The late, great jazz master Charles Mingus once said that “creativity is more than just being different… what’s hard is to be as simple as Bach”. Jazz as a genre of course is second to none as a creative outlet but while creativity can come in many forms, it is hard to argue against progressive rock being a close second. Forging from pop roots Genesis quickly established themselves as a genuine progressive act with their second album Trespass, jumping aboard the bandwagon popularised by King Crimson et al. just one year previously.
Clearly this was a large transformation for such a young band, and although Trespass wasn’t a bad album it suffered from overly elaborate arrangements and embryonic compositions. Discarding the flak Genesis underwent a few major line-up changes, not least the introduction of Phil Collins on drums, and classic-era Genesis was born. With new personnel the group would go on to take the still infant progressive rock scene to new heights, and they marked this new epoch with their first glorious exemplar, Nursery Cryme.
Both adventurous in design and imaginative in presentation, Nursery Cryme purveys a deeply pensive aura through its delicate instrumentation which provides a vessel for Peter Gabriel’s commanding vocals. The beauty is in the detail; subdued brass and woodwind passages intermittently punctuate the wailing guitar riffs and gentle organ melodies bringing additional depth to the music, and yet it all seems so simple. This veil of simplicity shrouds the few audible mistakes and even these feel calculated, serving in creating a personable atmosphere for Gabriel to hypnotise through his surreal narrative.
From the crooning folk verses of Seven Stones to the audaciously theatrical stanzas of prog-rock epic The Return of the Giant Hogweed, quaint storylines pervade the music injecting further charm and character into the record. It sounds eccentric, and at times it borders on plain silly, but throughout Gabriel retains a vice-like grip on his audience, aided by the outstanding pacing of the tracks.
The first of many flagship moments throughout Nursery Cryme arrives in the form of the genre-defining, microcosmic opener The Musical Box. Rivalling King Crimson’s Epitaph as the gold-standard for symphonic prog, this ten minute arrangement illustrates regions of profound technical prowess and an acute manipulation of tempos and timbres enhance the atmosphere; refining convoluted meanderings into complimentary movements.
This is far from the only example of genius however, with a diverse range of techniques unique to every track. Saccharine-dosed, folksy numbers are just as common as the progressive excesses and display a wholly different side to the band. Restrained duo Harlequin and Seven Stones rely heavily on eerie organ melodies, and the introduction of an acoustic guitar passage in the former compliments the vocal harmonies of Gabriel and Collins, leading to another distinctive aesthetic.
Whether it was the influence of Charisma label-mates Van Der Graaf Generator, with whom Genesis toured profoundly whilst writing this album, or a fundamental desire to utilize a far greater range of auditory talents is open to debate, but the introduction of heavier passages and a denser atmosphere amplified the bands strengths and would become the blueprint for their subsequent masterpieces. The track structure, musical aptitude and songwriting would all be perfected in years to come but sometimes it takes a truly exceptional album in order for a band to realise their potential, and without Nursery Cryme expanding the band’s boundaries then it is possible Selling England by the Pound would never have been made.
With this in mind, as a precursor to greater things, Nursery Cryme is a resoundingly accomplished record encompassing some of the very best prog-rock endeavours with all the gall and ingenuity of youth. Moreover, it is a masterfully crafted, well-paced soundtrack containing numerous highlights, expansive textures and even a hint of satire and never a dull moment.
As with Yes, record number 3 represented the “big leap” for Genesis. Phil Collins and Steve Hackett entered, bringing with them instrumental skill that the band oh-so-badly needed – in fact, this album is easily the second-most guitar-heavy of Genesis’ career, as all of Hackett’s tricks are on prominent display at just the right times. The progressive nature of the compositions began to enter full flight, as the band contributed three musical masterpieces in the epics. And, most of all, Gabriel finally discovered his incredible sense of the absurd, as his lyrics became more intricate and more entertaining than ever before. And that absurdity even reaches to the album cover – I may perhaps be all wet here, but I’m almost positive that the girl holding the mallet represents Gabriel, the other woman on wheels the producer, and the heads lying on the ground the other band members.
