The Prog Rock Holy Trinity, Cont’d, Part Three: Genesis (Revisited)

genesis1

There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.

Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.

And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.

So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone – can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.

Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).

As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.

And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.

For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.

Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)

And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.

Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).

Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.

And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.

There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.

Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.

Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.

Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”

Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.

Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.

In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.

The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.

But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.

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The Prog Rock Holy Trinity, Cont’d, Part Three: Genesis (Revisited)

genesis

There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.

Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.

And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.

So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone – can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.

Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).

As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.

And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.

For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.

Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)

And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.

Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).

Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.

And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.

There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.

Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.

Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.

Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”

Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.

Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.

In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.

The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.

But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant! (Revisited)

RP

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

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Taking It All Too Hard: Unironic Love For Phil Collins (Revisited)

phil-c

After taking on the “holy trinity” of classic era Genesis, wherein Phil Collins arguably got short-shrift (I mean we had to discuss Peter Gabriel!), it seemed appropriate to revisit my piece on PC from three years ago –almost to the day. So yeah, this:

There must be some misunderstanding.

Is he in or out?

(You’ve got to get in to get out…)

Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Genesis was finally –and correctly– inducted into last March (by a very nervous Trey Anastasio).

The question is: has he hung up his sticks forever? Has he set foot on his last stage, never to sing into the mic again?

(Hello, I must be going…)

It’s tough to say, based on the man’s recent remarks.

Earlier this month there were conflicting reports: is he retiring from music to focus on his family, or not? Is it temporary or permanent? And most significant: who cares? Well, I do, of which more shortly.

Last year, due to medical concerns, he disclosed that he was unable to play the drums (inviting wise-ass types to inquire how long it had been since he had played the drums anyway, if he ever did). Due to a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, his hands were affected and presumably that explained the setback. Optimistic fans could assume that once he fully recovered, he could resume his musical aspirations. The bigger question was: did he have any. Considering it was the same year his band was enshrined, it was distressing to see him mention having suicidal thoughts and expressing more ambivalence than pride regarding a career where he shares exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for selling more than a million records with a band and as a solo artist.

Of course, some of this damage was self-inflicted (number one hit or not, you simply cannot write songs like “Against All Odds” or “Just One Night” and not expect some critical blowback, even as you laugh all the way to the bank). But once Genesis effectively closed up shop, somewhere around the end of last century Phil Collins became a living punchline and a go-to guy as shorthand explanation for all that ailed good music. This unfortunate tag was only cemented further into the public consciousness when his music was memorably satirized in American Psycho.

The ridicule and ill-will seemed to have taken their toll, best illustrated by the sensationalistic –and erroneous– headline indicating that Phil Collins has “apologized for his music career” here. For me, the low point was his being (or at least feeling) obliged to suffer the snark and unwarranted condesenscion from this jackass representing our inviolable journalistic institution SPIN. For an exhibit of insufferable disrespect and what passes these days for hipster street-cred, check out this spectacle. Suffice it to say, Collins was/is obviously not in the best of places to suffer a fool that politely, and it hurt to read. Humble and well-mannered in the finest British tradition, he was too tolerant for his own good here and deserves better.

Really, you ask?

Really, I say.

And this is coming from someone who has virtually no love for the entirety of the man’s solo career and who got off the tour bus after the ’83 self-titled release (for me the last good thing they did). Nevertheless, even in the mid-to-late ’80s when Collins was arguably one of the five best-known and best-loved musicians on the planet and made no music I endorsed, I had to appreciate the dude’s superhuman work ethic. (Full disclosure: I was never particularly fond of the soundtrack-ready “In The Air Tonight” so its subsequent ubiquity does not even provide nostalgia for Miami Vice, a show I never cared about.)

For anyone (like that snot-nosed punk from SPIN) who is too young or altogether clueless, it may be surprising to remember how huge Collins was in the mid-’80s. I don’t just mean commercially viable, I mean culturally relevant. Let’s put it this way: it was a big deal when Collins sat in for Led Zeppelin’s set during Live Aid. A huge deal. You can hear the squeals of delight once the cameras pan in on the diminutive dude behind the drum set mid-way into the song (the 6.33 mark for those playing at home), here. As an added bonus, you can revisit –or appreciate for the first time– the spectacle of a sweaty and strung out Jimmy Page drooling and slobbering all over himself: watching now it makes me marvel that the cat is not only alive, but –based on his lucid and insightful participation in the documentary It Might Get Loudwell.

And so: I reckon if no one else is going to do it, it’s up to me to defend Phil Collins.

