Watching the Skies: A Peter Gabriel-era Genesis Song Countdown

by Benjamin Ray

genesis_lambGenesis is a story of three bands, as has often been told. An art/prog-rock band fronted by Peter Gabriel that merged English folk, science fiction, fantasy, pop and rock into a cohesive, original sound in the 1970s. A prog-pop band fronted by drummer Phil Collins that tried to fit the first band’s sound into emerging pop and new wave trends in the late ’70s. And, finally, a pop band in the ’80s and early ’90s (also fronted by Collins) that sold millions of records, spawned massive tours, and seemingly betrayed most everything from the Gabriel years.

Listening to the bands together, or trying to rank them on the same scale, is a fool’s errand. “Supper’s Ready” and “Land of Confusion” are both good songs, but by different bands and for different reasons, and comparing them would make no sense to hardcore fans of either side. Having been a fan of the Gabriel era for far longer, though, I felt it prudent to just focus on that era, from the band’s formation at Charterhouse in the late ’60s up through The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (shortened to Lamb for this countdown), the last album/tour before Gabriel went solo.

As with all rankings, this is my personal opinion, and at times it may not align with your personal opinion or with conventional wisdom among other Genesis fans. Feel free to send in rebuttals if a favorite is ranked too low and make your case. Now, throw on your red dress and flower mask and let’s give it a go.

Not rated: “Genesis Plays Jackson,” 1970-1975: A true rarity, the only place to find the four instrumentals that make up this suite are on the Gabriel era 1970-1975 box set. They were written as the soundtrack to a BBC documentary featuring artist Michael Jackson (no, not that one), but never released, and so much of the music would be reused later on in different songs such as “Anyway,” “The Fountain of Salmacis” and “The Musical Box.” Because these are so hard to find and aren’t really finished songs per se, they fit outside the scope of this countdown, but they are worth mentioning for hardcore fans who need to hear everything.

54. “The Waiting Room,” Lamb: A complete waste of space, meant to fill up the album and give Peter Gabriel time to change costumes. The second part of the song is a standard jam, but the first half is a cacophony of random noise and avant-garde nonsense, the only time Genesis really went down this dead-end path. I get how it fits into the story, but that doesn’t make it worth listening to.

53. “Ravine,” Lamb: Two minutes of ambient whooshing noises, nothing more, simply to pass the time from one part of the story to the next and/or give Gabriel another costume change.

52. “Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats,” Lamb: See #53, except instead of two minutes, it’s three minutes.

51. “Aisle of Plenty,” Selling England By The Pound: A short coda that reprises the opening “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” and then fades on a short instrumental; the comedown after “The Cinema Show” and hardly a piece that needed to be its own track.

50. “Harlequin,” Nursery Cryme: Brief, inessential and twee British folk, and the sort of thing the band would quickly outgrow.

49. “Harold the Barrel,” Nursery Cryme: A disjointed, weird little number, proof that the band had a sense of humor after the rather serious Trespass, but little more.

48. “For Absent Friends,” Nursery Cryme: Notable only because this was Phil Collins’ first vocal as a member of Genesis, but otherwise this barely two-minute number is no more than a pleasant diversion between epics. It’s funny to hear this and then compare to the power and confidence of Phil’s voice on, say, “Mama” 12 years later.

47. From Genesis To Revelation: Maybe this is cheating, but the truth is that this album has all but been forgotten to time. Due to licensing issues, it was not part of the big CD remaster a while back, nor was it included in 1970-1975. The Archive box set devotes its fourth CD to unreleased songs from this era, and a listen to the album now (it’s on Spotify, at least) shows a tentative band that had an ear for melody and drama but were unsure how to express it. At this point, neither Phil Collins nor Steve Hackett were part of the band, and for all his charms, Anthony Phillips did not possess the muscle that was needed to drive Genesis forward. There is little to differentiate these songs from each other; only “Where The Sour Turns To Sweet” leaves some sort of impression.

46-45. “Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist,” & “Riding the Scree,” Lamb: Instrumental padding, doing nothing to really push the story along except in the titles, and not rising to the level of interest of other instrumental excursions. One wonders how good Lamb could have been had much of the second LP been trimmed.

44. “Broadway Melody of 1974,” Lamb: A clanking conclusion to “Fly On A Windshield,” just some power chords and Gabriel’s random pop-culture shoutouts and stream-of-consciousness lyrics, an early sign that this album and story are about to go off the rails.

43. “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging,” Lamb: Mildly interesting for Gabriel’s increasingly-urgent vocals in the chorus and his army of voices over Collins’ military drumming, with only some background keyboard adding color. Another weird entry on an album full of them.

42. “Time Table,” Foxtrot: We will discuss this album at other points farther up the list, and there’s really not a bad song on it, but this is the weakest of the six. It just bleats along pleasantly without really saying much.