Ah yes, it also introduces us to the human-head croquet game that underpins the story of epic number one, The Musical Box. Ignoring the music just for a moment, the story Gabriel creates here is nothing short of sheer brilliance – not just the fact that it’s so strange, but the way in which he makes it impossible to truly determine who the ‘hero’ is. I mean, Cynthia lopped off Henry’s head with a mallet, but Henry comes back as an old man and rapes Cynthia. Who do you root for here??!! Is the ending tragic? A victory? The answer, of course, is that it’s neither (even the giant musical climax at the end doesn’t really betray the nature of the piece), and that it is the first of many glorious enigmas that Peter would paint for us.
But if it were just the story that were so cool, the song would lose much of its power. No, it is truly the music itself that makes this the classic it is. The vocal melodies in the beginning and middle are beautiful but sadly pleading, while the Elizabethan Folk nature of the music alternately soothes and tenses the listener. And, of course, the faster instrumental breaks are just marvelous. Hackett is the star, no question about it, and even Tony Banks is willing to reduce the role of his regular keyboard style in the jams, often using them as a feedback supplement for Steve and Mike (it’s really cool to watch a live performance of this song and realize that all of the loudest and most abrasive sounds are actually coming from Tony’s keys, and that they actually work). And again, Steve’s guitar parts are absolutely incredible – fast enough to satisfy one’s need to hear shredding, but also impeccably constructed and written.
And, of course, we have the grand finale, with Peter once again the main star, screaming in the guise of an old man, “Why don’t you TOUCH ME, TOUCH ME, TOUCH ME, TOUCH ME, TOUCH ME, TOUCH ME NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!” Granted, he could get a little gross with this part on stage, but there’s no denying that this conclusion is one of the most overwhelmingly moving moments in the history of rock music.
Unfortunately, the album is somewhat inconsistent from this point onwards. The other two epics are marvelous, but most of the shorter songs are, well, kinda lame. Well, except Harold the Barrel, of course, with Peter singing the story of man about to jump off a ledge. The music is hilarious, maniacally slamming from one up-tempo theme to another while we hear things like old Mrs. Barrel singing “Your shirt’s all dirty and there’s a man here from the BBC – You just can’t jump.” But the other short songs, again, stink. For Absent Friends (with Collins’ first-ever lead-vocal in Genesis) and Harlequin mostly escape me every time I hear them, and Seven Stones isn’t really better. The lyrics are pretentious without being entertaining (I’ll bet dollars-to-dimes that Tony wrote them!!), and the only part of the song that has ever fascinated me is the pretty mellotron part at the end.
No matter, though – the other two epics rule. Return of the Giant Hogweed, the heart-warming story of a race of weeds that take over the earth, is utterly fabulous and hilarious, from the feedback-drenched rolling guitar lines of the beginning to the ludicrously complex melody and chorus structure to the interesting jamming in the middle. Even Tony’s playing doesn’t seem as annoying here, as the main keyboard riff is quite entertaining. And, of course, Peter’s singing, from the “Turn and run!” etc. screams of the beginning, to the ‘Dance of the Giant Hogweed’ at the end, when the weeds finally win their battle and Peter cries “Mighty Hogweed is avenged! Human bodies soon will know our anger! Kill them with your Hogweed hairs! Heracleum Mantegazziani!” is entertaining beyond words.
And, finally, we have Fountain of Salmacis, lyrics by Mike, which tells the story of the creation of Hermaphrodites. The lyrics are straight-forward, without too much ‘commentary’ or anything pretentious like that, with Peter making you feel for the ‘hero’ with cries like “Where are you father? Give wisdom to your son” or “Away from me cold-blooded woman, your thirst is not mine!”. And some (though not really most) of the instrumental parts are cool too – there’s a little too much Tony for me (though I must say the mellotron/organ fade-in, which gets reprised several time in the song, is very beautiful), and it sounds really strange in the mid-song jam when it sounds like he’s playing a baseball organ, but Steve, when he’s around, knocks your socks off. The simple guitar flourish at the beginning of the jam, in particular, as he slowly creeps between the speakers while building tension with an ominous call from his guitar, wows me flat every time I hear it.
