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Mojo MARCH 2020 - by Mark Blake
WHO THE FLOCK?
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was Genesis' peak - peak complexity, peak lunacy, peak acrimony - achieved in the year of peak prog. But the album tore the band apart, and at the end of it Peter Gabriel disappeared in a puff of smoke. "For some The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is absolute magic, for others an absolute tragedy," discovers Mark Blake.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Chicago Auditorium was a celebrated hub of the arts and home to the city's esteemed Symphony Orchestra. Then came economic downturn, the Orchestra's desertion, and the grand theatre fell into disuse and disrepair for many years. But scroll forward to November 20, 1974, and the recently restored Auditorium's regal arches were bearing witness to a very different kind of performance compared with the Sarah Bernhardt and John Philip Sousa turns of its heyday.
It was the opening night of British progressive rockers Genesis's fourth major American tour. On-stage, drummer Phil Collins was deep in concentration, headphones clamped to his head, lost in the percussive intricacies of their fiddly new concept album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. "Then I noticed something large filling the air," he'd recall. "A huge, inflatable penis..."
Collins watched, aghast, as the gigantic phallic stage prop unravelled, finally discharging Genesis's lead vocalist Peter Gabriel, barefoot and bare-legged, wearing a costume made of what appeared to be oversized, crustaceous testicles. Nobody had predicted this. But then Peter Gabriel was always unpredictable.
Months earlier, he'd left Genesis in the middle of making their new album, and then rejoined. He would quit for good at the end of the tour. Gabriel's final Genesis album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway signposted the way for his solo career.
Today, the album is regarded as either a high watermark of prog or symbolic of the genre's worst excesses - even the musicians who made it can't decide which. Yet something about The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway suggests unfinished business. A vague plan to perform it in full once again was the catalyst for their 2007 reunion tour, and summer 2020 will see the release of a new, rebooted, bells-and-whistles edition. Genesis can't escape The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
By early 1974, the quintet had recorded five studio albums and were finally enjoying a measure of success. Gabriel, keyboard player Tony Banks and guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford had formed the group in 1968 while still attending Charterhouse public school. Genesis were signed to Charisma Records, founded by ex-journalist, gambler and bon vivant Tony Stratton-Smith. "Strat believed in Genesis when nobody else did," Gabriel told this writer in 2013. When Charisma's folk rock signings Lindisfarne started having hits, the profits helped keep the under-achieving Genesis afloat.
Initially, their pastoral rock and classical tropes borrowed heavily from King Crimson and The Moody Blues. But the arrival of Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett for their third album, 1971's Nursery Cryme, helped them forge a stronger identity. 1972's Foxtrot was another step up: a dizzying mix of lyrical influences - Arthur C. Clarke, Norse legend, Victorian Penny Dreadfuls - with Who-style powerchords ("I was always trying to get Mike Rutherford to play like Pete Townshend," claimed Gabriel) and Tony Banks's romantic, churchy keyboards, with Hackett finding a place in between and Collins steadying the ship.
Genesis played every college hall and underground club in the UK and most of Europe. Only Gabriel stood; the rest sat down to play, making the show a sedate affair. So sedate, Mike Rutherford once nodded off on-stage. In September 1972, Gabriel, chastened by the band's PR telling them they were "fucking boring", wore his wife's dress and a fox's head on-stage in Dublin. This drastic move saw Genesis on the front page of the Melody Maker. Dressing up now became an integral part of what would become the Peter Gabriel show.
The charts started to reflect an enthusiasm beyond the group's hardcore devotees. Autumn 1973's Selling England By The Pound finally gave Genesis a UK Top 5 album, while the single I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) reached Number 21. Charisma were ecstatic, but Genesis's next album would go fabulously off-piste.
"Some albums are like natural, organic childbirth," says Steve Hackett today. "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was a breech birth. It came out screaming and the wrong way up."
Hackett has just finished a UK solo tour, performing Selling England By The Pound in full. He left Genesis in 1977, before they started filling stadiums in the '80s and were immortalised with their own Spitting Image puppets. He's since become the de facto custodian of their '70s catalogue, playing those labyrinthine pieces that didn't make the setlist when the three-piece of Banks, Collins and Rutherford re-formed in 2007. "I do feel a bit like a curator," he says. "The museum is open and the exhibits have been dusted off."
