American Musicological Society,
New York State / St. Lawrence Chapter,
York University; Toronto, Ontario; 2 May 2015]
Peter Gabriel lived his first nineteen years (1950-69) in Surrey, in the areas of Chobham, Woking, and Godalming. His gregarious mother came from a musical family and played the piano and sang, with a pair of opera-singing sisters who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music. His father was a shy, electrical engineer and inventor who had worked on an important British war-effort project during World War II and later developed precursors of entertainment-on-demand. The extended Gabriel family were successful, south-London timber importers starting in the early 19th century. As a child and adolescent, Gabriel attended private primary and preparatory schools and began to play the drums, took some piano lessons, started singing, wrote his first songs, and listened to the earliest recordings by the Beatles.
Gabriel met his fellow, future members of the rock band Genesis when they were students together at a Surrey boarding school for boys around 1963 to 1969. Charterhouse is a prestigious, expensive, upper-middle-class school, regulated as fee-based and independent in 1868, although its roots date to 1611. It’s the kind of school that inspired the creepy interiors, competing houses, and so on of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter books and films.The school’s Latin motto is “Deo Dante Dedi,” which means “God having given, I give” and is quite consistent with Gabriel’s eventual work in using his money, connections, and resources to support world music, technological innovations, and philanthropic endeavours. The school’s students cover such areas as: languages, literature, mathematics, the sciences, history, religious education, art, music, geography, and classical civilization. Many of those aspects appear throughout the lyrics and music of Gabriel’s work with Genesis and as a solo artist.
Musically, Charterhouse has Church of England church music and school songs, a choir and an orchestra, and its music centre is named after Old Boy alumnus Ralph Vaughan Williams. In its war memorial chapel, the choir sang and still sings C. V. Stanford’s Nunc Dimittis in B-flat during many of the school’s mandatory services. In addition, a highlight for its students was and is fervent hymn-singing along with pipe organ, including Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” at the end of each term.
In exploring other musical genres, Peter Gabriel, a drummer, singer, pianist, and blues, R&B, jazz, and soul enthusiast, and Tony Banks, a pianist, organist, hymns-and-Bach, and soul enthusiast, sometimes worked together. Meanwhile, Mike Rutherford, a guitarist and eventual bassist, and Anthony Phillips, a guitarist, worked together in a more blues-rock idiom. They played with several additional musicians, especially drummers, from 1967 to 1970.
Genesis’ obscure first album, From Genesis to Revelation, was released on Decca in 1969. It explores a slightly-psychedelic or R&B-influenced, strings and/or brass-orchestrated pop-rock style. The group could easily have disbanded during the 1968-69 school year, as Banks began an undergraduate program in mathematics, physics, and philosophy at Sussex University; Rutherford similarly began a program at the Farnborough College of Technology; and Gabriel and Phillips both remained at Charterhouse. Gabriel had hoped to attend the London Film School starting in the fall of 1969, but the band members reassembled that summer and decided to transition from their studies and proceed as a professional group. In late 1969 and early 1970, the band lived and worked together in a cottage near Dorking, Surrey and created new material to begin its transition away from its initial, late-British-Invasion style into a new, complex progressive rock style. The new sound features Gabriel’s varied-but-soulful tenor voice, 12-string acoustic guitars, and electric organ and/or piano or electric piano. Some song sections build to relatively-active passages also featuring electric guitars, bass, and drums. In addition, the band’s lyrics improved, and it began to play its music live.
Genesis’ 1970 Charisma Records album Trespass is the first “real” Genesis album. It consists of six songs, ranging from a pair each lasting almost nine minutes, three songs of around seven minutes, and only one song having a relatively-normal pop-rock duration of about four minutes. Most of the songs have a kind of searching quality, with some semi-religious, arguably post-Christian, lyrics. The band also includes the Mellotron: an innovative, tape-based, early kind of “sampling” keyboard. Gabriel sometimes provides flute, bass drum, accordion, tambourine, or whistling, and the other musicians also contribute such things as cello, dulcimer, and folk-like humming, aahs, or backing vocals. The best-known song is “The Knife,” in an aggressive, organ-based style and with Gandhi-influenced lyrics about a violent, political revolution ending up with a dictator in power.
