Genesis, TRESPASS

genesis trespassby Chuck Hicks

By way of introduction, I grew up in and around Southern Appalachia.  I’m as conversant on Roscoe Holcomb, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers as Robert Fripp, Crack the Sky and Spock’s Beard.  I grew up hearing pop, psychedelic and folk/country stirred together.  When I was 8 years old Tommy James’ “Sweet Cherry Wine,” with its church organ, quasi-religious lyrics and Leslie speaker-distorted background vocals helped shape my standards for genre-bending music.  It was fairly inevitable that I would fall in love with progressive rock.  But I have a peculiar need to find harmony in disparate styles.  That in part explains my choice for a first submission to Progarchy.

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The most memorable mental picture I have of early Genesis came from a set played on Belgian TV: Steve Hackett, with black beard and aviator spectacles, sitting at Peter Gabriel’s hand, ripping through the furious instrumental break of “The Musical Box” on his black Les Paul.  After whipping the pick up the neck Hackett dropped his hands to his knees and sat like a classical musician at rest, his section of the piece done.  I’d never seen anything like his demeanor in a rock band.  Hackett could have just played with the London Philharmonic.

It’s easy to forget that Steve Hackett was not the first Genesis lead guitarist.  A year earlier his “seat” was filled by Anthony Phillips, classmate of Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford at Surrey’s exclusive Charterhouse School, a place where future gentlemen were groomed.  Among many distinguished Old Cartusians was Ralph Vaughan Williams, collector of English folk songs and hymns who melded them into memorable classical pieces like Norfolk Rhapsody and the fantasias on “Greensleeves” and a Theme by Thomas Tallis.   To listen to Phillips-era Genesis is to be reminded of Charterhouse manners and influence, which included things like mandatory chapel attendance and respect for the ancient traditions of England.  The medieval, the rural, and the sacred surrounded the lads as they turned their attention to becoming pop song writers in 1967.

Their first album of songs, the Bee Gee’s influenced Genesis to Revelation, stands as a complete aberration.  The group’s aspirations were more ambitious – to break barriers, fusing together sounds and ideas previously confined to strict categories.  Hitting the road in 1969, the band fleshed out songs that became the track list for the first real Genesis album, Trespass.    When they entered Trident Studios in the summer of 1970, all the group had to do was recreate the songs as they had played them live.  But the band mates (which at this juncture included drummer John Mayhew) were unaware that Phillips, suffering from fatigue and stage fright, was on “auto-pilot,” giving his best in the comfort of the studio, for the last time.

Phillip’s folk sensibility pervades Trespass, even as the most identifiable passages belonged to Gabriel and Banks.  In fact, the “pastoral” nature of the album led most reviewers at the time to pan it – which in turn led me to bypass it altogether until just a couple of weeks ago.   So, this post is my review of Trespass from the vantage point of having only discovered it for the first time.  Genesis might have had more memorable moments over their early career (e.g. “Apocalypse in 9/8”) but never a more cohesive album that seamlessly wove together diverse ideas.

The album opens with Gabriel’s blue-eyed soul-inflected voice on “Looking for Someone,” wailing over the band’s gorgeous, choir-boy backing vocals.  The first three hand half minutes foreshadows the atmosphere achieved on Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden (1988) before giving way to Banks’ classical-inspired passages.  But Phillip’s 12-string and Gabriel’s flute work out a fragile recapitulation of the opening melody before a big finale – which leaves me wondering: did Rolling Stone actually listen to this record past the first four or five minutes?

“White Mountain,” based on wolf characters from Call of the Wild, is the fable of a usurper (“Fang”) who is defeated in his quest to overthrow the pack leader (“One Eye”).  The album title is drawn from this track, and the idea of trespassing established rules is revisited in “The Knife.”  Mostly a Phillips/Rutherford piece with more of what Gabriel called “twiddling on 12-strings,” it ends with a chilling coda of whistles over a distant organ, monk-like wordless vocals and swelling mellotron.   Already the influences of Charterhouse are coming to bear.

