If it’s going to be a “look,” then it’s always going to be personal to some extent. It may vary to what extent. But this first look feels very intensely personal. My first experience of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was not yet of its music, but of its packaging.
“Keep your fingers out of my eye.”
I read that sentence after having stared for several minutes (if I’m remembering correctly, which is always iffy) at those amazing pictures on the front and back of that Hipgnosis jacket. The largely black-and-white design ushered me into a kind of solemnity and grave expectation, which set me up to feel as though something cold and sharp was pressing into the side of my mind when I began reading the story. It wouldn’t even be until much later that I saw the connection of that first sentence to the way in which I was physically holding the cover. If I may rather lamely borrow from the album itself, I was the fly on the windshield.
The personal element here lies in the timing of my introduction to the album, relative to my general familiarity with prog. I don’t remember exactly when it was, especially in relation to other major albums to which I was introduced in the middle 70’s. But here’s the most significant thing: I was not really familiar with Genesis’ work in general yet. A friend had talked about them, and I had seen a couple of the other album covers, but The Lamb was the first one that I looked at closely, and listened to attentively.
This element of personal history is important because of how I would like this look to come across to you, how I hope it “hits” you if you’re willing to think about it. Imagine knowing nothing at all about the history of the band. Imagine being unaware of the tensions that haunt them at this point in their career, of the hesitations other members may have had about the direction that Gabriel’s vision was taking them. Imagine being oblivious to any expectations that might have been fed by the band’s earlier work, or by Gabriel’s onstage antics. Imagine not even knowing who these guys are at all, aside from knowing that they are an important exemplar of a newly discovered world of genre-defying beauty.
I’ve been noticing how much my entire life has been rather like this, discovering things in medias res, often experiencing them in a kind of synchronic clearing in an otherwise dense wood, with little (if any) awareness at the time of what came before, or what will come after. As I think about this first look, a look at “packaging,” including not only the graphic design but also the whole story, the liner notes, the printed lyrics, etc., I emphasize this personal element not only to make you aware of it, but also to recommend it.
It would be tempting to think that ignorance of the whole Sitz im Leben of the album would make that first look bereft of context, and hence, lifeless. (The first song title that jumped out at me at an affective level was “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging.”) Whether or not my memory of this first look is partly a function of subsequent layering-on of meaningful associations is an open question. But what comes back to me is the way in which that packaging was so emphatically not lifeless. Perhaps it was precisely my lack of context that allowed the packaging of the album to cast its own contextual aura. I didn’t even have any idea what Peter Gabriel looked like, so the images of Rael on the cover gave me my first encounter with a visual figure, an embodiment that would (for a while) be the embodiment that accompanied Gabriel’s voice when I listened.
The first time I read (was absorbed by) Rael’s story, I had not yet seriously encountered the earlier work that in so many ways foreshadowed its narrative and musical gestures. It now seems especially important to me that I was not familiar at that time with “Supper’s Ready” from Foxtrot. My primary reference points in prog at the time were ELP and Yes, and I was still only beginning the voyage beyond the coolness of synthesizers and Mellotrons into the wonders of musical creativity that would refuse to be contained by a category.
The packaging pulsated and breathed with life. A living context for the sounds I would hear was already radiated around me as I opened and perused, drinking in a rich trajectory for which I had some literary benchmarks (maybe most prominantly some of the science fiction and fantasy that I had read), but even those benchmarks were only vaguely understood then. But I encountered the opening of that context without context as an invitation. Even before I had read through the story, I think that some part of me understood that this was a tale that I could inhabit, that I could live rather than just following it like a spectator.
Yes, of course, packaging can be lifeless. It’s tempting to say that it usually is so. And when it is not lifeless, I cannot assure you that this is a matter of the packaging itself, as opposed to a personal, “subjective” response to it.
But I do recommend that you look. And if you can, I recommend that you try to look for the context that the work itself radiates, by way of its packaging.