Between mid-1970 and early 1971, Phil Collins became the group’s drummer and Steve Hackett became its guitarist. Genesis played for the multiple-artist “Six Bob” Tour, which was both named and ticket-priced in reaction to Britain’s recent decimalization of its currency. Instead of taking drugs or getting drunk, Gabriel and some of the others in Genesis sipped sherry and mineral water and took photographs of cathedrals and the English countryside. Gabriel was also a vegetarian.
In addition, the band’s “strong melodies and church influences” (hymns, Bach, etc.) went over very well in Italy and elsewhere in continental Europe, with some shows in Italy having audiences of between 10,000 and 20,000 people. In their down-time while on tour, the members of Genesis often visited art galleries. Around the same time, at London’s St. James’ Chapel, Gabriel married his long-time girlfriend: Jill Moore. She was the daughter of the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary. Genesis was definitely not about “drugs, sex & roll ‘n’ roll.”
Genesis’ next album, 1971’s Nursery Cryme, eventually reached No. 39 in the UK, but it quickly reached No. 4 in Italy. It did eventually become certified silver in the UK, though, with at least 60,000 copies sold there. As amplified in the album’s liner notes, the ten-and-a half-minute opening song “The Musical Box” has to do with the spirit of a murdered boy inhabiting his musical box that plays the British nursery rhyme “Old King Cole.” According to the album’s liner notes, the girl who had killed him by decapitating him with a croquet mallet summons him forth from the musical box in his nursery. He emerges from it as a creepy, sexually-maturing, man-child spirit. The album’s title thus transforms “nursery rhyme” to “Nursery Cryme,” and its cover art uses a disturbing, related image of severed heads being batted about in a perverse game of croquet. The impetus for such a context came from subverting the strangely-detached, Charterhouse-friendly context of idyllic Victorian estates, such as the wood-panelled Surrey homes of Gabriel’s grandparents and father, the latter of which actually did have a croquet lawn. The entire song gives the sense that contexts such as religion and nursery rhymes are often used by people to distract themselves and their children from the realities of such things as anger, violence, sexual awareness, and desire.
For the sexually-charged final verse of “The Musical Box,” in concert Gabriel started wearing a fox headpiece in combination with his wife’s red, Ossie Clark dress. By 1973, he wore a disturbing, “old man” mask and a partially-unzipped bodysuit, with lighting and sexual miming effects also used to make him look depraved and surreal.
VIDEO: “The Musical Box” – live 1973
The album’s seventh and final song, “The Fountain of Salmacis,” also inscribes a fairly-lengthy scope of about eight minutes. In Verse 1, it recounts the classical Greek myth of the demi-god Hermaphroditus, who is hidden amongst nymphs in a cave in a mountainous forest. While hunting a doe, the story’s hero gets lost in an unfamiliar glade and asks, in vain, for his father Hermes—the god of transitions and boundaries—to help him find his way. He encounters a shimmering, strangely-tranquil lake, in which the naiad queen Salmacis has been stirred. In Verse 2, her liquid voice invites him to drink from a fountain spring and to be “joined as one” with her. The song’s fast, loud, and rhythmically-energetic instrumental middle sections enact her attempted sexual congress and physical union with him. In the partial Verse 3, the conjoined creature crawls into the lake, and we hear the last vestiges of Hermaphroditus invite others to the fate of also being subsumed. The song’s ending is rhythmically-slowed and accompanied by numerous backing “aah” vocals, and the narrator sings one last line about the fulfillment of the “lover’s dream” lying “still beneath the lake.” The reflective, hymn-like musical style continues instrumentally, but now featuring a guitar solo. The slower pace, un-texted backing voices, string-like Mellotron, and crying-out parallel harmonies help give the sense that others have already been merged into the creature.
VIDEO: “The Fountain of Salmacis” – live (Belgian TV) 1972
The band’s next album, 1972’s Foxtrot, reached No. 12 in the UK, No. 1 in Italy, was eventually certified silver in the UK, and also generated interest in the US and Canada. The album’s highlight is the 23-minute, seven-section, concluding work: “Supper’s Ready.” Given the origins of Genesis in a Church-of-England-affiliated school, it makes sense that Gabriel’s lyrics were partly inspired by John Bunyan’s 17th-century The Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as aspects of 19th-century British fantasy literature by Lewis Carroll and the Bible’s Old Testament Book of Ezekiel and New Testament Book of Revelation. The epic song takes an even stranger path than The Pilgrim’s Progress to establish a kind of post-Christian religious allegory. Lewis Carroll’s work includes such things as absurdist nonsense, inventive word play, and fanciful creatures, and Gabriel also makes use of those ideas. The Bible’s Books of Ezekiel and Revelation speak of a New or Heavenly Jerusalem, and that idea is transformed at the end of “Supper’s Ready.”
