Favourite album: Foxtrot, Genesis

Alex Marsh is an author, freelance writer, editor, blogger and sickeningly humorous person. His first book, the critically acclaimed ‘Sex and Bowls and Rock and Roll: How I Swapped My Rock Dreams for Village Greens‘ blends anecdotes of being a young musician in a band, with being an active member of the surprisingly competitive world of village bowls.

Here, Alex deals with the difficult question ‘What’s your favourite album?’

So. Yes. Favourite album. Meaningless, of course, as it all depends on context, mood, time of day and the vagaries of the whim. There is also a certain temptation to play to the gallery; like a politician’s Desert Island Discs, to attempt a choice with the aim of furthering oneself in hearts and minds. Hm.

Let’s play the game with brutal honesty. Albums that I return to again and again (which must be the criteria). Fewer than you’d expect. From Dylan to Levitation; Patrick Park; Animals that Swim; Floyd and Cohen and Cave; Sir John Betjeman and Cardiacs. What can I say most about? Probably Genesis and ‘Foxtrot.’

The issue with making a Prog choice is that Prog is officially The Genre That Cannot Be Redeemed. And that buggers the ‘fresh eye’ potential immediately. Prog-Pros are blind to its unlistenable idiocies; Prog-Antis, to put it politely, think the Whole Thing is Shit. There are very few people without an opinion.

And ‘Foxtrot,’ being rather a sacred cow of Prog, is therefore either uncriticizable or the epitome of shittity-shitty-shit, accordingly. Let’s try to take a step back.

I’m not a Genesis uber-fan. I certainly don’t go for their later mainstream stuff; the eponymous ‘Genesis’ album occasionally delivers great songs (anybody who sneers at ‘Mama’ is really taking the anti-Phil Collins stance a little far); ‘Turn it On Again’ deserves its place in the Hall of FM Rock Fame.

Likewise, I was probably lucky to find ‘Foxtrot’ before their other Gabriel-era material. As a teenager, the genre gave me something to own that wasn’t – the horror! – pop music, but also one that didn’t entail me crashing the cool kids’ parties. I could be cool on my own terms, Aqualung, my friend. Even so, and even then, a lot of the band’s early material never really appealed. There were great bits and good songs – but a lot of noodling on the pastoral twelve-string. For every ‘Musical Box’ there were three… erm, well you see I can’t even remember the song titles.

But ‘Foxtrot’ was first, and it hit me and stayed with me as something above all the prejudices of the genre.

Sliding a disc from a gatefold sleeve and lowering the needle to find that the first track is entitled ‘Watcher of the Skies’ and opens with dawn-of-time mellotron chords in a juddering 6/4 time signature could be written as a sketch-parody of the prog experience. But I didn’t care, with my fresh eyes and rapidy-growing hair. And even today, I’ll contend to the death that ‘Foxtrot’ works.

Genesis, for all their muso reputation, weren’t actually that interested in anything but songs; they had a wonderful ear for a melody and a superb grasp of dynamics and dramatics. Peter Gabriel introduced me to the idea of the ‘vocalist’ as opposed to ‘singer,’ and Phil Collins – mainstream as he may be these days – is a truly great drummer; his ability to make those odd time signatures actually swing is key to this album’s survival. It’s Western European all the way through – no blues, no jazz; despite their desire to write beyond the traditional pop structure, the band never fall into the trap of forgetting about strong songs in the quest to provide a succession of interesting ideas (see Waters, R; Tull, J).

Listening to live footage, and watching YouTube, you twig that Genesis tended to ‘record’ their stuff, rather than ‘produce’ it – the sound is pretty basic for the period, but this helps to retain the humanity and to keep those twelve-strings from becoming lush wallpaper. It also disguises the fact that two of the less-celebrated tracks on the album (‘Timetable’ and ‘Can-Utility…’) could have found themselves in the charts quite comfortably had they been smoothed out sonically.

Much – too much – way too much – has been written about ‘Supper’s Ready’ – the 20-minute prog-opus on side B. It works; not as the insight into spiritual enlightenment blah blah that the wierdy-beardies would have you believe, but as a linked suite of good tunes with a coda that makes your heart beat faster. Steve Hackett is a genuinely astonishing player. He found a nasal sound that was clearly an electric guitar but that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the standard blues/rock/jazz tones; he forsook fills but played as if he were scoring for a symphony orchestra. His utterly grand and magnificent contribution as this final track fades is the sort of guitar playing that makes you stare at the speakers, that gives you both a massive uplift and a desperate, terrible sense of loss that the record is finishing and that there will be no more.

I still play ‘Foxtrot,’ having moved on from so much of my early music collection. It’s a regular on my iPod pillow last thing at night, but it’s also heard very loudly in my car. I doubt that it will win me many votes should I ever stand for election and try to lever the BBC’s castaway experience. Too obvious a choice for the hardcore fans; risible to the outsiders. But for me, a conviction politician, it’ll do.

Alex Marsh.

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2 Responses to Favourite album: Foxtrot, Genesis

  1. Soph says:

    I remember watching a documentary about the making of the 1998 George Martin album ‘In My Life’ – a collection of (mostly) Beatles covers – and was amazed by Phil Collins ability – he plays drums, percussion and does the vocals for one of the tracks (Golden Slumbers, I think). I hold him in much higher esteem after this. As for the album and Prog in general, I am a dunce – much to B’s dismay, I suspect! Excellent review though:)

  2. Harry says:

    You’ve just sorted my lunchtime listening. Cheers!