If some of the more soporific songs don’t hold up well (and sort of sucked, even then), at worst they seem innocuous, certainly in hindsight. And speaking of hindsight, these days I find myself likening pop stars to politicians: the more time that goes by, the better they look compared to their contemporaries.
Interesting, or not, I was just thinking of Collins the other week and this is what I had to say:
A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him.
Listen: thus far we’ve focused on the incarnation of Genesis that featured Phil as vocalist (and his solo work); not enough people understand that back in the day Peter Gabriel was the singer and Collins took care of the drums and percussion (and brilliant backing vocals). In the early-to-mid ’70s Collins was one of the best drummers on the scene, and it’s all there in the albums if you can handle the truth. For that reason alone, Collins should be spared the sort of character assasination we should reserve strictly for Huey Lewis.
Collins, in short, has nothing to apologize for. The only people who need to feel sorry are the suckers who are not acquainted with everything Collins and his mates did during that great decade of the 1970s.
Here are five reminders of why Collins can hold his beautiful bald head high, even if he has decided to hang up his spurs once and for all.
“For Absent Friends” (one of only two songs from the Gabriel era featuring Collins on lead vocals, demonstrating his impeccable falsetto):

“The Carpet Crawlers” (two words: backing vocals bitches):

“Dance on a Volcano”

“No Reply At All”

“Taking It All Too Hard”

)

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The Prog Rock Holy Trinity, Cont’d, Part Three: Genesis

genesis

There are several things that make it challenging to discuss old school Genesis. First, virtually everyone knows and probably prefers the Phil Collins incarnation (or worse, people detest that outfit, which became increasingly hit-friendly and predictable throughout the ‘80s). Second, most folks, except prog fans, are unfamiliar with the albums made when Peter Gabriel fronted the band.

Third, there is the whole Peter Gabriel is God factor. I just made that up, but Peter Gabriel is God: in addition to creating a justly venerated catalog as a solo artist, his more “mature” work gives prog-haters and hipsters an opportunity to dismiss the work he did in his wild and hazy years.

And make no mistake, they were wild and hazy. Gabriel, in his salad days, made acts like Kiss seem restrained. Whether dressed as a flower, or painting his face blue, or else rocking a self-abnegating reverse Mohawk, Gabriel flew his freak flag with more flair and less shame than any lead singer of the era.

So, lest this discussion degenerate into an exegesis on Gabriel (or worse, Collins, as both leaders and solo acts) let it suffice to fairly state that much of Gabriel’s subsequent work has a depth and authority that ‘70s Genesis—or ‘70s anyone – can’t hope to match, while the three albums discussed here boast a brashness, originality and air of experimentation that few rock artists, of any era, have approximated.

Not unlike Yes, Genesis took some time to get their bearings, and it was on their third album that everything clicked. With the exception of King Crimson, who never even dignified the idea of commercial aspirations, Genesis—with the costumes, imaginative but always literate lyrics, unrestrained musicianship—were creative kryptonite for self-serious critics as well as the perverse purists who (still) insist rock music can only be a blue collar, less-is-more homage to the blues it imitated in its infancy. These sorts did not have patience for bands playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking) on stage or in the studio, probably because they were too busy playing with themselves (metaphorically speaking, mostly).

As is typically the case, before the needle even hits the groove you can do a sight test: if the cover art on any of these albums excites your fancy and causes you to appreciate to old-fashioned notion of LPs being works of art in their own right that sought, at their best, to tie together the words, sounds and pictures in a unified, unifying whole, welcome to the soft machine. If you are the type who prefers manufactured photos of a band on the cover, you are probably a traditionalist, and you most likely break out in a rash anytime you hear a mellotron.

And make no mistake, there are all kinds of mellotron on these three albums. Like King Crimson, Genesis had a penchant for invoking other worlds: past ones and imaginary ones. The mellotron, capable of creating such an oddly enchanting effect, now dates these invocations to a specific time (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and these songs can be instantly associated with that era, however strange or exotic. Thus, the debate can rage about whether music that sought to conjure other times can be timeless, or hopelessly dated. The opinion here, obviously, is that they are timeless and dated, which most great art manages to be.

For whatever reason, pretty much all the best progressive rock during these years was created in the UK. Arguably, none of the albums recorded in the early ‘70s, with the possible exception of Jethro Tull’s, boast such a thoroughly British aesthetic and sensibility. And Gabriel, like a good hippy, had absorbed his mythology, fairy tales and science fiction. Where lesser, and lazier wordsmiths parroted bong-watered-down Tolkien or tried to recreate him in their own images, Gabriel wove familiar folk stories into surreal tapestries dense with allegory and emotion.

