Last Friday The Dulcinea and I trekked to the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee to take in a performance by The Musical Box, a Canadian band that recreates Genesis concerts from back in the 70s when Peter Gabriel wore costumes and introduced the songs with surreal stories while the other members tuned their instruments.
TMB reproduce the costumes, stories, stage sets, and back projections. This time around they were doing The Black Tour, which found Genesis returning to North America in support of Selling England by the Pound on 1 March 1974. The closest they ever came to Wisconsin was a stop in Chicago on 11 April and one in Evanston on 17 April. It was a fairly typical TMB crowd with lots of grey-haired folks who were old enough to have attended a Genesis show in 1974 and some of them had brought their kids along. But there were also some younger folks and even a smattering of the fairer sex.
The lights went down as most of the band hit the stage. I’d forgotten that they opened these shows with “Watcher of the Skies” and was instead expecting “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight”. “Watcher” opens with a 2 minute Mellotron prelude which is supposed to represent a spaceship landing. I have read many accounts of these performances where people describe the Mellotron just overwhelming things and that was indeed the case. As the introductory fanfare wound down, the singer stepped onto stage with the glow-in-the-dark makeup, the sparkly cape, and the bat wings perched upon his head as the two circular screens at the back of the stage each had a giant eyeball on them.
I’ve seen the Shepperton ‘73 show but there’s nothing quite like seeing it in person.
Genesis shows from Peter Gabriel’s tenure in the band have always had this special aura around them for me. As an 11 year old trading bootleg tapes with elder fans, I’d always hear them tell stories about those gigs and just wonderful and strange they were. It was like those days were a time of magic – days of yore when rock singers would prance around the stage dressed in costume and tell stories about little boys having their heads cut off by a croquet mallet. By the time I became aware of them, they were 10-12 years gone. And so it was really neat to be able to hear the Mellotron rumbling. It’s one thing to hear the song on a good stereo and, believe me, I’ve heard many versions of this song. But live, it was just overwhelming as the sound engulfed you. As the staccato rhythm built up, it was also a real treat to be able to hear the drums! Phil Collins’ drums are buried in the mix on old Genesis albums and the songs gain a lot of muscle by virtue of being a bit louder than barely audible. At the end of the song I chuckled to myself when Denis Gagné, TMB’s singer, did Gabriel’s routine where he put a tambourine in front of his face and did these jerky movements.
Back in the 90s, there was an episode of the Dennis Miller show where he was doing his opening monologue and a joke bombed. He then put his hands up to the sides of his head and jerked around singing, “Watcher of the skies, watcher of all”. I laughed really hard and was probably only one in a million people who got the reference. (This is, as Professor Frink noted, the Dennis Miller ratio.)
Here is the setlist:
Watcher of the Skies
Dancing With the Moonlit Knight
I Know What I Like
Firth of Fifth
The Musical Box
The Battle of Epping Forest
E: The Knife
“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” brought with it the Britannia costume.
The instrumental section jammed! Francois Gagnon did his best Steve Hackett imitation by playing on the neck of the guitar and, again, the drums were nice’n'loud and the song just moved. I also believe it was the first tune to feature the bass pedals which one not only heard, but also felt. You couldn’t help but find your body rumbling. I felt kind of bad for The Dulcinea because “Dancing” is full of puns and references to English life. For instance, there’s the line “Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout.” Trying to ascertain what Gagné was singing must have been hard enough but I’m sure she didn’t know that Green Shield stamps were a promotional thing. You’d get them when making purchases at various stores and, when you’d collected enough, you could redeem them for goods at select stores.
“Cinema Show” is one of my all-time faves. It doesn’t appear in the Shepperton film and the band dropped the instrumental bit of the song from their oldies medley by the time I was old enough to see them in 1986 so it was great to get the whole 9 yards.
Another costume change saw Gagné slip into a nice evening jacket as the song told of Romeo trying to woo Juliet – kind of. About four minutes in is a really moody section and the lights went down for it leaving only a disco ball. I love this bit because the vocal harmonies are so cool – very Yes-like. It’s something that, unfortunately, the band would move away from as time went on. I can imagine this section must have been wonderful for audience members who were really stoned or tripping.
“I Know What I Like” was a hoot. A minor hit for the band, it was the shortest song the group performed. (“Horizons” is a solo piece.) The Dulcinea turned to me at one point and asked if Gagné’s gestures during the closing were of him operating a lawnmower and indeed they were.
The bits of flute here and elsewhere reminded me of just how often Peter Gabriel colored the band’s music with that instrument. He was never ostentatious like Ian Anderson but, when you listen to live versions of some of these songs from later years after Gabriel had left, you can’t help but think to yourself that something was missing.
The intro story for “Firth of Fifth” concerned some very thirsty people who suddenly realize that people are 98% water so they find someone and squish the poor guy until his body provides something to drink. There was a guy behind me who was absolutely thrilled that the Rachmaninoff-like piano intro was retained and he was very vocal about this. “Firth” is one of the older songs that the Collins-led incarnation of the band has never really let go of. While complete renditions of the song were last done in 1981, the instrumental section has been part of most tours since then. And no wonder. Steve Hackett really shines with his lengthy and highly melodic solo.
The song from which the band took its name followed. It’s a classic of early Genesis being their first song on record to surpass the ten minute mark and is a blueprint for a lot of later material in that it’s an exercise in dynamics. Lots of quiet parts juxtaposed against louder ones. And the louder ones were loud. The section after “Her warmth…” was fast and furious, a place the band tended to avoid thereafter. Once the jamming was done, out came the famous old man mask.