41. “Happy The Man,” single: A rare Gabriel-era single, written for Nursery Cryme but left off because its rather upbeat acoustic mood and very simple lyrics wouldn’t have fit. “Like a nun with a gun, I’m wonderful fun,” sings Gabriel, completely straight. Not sure what the guys were thinking here.

40. “Hairless Heart,” Lamb: Another short instrumental, very slow, but with a mild sense of drama in Tony Banks’ keyboards, and an actually necessary musical transition between the songs that precede and follow it.

39. “Seven Stones,” Nursery Cryme: An attempt to be dramatic, falling short in execution and not standing out musically except for the wordless bridge sections. The story is mildly interesting, but Genesis did this sort of thing better elsewhere.

38. “After The Ordeal,” Selling England By The Pound: Something was needed to link the two epics on the back half of this album, and so this four-minute instrumental was created, half a Victorian chamber song and half a slow jam. I imagine it’s a bit like the piano conclusion to “Layla” in theory, but in execution it just sort of sits there. The first half is more interesting and would have made a more sensible lead-in to “The Cinema Show.”

37-34. “Cuckoo Cocoon,” “The Light Dies Down On Broadway,” “The Lamia,” “Lilywhite Lilith,” Lamb: As noted earlier, Lamb would have been better as a single album. I’m in the camp that this was too much of a good thing and that Gabriel had to leave after this because there was nowhere else for him and Genesis to go. When people say they like this album, it’s likely because of the better songs on it; it’s hard to imagine anyone picking any of these four mediocre entries as a highlight of the album. They’re solid, they’re fine, they won’t ever make a best-of list and they weren’t played live after the Lamb tour ended.

33. “Looking For Someone,” Trespass: Only one year removed from their debut, Genesis suddenly discovered the dramatic potential in their songwriting. The Trespass album is full of moments of Gabriel’s high-pitched vocals, drum buildups, overlaid choral voices, church organ punctuations and an art rock sensibility (fueled with a bit of doom-laden Christian faith). This song is probably the weakest of the bunch, but it’s not bad if this is your thing.

32. “More Fool Me,” Selling England By The Pound: Collins’ second vocal on record, mildly better than his first, still sounding tentative in the overlong chorus but coming to life in the verse. It doesn’t fit with the album nor does it have much confidence, but it is the first time the band’s lyrics concerned something more down-to-Earth (a breakup, or being friend-zoned, something like that), a hint of what was to come only a few years down the road.

31. “Visions Of Angels,” Trespass: See #33. This one gets the nudge only because the wordless vocal harmonizing over the end is quite nice.

30. “In The Rapids,” Lamb: Musically, this is brief and inessential. Lyrically, though, it’s the climax of Rael’s story, an action-packed song where he rescues his brother from the river and sees his own face instead of John’s. Listeners interpret this to mean that by saving his brother, Rael also saved himself and his soul.

29. “The Colony Of Slippermen,” Lamb: Some may disagree with putting this so low, as it’s the last big set piece on the album, but I’ve always seen it as disjointed and unmemorable. Banks allows himself a synthesizer solo halfway through, and this particular snippet would get resurrected into a medley that the band would play well into the 80s when they whipped out the “old stuff.” But the rest sounds just like the band going through the motions, unsure how to cohere this into a real, memorable suite.

28. “Stagnation,” Trespass: Takes way too long to get going, but then various fragments get interesting and the song climaxes with a confident closing section. This was always an early live favorite, and though it was shortly dropped, the climax would live on in various medleys for the rest of the decade.

27. “The Chamber Of 32 Doors,” Lamb: There’s a melancholy to this song, Gabriel’s voice breaking to vent Rael’s sadness and frustration at his predicament, that renders it more interesting than it might be otherwise.

26. “Dusk,” Trespass: The demo version with the metronome on Archive is better, but the finished version is pretty good too, taking the sort of pleasant English folk that was so prevalent in the band’s early work but letting each verse build in intensity with laden echo and the church organ, not to mention Gabriel’s flute solo.

25. “The Battle Of Epping Forest,” Selling England By The Pound: About the only epic of the band’s early days that never got much love on stage; at one point, one of the band members said that the vocals were all sung over the more interesting instrumental parts. It doesn’t build to as much musically as it should, but lyrically it’s one of Gabriel’s more interesting real-world takes, a satirical look at fighting (not war as much as property disputes and the like), ending with both sides having all their fighters die and the outcome being determined by the leaders flipping a coin. If you wondered where “Games Without Frontiers” came from in 1983, this was the start of it.