Listening to Nursery Cryme is not unlike opening a life-size book from another century and walking amongst the people and places described within. On the mini-epics that open and close the album, we get shout-outs to Old King Cole, half-worlds, pipes and bowls (duh), Mt. Ida, Hermaphroditus, Salmacis and… you get the picture. And if you think that is peculiar, consider “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. This is as wonderfully weird as Gabriel ever got, and it also as punk rock as anyone capable of actually playing their instruments pulled off. (Heracleum Mantegazziani, enough said.)

And did we mention that Collins was a bloody brilliant drummer? Seriously. And while we’re at it, the generous support of Steve Hackett (guitars), Michael (not Mike, yet) Rutherford (bass, 12 string guitar, etc.) and especially Tony Banks (all manners of keyboards) is ceaselessly energetic and ideal for the material: exceptionally tight yet sensually expansive. These gentlemen had a vision and conceived sounds that support it seamlessly, like all the best progressive rock does.

Consider “Seven Stones” which, without the mellotron, would be a pressure-packed, scorching rock number. But that mellotron… Gabriel, as always, sings as though his life is on the line, and the interplay between Collins and Banks at the song’s climax ratchets up the intensity to devastating, delirious effect. But, like all the best prog bands, Genesis could balance the aggression with serenity. “For Absent Friends” and “Harlequin” are gorgeous not-quite-ballads, featuring restrained acoustic strumming from Hackett and delightful harmonizing between Gabriel and Collins (“For Absent Friends” is also the first Genesis tune where Collins takes lead vocal).

Special mention must be made for “Harold the Barrel”, an entire tragi-comedy in three minutes, filled with puns, social commentary, blistering satire and, crucially, humor. It also showcases Gabriel’s growing obsession with voices: his songs are stories and his stories have characters and these characters, naturally, have their own distinctive voices. Bonus points for the repeated use of the British expression “Take a running jump”, uttered dismissively by the suicide case… standing on a building ledge. Only Gabriel.

And while the words and compositions are ambitious on Nursery Cryme, they can be regarded as a test run for the quantum leap, lyrically, found on Foxtrot. We get allusions to Keats, Arthur C. Clarke, the sea, the stars, and God… and that’s just in the first song. “Watcher of the Skies” is the only song to ever feature an extended mellotron solo, and it’s a suitably ominous and disorienting way to open this very dark and dense album. Already Gabriel’s lyrical vistas have expanded, and his ever-keen eye for injustice, suffering and squalor is in full effect throughout.

There is also the recurring theme of Nature, man’s relation to it, and the ways the elements, quietly through time or violently through tempest, remind prideful humanity how puny and insignificant it is in the broader context of history. “Time Table” uses a more literal comparison between then and now while “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” uses the King Canute legend as a prescient statement about ecological concerns—and human arrogance.

Gabriel’s voices are given a full and proper platform on “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, which remains notable for both its scope and emotional import. (If “Harold the Barrel” is a screenplay writ small, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” is almost operatic.) But of course, he and the band pulls out all the stops for the side-long uber-epic “Supper’s Ready”. Most fans’ choice as the consummate Genesis song (if not the apotheosis of progressive rock), it is a schizophrenic history of England, through the glass prog-ly: there are theatrics, there is pomposity, there is musical brilliance (obviously), sudden shifts and stopped time, invocations of bucolic pasts, intimations of imminent apocalypse, etc. Everything and the kitchen sink? They even throw in some shit from the neighbor’s house for good measure.

An exhausting, extravagant experience, every time: this is music that demands an opened mind and full attention. It is by its nature abhorrent of half-measures, and that is why certain people love it and others will always loathe it.

Against all reasonable expectation or probability, it got even better. Selling England by the Pound may, at the end of the day, be the single-most satisfying and complete prog rock album. It’s not even perfect (“More Fool Me” is a maudlin vehicle for Collins, a portent of the sap he’d become), but its flaws are minor, and trivial compared to its overall achievement. The other songs range from merely excellent: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe”), “After the Ordeal”, to unbelievable: “The Cinema Show”, “Aisle of Plenty”, to miraculous: “The Battle of Epping Forest”, to simply other: “Firth of Fifth” and especially “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”.

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. The poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time.

Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. As is the case with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Gabriel didn’t actually write all the lyrics, but it’s always fairly easy to ascertain (as with Morrison) which ones he did write.