So what of all this? This is certainly the biggest breakthrough of Genesis’ career, as the positive aspects of the band are shown in full for the first time – but there are also still negatives. The occasional dose of lackluster songwriting, falling back on simple acoustic patterns that only try to rely on ‘atmosphere’ instead of actual music content, not to mention the fact that only three of the songs bare the obvious stamp of Gabriel’s lyrics, drags down the rating ever so slightly. But don’t get me wrong – you should definitely get this. It’s just that you should probably get the next few albums first …
This is where the ‘classic Genesis formula’ finally falls into place, together with the acquisition of new guitarist Steve Hackett and new drummer Phil Collins – the cute little bald chappie with probably the most unpredictable career in the whole history of rock/pop. Back then, though, he did have all of his hair firmly in place and rarely ventured onto the steep path of singing, much less songwriting… oh man, those were the days. Not that I have any hard feelings towards Phil (except for ruining Clapton’s career in the mid-Eighties, that is), but somehow he always looks more favourable on photos dating back to, say, nineteen seventy-three, than any time in the present. But let’s get on with reviewing, shall we?
The new guys do contribute a lot of interesting stuff to the band’s sound, from Phil’s mature prog-rolls to Hackett’s professional soloing (that is, when he does get a chance to do some soloing, which isn’t that often, and even then he managed to procure himself an elaborate pedal which makes his guitar sound just like it was another of Tony’s synths). But it’s neither Collins nor Hackett that manage to beef up the rating for the record. Rather it is Gabriel’s lyrics, which have finally matured to the point of being able to successfully compete with the lyrical brand of such cultural heroes as Pete Sinfield, Keith Reid or Jon Anderson, and, I’m not afraid to say it, to beat them at it.
The material is divided here into two groups: the three lengthy, pretentious marathons (‘Musical Box’, ‘Return Of The Giant Hogweed’, ‘Fountain Of Salmacis’), balanced by a handful of shorter, not-so-pretentious ballads and suchlike. Those of you who hate lengthy pretentious prog rock, however, won’t get much of the shorter numbers. See, at some point Gabriel obviously decided that the simple pop tunes he proved himself master of on FGTR were way too obsolete and dated (hey! that’s what everybody else says about it, isn’t it? but not me!), so he eliminated them and preferred to concentrate himself on weird verse structures and chord progressions that are so complicated it kinda makes you sorry about what you thought of that last Beach Boys album… What I’m trying to tell you, actually, is that these shorter numbers might sound nice, but none of them are memorable in the least – no matter how you try to get into them, all you’ll be left in the end is some crazy background noise. While you’re in, though, you might just as well enjoy it.
‘Harlequin’, while not possessing any distinct melody or distinct hooks, is at least pretty, in the Genesis vibe, and ‘Harold The Barrel’ is just a fantastic tune, sounding slightly like a medieval Brit folk song, but only slightly: it almost looks like it was built on a “cut-and-paste” principle, with several different melodies cut in little pieces and slapped one over another in a fashion that seems ugly and strained at first, but turns out to be brilliantly executed in the end. Of course, all this contributes to the tune’s utter unmemorability, but the individual mini-pieces are all perfectly written and joined together. I kinda enjoy the actual story, too, though I admit it’s a little hard to understand why Harold the Barrel was going to jump out of the window… ‘For Absent Friends’ and ‘Seven Stones’ kinda suck, though, both the melodies and the lyrics. Can’t really enjoy them. Somewhat sloppy, if you ask me. Somewhat senseless, if you ask me, too. Come on now, what is ‘Seven Stones’ about, with its unclear images with unclear purposes? Sounds like a Trespass outtake to me. Oh, and for the record ‘For Absent Friends’ features the first ever apparition of Phil Collins in the role of lead singer, but that hardly improves the song.
Now, about the three lengthy marathons. These will take a really long time to get into, but you might do that, and once you do, you’ll be happy about it. The lyrics are mostly swell – Lewis Carroll rip-offs with elements of black humour and gothic mystery on ‘Musical Box’, a fantazmo sci-fi horror tale on ‘Giant Hogweed’, and a lovely Greek myth about the Hermaphrodite set to music on ‘Salmacis’. Out of these, ‘Hogweed’ is my favourite: the way that Gabriel recreates the atmosphere of panic created by the onslaught of the ‘giant hogweed’ against the planet is purely intoxicating, with the screams of ‘turn and run! stamp them out! waste no time! strike by night!’ being the most groovy part. Even the synths feel right in their place here, and the guitar/synth duet in the intro is amazing – an ultra-complex riff played at lightning speed in complete unison. And the main melody is, well, it kinda resembles something in between a music-hall tune and a martial rhythm. Very complex, yet very solid and memorable in the end.
