Genesis: Foxtrot (1972)
Released in October of 1972, Foxtrot was really the album that Genesis had been working towards since their inception in 1967. The band's debut album, From Genesis to Revelation failed on most counts as the songs were often undermined by the inappropriate use of an orchestra. It didn't help much that the religious connotations of the album's concept-not to mention the group's name!-meant that it was entirely ignored by the pop music buying public. Trespass and Nursery Cryme followed in 1970 and 1971 respectively and though these are wonderful albums in their own right, there was perhaps a bit too much filler between such masterpieces as "The Knife" and "The Musical Box". With Foxtrot the "filler" was gone, despite the fact that the album clocks in at over 50 minutes, which was a lot of music to be crammed onto vinyl in those days. The album may not be as tightly constructed and played as Yes' Close to the Edge or Emerson Lake and Palmer's Trilogy, as two other examples of progressive rock classics from 1972, but the music of Genesis was never meant to be flashy or thrilling in the sense of a stadium rock band. Indeed, Genesis were barely filling clubs and small theaters in those days, which may partly explain the more acoustic and intimate elements of their music.
It is difficult to be objective about Foxtrot as it is one of my favorite albums of all time. But it's influence on popular music, particularly that of progressive rock is incalculable, which is enough to brand it as a Past Present Classic. From the haunting mellotron introduction of "Watcher of the Skies" to the fade out of the 23 minute "Supper's Ready", the listener is taken on a unique musical journey; a journey that is at once futuristic and spacey while also connoting a mythical ode to England's Victorian past. The sci-fi element is most obviously conveyed in "Watcher of the Skies", in which the listener is enveloped by Tony Banks' spacious and melancholic introductory mellotron/organ keyboard tones. The song proper fades in with the staccato, salvo like rhythm of drummer Phil Collins, guitarist Steve Hackett and bassist/rhythm guitarist Mike Rutherford. Vocalist Peter Gabriel weaves a tale of an extra terrestrial, or perhaps even that of a deity, that has come down to the earth to witness "the end of man's long union with earth". This alien watcher, saddened by the destruction of the earth by man's own hands, returns to his unknown place (or state) of being, convinced that mankind is bent on self destruction and can only look on helplessly as the rest of the universe continues to evolve ("Sadly now your thoughts turn to the stars/Where we have gone you know you never can go"). "Watcher of the Skies" goes into an exciting instrumental section and crescendos to its unforgettable finish. In many ways, "Watcher of the Skies" is a progressive rock masterpiece. Indeed, I could blather on about its musical elements and compare them to a classical piece of music, as well as comment on how the lyrics function on many levels. It doesn't take much analysis to conclude that "Watcher of the Skies" is as much a social commentary as it is a plea for spiritual and political unity for all mankind. On a literal level, the piece functions very well as a science fiction tale.
The second track, "Time Table", is probably the most obscure song on Foxtrot. It is never praised as much as "Watcher of the Skies" or "Supper's Ready". This is a shame as it has a similar theme as the former and the Victorian overtones of the latter. Musically, it is fairly simple and direct. It retains the melancholia that begins the album and if one listens carefully, Genesis' more dramatic elements appear throughout the rhythm guitar playing of Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford that would develop more fully on albums like A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. But Tony Banks' overtly Romantic era piano playing and Peter Gabriel's vocals are at the forefront of "Time Table". Though the lyrics tell a tale that transpires in medieval times, the chorus applies as much to modern times. Though there is some of the inherent frustration at man's inability to function at a higher capacity than its primitive brain will allow, "Time Table" is more a poignant meditation on the fact that despite our futile struggles, we are merely temporary beings. I find the imagery in the lyrics of the second verse to be as strong as anything in the Genesis canon: "Tarnished silver lies discarded upon the floor/Only feeble light descends through a film of grey/That scars the panes/Gone the carving/And those who left their mark/…And the weak must die according to nature's law/As old as they." This is certainly not something that one hears on the average pop record!!