24. “Back In NYC,” Lamb: You either love or hate this one, I think. It’s as bare-bones as Genesis ever got, but not in a folk way, just a harsh drum pattern, some skittering keyboard and Gabriel shouting his lyrics; the effect is nearly proto-punk. At this point in the story Rael is a messed-up kid, the lyrics making references to arson, rape and gang violence, but also his tough childhood in the Pontiac (an orphanage or home of some sort). You don’t think of Genesis as the type of band to pull off a song like this, but it somehow works.

23. “Twilight Alehouse,” B-side: This one could have fit on Cryme with its weird vibe and depiction of a lonely alcoholic, and would have been better than most of side 2. A hidden gem of these early days, if you’re a fan and can find it.

22. “Going Out To Get You,” demo: First released on Archive, then again on 1970-1975 as one of the only songs of those early days that had an actual pulse. Banks’ piano rollicks and rolls as the driving force of the song, though it lacks a solid structure. The band would try to rework it as a rocker on only three known live dates, eventually giving up altogether. It’s a neat little tune though that would have made the band’s debut far more interesting.

21. “White Mountain,” Trespass: Overly dramatic, cut into three sections, with an aura of wintry doom that these British prog-rock bands were so good at creating in the early ’70s. Gabriel sings for all he’s worth.

20. “Horizons,” Foxtrot: Some simply see this as a lead-in to “Supper’s Ready,” but that’s not fair to Steve Hackett. This is an absolutely gorgeous acoustic guitar solo, only two minutes long, but captivating all the same. Maybe Banks and Gabriel were the public faces and brains of the band, but Hackett was the soul, and when he left in 1976 they lost something more than just a guitar player.

19. “Counting Out Time,” Lamb: Also released as a single, and for once it actually kind of sounded like one, a cheerful prog-pop number about sex. “Erogenous zones, I love you / Without you what would a poor boy do?” asks Gabriel as Rael.

18. “It,” Lamb: Just as the album opened, it closes with a straight-ahead rocker to end the story and Gabriel’s time with the band. It’s a fine song.

17. “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” Foxtrot: One of the great things about Genesis was their ability to tell stories and create characters, often with a sense of humor and a touch of the supernatural or macabre. This is one such tune, offering a solution to overpopulation by simply shrinking humans to four feet tall, and then advising them to “invest in the church for your heaven.” Great sociological satire, set to Banks’ chugging keyboard stabs, marred only by the meandering final couple minutes.

16. “Anyway,” Lamb: Maybe a surprising choice to be this high, but that repetitive piano riff is just catchy, and the instrumental midsection is a good one.

15. “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” Selling England By The Pound: As distinctly British as these guys ever got, a slice of life with a distinct character and the observations of those around him, the lyrics inspired by a painting. It’s an oddball tune, but it actually charted, and even after Gabriel left the band played a longer, looser version of it that segued into the end of “Stagnation” (as heard on Seconds Out).

14. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” Lamb: The title track announces itself as a scaling back – musically, anyway – of the weirdness and detours of the previous albums. It’s relatively straightforward, at least for Genesis, although lyrically the listener is already behind the eight-ball.

13. “Return Of The Giant Hogweed,” Nursery Cryme: In which a simple news story of an invasive plant becomes a sort of sci-fi trip, with a pulse not present on earlier Genesis works and a very loud, repetitive six-note instrumental coda that the band really leaned into on Genesis Live.

12. “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight,” Selling England by the Pound: A lot going on here. Gabriel sets the theme of the album with a lovely a cappella vocal intro, then the song goes through several twists and turns before a slow, moody fadeout. It’s such growth from Nursery Cryme only two years prior, and it cemented the original sound that these guys had…less show-off than ELP, more approachable than Yes, funnier than King Crimson.

11. “The Musical Box,” Nursery Cryme: At first this seems like a louder continuation of Trespass, but then Gabriel’s vocals get more confident and, around the four-minute mark, the drums start galloping and the guitars roar to life and this is suddenly a different band. It’s prog-art-rock by any other name, but Phil Collins and Steve Hackett had announced themselves to the world, and suddenly Genesis got a lot more interesting… and louder.

10. “Fly On A Windshield,” Lamb: It’s only two and a half minutes, but the instrumental section that comprises the second half of the song is one of the band’s best, a pulsating, deliberate Mellotron/guitar duet with Collins’ cymbals constantly crashing around. It’s effective at pulling the listener early into the album.

9. “Watcher Of The Skies,” Foxtrot: Banks takes point on this one with a slow (as if there is any other kind) Mellotron introduction, before the band comes in behind him with force, finally leaving behind the tentativeness and twee whimsy that cluttered the previous three albums in spots. Collins drives the song (a sci-fi tale about aliens or something), and for a couple years it was the setlist opener, then occasionally popped up later in the decade in Hackett’s waning days with the band. 