Genesis began work on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway in May 1974, two weeks after finishing a North American tour with two nights at New York's Academy Of Music. Domestically, they were not in a great place. Hackett and his first wife were breaking up, while Gabriel's wife, Jill, was experiencing a difficult first pregnancy.
To add to their woes, the band had chosen to work in Headley Grange, a former poorhouse in Hampshire. Made legendary as a recording venue by Led Zeppelin, it was in a dilapidated state. "There was human excrement on the floor," recalled Tony Banks, "and a big wisteria on the outside of the house, with rats running up and down and into holes in the wall."
Jimmy Page once told Mojo he'd seen a "grey shrouded phantasm" on the stairwell at Headley Grange, and Gabriel suggested Page had been conducting "black magic experiments" in the house. "I had the same room Jimmy stayed in," divulges Hackett, "and I'm sure it was haunted. The noises at night were extraordinary. Whether it was poltergeist activity or rats, I don't know. But I got very little sleep."
One day, Hackett had just washed his hands in the bathroom when the floorboards gave way: "Right where I'd been standing, the whole floor collapsed, leaving the sink in place still hanging on the wall."
In the meantime, Genesis tried to decide what to write about. Mike Rutherford suggested a suite based on his favourite childhood story, The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry. Gabriel vetoed the idea. "This was 1974. It was pre-punk but I thought we needed to base the story around a contemporary figure," he told music weekly Sounds. "We were beginning to get into the era of the big, fat supergroups and I thought, I don't want to go down with this Titanic."
Instead, Gabriel came up with a more contemporary protagonist. Rael was an adolescent 'street kid' with a black leather jacket; a more clean-cut version turned up on design collective Hipgnosis' album artwork. The story was set in modern-day New York, where Gabriel could present the "accessible, earthy and aggressive" Rael with a variety of "fantasy situations".
The story introduced themes soon to re-materialise in punk. "Rael feels as if he's a waste of material, part of the machinery," Gabriel explained. "He doesn't think about his position in society. All he can do is escape or give up."
Genesis's own position in society was, by contrast, growing more elevated. Director William Friedkin was the toast of Hollywood after the box-office success of The Exorcist, and he came to the group with an unexpected offer. Friedkin's curiosity had been piqued by a story, written by Gabriel and printed on the sleeve of the previous August's Genesis Live, in which a woman on a tube train 'unzips' her skin. "William wanted me as an ideas person on his next movie," said Gabriel, who asked the band if they could stop work for six weeks while he helped write a script.
The band's musicianly rump flatly refused, further put out by the fact Friedkin had asked Tangerine Dream to provide the music for his proposed film, The Sorcerer.
"Friedkin was the young prince of Hollywood and the others were pissed off and jealous," said Gabriel. "I'll always do the opposite of what I'm told to do, so I decided to leave."
Gabriel scooped up a handful of 10p pieces and cycled to the nearest phone box to tell Friedkin the news. His bandmates gathered outside by the rat-infested wisteria and considered their next move. Collins suggested they carry on as an instrumental group: "But I was quickly shouted down."
In July, Genesis, with Gabriel still in tow, decamped to Glaspant Manor, a remote farm in Carmarthenshire, with a mobile studio and Selling England By The Pound producer John Burns mediating. Fellow ex-Charterhouse pupil Richard Macphail, their aide-de-camp and tour manager, paid a visit. "Genesis were in the middle of a very unhappy situation," says Macphail today. After an almighty row, Gabriel had left the band for three days before Tony Stratton-Smith hot-footed it to westWales and helped change his mind. "A big thing in itself as Strat never left London unless it was for a race meeting," adds Macphail.
"I gather Friedkin was horrified Peter would consider quitting Genesis," says Hackett. "He hadn't realised that might be the price of a collaboration, so he backed down too. I was happy to have Peter back as lead singer. He was my pal."
However, Rutherford and Banks found it harder to forgive. Matters came to another head when Jill Gabriel gave birth prematurely to a daughter, Anne. There were complications for mother and baby, meaning work on the album stopped again as the singer rushed off to St Mary's hospital in Paddington.
