Fifty years later, Genesis’ art-rock triumphs are still finding new fans

genesis interview

Genesis members Peter Gabriel, right, and Mike Rutherford, in concert in 1973.

The stage was dark at Philharmonic Hall in New York, except for a single fluorescent tube at the feet of a bat-winged singer with green glowing eyes. He stared out at the crowd, motionless, as the opening song, “Watcher of the Skies,” began with an eerie swirl of mellotron chords. Slowly, a morse-code rhythm kicked in and the horror show intro gave way to a tale of an abandoned planet, laced with ethereal keyboards and warlike drumming.

Genesis made a dramatic entrance during their first United States shows in 1972. The band — then a five-piece ensemble with Peter Gabriel on vocals and Phil Collins on drums — was promoting their fourth album, Foxtrot.

They had no hits, no glossy magazine covers and sparse radio airplay. But their costume-laden concerts were catching on overseas, so they made a quick trip to the U.S. for the New York gig, a Christmas concert sponsored by WNEW-FM and benefiting the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. They also played a warmup date at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

These days, Genesis is best known as a band that reigned over the Top 40 during the ’80s and ’90s, producing such singalong anthems as “Invisible Touch,” “I Can’t Dance” and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.” A decade before they became an MTV staple, however, the group was exploring the outer limits of progressive rock and experimenting with performance art. Thanks to the internet, new fans are discovering this whole other side of the band and reveling in their epic songcraft.

Rick Atkinson reviewed the 1972 New York show for the Bergen Record newspaper; he was moonlighting as a rock critic while studying at Drew University in Madison. Months after the concert, he interviewed Genesis in New York, becoming one of the first American journalists to talk to them.

CLIVE ARROWSMITH

Genesis shared this vintage photo of Peter Gabriel to Facebook in February, when Gabriel turned 72.

Atkinson says he knew he was witnessing the birth of a supergroup at Philharmonic Hall.

“It was stunning,” says Atkinson. “People had not seen a show like this before. You had the costuming and the lights and it was not just that this was a visual spectacle. You actually got stuff out of the lyrics that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise because Peter Gabriel was basically acting out the songs. Everyone walked out buzzing.”

In his review, Atkinson praised Gabriel’s enthralling stage presence, noting he could “absolutely shut down” shock rocker Alice Cooper.

“Unlike many singers, Gabriel realizes you do not have to move constantly to control the crowd,” Atkinson wrote. “Often, he stands completely still in front of the microphone with his hands crossed over his chest. The sight of Gabriel posed like that singing lyrics about a girl named Cynthia beheading a playmate named Henry is awe-inspiring.”

Almost 50 years to the day after the band’s Philharmonic Hall debut, Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett will return to the area, performing progressive faves from the Foxtrot era. He’ll play the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Dec. 6, the Tarrytown Music Hall, Dec. 7; the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa., Dec. 8; and the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts on Long Island, Dec. 10.

Although Genesis recently completed a farewell tour entitled the Last Domino, Hackett is carrying the torch because he feels the songs shouldn’t be retired. There are also tribute bands like the Musical Box and ReGenesis that specialize in reenacting the band’s theatrics.

The Musical Box is bringing a full production of the Genesis rock opera, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” to the Palladium Times Square in New York, June 16-17, and the Tarrytown Music Hall, June 19.

Hackett says the costumery began on the Foxtrot Tour as a way to hold the audience’s attention through long songs with wild mood swings. The album closer, “Supper’s Ready” clocks in at nearly 23 minutes, building from a plaintive ballad into a roaring story of the apocalypse.

The cover of Genesis’ 1972 album, “Foxtrot.”

One night in Dublin, early in the 1972 tour, Gabriel surprised his bandmates by taking the stage in a fake fox head and his wife’s red dress, replicating the gowned animal featured on the album cover.

Gabriel did this at a time when few bands were dressing up in concert. Kiss didn’t exist, Alice Cooper was just getting started and David Bowie introduced his Ziggy Stardust character the same year that Foxtrot was released.

