Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976



1. Part 1

2. Part 2

3. Part 3


.pdf (165 kb)


Versione italiana

:: Home :: :: Index :: :: Workshop :: :: Search:: :: Staff ::

Following several more unexpected chromatic twists and turns (not shown in the example), the Mellotron introduction finally settles back in to the opening two-chord vamp, at which point the other instruments — guitar, bass, and drums — are layered into the texture, building a gigantic crescendo into the beginning of the song proper. Example 1b shows a simplified transcription of the song’s main groove. (8) The term “groove” has long been used by pop and rock musicians to describe the repetitive rhythmic foundation upon which a song is built: for example, musicians speak of “locking in the groove” or “playing in the pocket” — which, of course, is a good thing, meaning that all the band members are somehow working in synch with one another. In an attempt to formalize the term for purposes of music analysis, I have elsewhere defined groove as “the tapestry of riffs — usually played by the drums, bass, rhythm guitar and/or keyboard in some combination — that work together to create the distinctive rhythmic/harmonic backdrop which identifies a song.” (Spicer, 2004: 30) The main groove to Watcher of the Skies typifies a favorite, almost formulaic, type of texture to which Genesis would resort time and time again in their songs, what I will call a “pedal-point groove.” In a pedal-point groove, the bass and drums work together to create a driving rhythmic ostinato — such as the one based on the Morse-code-like staccato riff in this example — where, from a harmonic standpoint, the bass remains static on the tonic as chords move above the bass at varying speeds (I have identified these chords in two ways, both with conventional lead-sheet labels and a functional Roman numeral analysis below the staff). By the late 1970s and early 1980s, pedal-point grooves such as this had become a well-worn cliché of progressive rock as they had of funk (think James Brown’s Sex Machine), and were already making frequent appearances in more commercial styles such as stadium rock (think Van Halen’s Jump) and synth-pop (think Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax). Yet despite the cliché, Genesis in my opinion remain the masters of the pedal-point groove. (9) Two other representative examples — both, coincidentally, in the key of D — are shown in Example 2.
The first is the main groove to Back in NYC, the opening track on Side 2 of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Example 2a). Like many of their compatriots in British progressive rock, Genesis were particularly fond of writing grooves in odd time signatures, and 7/8 was one of their favorite of these odd meters (one recalls, for example, the central keyboard solo in The Cinema Show, and the verse groove to Dance on a Volcano, among several other examples in 7/8 time). In Back in NYC, the bass thuds the tonic note like a heartbeat on the downbeat of every measure, while the synthesizer and guitar play a broken-chord riff in unison, changing the harmony every other measure. (10) The second is the groove that serves as the second chorus for Squonk from A Trick of the Tail (Example 2b). Here, the bass plays a frantic riff in mostly sixteenth notes — similar to the bass riff in Watcher of the Skies, accenting the tonic note in both its upper and lower octave — while this time the chords above the tonic pedal move much more rapidly. These “chords” are best thought of as a melody thickened with doublings in other voices rather than a true chord progression per se (notice that all of the chordal doublings in the Squonk chorus create major triads and are therefore fraught with cross relations, a feature quite typical of the harmonic language of rock).
While notated examples are a convenient way for us to examine the constituent riffs and harmonic design of these pedal-point grooves, they do nothing towards explaining the effects on the listener as these grooves are performed in real time: grooves, after all, are not fixed objects — they are designed to be repeated, and they make the body want to move. (11) Furthermore, I am guilty of leaving out entirely in my transcriptions one of the most important components of these grooves — namely, Phil Collins’s drums. There are many examples I could cite to illustrate the distinctive style of Collins’s drumming, but one more track from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Riding the Scree, will have to suffice (I refer the reader in particular to the 1975 live version of the Lamb available on the 1998 Genesis Archive 1967–75 CD boxed set). This entire track — which features at its opening a blistering Tony Banks keyboard solo on his lead synthesizer of choice in the mid-70s, the Arp Pro-Soloist — is underpinned by a relentless pedal-point groove in 9/8 time, irregularly subdivided as 2 + 2 + 2 + 3. Against Mike Rutherford’s incessant bass riff, it is Phil Collins’s drums that propel the groove forward in an ever-changing syncopated dialog with the bass (this is about as close to funk as any British progressive rock group would get). (12)
Before we move on, I’d like to make some additional remarks about Genesis’s harmonic language. As the Beatles had done before them, Genesis possessed an uncanny natural ability to mimic and assimilate other musical styles outside of rock and pop and transform them into something fresh and unique. Like the majority of rock musicians, none of the members of Genesis ever received any formal training in harmony or voice leading, and yet Tony Banks did take piano lessons for some time as a young teenager, during which he learned to play several classical pieces by Rachmaninov and other composers. (Gallo, 1980: 125) The style of Romantic piano music certainly seems to have rubbed off on Banks — indeed, another hallmark of the Genesis sound was his virtuosic keyboard solos, which often featured intricate chordal passagework and a highly erratic metric design, as in his piano introduction to Firth of Fifth from Selling England by the Pound, the opening bars of which are shown in Example 3. (13) I have sketched in a Roman numeral analysis below the staff in order to show that most of the chord changes in the Firth of Fifth intro fall entirely within what we might expect of the chromatic harmonic language of a nineteenth-century piano piece, with its frequent use of secondary dominants and modal mixture. However, when judged against the stylistic expectations of nineteenth-century harmony and voice leading, there are several “mistakes” — the “slash” chords in bars two and four, for example, and the chords with missing thirds in bar five. Like John Lennon’s paraphrasing of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in Because from Abbey Road (1969), the Firth of Fifth intro might be viewed then as an amalgam of the harmonic conventions of Romanticism and rock. (14)


