What comes to mind when someone brings up a progressive rock concept album? Keyboards, for sure. Labyrinthine narrative structures, definitely. An intellectual earnestness that fluctuates between the pretentious and the downright naive, check. Chops, absolutely. Rampant egotism, usually captured best in ponderous interviews (though sometimes off the cuff outbursts at unappreciative but paying audience members do the trick), right. Awesome album art and unclear liner notes, yes. British (maybe even Canadian) origins, most likely. Finally, the real signature bullet point is ambition, which is commonly paired with excessive control on the part of one (or more – and it there’s more than one then they’re typically at odds) true-sighted dude with stringy haired (most likely bearded) seen almost exclusively smoking cigarettes inside a recording studio (thanks, VH1 Classic).
It’s not necessarily an alluring picture, and it’s easy to understand how the the bloated prog rock behemoths of the 1970s, all keyboards, drum solos and obtuse, sometimes downright ridiculous plot lines shoe horned into these self-important records, spawned a backlash so severe that punk music was created as a cultural antidote. But there are a couple of things that are easy to forget: first off, this stuff was hugely popular. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which is rigorous and decidedly an acquired taste, was still mainstream enough that while doing some preliminary research I came across a photo of a billboard outside Orlando advertising the album and the ensuing tour. If there were billboards for OK Computer along Florida highways, I missed them. In our era of don’t-get-it-twisted popular music, thoughtful experimentation isn’t always rewarded and, for the most part, downright unprofitable.
Another element that doesn’t always get factored into our assessments is the live performative side: light shows, costuming, immersive atmosphere. Album-oriented rock is by its very nature bound to two (sometimes four) vinyl sides, but the early work of Genesis in particular (Peter Gabriel was described as a multi-media artist decades before the term really caught on) involved elaborate stage elements, which, judging by images like this, are just as awesome today as they were in the early 1970s.
So maybe it’s time to give this thing another shake – and besides, this album has always been a favorite of my dear aunt Graye’s, and she’s got great taste
Soooo, here’s the story: Rael, your typical Puerto Rican hustler/graffiti artist is hanging out in Midtown when a black trans-dimensional wall appears. The wall chases Rael all the way up to Columbus Circle before absorbing his body and knocking him out. Regaining consciousness first in a womb, then in a cage, Rael spots his brother John, who ignores his pleas for help. The cage dissolves and Rael makes his way to a warehouse – a warehouse full of packaged human beings! Rael flees into a nearly perfect reconstruction of the New York City of his youth and his mind drifts back to the time when he was studying a sex manual in preparation for intercourse.
After a lengthy flash back Rael returns his attention to the subterranean corridor in front of him and winds up in a room full of people trying to escape this strange underground realm. Everybody gives Rael tons of advice on escape (there are 32 doors, but only one exit), but it’s too much and he flees again, this time with blind woman who leads him into a dark cave where some real soul searching takes place before Rael meets Death himself, who blows smoke in his face. Death departs and Rael makes his way into a room with a pool – a pool full of snake women (the Lamia) who try to eat him alive before dying of ecstasy!
Rael consumes their bodies and keeps moving, arriving in a colony of deformed humans puttering around. Slipperman, one of the deformed, explains to Rael that all these folks have been through the same shit with the snake women and Rael, now as disfigured as they are, is just another sucker. Among the crowd Rael spots his brother who tips him off to the only route to re-normalization: castration. Both Rael and John undergo penile removal procedures and are handed back their dismembered members just as a super-sized blackbird comes down from the sky and snatches their peeners. Rael chases the raven (John doesn’t see the point) and watches as it drops its cargo into a deep ravine. Depressed, Rael glances up only to discover a skylight leading back up to the overworld. Just as Rael is about to resurface, he hears John screaming in the rapids below.
Rael thinks it over for a second, then moves to rescue his brother. He scrambles down the ravine and pulls John out of the water. Just as Rael gets his brother safely onto dry land he peers down at John’s face and discovers that John isn’t John at all – he is Rael!
Pretty crazy right? It’s like a story our good friend Tony would try to turn in to an intellectually limited summer school teacher. What’s really crazy is how the songs really aren’t about their topical narratives at all. This album has nothing to do with characterizing Rael as anything near an accurate depiction of an inner city youth. What Puerto Rican street hustler spends time fretting over which sex manual to buy or speaks at length about how he trusts country men more than town men? Why are the only landmarks major tourist destinations? There’s very little to do with the actual New York, it’s mask theory (not to be confused with Jack Vance’s Maske: Thaery); Gabriel’s most personal work is done when he’s buried under heavy makeup and crazy costumes. That’s when he gets down to business, and that’s why this story is, on the surface, about the furthest thing from a famous English progressive singer/songwriter.
But even with so much going on within and below the music itself, it’s elements outside of the what you’ll hear on the record that have really earned The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway its particular place in the pantheon of the greatest album of all time. The band was imploding, Gabriel wrote and recorded the lyrics separately from the rest of the band – which pleased no one – and he actually quit the band while on tour promoting this record.
For me, the most noteworthy thing of all is that in my lifetime Genesis has been a terrible band; a bastion of my least favorite musical genre: Adult Oriented Rock. And while Solsbury Hill is fine and the videos for Sledgehammer and Big Time certainly are cool, John Cusack hoisting a boom box over his head to declare his undying love for Ione Skye isn’t my personal ideal 80s sentimental moment – but I understand I’m in the minority on that one.
Not long after the album hit store shelves, the band embarked on a world tour, playing the complete album straight through over 100 times. Gabriel performed the first two thirds of the show in his Rael make up and leather jacket, then inhabited a light chamber representing the Lamia, and donning this amazingly grotesque costume to play Slipperman. This live element is the most intriguing facet of the whole thing, you can listen to an entire show, complete with Gabriel’s semi lucid narrative introductions, here. Even better, you can see videos here and here. But can you imagine seeing something like this today?
While it’s extremely easy to focus on Gabriel’s surreal story and live performances, the music is phenomenal – don’t forget, Phil Collins really is a virtuoso drummer. But it’s not just Collins, Banks, Rutherford (both of whom you will no doubt recognize from this early MTV staple), and guitarist Steve Hackett deliver throughout; even synthesizer advocate Brian Eno drops by to add some color (did you know who plays drums on Another Green World? Phil Collins! How’s that for art rock credibility?).
The title track, which begins with Banks’s dexterous ivory ticking and rapidly builds into a sonic portrait of the New York City that only short-term European visitors have glimpsed between concert dates; In the Cage, with it drone and menace; Back in NYC, dreadful, threatening – pre-punk, even; and the silly Counting Out Time, are just a few examples of the fantastic songs on the first, more accessible half of the album. And everybody loves Carpet Crawlers – so much so that Genesis took to closing the shows of its 1999 world tour with it.
The second half features the irritating Waiting Room, the seductive encounter with the Lamia and the amazing conclusion stating with Ravine, building to a crescendo in Riding the Scree, an avalanche of urgent sounds, then re-calibrating before the denouement. By the time that Rael has braved the rapids and “rescued” John, prompting the final epiphany, you’ve earned every note of It, which feels like a game show outro fused with the midi score that plays over the credits of Outrun, which inspires nearly the exact same empty thrill that comes from completing an 16-bit video game: you’ve worked so hard to get to this moment and there’s all this synthesized fanfare but you don’t totally want to be here – you don’t want it to end – and despite the hokey celebration, there’s something depressing watching a bunch of Japanese names scroll across your screen, or hearing the repeated refrain, “‘Cause it’s only knock and knowall, but I like it…” fade into nothing.