But I also respect ‘Musical Box’ (a long-time fan favourite) for its beauty and, in part, even Pink Floyd-ian moments (the alternation of quiet and loud in the line ‘and I see… and I feel… and I touch… THE WALL!’ are certainly Wall-ish). And, finally, ‘Salmacis’ is just slick, with really talented and meaningful lyrics (after all, this is nothing but a retelling of an old Greek myth) and decent music. But, as you can see, my bet is on Gabriel more than anyone else. Only his singing can make these tunes come to life. So, when the instrumental parts (and they’re not that short, I tell you) take over, you’ll be bored, I tell you, unless it’s a rare case of an expert Steve Hackett solo (he’s especially demonic on ‘Musical Box’). You – will – be – bored. Why? Because Gabriel and Hackett are the only real virtuosos in the band, that’s why. And let me tell you that, as much as I respect (or don’t respect) Phil Collins, he absolutely was not the perfect choice for a vocalist. Sure, his voice does sound a lot like Gabriel’s, but he’s got a lot less of a range, and he can never make a record come alive just by the sheer abilities of his vocal cords, as Gabriel often does. Oh, but that comes on later. Sorry.
Before they could complete their third album Genesis had to move a couple of rocks out of their way up. Despite losing guitarist Anthony Phillips and drummer John Mayhew the band was self-confident enough to start looking for new musicians instead of splitting up.
One of their ads in Melody Maker was spotted by Phil Collins, a drummer who was looking for a new challenge: “Tony Stratton-Smith requires drummer sensitive to acoustic music and 12-string guitar”. It prompted him to ask for an audition with the band he did not know. Tony Stratton-Smith also told him that the band were looking for a new guitarist, so Phil brought his colleague from his former band Flaming Youth, Ronnie Caryl, to the audition. Phil had the advantage of being able to listen to his contestants, noticed their weaknesses and realized what exactly was wanted from him. His qualities seem to have overshadowed those of the other dozen or so drummers who auditioned, and so he got the job with Genesis. His friend Ronnie Caryl, however, did not – he played just one gig as Genesis guitarist.
While they were still looking for a suitable guitarist the quartet used the following weeks for rehearsals in an old drying house called The Maltings in Farnham. Tony remembers: “For a time it was quite terrifying to play as a four-piece. It probably was the time when I developed most as a musician – when I had to play two parts simultaneously on stage. I had to play all the guitar parts on my e-piano, and I distorted that sound to simulate an e-guitar.” Mike, too, felt the pressure: “It was difficult for Tony and me, but at the same time I think it was quite a good phase … I think Tony was under the pressure of having to play lots of Ant’s material as well… I was used to working with another guitarist, and suddenly I realized that I had to work much harder. And yes, that improved my playing.
It was difficult to play some of the old piece with just me and Tony as instrumentalists.” While Tony was struggling with his new duties the others were happy about the newcomer in the band: “Something definitely changed when Phil joined the band. He was a real drummer – something I had never been too convinced of with Chris Stewart and John Mayhew”, says Peter Gabriel, and Mike agreed: “When Phil joined the drumming became very important. It added another dimension, which is possible with the drums if they are played well and right.”
It was in this period that an important piece of music was born: “The last song we wrote as a four-piece, was The Musical Box, and it was already quite close to how it ended up on Nursery Cryme, only without the guitar part”, says Tony – obviously that would be difficult without a guitarist. With many gigs to promote Trespass coming up it soon showed that the interim solution of playing as a quartet was not really a long-term option, so they tried out guitarist Mick Barnard. He, too, proved to be just another interim solution. Says Mike: “Somehow it did not work out with Mick. He was good, though, and he got better with time. He toured some six months with us … We had to find someone who was different. We were in contact with, believe it or not, some eighty guys…” Their search finally ended when they reacted to Steve Hackett’s ad in the Melody Maker. Steve described the first encounter with this colleagues-to-be: “It did not really feel like an audition because Pete and Tony came home to me.
I played them a couple of things with my brother. I met them as individuals, played them a couple of songs and the interaction went from there, really.” The rehearsals for the show offered the band time to get used to the new line-up, and after a couple of months on the road they were ready to write the next album. They spent just about the whole summer of 1971 at Luxford House, Tony Stratton-Smith’s place in Crowborough, Surrey.
