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GENESIS ARCHIVE 1967-75 (4 CD set; Atlantic 82858-2)

I discovered Genesis with their second album, TRESPASS, which was, I subsequently found out, the best place to start. From its opening line, "Looking for someone?", it hooked me. I wasn't exactly sure why at that time. I played the album repeatedly, gradually "learning" it and making it part of me, but it didn't fully satisfy me. Like early Yes albums it seemed to hint at better things to come, offering a promise of future excitement. TRESPASS was initially released by ABC records on its Impulse label in the U.S. But their next album, NURSERY CRYME, was the first to be released here on an American version of their British label, Famous Charisma, through the Buddah Records group -- a rather small label itself -- and it was not initially well distributed. Thus it was that my next purchase was not NURSERY CRYME but their fourth album, FOXTROT. This album was everything TRESPASS had failed to be: heavier, more focused, and filled with riches, from the anthemic "Watcher of the Skies" to the bitingly sarcastic take on landlords, "Get 'Em Out By Friday." The album was dominated by orchestral Mellotrons and organs through which guitar lines cut and over which soared flutes. This was the earlier promise fulfilled. After releasing two albums through Buddah, Charisma made a deal with Atlantic, which released SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND and remains Genesis's American label to this day.


TRESPASS was released in 1970, and generally Genesis released one album a year up through the mid-70's. Starting with NURSERY CRYME (with its excellent "The Musical Box"), Genesis entered into an era of musical maturity which lasted into the late 70's. During this time they developed an effectively theatrical stage presentation (probably the best and certainly the first in rock) and produced five excellent albums -- including the aforementioned plus THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY and TRICK OF THE TAIL. Singer/flautist Peter Gabriel left after LAMB, but TRICK is if anything even stronger than the previous Genesis albums. But at that point the rot set in. WIND AND WUTHERING, by the same group that did TRICK, was curiously flabby and unsatisfying. Then guitarist Steve Hackett left. ...AND THEN THERE WERE THREE was produced by the remaining trio and marked a turn toward short, simple, "pop" songs -- a significant trivialization of Genesis's previous musical scope and ambition. Since then Genesis has mutated into a semi-successful mainstream pop band, largely without distinction. Their most recent release, 1997's CALLING ALL STATIONS, was made after drummer/vocalist Phil Collins left, and it's an embarrassment to a once-proud name.

What happened? Inevitably people's tastes change and musicians may move on to other areas of music, but that hardly explains why a band once known for uniquely distinctive music sank into anonymous pop pap. There are several answers to chose among.

First, Genesis started out (in a British boys' school) as a "song writing collective" -- not as a determined band of eclectic or experimental pioneers. Their goal was never to push the edge of music -- unlike, say, Pink Floyd or King Crimson. That they did do this (with extended-form works, stage theatrics, etc.) was largely accidental and in service of that original song-writing collective.

Second, Genesis originally composed as a group. As Tony Banks put it, "In Genesis we have always seen ourselves first and foremost as songwriters. We originally started playing only because we could not find anyone else to record our music. The songs up to and including THE LAMB were written by pooling all existing musical ideas, developing these and creating new bits by the group as a whole. This way of writing many people find difficult to understand and will always look for one or two main contributors. However within Genesis this was not the case, the songwriting was credited to Genesis because that's how it was." With five people contributing, this worked. There was undoubtedly some competition and strife over ideas, with inevitable compromises -- some of which probably led to Gabriel's decision to leave -- but the end effect was that only the best ideas/music made it onto record. There is a parallel here with the Lennon-McCartney collaborations -- most of which are superior to anything either one wrote solo after the Beatles broke up. After LAMB Genesis began crediting songs to individual members of the group. TRICK was missing an element with Gabriel's departure -- his twisted sense of humor, for one thing, and an overall feeling of British eccentricity -- but had many compensating strengths. After that it fell apart, I think because with only three members there was less competition and more self-indulgence.

One could make a case for the idea that Gabriel's and Hackett's were the dominating talents in the group, but I don't think this was in fact the case. (Banks once told me that most of the material on Hackett's first solo album was drawn from material he used to audition for Genesis; Banks was rather dismissive of it -- it wasn't good enough for Genesis to use -- but it remains Hackett's best and strongest album, curiously Crimson-like in its dynamic and melodic contrasts and similar in its pacing to the first King Crimson album.) In fact, as Gabriel emerged (as lead singer) as the band's apparent front-man, it caused some unhappiness with the others, who felt themselves being slighted by the punters.

Whatever the case, Genesis ceased to be "progressive" in the late 70's and have not been involved in progressive music since.