"Tony and I were too selfish and wrapped up in our careers to understand what he was going through," Rutherford told me in 2015. "I admit, we were horribly unsupportive."
An uneasy détente was brokered and work on the album resumed. "But something had changed," says Hackett. "It wasn't quite the same again." Gabriel insisted on writing all the lyrics, which meant further delays. "Lyrics never came easy to Peter," says Macphail. "Years later, when he was working with [producer] Daniel Lanois, there was the story of Daniel locking him in the studio until he'd written some."
"There were two camps," recalls Hackett. "The band in one room working on the music and Peter in another, writing the story. We tended to meet on the stairs. It was like a divorce. The lines of demarcation had been drawn."
With a deadline looming, Banks and Rutherford were drafted in to plug the lyrical gaps. But the story of Rael's quest through a subterranean underworld in search of his missing brother was all Gabriel's work. "I wrote indirectly about my emotional experiences," he said, while naming West Side Story, Pilgrim's Progress and Alejandro Jodorowsky's acid western El Topo as further influences.
As the story took shape, it became longer. "We added more and more bits and it turned into a double album," explains Hackett. "There was less editing going on. Things were happening in extremis." One piece, nicknamed Evil Jam, evolved into an eerie and dissonant instrumental, The Waiting Room. Richard Macphail remembers Gabriel miking up a box filled with empty wine bottles and recording the sound of smashing glass: "You could call it avant-garde. It certainly was for Genesis."
The album was completed at Island Studios at Basing Street in west London, with each member of the ex-Charterhouse contingent fighting a corner for their favourite parts. "It was... combustible," says Hackett. "And I think you can hear that in the music. It's a contest between densely-packed keyboard lines and densely-packed lyrical salvos. It's Peter and Tony at loggerheads, with Phil and I as the diplomatic glue."
"Peter and I were close friends, but we always argued and fought within the group," admitted Banks, who was annoyed when Gabriel invited Brian Eno, recording in an adjacent studio, to contribute. Eno added sonic squiggles to The Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging and was credited with 'Enossification' on the album sleeve. "His contribution was minimal," sniffed Banks. "I don't know why we credited him."
Meanwhile, the group worked in day and night shifts, but nobody could agree on anything. "I'd be mixing and overdubbing all night," recalled Collins, "and then Tony and Mike would come in and remix what I'd done, because I'd lost all semblance of normalcy by that point."
With its convoluted tale of an incomprehensible spiritual journey, you can join the dots between The Who's Tommy and The The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (its hero, Rael, even shared a name with a previous, shelved Pete Townshend rock opera, a fragment of which survives on The Who Sell Out). But the music broke new ground for Genesis. In The Cage, The Waiting Room, Back In NYC, Fly On A Windshield and Broadway Melody Of 1974 (with lyrics namechecking Lenny Bruce, Marshall McLuhan and Howard Hughes) revealed a harder version of the band. "It provided the claustrophobic, crowded feel of New York City," says Hackett. "Fly On A Windshield is the album's best moment. We loosely based it on the rowing scene in Ben Hur, everybody going at ramming speed."
Elsewhere, Cuckoo Cocoon and The Carpet Crawlers reprised what Hackett calls "the romantic, mythology-driven Genesis". Sex also figured highly. Counting Out Time was based on the teenage Gabriel's discovery and use of a sex manual; during The Lamia (named after a child-eating monster from Greek mythology), Rael is seduced by "three vermillion snakes of female face", before being threatened with castration in The Colony Of Slippermen. "It's a ghastly exploration of Peter's subconscious," suggests Macphail.
"If you take guys who are removed from the world of women completely for a while, most of the romance they experience is not going to be on a Rolling Stones level," says Hackett, pondering his bandmates' upbringing. "It's going to be on the level of, 'I am reading Greek mythology and this particular goddess said this...'"
"It's all repressed sex," concurred Gabriel. "The Stones used to come right out and say, 'I want to fuck you.' Genesis could never do that, so we dressed it all up."
Richard Macphail remembers being at Gabriel's house in Bath when the singer's mother phoned him, having listened to the album. "She had some very searching questions for her son regarding what the hell it was all about."