Mike: “Soon after Steve had joined the band we began writing Nursery Cryme. It was a very difficult album because we all had to adjust to each other. Taking Steve on tour and having him play the songs we wrote as a four-piece was one thing, but filling Ant’s role as a composer was an entirely different thing.” Tony also realized that times had changed: “Nursery Cryme was a difficult album. We had played everything from Trespass live, so we had lots of material to choose from. But except for The Musical Box, which was a live favourite, … we had not really written anything new…” He also found that the writing process had changed with two new hands aboard: “When someone got excited about something we would react by playing along to it.
That was the way we used to work. I think it is okay to say that Steve and Phil did not really feel up to that, particularly in the early days. They were the new boys, after all, while the three of us were something of a clique.” Peter noticed that, too: “We found it difficult to give up some of our territory… Steve was the first who started to assert himself and bring in songs. Some of them we liked, many we did not. I think this was partly because Steve was less able to manipulate the rest of the band than us.” Steve described the new situation in the Genesis collective: “The difference was – before we had always been good mates in a band, but we were not necessarily friends but rather colleagues. We were a team, and we went through many exhausting moments which frequently made me wonder whether I was up to the job.” It was the first time that he would have influence and some sort of control over an album.
Because of the readjustments Nursery Cryme was one of the albums the band found far more difficult to write than the others – and more controversial to boot. The lyrics grow richer, humour is far more important than on the previous album, but musically the band had not broken new ground since Trespass, despite two fifths of the band being new. It seems that their label Charisma thought the same. They were supposed to release the album. Says Tony: “I think one of the most depressing things about Nursery Cryme was the lack of feedback from the record company. They did not seem to really like it. Looking back I would say it is my least favourite album, and only The Musical Box and Fountain Of Salmacis make up for it as far as I am concerned.”
Phil, who was probably the musician with the most experience in arranging things offers a similar view: “Nursery Cryme is not one of my favourites. It sounds as if everone were playing the keyboards with both hands. There are fat chords, two guitars and a really big drum sound. Peter’s voice was big, too, and all in all it sounded it all those big things had been squeezed onto this small bit of tape.” Mike also compares it to the later album Selling England By The Pound: “… there were a couple of very strong highlights, but also some weaker songs.” The album – its title is actually a pun on “nursery rhyme” and “crime” –, like its predecessor, was recorded and produced in Trident studios, London, by John Anthony and released among little promotion in November ’71. Their hope to achieve their breakthrough with this record was small, and so they focused on increasing their fan community by playing live gigs. Soon, however, good news would unexpectedly reach the band…
I believe this is the first progressive song I ever heard and it began a life long love affair with this music. Genesis’ Nursery Cryme begins with “The Musical Box.” It is one of the all time great prog rock songs and is still played in some form by the band on even the most recent tours, and tribute bands (of which there are many) cannot perform without at least a nod to this. It is a mix of dynamics with light and shade throughout its over ten minutes. “Musical Box” is full of 12-string guitars and powerful electric, almost a textbook lesson in prog songwriting. I had never heard music this beautiful before. Upon hearing this for the first time, I knew I had heard “my” band.
This was also the first album for Steve Hackett and Phil Collins who would both become integral parts of the music industry for years to come. They both bring forth really good performances on this album, and we are even treated to a rare early vocal performance by Phil on the quiet “For Absent Friends.” Hackett has great moments on “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and “The Fountain of Salmacis.” Not forgetting anyone else here the Mellotron drenched “Seven Stones,” “Return of the Giant Hogweed” and the amazing “Fountain of Salmacis” drive home the talents of Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford as well.
Peter Gabriel was really finding his voice and developing his theatrical talents at the time and the stories he is telling are designed to put on a show. “Harold the Barrel” is hands-down my favorite “silly” song by the band. It has funny voices and call & answer sections as it reveals a story of a man drawing a crowd while standing on the ledge ready to jump. The addition of Collins not only as a top-notch drummer, but as a vocalist really help out on Nursery Cryme, as this song and the sweet harmonies on “Harlequin” confirm.
Compositional and songwriting skills were at their peak beginning here. Playing ability and recording techniques would get even better later. I’m not certain about this, but I don’t think you can be a progressive rock fan and not have at least one Gabriel-era Genesis album in your collection. I think it’s pretty much a rule. Although I might pick the next album 1972’s Foxtrot over this, you can’t go wrong with Nursery Cryme as a seminal work from an inspirational band. They are setting standards here for themselves and the prog community for years to come.