The opening section, “Lover’s Leap,” immediately sets a romantically-involved couple’s strange, out-of-body experiences. It’s based on an actual experience that Gabriel and his wife had, despite the fact that they didn’t experiment with drugs. Verse 1’s idea of transformed or multiple personalities is reinforced musically by the texturally-very-rich use of three 12-string guitars, as well as by the octave doubling in baritone- and high-tenor ranges of the song’s melody. In a kind of semi-refrain, the man lovingly greets the woman, concluding with a line about the trueness of their love. In Verse 2 they bring their eyes closer together, but their bodies seem to move further apart. Based on another vision that Gabriel experienced, the song’s protagonist sees “six, saintly, shrouded men” move slowly across the moon-lit lawn, with a seventh figure walking in front of them holding up a cross. The central allegory of “Supper’s Ready” is that of a surreal pilgrimage surrounded by the reuniting of a romantic couple in a kind of mystical or pseudo-religious scenario. So, Verse 2 ends with an updated version of Verse 1’s refrain, with the protagonist first gently telling his lover that her supper’s waiting, but then soulfully extended to explain that he is happy to be back home with her. That version is also used in later sections to make the work somewhat cyclical.
In “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man,” the second section, the song’s lovers embark on an imaginary journey. They relate the existence of two caretakers: a farmer and a fireman. The latter, though, turns out to be the false prophet named in the section’s title. The section’s music mostly comprises a pair of verses in a bluesy style about how the “supersonic scientist” has “fooled you all.” In live performances, Gabriel highlighted the character’s falseness by wearing a headpiece of a Christ-like crown of thorns. The section aborts the end of the second verse with a kind of brief nursery rhyme, with children’s voices singing to little snake that they’ll keep it snug and warm.
Although the third section begins gently, “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men” is more rock-like in style. It includes active gestures in interplay between electric guitar and organ, prominent drums, and a guitar solo. The lyrics have to do with a battle, and the programme notes provided at concerts imply that the false prophet of the previous section has summoned his warriors to defeat his foes.
The connection to the 14th-century B.C. Egyptian pharaoh of the beginning of the title is vague, but that king’s eccentric attempt to establish monotheism and his interest in high-quality pictorial arts probably influenced Gabriel. He had earlier oddly altered his hair-part and had already sometimes appeared in live performances wearing a pseudo-ancient-Egyptian costume.
The fourth section, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,” returns to a slower, quieter style and uses “treated” piano chords, where the prominent, piano-key, hammer-strike sound is artificially removed and only a note’s shimmering decay can be heard. The lovers climb the mountain of human flesh remaining after the battle to a green plateau. A lone figure gazes into his reflection in a pool and drowns as the punishment for his self-absorption, and a flower grows in the place where he drowned. Naturally, he is revealed to be Narcissus. The work’s programme notes suggest that the lovers are similarly transformed into flowers, and the band’s live concerts reinforced that visually.
The fifth section of “Supper’s Ready” is “Willow Farm,” which was contributed musically and lyrically mainly by Peter Gabriel. The propulsive, carnival-like section sounds like it may have been inspired by a combination of Lewis Carroll and British comedy troupe Monty Python. It includes word play, absurdist lyrics, studio-manipulated voices, and music-hall-like sound effects. In addition, it features the use of the Mellotron’s brass-like sounds. The lyrics include references to such “lying” things as a disguised fox and the band’s earlier “musical box,” as well as the word play of “butterflies, flutterbyes, gutterflies” and the similar absurdity of former British Prime Minister “Winston Churchill dressed in drag.” The section is extended with a drone-like interlude featuring bass pedals, electric guitar, organ, and Mellotron, as well as an instrumental reprise of the first section’s refrain melody on flute, acoustic guitars, and organ. The very end of the section builds in energy again, though, instrumentally reprising the farmer/fireman melody from the second section. Inspired by the outcome of the previous section, by early 1973 Gabriel wore his most distinctive costume for live performances of “Willow Farm.” It consisted of a flower headpiece, as well as eccentric makeup. The flower aspect was inspired by the character Little Weed from the popular, BBC-TV children’s program: The Flower Pot Men.