Delays with recording and artwork meant The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was released on November 18, just two days before Genesis's next US tour began. The band intended to perform it in full, and had commissioned props, slide shows and Gabriel's bulbous Slipperman costume. There was no turning back.
Accordingly, audiences in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh were confronted with ninety minutes of unfamiliar music and an erratic stage show. Gabriel's imagination was a few years ahead of the available technology. "There was no PowerPoint back then," says Macphail. "We had a Kodak carousel projector on a stepladder showing images of New York City, and sometimes the slides weren't in time with the music. But I still thought the show was absolutely epic."
On-stage, Gabriel inhabited the role of Rael. But his Slipperman incarnation tested his bandmates' patience, particularly when its Elephant Man-style head stopped him getting the mike close enough to his mouth for his vocal to be audible. "Phil got what I was trying to do, but they all hated that outfit," Gabriel would concede. "Especially the huge inflatable testicles. I think I was a constant embarrassment to the band, but the audience were getting off on it."
"The tour will become mythologised, not least in Spinal Tap," wrote Collins in his 2016 memoir, Not Dead Yet. Grainy YouTube footage shows Gabriel's rubber-bollocked Slipperman sidling up to Rutherford and making him laugh. It's less Spinal Tap, more like a sketch from labelmates Monty Python, whose string of comedy LPs had also come out on Charisma. "I was happy for Peter to be the denizen of the penis and testicles," laughs Hackett today. "I was happy for him to lead the pantomime. I think in terms of symbolism he'd gone further than Bowie at that point. But the difference is a David Bowie show was called 'David Bowie' and a Peter Gabriel show was still called 'Genesis'."
King Crimson bandleader Robert Fripp attended one gig and later took Hackett aside. "Robert said, 'It seems obvious to me the band and singer are pulling in different directions.' I had to agree with him."
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway's closing song, It, saw Gabriel disappear in a puff of smoke after singing the final line, "It's only rock'n'know-all, but I like it", a twist on the title of The Rolling Stones' recent hit. Gabriel seemed to be suggesting no one should take any of this too seriously.
Backstage, well-wishers blanked the band and showered the singer with compliments. After the fifth show in Cleveland, Gabriel told the management he was leaving at the end of the tour, but asked them not to tell the others. "It was frustrating because the more we played The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway the better it became," says Hackett. "It was less self-conscious than on the record." tour ended not with a bang, but a whimper when a final date in Toulouse was cancelled due to poor sales. The group were told of Gabriel's decision an hour before the penultimate date in Besançon.
That night, a roadie scampered on-stage naked and Gabriel played The Last Post on the oboe. No one was surprised by his decision. "Pete was always going to leave," Rutherford insisted. "Being in any band is a compromise, and musically he was moving forwards a bit faster than we were."
Gabriel released his first solo album in 1977. On the records which followed you could hear trace elements of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway in the songs Intruder, San Jacinto, Red Rain. On-stage, he'd continue to lead the pantomime: performing while riding a bicycle, from inside a Zorb Ball and suspended upside down. Genesis's promotion of Phil Collins to the lead singer spot surprised them as much as it did their fanbase. Yet he made the job his own. In The Cage and The Carpet Crawlers were both dusted off for the trio's 2007 reunion tour, but sounded a little incongruous next to the big ballads and We Can't Dance.
"The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a brave album but a disturbed album," Mike Rutherford told me in 2015, while Tony Banks admitted that, "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was my least favourite time in Genesis. I like some of it but wasn't crazy about the overall story." Naturally, its author has tended to be more generous: "I like it," Gabriel said in 2013, "but a lot of people still haven't got much clue what was going on in the story."
"For some The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is absolute magic, for others an absolute tragedy," offers Steve Hackett today. "And I can see both sides. My take on Genesis is that everyone in that band was brilliant, but Peter Gabriel was always more than just a frontman. He was a hustler, in the best sense of the word, and a furious progress chaser - and you can hear that on this record."
In 2020, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway sounds sporadically brilliant, impenetrable, over-reaching and inspired. It's also a line in the sand. Both parties would head off in different directions, achieving greater success apart than they ever did together. It's the sound of Genesis's past and Peter Gabriel's future.