Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Dump #2 - Charterhouse Blues

I've been reading a biography of Peter Gabriel. Before I touch on that, I want to say that a few years ago I read the official biography of Canadian rock band Rush. It was possibly one of the most boring biographies I have ever read. Rush's members are all really dull. They didn't take drugs; they dabbled in libertarian politics, came from good middle-class families and probably all pay their taxes. Hotel rooms are probably tidier when they leave than when they arrived. It was that exciting.

So, when I started to read Gabriel's story, I expected the first half of the book - about his time with Genesis - to be jam-packed with tales of picnic hampers, public school hijinks and jolly japes and wheezes with a smattering of the distasteful Jonathan King thrown in for good measure. I expected the book to rival the Rush book for edge of the seat excitement. Strangely, I wasn't disappointed; the fact that the three public school members of Genesis thought of extremely middle class Phil Collins (from Chiswick - bastion of middle class London) and Steve Hackett (from Pimlico) as 'common' (my word not the biographer's) pretty much epitomised what to expect. Gabriel's wedding took place at St James Palace if you need another example.

Yet, they were surrounded by all the glitz and glamour of the 1970s. They rubbed shoulders with most of the greats and were arguably influential to some, better known, performers. They still had hampers and didn't take drugs (Mike Rutherford allegedly inhaled occasionally) and were thought of as 'serious' or 'rich kids' depending on where you stood. But the book is good and it does so much more than just paint a picture of rich toffs breaking into the British rock scene. It also reinforces the now growing belief that Genesis keyboard maestro Tony Banks is a cock.

I discovered Genesis through my brothers. They were hooked on them almost from the moment Trespass came out. In the days before the Internet, word of mouth was your best advertising campaign and living in Daventry, we were pretty much removed from the world. Yet my brothers were treated to a succession of top bands at odd venues, like pubs in Staverton and Watford Gap or Wollaston or Rock Street school in Wellingborough (apt that). They saw Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Stray, Atomic Rooster, Steppenwolf and a host of 1970s rock monsters at the unlikeliest of places, but this became the music for them in the 1970s and as a pre-teen I was subjected to most of it.

Harold the Barrel was probably the first Genesis song I became aware of. It was something my parents sang along to at the end - it was a jaunty, eccentric typically Genesis ditty about a suicidal young man on the ledge of a building getting ready to jump. It was the line about there being a man here from the BBC that always got them going. I, it seemed, had rather hip parents.

Unlike, say 'Touch Me' by the Doors, the first single I ever bought because I got hooked on the organ line, Genesis permeated into my life rather than exploded. Being subjected to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd et al during my formative years made me a fan by default rather than choice (which is why I embraced electronic music in the late 70s, because I felt it was my first musical choice).

I didn't start getting into Genesis until Peter Gabriel left. I didn't know he'd left because I was 13 and I was just discovering The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Where this album polarised many fans, it was the gateway for me to really start to listen to their back catalogue; not as background music, but as my own entertainment.

My untrained, musically deaf, ear didn't see much difference after Gabriel left. The music was still there and Phil Collins seemed to handle the singing duties as well as his predecessor. For me 1976 was a great year - fantastic summer, not a care in the world and bookended by A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. I had notched up a few live performances as well. Genesis were my favourite band in the world.

But even by the time And Then There Were Three came along, I'd discovered bands like The Stranglers, been to see David Bowie on his Stage tour and started to discover there was more to music than 9/8 time.

A series of less and less inspiring albums followed, yet during the 1980s, despite listening to more of anything else than Genesis, I doggedly claimed they were my favourite band. I continued to see them live and even these became less enjoyable, because they were doing less of the music that got me into them and more of the commercial shite that had made them megastars in the USA. By the end they had a fifteen minute medley of old stuff to appease the die-hards.

The last proper album, back in 1991 - We Can't Dance - had some fleeting moments, but you could gauge how much it meant to me by the number of times I played it. Genesis had stopped being even one of my favourite bands by then.