Each member does career-best work, and the primary players all get a suitable showcase: Hackett serves up a shredfest on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”—and history has correctly noted that his tapping technique provided a template for a young Eddie Van Halen; Banks turns in a piano tour-de-force on “Firth of Fifth” that must have given even Keith Emerson pause; and Gabriel puts his words, voices and every ounce of his showmanship into “The Battle of Epping Forest.”

Regarding the latter, let there be no confusion that this oft-maligned, ill-understood number is an outright masterpiece: every player is at his best (Collins and Rutherford don’t offer rhythmic support so much as hand-to-hand combat, entirely appropriate for the subject matter). Utilizing enough words (he could not contain himself) to fill an entire album, Gabriel pens a prog-rock novella chock full of characters, dialogue and change of scenery.

Of all the work on these three albums, “Epping Forest” includes so many of the elements Gabriel would hone to perfection, first on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and throughout his solo career: the scribe’s eye for detail, the sociologist’s mind for human interaction, the artist’s heart for strife and redemption, the genius’s ability to describe, explain and analyze behavorial phenomena in song, all cut with wit and an acutely self-aware (but not overly self-conscious) British sensibility.

In the final analysis, Selling England by the Pound is the most satisfying and fully realized Genesis recording, a period piece, as mentioned, that invokes the past while being utterly of its time: the elegiac keyboards at the end of “Epping Forest”, for example, invoke a police siren outside a football stadium filtered through a black and white telly in an English pub, circa 1973. It’s elaborate but controlled, far-ranging but focused, and it achieves a unity—in words, sound and especially feeling—that necessarily ranks it near or at the pinnacle of prog rock’s classic period.

The ambition went into overdrive and/or down the rabbit hole on the sprawling, at times impenetrable double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the tensions and demands of recording and performing it eventually prompting Gabriel to strike off on his own. He would make history, Genesis would make a lot of hit records, and four decades later, there is a lot there for everyone to discuss, dissect and treasure.

But for this three album stretch, Genesis evinced as much growth and glory as any of their prog brethren, and the banner they raised still casts a huge and heavy shadow over everything that followed, after the ordeal.

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant! (Revisited)

3/2/2011:

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

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Really Don’t Mind If You Sit This One Out: Understanding Prog-Rock, Part One

 

They don’t make ’em like that no more, literally, figuratively, metaphorically or –especially– sarcastically.

They can’t. For one thing, because they don’t make album covers, or albums, anymore.

Also because that era came and went, and while plenty of folks love and miss it, not nearly enough people are trying to figure out what happened, why it happened, and most importantly, how the hell it happened. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era is not easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with (and when I say “we” I mean disc jockeys –or are they officially MP3 jockeys now? — and fans who actually stop to think about such things) the all-encompassing yet ultimately unsatisfactory moniker of progressive rock which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and…perfect?

Allow me to stand up and be counted without pretense or the tiniest bit of hesitation as an advocate of this music. No shame in that game, nor should there be (Can I Get An Amen?). Saying this signifies little, since I am joined by many millions of likeminded music freaks, happily marinating in a combination of nostalgia, reverence, restlessness and, above all, bliss. The reason, at the end of the day, that so-called classic rock (in general) and progressive rock (in particular) endure is the most simple of all: it delivers the goods. It satisfies the faithful and is entirely capable, on its own without aspiration or interference, of converting new acolytes every single day.

“You had to be there” does not apply when it comes to this music (or any music), and that is the elusive alchemy that best illustrates its staying power. Moments in time, whether artistic, political or social, that are defined or defended by those who took part in them, are necessarily exclusive –not that there is anything wrong with that. Expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down.

To be continued…

(Naturally, there are hundreds of top-notch songs to pick from in an attempt to select an ideal representation of prog-rock. For now, “Watcher of the Skies” by Genesis seems as good as any: it’s from one of the definitive progressive bands at their peak. It features the vocals (and lyrics!) of a very young Peter Gabriel, who used to dress up like flowers on stage. It has the allusions to literature (Keats). It has Phil Collins (listen to him doing work during the song’s epic coda). Most of all, it has mellotron!)

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Taking It All Too Hard: Unironic Love For Phil Collins

There must be some misunderstanding.

Is he in or out?

(You’ve got to get in to get out…)

Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which Genesis was finally –and correctly– inducted into last March (by a very nervous Trey Anastasio).

The question is: has he hung up his sticks forever? Has he set foot on his last stage, never to sing into the mic again?

(Hello, I must be going…)

It’s tough to say, based on the man’s recent remarks.