“What Pete was doing was extraordinary,” says Hackett. “It was the reason we got written about and photographed. Up till then, people were just disappearing off to the bar. Without presentation, this music doesn’t really work. Because of all the changes and complexity, you need lights, you need everything the budget and the personnel are prepared to throw at it.”

Five decades later, that combination of intricate music and dark theatrics remains unique in rock history. The success of Foxtrot emboldened the band to get even more ambitious with their next two albums, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. They also amped up the extravagance of the stage shows, with flywire stunts and latex monster suits.

The live act set them apart from contemporaries like King Crimson and Yes, says David Weigel, author of “The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.”

“Genesis was identified early on as the band with the lead singer that would put on the costumes,” says Weigel. “Even King Crimson, who I love, they have the early light show, but the King Crimson that people are familiar with, it’s like, ‘Here are some men onstage.’ If you’re Rick Wakeman, you have a cape. They were not as flamboyant as Genesis.”

This phase of Genesis was short-lived — Gabriel quit in 1975 and Hackett left two years later — but it had an indelible impact on music. Rockers from Rush and Queen to Van Halen and Iron Maiden have cited the band as an influence. Radiohead’s mellotron-driven OK Computer was inspired by Genesis. Phish covered “Watcher of the Skies” when Genesis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

LEE MILLWARD

STEVE HACKETT

The band’s early work has always been beloved by prog adherents, but a new audience is embracing vintage Genesis online. Classics like “Supper’s Ready” are being shared via reaction videos, as listeners capture themselves experiencing the band’s rollercoaster songs for the first time. Concert clips of Gabriel’s Grand Guignol theatrics have millions of YouTube views. (see videos below)

“Things like the most progressive period of Genesis are now so alien that there’s fresh appreciation of them,” says Weigel. “Peter Gabriel later in life is kind of jokey about it. He’d make fun of how pretentious they could be, whereas I’m going, ‘This is incredible. How come every time I see a band, it’s five guys in T-shirts playing a three-minute song?’ When I think of the pomp and the design, the only artists I see who do that, it’s stuff like Kanye West wearing the masks, having the house onstage, setting himself on fire.”

Hackett is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Foxtrot on the road, performing full albums with a five-piece band featuring vocalist Nad Sylvan, who sings both Gabriel and Collins-fronted songs. In December, they’ll play Seconds Out, a live album with faves like “Supper’s Ready,” “Firth of Fifth,” “The Carpet Crawlers” and “Dance on a Volcano.” They are returning to the United States next year to perform Foxtrot in its entirety.

While Hackett’s shows don’t feature costumes, the Musical Box recreates the whole spectacle. The Canadian tribute band not only got Genesis’ blessing to perform The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, they inherited the original slideshow used on tour. Singer Denis Gagné spent two months working on a replica of Gabriel’s most outlandish costume, known as the Slipperman, a latex suit with an inflatable crotch and an oversized head covered in boils.

“Nothing like this is done today and there’s still a demand for this kind of music,” says Gagné. “We use exactly what Genesis used onstage because we want to be a time machine, bringing people back to 1974. The Slipperman costume isn’t fun to wear. I’m basically a mascot in this heavy suit, but it’s fun to watch the reaction of the crowd seeing the Slipperman for the first time.”

From left, Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford.

Atkinson was correct in predicting Genesis would become a chart-topping supergroup, but their biggest commercial success followed a pop makeover. After Gabriel and Hackett left to pursue solo careers, the three remaining members ditched the costumes and simplified the songwriting. Collins stepped in as lead vocalist, backed by guitarist Mike Rutherford and keyboardist Tony Banks. During the ’80s and ’90s, the trio had 22 hits in the Billboard Hot 100 including “Land of Confusion,” “In Too Deep” and “No Reply at All.”