That's not to dismiss all the good stuff they did. Or how much more important, musically, the Gabriel era was and how, now many years later, it seems that getting rid of Steve Hackett was the final nail in their prog rock coffin. Despite reading about the tensions in the band because of their need to write music as equals, it appears when it was Gabriel, Banks, Rutherford, Collins and Hackett they wrote and played brilliant songs - the sum of all of their parts; once you took the two fantastical elements from the band they became anodyne. That's not to call Steve Hackett dynamic - he's anything but; he did continue the eccentricity in the mix when the fantasist - Gabriel - left and when Hackett left they lost the ability to bridge sections effortlessly. The three remaining members might have liked their new 'punky' direction, but they lost the 'class' they had and the tensions between Hackett and two of the other core members over the years - specifically Tony Banks is now pretty clear.

Banks took on the role of the musician in the band. His grandiose pieces all seemed to fall flat without a coherent classical guitarist and Rutherford, the weakest songwriter of the combo was reduced to rock riffs and fiddly bits he couldn't replicate live. Recently, in a retrospective documentary about the band it was clear that Banks is tolerated by Gabriel and Hackett and even now, despite being arguably one of the richest members of this uber-rich bunch of musicians, he's still bitter that he was never anything more than the keyboard player.

This is weird, I initially set out to explain why I liked Genesis and what was great about their music, because there are probably two full CDs of their music that you could keep to play a lot. A CD and a half of the stuff up to the band becoming a trio and half a CD of the things they did that were good after. The thing is you cannot compare Selling England by the Pound with Abacab or The Lamb with Duke - some of the musicians are the same, but the band is playing a different tune.

For me the test of time is the best gauge. Over the last few weeks while I've been working on other projects, I've played the back catalogue and in many ways listening to From Genesis to Revelation - the first Jonathan King produced pop album is more enjoyable than listening to the eponymous Genesis. Trespass is a work of raw genius compared to Invisible Touch. Foxtrot is a behemoth in comparison to We Can't Dance. Nursery Cryme is better than Wind and Wuthering, despite my love of the latter. Only A Trick of the Tail sits alongside the Gabriel era - arguably because most of the music was written while they were touring The Lamb and because it needed to be a Genesis album and not another band with the same personnel.

The old stuff, while under-produced because of the technology available, is visceral and raw, despite the fanciful musicianship - there is an element of punk in it long before punk got going. The Knife is a rock song with an edge and an anger that would never show itself again as raw and obliquely Gabriel was writing a lot about the underlying malcontent in the country. Yes, people think about Genesis songs as being stories of funny men, disappearing animals and lawnmowers, but they were incredibly subversive at times, with songs that showed Britain how Britain looked to an outsider. My favourite album - Selling England by the Pound - was released at a time when the country was up shit creek with a chocolate paddle, it pretty much is a satirical dig at the country from inflation to criminal gangs; but there's a song about a lawnmower and his funny walk and one about going to the cinema so people don't think about subtexts in their songs.

I believe Collins kept some of Gabriel's rhetoric, the problem was that Gabriel despite being of privileged background is something of a socialist where as Collins is a Tory; therefore Collins' songs tended to be whimsical rather than charged with an underbelly of truths.

In conclusion; they don't deserve to be maligned, at least not until they started pandering to Rock FM in the USA. The albums directly after Hackett's departures are better than the ones that concluded their career; the decline wasn't so much a decline as a change of direction that alienated the people who put them where they were. I didn't like it and many others also thought it was a bad move, but ultimately if you buy a ticket to a football match it doesn't give you the right to manage the team. Bands do what they want, by and large, not what their fans want and how could you ameliorate such a thing?

I like most of everything Pink Floyd has released, but people will tell you they didn't do a good album after Wish You Were Here or maybe The Wall. People hate the last Zep album and pretty much ignore the existence of Coda. Yes haven't done a decent album in 10 years and have produced probably a double album's worth of good material in the last 30. Just because I grew up with a band doesn't mean they will grow with me in the way I desire. My brother loves later Genesis and will argue that much of it is better than Gabriel era; I could deride that quite easily, but it's a matter of taste and that's what makes critics no better placed than Fred Bloggs in the street: you listen to what you like, if you don't like it you don't listen to it, there's no point in telling people they're wrong because they think something is better than something else - this is music, there is no right or wrong.

That said, I could probably go the rest of my life without listening to any Genesis from 1978 on and not miss it. I couldn't say the same for the music between 1969 and 1977.

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