Earlier this month there were conflicting reports: is he retiring from music to focus on his family, or not? Is it temporary or permanent? And most significant: who cares? Well, I do, of which more shortly.

Last year, due to medical concerns, he disclosed that he was unable to play the drums (inviting wise-ass types to inquire how long it had been since he had played the drums anyway, if he ever did). Due to a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, his hands were affected and presumably that explained the setback. Optimistic fans could assume that once he fully recovered, he could resume his musical aspirations. The bigger question was: did he have any. Considering it was the same year his band was enshrined, it was distressing to see him mention having suicidal thoughts and expressing more ambivalence than pride regarding a career where he shares exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for selling more than a million records with a band and as a solo artist.

Of course, some of this damage was self-inflicted (number one hit or not, you simply cannot write songs like “Against All Odds” or “Just One Night” and not expect some critical blowback, even as you laugh all the way to the bank). But once Genesis effectively closed up shop, somewhere around the end of last century Phil Collins became a living punchline and a go-to guy as shorthand explanation for all that ailed good music. This unfortunate tag was only cemented further into the public consciousness when his music was memorably satirized in American Psycho.

The ridicule and ill-will seemed to have taken their toll, best illustrated by the sensationalistic –and erroneous– headline indicating that Phil Collins has “apologized for his music career”  here. For me, the low point was his being (or at least feeling) obliged to suffer the snark and unwarranted condesenscion from this jackass representing our inviolable journalistic institution SPIN. For an exhibit of insufferable disrespect and what passes these days for hipster street-cred, check out this spectacle. Suffice it to say, Collins was/is obviously not in the best of  places to suffer a fool that politely, and it hurt to read. Humble and well-mannered in the finest British tradition, he was too tolerant for his own good here and deserves better.

Really, you ask?

Really, I say.

And this is coming from someone who has virtually no love for the entirety of the man’s solo career and who got off the tour bus after the ’83 self-titled release (for me the last good thing they did). Nevertheless, even in the mid-to-late ’80s when Collins was arguably one of the five best-known and best-loved musicians on the planet and made no music I endorsed, I had to appreciate the dude’s superhuman work ethic. (Full disclosure: I was never particularly fond of the soundtrack-ready “In The Air Tonight” so its subsequent ubiquity does not even provide nostalgia for Miami Vice, a show I never cared about.)

For anyone (like that snot-nosed punk from SPIN) who is too young or altogether clueless, it may be surprising to remember how huge Collins was in the mid-’80s. I don’t just mean commercially viable, I mean culturally relevant. Let’s put it this way: it was a big deal when Collins sat in for Led Zeppelin’s set during Live Aid. A huge deal. You can hear the squeals of delight once the cameras pan in on the diminutive dude behind the drum set mid-way into the song (the 6.33 mark for those playing at home),  here. As an added bonus, you can revisit –or appreciate for the first time– the spectacle of a sweaty and strung out Jimmy Page drooling and slobbering all over himself: watching now it makes me marvel that the cat is not only alive, but –based on his lucid and insightful participation in the documentary It Might Get Loudwell.

And so: I reckon if no one else is going to do it, it’s up to me to defend Phil Collins.

If some of the more soporific songs don’t hold up well (and sort of sucked, even then), at worst they seem innocuous, certainly in hindsight. And speaking of hindsight, these days I find myself likening pop stars to politicians: the more time that goes by, the better they look compared to their contemporaries.
Interesting, or not, I was just thinking of Collins the other week and this is what I had to say:
A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him.
Listen: thus far we’ve focused on the incarnation of Genesis that featured Phil as vocalist (and his solo work); not enough people understand that back in the day Peter Gabriel was the singer and Collins took care of the drums and percussion (and brilliant backing vocals). In the early-to-mid ’70s Collins was one of the best drummers on the scene, and it’s all there in the albums if you can handle the truth. For that reason alone, Collins should be spared the sort of character assasination we should reserve strictly for Huey Lewis.
Collins, in short, has nothing to apologize for. The only people who need to feel sorry are the suckers who are not acquainted with everything Collins and his mates did during that great decade of the 1970s.
Here are five reminders of why Collins can hold his beautiful bald head high, even if he has decided to hang up his spurs once and for all.
 
 “For Absent Friends” (one of only two songs from the Gabriel era featuring Collins on lead vocals, demonstrating his impeccable falsetto):

 

“The Carpet Crawlers” (two words: backing vocals bitches):

“Dance on a Volcano”

“No Reply At All”

“Second Home By The Sea”

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant!

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

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