“Apocalypse in 9/8,” the sixth and penultimate section, is the longest part of “Supper’s Ready.” Its unusual 3+2+4 (9/8) time signature appears continuously as a kind of ostinato in the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar, but countered by the rhythms and extended diatonicism of the organ. The words first reference the guards of Magog, which is associated with barbarianism and the End Times in Ezekiel and Revelation. The lyrics conflate that idea with the Medieval German story of a pied piper leading children underground. Meanwhile, dragons come out of the sea, and a silver head of wisdom brings down fire from the skies. An instrumental interlude includes the keyboard’s tension-building, ascending melodic sequences; alternating gestures in opposing scalar directions; and descending, adjacent chordal suspensions and resolutions. Then, Revelation’s Anti-Christ is described, identified by the number 666, and the Seven Trumpets in this case blow “sweet rock and roll.”
In addition, ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras uses a looking glass to reflect the full moon and uses blood to write the lyrics of a brand new tune on it. That idea stems from the ancient lore about Pythagoras claiming that he could write on the moon. For this section, Gabriel took to wearing a red, triangle-based headpiece with eye-lighting effects and a cloak. It was probably at least partly inspired by Pythagoras’s famous theorem about triangles. After another instrumental interlude, a soulful, rock-style update of the full “lovers” refrain from the end of the song’s first section appears. The accompaniment includes a prominent use of tubular bells and also switches to Mellotron brass. The work’s second section is then again referenced musically.
The title of the seventh and last section, “As Sure as Eggs is Eggs” also picks up on mathematical formulas, for “eggs is eggs” sort of naturalizes the idea of “x is x” or “let x equal x.” The formula suggests the idea that good is good and evil is evil. The section’s music continues the richly-orchestrated rock style of the updated refrain and certain other elements found at the end of the previous section, including drums, bass pedals, and Mellotron brass sounds. The section’s initial lyrics have to do with the romantic couple of the work’s opening, with their souls igniting and “shedding ever-changing colours in the darkness of the fading night.” Their mystical apotheosis is compared to a river joining an ocean and a germ growing within a seed. Then, the words take a turn to something much more clearly religious, based on the idea of the return of Christ after the defeat of the Anti-Christ, as described in Revelation. Despite his comments in interviews that he was influenced by Zen Buddhism, Gabriel’s words are very close to those found in the Bible:
There’s an angel standing in the sun,
and he’s crying with a loud voice:
“This is the supper of the mighty one:
Lord of lords, King of kings
has returned to lead his children home,
to take them to the New Jerusalem.”
The idea of a heavenly place of love and peace resonated particularly strongly for the English, such as in William Blake’s early-19th-century poem that is best-known today in Hubert Parry’s 1916 anthem “Jerusalem.” In one of his live stories to introduce “Supper’s Ready,” Gabriel whistles a drum-accompanied rendition of Parry’s tune, referring to it as being to us: “perhaps, ‘Jerusalem Boogie.’ ” The underlying music of the end of “Supper’s Ready” features overdubbed, electric-guitar descents continuing into a fade-out, which suggests that paradise is a permanent, joyous solution to the work’s earlier, allegorical sections of a false prophet, a battle, a transformation, a strange carnival, and a peculiar version of the End Times. Visually, performances of “Supper’s Ready” by early 1973 ended with the stage darkened. By that point, Gabriel wears a dress with beads and luminous makeup. He then holds up an electrically-connected black-light tube in order to illuminate himself. He holds the tube like a sword, though perhaps also still meaning a cross, and the glowing whiteness represents the victory of good over evil. In a related matter, it’s reminiscent of a Star Wars light saber, but from more than four years before the first of those films arrived in 1977. Also, what is “good” for Gabriel includes sharing not only mystical, but also relatively-mundane, experiences with your loved ones. As with certain suppers, like Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, it can be both things at the same time.
VIDEO: “Supper’s Ready” – live (including introductory story), 1973
By exploring visual realizations of certain song characters, Gabriel’s work with Genesis included elements related to film and performance art. As he himself put it, the band aspired to create: “a concept whose visual and musical aspects can be expressed at the same time.” As a solo artist, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, he then also continued to explore that idea in various, new ways.