For the remainder of this article, I shall focus on the 23-minute epic Supper’s Ready which occupies most of Side 2 of Foxtrot, an extraordinary composition that many Genesis aficionados tout as the group’s masterpiece. Peter Gabriel has said that “Supper’s Ready … was extremely important for the band, … a sort of centerpiece for our ambitions in terms of writing, and [our] most adventurous piece to date.” (15) Cast almost entirely in the first person, the seven interconnected tableaux of Supper’s Ready (see Figure 3) chronicle a young Englishman’s twisted vision of the apocalypse — the classic conflict of good against evil as seen through a decidedly British lens. As Edward Macan has rightly pointed out, one of the most memorable features of British progressive rock was “its fascination with epic subject matter drawn from science fiction, mythology, and fantasy literature” — not unlike the subject matter of many nineteenth-century operas. (Macan, 1997: 1) Indeed, over the course of the Foxtrot album we encounter several mythical, historical, and science fiction characters, such as the alien visitor to Earth in Watcher of the Skies (memorably represented in concert performances by Gabriel’s famous “bat wing” costume, as seen on the back cover of Genesis Live); King Canute, the medieval English king depicted in Can-Utility and the Coastliners; and Narcissus, Pythagoras, the Pied Piper, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ikhnaton, and even “Winston Churchill dressed in drag,” all of whom make an appearance during Supper’s Ready. (16) Interspersed within the lyrics in Figure 3 are program notes (shown in square brackets) written by Gabriel himself as an aid to understanding the story, taken from a handbill customarily distributed to audience members on the Foxtrot tour. Gabriel’s intentions here were perhaps merely practical rather than historical, yet one cannot ignore the strong echoes of nineteenth-century program music: one is reminded, for example, of the program written by Hector Berlioz to be distributed at performances of his Fantastic Symphony (1830).

In my earlier published article on Genesis (cited above), I offered a detailed analysis of each of the seven tableaux of Supper’s Ready, tracing the song’s unifying harmonic and thematic/motivic elements through an array of intertextual references to earlier styles and specific other pieces in order to highlight the important similarities and differences between multi-movement progressive rock works and large-scale works of the classical tradition. What follows is an abridged version — a “single edit,” if you will — of my prior analysis.
Like most of the individual sections of Supper’s Ready, the opening tableau Lover’s Leap exhibits a self-contained miniature form of its own (see Example 4): an eight-bar verse in classical period form — a four-bar antecedent phrase followed by a four-bar modulating consequent — is answered by a four-bar refrain. Dominating the accompaniment is a continuous sixteenth-note arpeggiated figure played by two acoustic 12-string guitars (only the lower part is transcribed here) — a favorite instrumental texture in early Genesis, and another defining feature of their idiolect. (17) The “organic” nature of this accompaniment — in which a distinctive shape is established in the first measure and then maintained on a bar-by-bar basis as the harmony changes, as we saw also in Back in NYC — is reminiscent of classical instrumental writing, recalling in particular the vivid piano accompaniments of nineteenth-century Lieder.

< 1 2 3 >