“Visions of Angels” opens with a bright piano riff all Phillips’ own, beautifully reprised toward the end of the song.  It was a piece left off the group’s first album – a disappointment Phillips kept to himself.   “Dusk,” which opens with a shimmering compound chord played on two 12-strings and chimes, was later dismissed by Tony Banks as a “B song” not up to his more formal standards.  I find that an odd assertion given that Mr. Banks contributed to the self-titled Genesis (1983) and Invisible Touch(1986), both nothing more than straight-up pop albums.  Rather, I hear an exquisite, English ambience at work in “Dusk” that suits the medieval couple depicted on the cover art.  Sadly, this angle was never explored further on subsequent albums.

However, we will grant Mr. Banks this: “Stagnation” is the best track on Trespass.  In fact, I’ll go a step further and declare it the most excellent piece in the early Genesis repertoire.  It moves through four distinct parts, with moods ranging from wistful to playful to triumphal.   Gabriel calls it a “journey song” – about moving on from a stagnated state of self-loathing, depicted in the lyrics by a pool (or pond) of water.   After an exhilarating keyboard flourish by Banks the most magical moment of the album arrives in the middle of the third section, when against the 12-strings and swelling background vocals Gabriel asks,

And will I wait forever, beside the silent mirror
And fish for bitter minnows amongst the weeds and slimy water?

An exuberant Gabriel, sounding much as he did in later solo days, tells us he wants to “wash out all the filth that is deep in my guts…”  The closing theme starts on flute and expands to organ and drums, with a chorus singing, “So let us go…” like a great column of Redcoats on the march, finishing with an “amen” chord.

Despite the wonderful breadth of expression on “Stagnation,” the signature track on Trespass remains “The Knife.”  Gabriel viewed this piece as a send-up to The Nice, one of the great English underground bands that included the raucous keyboardist Keith Emerson.   It was the showstopper for early Genesis gigs, evincing a heavy, edgier side of the band.  Yet, the best part comes at the 3:10 mark, when the torrid pace yields to a slow and methodical organ and flute section that builds further tension.  “The Knife” is a satire on revolution – with masses clamoring for “freedom” while stabbed in the back by a ruthless, pseudo-messianic figure: “Some of you are going to die / martyrs, of course, to the freedom that I shall provide.”  Thus, “The Knife,” with crunching, grungy guitars from Phillips and Rutherford, rips through the layers of Trespass the two had helped weave.  In keeping with that motif, artist Paul Whitehead took a real knife and cut a gash across his painting for the cover art.

Trespass is the oft-overlooked Genesis album.  Its finely balanced elements make it my new favorite out of the band’s extensive catalog.  It gives a clear glimpse into the tension of ideas held between four young men just a few years removed from one of England’s most prestigious public schools.  Anthony Phillips’ penchant for folk and classical textures and his role as leader during the band’s transition from pop to prog cannot be overestimated.  He continues in a fruitful solo career, composing music for a variety of formats, including television and film.  But we’ll never know exactly how Genesis would have evolved had Phillips stayed on board, working with Mike Rutherford as a counterweight to Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks.

That said, Trespass holds up as a great work.  It can be experienced intently on its own, or listened to while studying or writing (I was working a theology paper when I finally gave it a long-overdue chance).  But the great moments on this record will have you lifting your eyes from the book and looking away at some scene, out a window or in your own mind – at things new and old, which is what early Genesis always did best.

Genesis-Trespass-Mini-Vinyl-Custom-Cd-Cover-31501

5 thoughts on “Genesis, TRESPASS

  1. chuckicks

    Very much appreciate the kind words. I didn’t mention this in the post, but I believe Anthony Phillips was not yet 19 years old when this album was record. The rest of the band were no more than 20. That puts their accomplishment in further perspective.

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