As a solo artist, Gabriel followed his own path to pop stardom, with nine Billboard Hot 100 singles including “In Your Eyes,” “Sledgehammer” and “Shock the Monkey.” Five of Hackett’s solo records reached the Billboard 200 album charts and he had classical crossover success with 2019’s Genesis Revisited Band & Orchestra: Live, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in London with a 42-piece orchestra.

Progressive rock has historically been stigmatized as pompous music for a niche fan base. That is changing thanks to the internet, according to Hackett. He says the crowds at his shows are growing more diverse.

“It used to be that this was almost exclusively for a male, middle-aged audience, but it’s becoming much more balanced and the dots are connecting,” says Hackett. “People like that dynamic of something starting quietly and getting louder and louder and fuller and fuller until the walls of the city shake. I’ve always invested in the idea of music that’s full of surprises so people don’t know where it’s going.”

Weigel often plays Foxtrot for the uninitiated, to help explain why he’s so fixed on music from 50 years ago. He typically starts with “Watcher of the Skies.”

“I’m like, ‘Just listen to the craft here,’ ” says Weigel. ” ‘Listen to this build up, how you are being brought into this very unsettling sonic world and then all of the sudden, the drums get louder and louder.’ The hook for the non-covert is always, ‘You know the guy who sings the Tarzan theme? That’s the guy doing this.’ ”

The cover of Genesis’ “Nursery Cryme” album.

From the beginning, Genesis was pushing the symphonic rock envelope, with a mix of classically trained and self-taught musicians. Hackett and Collins were latecomers, replacing the band’s original guitarist and drummer. They made their debut on Nursery Cryme, released in 1971.

Nursery Cryme features one of the band’s signature songs, “Musical Box,” a 10-minute ghost story about a boy who is killed playing croquet with his friend Cynthia. He turns into a vengeful old spirit lusting after Cynthia but is dispatched by the girl’s nurse, who throws a music box at him.

When Genesis convened to write Foxtrot, they wanted to up the ante on long-form songwriting a la “Musical Box.”

“Foxtrot” has just six tracks but it’s 51 minutes of headphone theater, packed with mind-bending instrumentation and fantastical storytelling. There are moments of lilting folk, angular jazz, wrecking ball rock and vaudevillian camp.

The band poured everything into “Supper’s Ready,” a seven-section song that closes the album. It was developed via jam sessions and long nights indulging in beer and wine and Earl Grey tea, according to Hackett.

Hackett knew they had created something remarkable but doubted if their record label, Charisma, would ever release “Supper’s Ready.” He remembers playing the song for label owner Tony Stratton-Smith.

“I thought he was gonna say, ‘Well, you can forget about your recording contract,’ ” says Hackett. ” ‘You’ve gone too far this time. What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ Instead of that, he said, ‘I think it’s absolutely incredible.’ That was the first benediction, the first real acceptance of this being heard outside the band.”

THE MUSICAL BOX

The band The Musical Box is shown re-creating Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” show.

Not everyone was won over by Foxtrot, Hackett says. The band flopped at Brandeis University, their warmup show for Philharmonic Hall.

“It felt like we were in a corridor getting in the way of the cafeteria,” says Hackett. “People were walking past, thinking this is just some weird experiment going on. Some audiences were absolutely baffled by what was going on. They wanted to boogie, they wanted to be able to rock out, but Genesis didn’t give them that. There was a level of fear when we came to New York and we were just very happy that we got through it.”

Atkinson saw about a dozen Genesis shows between 1972 and 1978. He watched the group’s theatrics evolve but then go back to basics after Gabriel and Hackett left. One of the most memorable stunts involved Gabriel hovering above the stage in a glittery white suit at the end of “Supper’s Ready.”

“The whole show, Peter Gabriel was wearing a one-piece black jumpsuit and all the costuming went on and around the jumpsuit,” says Atkinson. “They had magnesium flares on the sides of the stage that would blow during ‘Supper’s Ready.’ All of the sudden, when your eyes come back from this explosion, there’s Peter Gabriel in a two-piece white outfit hanging about 15 feet above the stage. You could tell right away in the crowd who’s on the drugs and who wasn’t.”