“Let me get to know your flesh”
When the song finished, LOTS of people stood up and cheered. The D asked me why this song caused such a response. I told her, “It’s ‘The Musical Box’” but I’d forgotten that she didn’t know the name of the song and thought I was referring to the group. I tried to explain it to her later in the car. “The Musical Box” was the first song for which Peter Gabriel dressed up in costume. It was on 28 September 1972 at the National Stadium in Dublin, Irelan
d. At this point the costume was the fox wearing the red dress but it became the old man the following year. The old man mask is just iconic in Genesis circles because it was one of the first and it probably lasted the longest of any as well. It has a certain stark simplicity to it which just makes it work.
The short solo acoustic guitar piece “Horizons” gave the audience a chance to relax.
Presumably it also gave the other band members a chance to relax, go to the bathroom, or tune their instruments. It may be throwaway, but it’s a very beautiful song which led to the rather hectic “The Battle of Epping Forest”. If “Dancing’s” lyrics were obtuse for The D, then I’m sure those for “Epping Forest” were a non-starter. Gabriel packed as many words as he could into this song which was inspired by actual gang turf wars in London. For the song Gagné put some black pantyhose over his face, marched in time to the martial drum opening, and donned a couple other costumes to represent the countless characters voiced in the song.
The last song of the set was the epic “Supper’s Ready”. It’s the song people shout for at Genesis concerts to piss Phil Collins off and it’s the longest song the band ever released as it clocks in at 22+ minutes. It is probably the seminal song of the Gabriel era and pure prog heaven. I recall quite well listening to the song constantly as a kid and not understanding a word of what the lyrics meant but there’s just something magical about the song. As with many of the other tunes, I’ve seen the pictures and the Shepperton performance but, again, having it done before your eyes is something wholly different. The music is live and the lighting was a bit different on The Black Tour. Plus there was that new pharaoh’s hat.
Then there was the new pharaoh’s hat for Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men.
The infamous flower from Willow Farm.
A guard of Magog.
I don’t know where Gabriel got the idea for a red triangular head thingy but it was oddly effective. “Apocalypse in 9/8″ is reaching a climax with the organ part sounding like a manic klaxon warning of impending doom when the lights go down and the strobes start. Gagné then comes out clad in that and lurches menacingly towards the front of the stage. It was really put a spook on me. This is probably because I’ve watched too many David Lynch movies where nothing good ever comes of strobe lights. They signal the death of high school girls in abandoned rail cars. That moment just did something to me.
The song finishes with good triumphing over evil as the glow stick gets a workout.
Finally there was the rousing encore of “The Knife”. A cautionary tale for aspiring revolutionaries from a 19 year-old Gabriel, it’s probably the closest thing to a “regular” rock song the band did for several years.
It is remarkable how TMB and, presumably, Genesis, were able to maintain a certain mood throughout. One element that contributed to this last week was that the band was not particularly self-conscious. That is, there was very little acknowledgement that this was a rock concert. The band members were never introduced; there was no “Hello Milwaukee!” or “Are you ready to fuckin’ rock?!”; surreal stories replaced any banter about what songs were about or what inspired them, etc. The weird sense of theatricality was never broken with a typical rock concert moment. The music, lighting, costumes, stories, and lack of self-conscious references built up to a Gesamtkunstwerk. For me anyway.
In thinking to myself about the show afterwards, I pondered what The D thought of it all and got out of it. This brought to mind a recent dialogue up at Slate on modernism with its attendant discussion on high vs. low art and what artists can/do expect from their audiences. “Cinema Show” provides an interesting case. The lyrics are based on “The Fire Sermon” from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. I don’t think that a familiarity with that section of the poem is necessary for understanding or appreciating the song but knowing the mythological figure of Tiresas is very handy. The lyrics surely saw a change in focus and tone from the source material with the refrain of “more earth than sea” explaining why pictures of women were shown on the screens at the back of the stage during the instrumental second half of the song.
When Genesis were in Italy in 1972, Italian television did a profile of the band which includes interview footage featuring Mike Rutherford saying that he wants the audience to sit down and listen – he wanted their attention. The music is fairly complicated, by rock standards anyway, and no doubt required some focus on the part of the musicians. Plus having the attention of the audience means that folks aren’t just drinking and socializing. (There were no women at these concerts so I don’t include hitting on girls.)
Back in the Slate article, Peter Gay describes the “aristocratic” nature of art and maintains that “Modernists presupposed a cultivated audience”. Genesis probably held a watered down version of this presupposition. Not as extreme as Marcel Duchamp’s but I would image they thought of their audience as being largely college kids or college-educated young adults.
I’m not arguing that Genesis were Modernists, mind you. But I do think they did have some elements in common with that movement. “Getting it”, at least in a certain way, required that listeners brought something to the table. But the band also mixed in lots of pop elements. Musically, they were a mix of both rock and classical (mostly Romantic era) musics. However strange the lyrics were, there was often a sense that they were twisting the underbelly of the perhaps staid English middle class life. And, while dressing up as a flower is odd, the roots of the costume (and arguably some of the lyrics to “Willow Farm”) lie in the old children’s TV program The Flower Pot Men. This mixture of high and low usually leaned towards the high and, like Gay says of the Modernists, Genesis were interested in flaunting conventional sensibilities, at least of the rock establishment. For me, this mediation of the high and low really has great appeal. And I enjoy it not only in music, but in other arts as well, most notably, film. Many of my favorite movies walk this line between art film and conventional Hollywood fare.
Now I’m getting off track. Sorry, just a wee tangent.
Thanks to YouTube, we have some footage of TMB in action. First there’s “Watcher of the Skies”:
Next we have “The Battle of Epping Forest”:
Next is “Lover’s Leap”:
More bits from “Supper’s Ready”:
Some “Firth of Fifth”:
And lastly, the closing section of “The Musical Box”: