Looking back at the prog greats’ breakthrough LP
In 1972, the progressive rock movement was in full ascendency, and groups like Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were at the absolute height of their powers.
Meanwhile, Surrey’s Genesis had released three albums but, outside of some smaller European markets, success eluded them. This would begin to change with Foxtrot.
Genesis at this point consisted of Peter Gabriel on vocals, Steve Hackett on guitar, Mike Rutherford on guitar and bass, Tony Banks on organ and mellotron, and Phil Collins on drums. The lineup proved adept at combining intensely complex music with earworm melodies that once heard could not be forgotten.
The album opener “Watcher of the Skies” kicks off the album with a perfect example of this memorable complexity. The song starts with an extended mellotron introduction before being joined by Collins on the drums playing in 6/4 time. As the song builds the group cycles through various time signatures, Peter Gabriel’s voice holds the focus with soaring, anthemic melodies. The song often opened their sets during this period and its not hard to imagine why. “Watcher of the Skies” builds and builds until the excitement is palpable.
From here, Genesis pulls back some on the second track, “Time Table”. Gabriel delivers another stunning vocal performance. The lyrics lament the loss of the honor and nobility of earlier times, yet he observes the drawbacks of such worldviews. He sings, “Why do we suffer each race to believe / That no race has been grander.”
It’s a sentiment that seems as relevant now as it was 50 years ago.
“Get ‘Em Out by Friday” takes on a more epic feel and features Peter Gabriel at his most theatrical, which is saying a lot. Inspired by Gabriel’s own conflicts with his landlord, the song tells the story of an older woman being evicted from her apartment. The tale features several characters and Gabriel tries to sing each with their own unique voices. The instrumental interplay is excellent and the transitions from one section to the next is reminiscent of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”. Following a particularly intense instrumental section, Gabriel takes on a new persona and announces that “Genetic Control” is imposing a four foot height limit on humans which one of the characters suspects is being done in order to double the number of tenants that can fit into an apartment building. It’s a heck of a way to close out the song.
Side A closes with “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”, a track that summarizes the album so far. It combines the epic mellotron work of “Watcher of the Skies” and the romantic melodies of “Time Table” into another wonderful piece.
VIDEO: Genesis “Supper’s Ready” (Live)
The second side of the record opens with Steve Hackett’s solo acoustic guitar instrumental “Horizons” and then moves onto “Supper’s Ready”. This is the quintessential prog rock song. Clocking in over 23 minutes long, the multi-movement piece takes up the rest of the album. The first section, “Lover’s Leap”, begins with a twelve-string acoustic guitar and Gabriel’s delicate vocal. This section contains the main musical motif of the entire piece, a theme they would return to throughout its runtime.
This is followed by “The Guarenteed Eternal Snactuary Man” which heralds the return of the full band until they are interrupted by children’s voices. The main motif returns but Gabriel sings a new melody over the top of it. “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men” follows and allows the band to cut loose a bit with an increased tempo and solos. There’s a keyboard line that almost certainly influenced Boston a few short years later.
“How Dare I Be So Beautiful” lowers the volume once again but they amp things up again with “Willow Farm”, a tune that melds together The Beatles jauntier moments such as “I Am the Walrus” with Pink Floyd’s “Money”. “All Change” plays with similarly bouncing beats and The Beatles still seem not too far away. They find the main motif again, but now its instrumental and the flute gives it an almost Baroque feel. After this though, “Supper’s Ready” heads into darker territory.
“Apocalypse in 9/8” lumbers on in a disjointed march. The odd time signatures are hard to follow but Tony Banks manuevers it on his keyboards with ease. The clashing rhythms are damn near heavy metal in intensity and it is not hard to imagine Tool listening to this and taking notes. Of course they find the main motif again and rework it for the closing section, “As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (Aching men’s feet)”. Somehow this reworked theme is paradoxically comforting and ominous. It feels like a resolution but not a victory. Mentions of angels in the lyrics remind us that if you see the winged ones, you might just be dead.
Peter Gabriel is brilliant throughout Foxtrot, but behind the scenes, tensions were already starting to grow. His idiosyncratic lyrics, which drew from everything from Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction to medieval history to eschatological literature, didn’t always sit well with his bandmates. At times, he seemed to be cramming too much in, his vocal lines rushed and busy. He would remain for a few more albums, but eventually would leave and Phil Collins would move into the frontman role. With that change, Genesis would move into distinctly more pop-oriented territory and the rest they say is history.
Foxtrot contains all the grandiose elements that critics would use to denigrate progressive rock, but Genesis proves that in their capable hands, these characteristics were strengths, not deficiencies. Long songs and instrumental virtuiosity, prentensious lyrics and and grand ambitions, these things allowed Genesis and their ilk to create monolithic records that expanded what was possible in rock music.
Foxtrot is one of the best this era of prog has to offer, and its influence shows no sign of waning.