8. “The Fountain Of Salmacis,” Nursery Cryme: Some may prefer “The Musical Box” as the pre-eminent song from the album, but I always felt this was better simply because it was more dramatic, had a better introduction and did away with the cloying whimsy of the opener and the “old king Cole” midsection of the former song. There’s an actual story here, a great mid-song buildup and an overall sense of gravity. It’s one of the pillars of an uneven album and one that Genesis tribute projects keep returning to; check out Genesis Revisited for a great take on this (and most of the songs in this top 20).

7. “The Knife”: Trespass: Sounding nothing like what had come before it up to this point, Genesis in 1970 let loose with a proto-punk (by way of mannered British art school, mind you) track. The first half and closing section are a strident call to arms; the midsection drags a bit, but it’s a welcome reminder that these guys could have an edge if they tried. But what really brought the song to life (and so high on this list) was the live versions with Hackett and Collins, who ratcheted up the power of the song; Gabriel increased his intensity (he would stage dive into the crowd, and once actually hurt himself doing so, during this number), and it became a classic.

6. “Can-Utility And The Coastliners,” Foxtrot: Considered a lesser song on an album that is bookended by two classics, this one is ripe for a re-listen. The first two minutes and closing are similar to the dull “Time Table,” but the instrumental section blows it out of the water, Banks playing his moody Mellotron over Hackett’s insistent strummed 12-string guitar. It’s two of the best minutes of the band’s career, to be honest. There’s a YouTube video of a Genesis tribute band with Tool drummer Danny Carey sitting in playing this song, proof of the influence these guys had on the next generation. Hackett also re-recorded it for his own Genesis Revisited project in 2013, if you’re curious.

5. “The Carpet Crawlers,” Lamb: Long a fan favorite, and it’s hard to explain why; there’s just a mood here, a slow burn that’s also soothing and that Gabriel sings very well. Collins would sing it on Seconds Out and then bring it back for the live Europe tour in 2007. He and Gabriel also reunited, briefly, in 1999 to re-record it together for their greatest hits CD, so it has staying power for the band members as well.

4. “The Cinema Show,” Selling England By The Pound: Really, this is two songs, and the instrumental section is the one everyone remembers. The first half is more of a pastoral love story, fitting with the English folk and storytelling themes of the album, but then Banks comes in with probably his most memorable keyboard solo and the song becomes enthralling. For the rest of the band’s career, this second half would be played consistently, first as its own song, then (when the band became a pop trio) as part of a medley with “In The Cage,” with Banks never changing the solo. He didn’t need to.

3. “Supper’s Ready,” Foxtrot: The big one, the band’s 23-minute sidelong epic. Everyone ’70s prog band had to have one (except Yes, which had to have six, but that’s another story). It’s the only song I know of that starts with a couple turning on a TV and ends with the Apocalypse of mankind. The song confidently moves through seven distinct parts but all feels unified; the stomping, surreal, comedic “Willow Farm” is perhaps the only part that feels disparate, but it is a necessary break between the more serious sections that surround it (plus, Gabriel got to wear a giant flower mask and dance, so there’s that). The live version on Archive is worth seeking out; Collins’ take on the song on Seconds Out was fine, but this was Gabriel’s showpiece, and the song didn’t survive into the pop era. This is often considered the pinnacle of the early days, and once you’re into the intense, jagged prog of “Apocalypse in 9/8,” it’s hard not to see why.

2. “In The Cage,” Lamb: Not only the best moment of the Lamb rock opera, not only one of the band’s best songs, but about the only Gabriel-era song that Phil Collins sang better. It’s an intense song, dispensing with theatrics, the skittish keyboard motif never letting the listener get settled in order to experience the disorientation Rael is feeling at this point. Banks gets a solid solo before returning to the main theme, but the paranoia is real and gripping. Collins was able to maintain this feeling but sing it more forcefully, and as a result the song stayed in the setlist for the rest of the band’s career, even through the ’80s pop era and the 2007 reunion, often as the lead-in to the back half of “The Cinema Show.” It was obvious the band had fully outgrown their roots at this point, and the song is a masterpiece.

1. “Firth Of Fifth,” Selling England By The Pound: Progressive rock tends to focus more on the flash and pizzazz, on odd lyrics and weird timings, and as such it can lose the soul of a piece of music. Nowhere in Genesis’ early catalog is soul more evident than in the guitar solo of “Firth of Fifth,” Steve Hackett’s finest moment with the band. Rolling Stone, of all places, notched it in their Top 100 countdown some years ago. The classical piano introduction is requisite to the piece as well – subsequent live versions would omit this, sadly – and the vocal section is fairly standard Genesis, but the solo (first keyboards, then Hackett’s lovely guitar, both backed by a solid rhythm section) is what lifts this song to another level. If I only had one Genesis song to listen to for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

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