Then comes the vinyl flip and the short guitar instrumental “Horizons,” written by its sole performer, guitarist Steve Hackett. It’s very pretty, ethereal and pastoral. Genesis has a reputation of doing songs like this, with their previous 3 albums being riddled with finger-picked 12-string acoustic guitars. The fact that “Horizons” is the only song like it on the whole of Foxtrot says something. You can repeat the past, but only for a little while.

Next: get on your bibs, people, because Supper’s Ready.


As a kid, I had a pretty active imagination. I used to spend summers in our backyard and the forest beyond imagining scenarios in a fantasy world. My main sources of influence were sci-fi movies and the Final Fantasy video game franchise. I used LEGOs to construct my own Final Fantasy game when I was 9 or 10, with a host of main characters and villains, and an entire plotline and arc, all of my own creation… with some blatant ripping-off of things I’d seen in movies.

One scenario involved some felled trees in the forest beyond my house, all piled on each other right beyond a ridge. I could walk to the ridge and then climb down onto the trees, descending into what looked like a pit. In reality, it was only about 4 feet deep, the pit that was created by the trees, but I imagined it to be bottomless, or a portal into some other dimension, à la Narnia. What sorts of hellish things awaited me there?

Kids should be allowed to pursue their imaginations wherever they lead them, because those imaginations invariably dry up as they get older.

Perhaps I got into Genesis because they fostered and stimulated my imagination. Or perhaps my imagination is the size and shape it is now because of Genesis and their influence. Perhaps both. One of the things Genesis’ music does, and indeed that all progressive rock artists do, is present a richer and more robust narrative than other forms of music. Sometimes music lulls you into an inactivity of the mind, and that has its place, but prog stimulates you; it makes your mind move.

My mind really moved when I first heard “Get ‘Em Out By Friday.” I was about 14 at the time, and starting to consciously develop my writer’s mind. “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” totaling at over 8 minutes, is a play of sorts, the lead singer using multiple voices to represent different characters much like the reader of an audiobook. It was the first one I had heard, as my musical pursuits were previously more tame.

“Get ‘Em Out By Friday” was difficult musically, since it really took every cliché about progressive rock and amplified it. It put me off at first, but the lyrics drew me back in; they were fascinating. You have the first character named John Pebble, a high-ranking businessman with Styx Enterprises, who wants the tenants of the town of Harlow (which I imagined to be a fictional place) to leave. He sends his underling Mark Hall, known as “The Winkler,” to coax them out of their homes.

In Greek myth, Charon the Ferryman would escort souls across the River Styx to the Underworld

What insidious purpose does Styx Enterprises have for displacing the residents of Harlow? Of course, I was familiar with Styx – yes, as a 70s rock band, but first as a river bordering the Underworld that if you touched the water you would die a horrible death. Because Pebble and the Winkler’s company was called Styx, its purposes couldn’t be good. Mrs. Barrow, a tenant of Harlow, even offered to pay double the rent, which the Winkler only laughed at. Obviously, they have some strange goal in mind other than money. In my mind, strangeness and nefariousness usually go hand in hand when you’re talking about corporations.

But the song itself doesn’t say why they want them out… until a little later. There’s a passage of time until 2012 (which in 1972 must have seemed a long way off). Peter comes back with an “Announcement from Genetic Control.” They are now imposing a four foot restriction on humanoid height.

Kinda hard to take seriously, right? My mind first rejected it as silly and a little embarrassing, especially with Gabriel’s exaggerated vocal histrionics. But then almost instantly, the scene changes to “Joe Everybody” in an anonymous pub talking about the directors of Genetic Control getting into the property and housing business, limiting the physical height of people to fit more of them into a single building site.

Then, a return to the original musical motif, with the return of John Pebble, now knighted and in charge of a new, bigger corporation. In a repeat of the cycle, he sends the Winkler to muscle out more tenants. The song ends with a memo from someone even higher up, a “Satin Peter,” about Earth, Heaven and the church. Could this be a plot that the planet Earth is only tangentially involved in? Could this be a bigger conspiracy than we, the audience, even imagined?

A block of flats with central heating…

My writer’s mind went down numerous avenues, taking the somewhat incomplete elements of “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” and running with them. But to Peter Gabriel, the writer and originator, “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” is a lot simpler. It’s merely about the British public housing situation in the 60s and 70s. “Winkler” is a British term for someone who did the very thing Mark Hall did in the song, who convinces tenants to move through charm, cash and sometimes intimidation. Genetic Control, the “Satin Peter” thing (Satin = Satan), and even the closing lyric of “invest in the church for your heaven” were all meant as insinuations of government housing officials’ greed knowing no end.

Well, I didn’t know about that kind of stuff when I was 14, and still find it pretty confusing. Honestly, I like my outlandish Atlas Shrugged meets X-Files explanation for “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” better.

Next: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”


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.