Now they've released a boxed set, supposedly the first of two. Like the Beach Boys' PET SOUNDS boxed set, this set has been rumored and in the works (and rescheduled for release) for years, now -- and its release is somewhat anticlimactic. (Unlike the PET SOUNDS set, I find this one significantly less exciting.)

GENESIS ARCHIVE is a four-CD set in an ungainly box that measures 10 inches high by almost 5 3/4 inches wide and won't fit on most CD shelves. It comes with an over-designed booklet which adheres to the new design criteria in which readability is of minor importance, although most of the booklet is well worth the effort required to read it.

The first two CDs are devoted entirely to a live performance of THE LAMB -- mostly. The tape ran out before the finale, so a studio version is dubbed in for that. Do we need fully half of this expensive boxed set devoted to a live LAMB? That depends on the listener's tastes and desires, I guess. Genesis rarely departed from the recorded texts of their material -- no long improvisations or solos for them! -- and the differences are minor ones of arrangement, allowing the live performance of what was originally created with overdubs. In most cases the live versions of their material differ little from, and are not improvements over, the original records. They are valuable as a document, and if you were there at one of these live performances you might treasure a recording of it more for the memories it evokes. (I saw a number of Genesis concerts, including the live performance of THE LAMB -- only three days after I got an advance copy of the album -- and I enjoyed them greatly. But that was a different experience than listening to recordings of those live concerts.)

THE LAMB was Peter Gabriel's last hurrah with Genesis -- his idea -- and it's a curious example of how (in 1974) Gabriel was already anticipating the punk revival to come. The story of LAMB is the story of a New York City street punk named Rael. The music, however, was in no respect punkish. Indeed, the album drew upon the production and effects savvy of Brian Eno, who was credited with "Enossification." But his subtle tricks and devices -- along with a lot of other subtleties -- are absent from the live version.

The third CD begins with and is more than two thirds devoted to more live recordings -- basically made after those used in Genesis's first concert album, GENESIS LIVE, all but one from London's Rainbow Theatre in 1973. (There is one BBC live recording from 1971.) It's not until one gets to the seventh track of the CD that one finally arrives at some genuine "archival" material: singles that were not included on albums. There are exactly two: "Twilight Alehouse" (1973 B-side), and "Happy The Man" (1972 A-side) (from which the group, Happy The Man, took their name). As lagniappe we get a single-edit/remix of "Watcher of the Skies" which was never released -- and didn't need to be, since it's inferior to the album version.

The fourth CD is potentially the most interesting, since it supplies some "missing links" between their jejune first album (FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION, produced by Jonathan King and "sweetened" with strings) and their second (TRESPASS, which introduced the earliest version of the Genesis we recognize as such). That first album was released in 1968, and is a simple collection of around a dozen songs, all of which sound like the sort of demos a "song writers' collective" of teenaged boys might write. For reasons unfathomable to me, the CD starts with the most recent of this material and works its way backwards to some 1967 demos in a total of 20 tracks, the most recent of which are from 1970 (but deservedly missed the cut for TRESPASS).


What can we learn from this material? First that there are no unreleased gems here. Genesis used the best of what they had at the time, and this is the stuff they rightly culled out or later cannibalized bits from when needed. This stuff has more curiosity value and historical value than it does musical value. For the most part these are songs with simple piano accompaniments. There are no notable instrumental flourishes, and no Mellotrons. (Genesis bought its first Mellotron from King Crimson -- and from what I've heard Crimson was glad to be rid of it, Mellotrons being notoriously frustrating to play on stage, and that one in particular being difficult to keep in tune.)

Second, if this boxed set is any example the next one -- dealing with post-1975 Genesis -- will also be heavily padded with live performances of dubious value, and will contain less than one CD of non-album rare material (SPOT THE PIGEON, an EP, and the one piece left off TRICK OF THE TAIL but included on a single which is the single most "progressive" track Genesis ever recorded -- which should have been included in the remastered CD of TRICK but wasn't even though its theme is part of "Los Endos" on that album).


I'm disappointed in this boxed set -- and perhaps more than diehard Genesis fans will be. But I think it's clumsily packaged and bloated with poorly ordered non-essential material. I bought this four-CD set, in essence, to acquire on CD two pieces previously available only as 45 rpm singles. I will probably listen to the material from 1967 to 1970 which is also on this set about as often as I listen to Genesis's first album, which is very seldom, and for the same reasons. And I'd far rather hear the studio version of THE LAMB, which is in every way superior. I cannot recommend it except to those who, like myself, compulsively collect all Genesis releases.

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