Weigel says it’s remarkable that Genesis was able to couple virtuoso playing with ornate visuals. To a limited degree, jam bands carry on this tradition, he adds.

“Changing costumes between sections of a song … I think you’re a philistine if you don’t love that,” says Weigel. “Phish has some of this color. They have the blimp and they’ve made goofy things that are part of their stage show, covers you’re not expecting, songs that go on forever. Some of this has survived with jam bands but not all of it. The Grateful Dead, when they’re playing, they were always about, ‘Check out the musicality and enjoy the experience.’ Jerry Garcia wasn’t going to come out dressed as a turnip.”

Genesis in the ’70s (clockwise from top left, Mike Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks and Phil Collins).

Partying was minimal with Genesis because their songs were so demanding to play technically. That left them the odd band out when they shared a tour bus with the groups Van der Graaf Generator and Lindisfarne, according to Hackett.

“Lindisfarne were at the back getting drunk first thing in the morning on Guinness and Newcastle Brown Ale,” says Hackett. “Van der Graaf, if you wanted to have a conversation about the price of bedsheets vs. the meaning of the universe while smoking a joint, you went to the front of the bus with them. Genesis, we were in the middle with books and crossword puzzles.”

For all the heaviness of the music, Genesis would also poke fun at themselves. They performed skits between songs in which Gabriel would chastise Collins for messing up a drum part, according to Atkinson. Their lyrics were peppered with puns and bon mots. “Supper’s Ready” has a line about Winston Churchill in a dress and the song, “It” ends with the self-deprecating refrain, “It’s only knock and knowall but I like it.”

That lighter side of Genesis was on display when Atkinson interviewed the band in New York during the Foxtrot Tour.

Gabriel was quiet through most of the discussion but perked up when Atkinson asked him about his hair. At the time, the singer was shaving a triangle across the top of his head, a reverse mohawk of sorts.

“I said, ‘You’re probably sick of being asked this,’ ” says Atkinson. “He said, ‘Oh no, in fact I have a lot of answers ready.’ He started through this list. Completely deadpan. He told me the first and the most honest answer was that it’s a cheap gimmick that’s going to make me a lot of money. The second was that he had his brains removed the other day and this obviously is where they had to shave the hair down in order to make the incision. It went on and on and on. He said in England, at 6 p.m. the lice run from the left side of one’s head to the right side of one’s head and having the channel down the middle facilitated swatting the little buggers as they cross over.”

GENESIS INTERVIEW

Genesis in the ’70s (from left, Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel).

The thing that made Genesis stand out was also a source of tension within the band. The first night Gabriel took the stage in the fox costume, he didn’t warn his bandmates because he knew they would not grant him permission, according to Hackett. The guitarist says his ideas for songs were often rejected, prompting him to record a solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, released in 1975.

He left Genesis in 1977 and put out a second solo effort, Please Don’t Touch!, featuring collaborations with Richie Havens and R&B singer Randy Crawford. Hackett continues to write and record as a solo artist, mixing rock with jazz, classical and world music. Amid the pandemic, he released two albums, Surrender of Silence and Under a Mediterranean Sky.

“Bands are wonderful but you need permission from everybody to be able to move ahead and do an idea,” says Hackett. “Bands can block each other. Genesis was an extremely competitive band so composition by committee could be difficult. It could often take three years to get an idea through the Genesis committee.”

The same year Hackett left Genesis, punk rock took off with the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The album was portrayed as a rebellion against bands like Genesis, a rejection of the elaborate, pan-genre approach in favor of three-chord delirium. Never mind that Genesis itself was a rebellion, raging against corporate greed, the political establishment and consumerism with songs like “Get ‘Em Out by Friday” and “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging.”

“Punk lined itself on one side of the fence vs. people like ourselves,” says Hackett. “We were radical in the way we were mixing styles but we were also the old guard to be swept away. You can knock the bands that did conceptual stuff but you can’t tear down classic music.”

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