Track three, "Get 'Em Out by Friday", is similar in structure to "Watcher of the Skies" and relies heavily on dynamic shifts and unexpected instrumental flights of fancy. It is also the most theatrical song on the album, with Peter Gabriel playing the part of several characters that the song portrays. There is a macabre sense of humor present on "Get 'Em Out by Friday" despite the song's lyrical focus on corporate greed. The first half of this nearly 9 minute piece is set in the present, with a business corporation buying a block of flats and forcing the tenants into an unhappier location. To add insult to injury, "The Winkler" raises the rent of the new location. Then the song gets really weird! In the year 2012, "the directors of genetic control" enforce a restriction of human height to only 4 feet in order to squeeze more tenants into increasingly tighter confines. Even though the image conveys a slightly Monty Python-like skit, the band are again making a serious kind of social commentary. But the meaning of the song is likely to be lost unless one follows along with the lyrics because the music is so enchantingly, well, vintage Genesis! This must have been a terribly difficult piece of music to perform live, to give it musical credence, to display the theatrical elements and yet to give the audience a feeling of oppression conveyed in the lyrics. However, as the music is the foundation of the song, the dynamic shades along with Peter Gabriel's delivery of the lyrics can be enjoyed on their own.
"Can-Utility and the Coastliners" concludes the first side of the original album. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure about the "meaning" of the lyrics. They are decidedly based in fantasy and tell of a struggle between a would-be warrior and his people. But I do not know how they relate to the title of the song. At any rate, the musical tension is brilliantly clear. Beginning with arpeggiated twelve string acoustic guitars (in itself a Genesis trademark) the song opens up with deep bass pedal tones before going into a Tony Banks solo, dominated by organ and mellotron. The song ends rather abruptly as Gabriel and the rest of the band race along to a hurried finish.
Side 2 opens with "Horizon's", possibly the track that has been played on stage more than any other from Foxtrot. The fact that it is actually a brief Steve Hackett showcase on classical guitar doesn't make it any less of an achievement than any other song on this album. Rather than taking the obvious course of showing off one's proficiency on an instrument, Hackett gives us a light, beautiful and highly melodic brief interlude before the 23 minute onslaught of "Supper's Ready". The intimate "Horizon's" would prove to be a foreshadowing of Hackett's later classical guitar instrumental albums like Bay of Kings and Momentum.
"Supper's Ready". The quintessential progressive rock epic. The kind of music that is either exciting, romantic and soul stirring or meandering and ostentatious, depending on one's viewpoint. Broken into 7 subsections, "Supper's Ready" begins with "Lover's Leap", wherein the listener may think that he/she is in for some kind of acoustic guitar ballad. The arpeggiated acoustic guitars and Gabriel's romantic lyrics paint a simple picture of peace and tranquility until the line "Six saintly shrouded men move across the lawn slowly/The seventh walks in front with a cross held high in hand". This is merely a prelude to the religious overtones that crop up during the entire suite. It would be pointless for me to attempt to break each part of "Supper's Ready" down to seven subsections and analyze them. It wouldn't make much sense to the reader without actually hearing it. I don't think the "song" is telling a story per se; rather I believe it is an attempt to tap into the eccentric upper class British subconscious. It is alternatively a parody of Victorian era sexual repression and an indictment of traditionally held British religious views. There is a good deal of Biblical imagery on display during "Apocalypse in 9/8" and the final verse of "As Sure as Eggs is Eggs" hints at a Christ like figure that "Has returned to lead his children home/To take them to the new Jerusalem." I imagine if one was to actually do an in depth analysis of "Supper's Ready", one could extrapolate all sorts of disturbing parallels with The Bible. But when I listen to "Supper's Ready", I prefer to focus on the poetry that a group of young men barely into their twenties were able to compose. This is astonishing. I think the only flaw to "Supper's Ready" is that the piece fades out. I would have preferred a more definitive conclusion, but this is really petty criticism.
Foxtrot is an experience. From the surreal and gorgeous artwork that adorns the cover to the lyrics painted over a fabric that tears into outer space on the inside gatefold, the sleeve is a model of progressive rock genius. Paul Whitehead has designed some brilliant album covers, but I believe Foxtrot is his masterpiece. It's certainly representative of the music contained. However brilliant the artwork and the music within, Foxtrot failed to become a big seller. It saw Genesis gain momentum in their native UK, reaching number 12 in the charts. In America, the album didn't even dent the Billboard Top 200. Commercially, things would improve for the band. They released a string of brilliant progressive albums through Wind and Wuthering. And Then There Were Three and Duke are also exceptional albums, but the desire to create epics was gradually giving way to radio friendly hits that saw the band becoming less of a collective unit called Genesis and more of a Phil Collins backing band. Invisible Touch was their commercial apex but their artistic nadir. So many years later, it is still difficult to believe that albums like Invisible Touch and We Can't Dance-although the latter really isn't a terrible album-were given the name Genesis. It makes Foxtrot seem all the more a fairytale…and a heart rendering masterpiece.