Trespass - An Album By The Band That Never Quite Was

Looking back on 1970 from a combination of artefact, video-clip and (very) youthful reminiscence, it is striking how there was, in England, an air of expectancy that the future was going to be A Magical Thing Indeed.

Man had landed on the Moon (or in a film studio just outside of Shepperton, depending on how paranoid you fancied being). Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey was packing impressionable young longhairs into cinema theatres armed with the apposite hallucinogenics, for "the ultimate trip". Any cursory examination of the television schedules reveals a fascination with science fiction that is imbued with an optimism about The Future, complete with jet cars, shiny silver suits, and Gabrielle Drake with purple hair.

And yet, parallel to this, what was the big "underground trend" of the time musically? In the sprawling metropolis of London, psychedelia was shedding its skin, and developing the Royal College of Music iridescence that would lead to the wacky world of Progressive Rock, although it's fair to point out (somewhere else, hopefully) that what passed for progressive rock in 1970 was some distance from what we would now associate with the genre. The Floyd were still perceived as banner-carriers of "Space-Rock", despite the most tenuous of links to the genre, where they were joined by those doyens of the free festival, Hawkwind.

No. Actually, and in a typically British affinity for pointedly staring in the opposite direction, the big thing of the new decade was folk music. Amplified folk music, but folk music nonetheless. Albums that spring to mind from 1970, which owe much to the compositional skills of Mr Trad. Arr. ("Trad" to his friends) would include Led Zeppelin 3, Jethro Tull's Benefit, Just A Collection of Antiques and Curios by the Strawbs, Liege and Lief from Fairport Convention (which was actually from 1969 but why let facts get in the way of a good theory?). Oh, and the second album from a group of 20 year olds dipping their toes back into the music business after having been failures as teenage pop stars.

It is my opinion, which will be dragged out and waved about in a "compare and contrast" type fashion over the next few hundred words, that the line-up and approach favoured by Genesis in the material immediately preceding and recorded on Trespass, was genre specific to the prevailing folk/medieval "movement" of the time, and that consequentially, Trespass leaves a tantalising blueprint of what might have transpired had the line-up not experienced the cataclysmic change that followed Anthony Phillips'  departure.

Having mentioned recorded work prior to Trespass, it seems appropriate to bring the uninitiated up to speed with Adventures in The World Of the Old Carthusian. Five boys from Charterhouse Public School (bastion of the upper middle classes, Sports Days, Dormitories, and fried eggs for the fifth-formers. All very Tom Browns Schooldays) with aspirations towards pop stardom are taken under the wing of ex student Jonathan King, prior to him developing the ego that swallowed the world. He gives them a modicum of artistic guidance, a name, and via his contacts, a record contract with Decca, the label that lost The Beatles. Unfortunately, as producer of their first album, he also gives their youthfully toothsome naiveté some of the worst string arrangements heard outside of your local supermarket muzak. Which has oft been cited as evidence for the prosecution, in the case of The First Genesis Album vs. Good Taste, but is a useful diversion from the underlying fact that the songs underneath the arrangements really weren't very much to write home about anyway. So….the album flops, the band dispense with Mr King's services, and gather under the protective wing of Mr Tony Stratton-Smith, and a recording contract with his Charisma Records label.

In between the demise of King, and the deal with Virgin that saw the end of one of England's finest independent labels (Charisma an "indie" label? All part of life's rich irony), Tony Stratton-Smith was in the writer's opinion the most important individual in the development of Genesis, having as he did the patience and faith that epitomised the era of record labels that were driven by concerns other than the "bottom line". To be fair, "Strat"'s ability to do this was fuelled in part by an ability to fund Charisma without worrying too much about where his next guinea was coming from - nevertheless, it should always be borne in mind that neither Genesis, nor any number of bands of this era, would have lasted much past their second album in today's ultra-commercial environment. Not necessarily a criticism, merely an observation.

So, our lads have acquired a new mentor, and have, thanks to the benevolence of their not-entirely poverty-stricken families, had the sine die use of a Home Counties cottage in order to hone their composition and performance skills. Which is nice.

What resulted from this retreat can for ease of reference be split into two types of song : the Banks/Gabriel song, which would have a discernible but heavily removed R&B influence, and would tend towards a more aggressive delivery, and the Phillips/Rutherford songs, which would featured the much-vaunted "unique" 12-string sound. Personally the only unique thing about it was the uniquely small terms of reference that those describing it as a revelation must have had: both the Incredible String Band on this side of the Atlantic, and Crosby Stills & Nash on the other, had enmeshed 12-string guitar sounds on their albums, and it is highly unlikely that these were not unnoticed by Phillips and Rutherford. A rather twee fixation with the medieval also appeared to feature, especially in the unreleased (until the Archive box set) material from this period - Pacidy, The Shepherd, and Let Us Now Make Love being the tracks in question. Mentioning this medieval fixation in contrast with their label mates Van Der Graaf Generator is interesting - whilst Genesis concentrate on the romantic chivalry encapsulated in both Elstree and Hollywood (examples of this can be found down through the catalogue - "Dusk"/"Harlequin"/"Time Table", Van Der Graaf were intent on presenting a much more empirical and non-sugared version of the period - Darkness (11/11) and White Hammer being two contemporaneous examples.

Convening in the spring/early summer of 1970 under the eye (and ear) of John Anthony, who had by this time produced the first Van Der Graaf Generator album for Charisma  - The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other - Trespass starts with the plaintive neo-acapella of Gabriel, and the de rigeur (for the time) organ of Tony Banks, which shortly develops into the strange potpourri of Looking For Someone. Imagine if you will a singer desperately trying to evoke the soul of Otis Redding, trapped within the polite clipped melodies of Banks and presumably Phillips. Add to this the clean and polite lines that Gabriel combines on flute, and a strange mixture is indeed the result. Stranger still, the middle section, where the band, seriously hampered by the one-dimensional drumming of John Mayhew, attempt to accelerate into a crescendo, which would have sounded appreciably more majestic had the conclusive phrase not been a very close, slowed-down, relative of the main riff from Deep Purple's Speed King. Following the denouement, a short, cute acoustic noodle leads back into a vocal/instrumental coda, where we first encounter the arpeggiated organ style that launched a thousand neo-prog bands nary ten years later. Altogether far too much of a song patched together by pieces of Meccano to be a satisfying listening experience.

We now take you to some of the most twee lyrical passages known to man (or wolf), and the newly spinning grave of Jack London. White Mountain, when taken musically, is a beautifully constructed and sensitive acoustic piece of music, almost good enough to excuse the cartoon-type effect of the organ/drum sections that would conventionally pass for a chorus. The lyrics, however, are, even for a group of callow youths, painful in the extreme. Telling the saga of internecine strife between generations of wolves over who gets to be King Wolf (honestly: I'm not making this up), Fang (son of Great Fang - these things are important), gets his courtesy of One-Eye. After all,

"Only the King sees the Crown of the Gods, and he, the Usurper must die"

 That's Fang (son of Great Fang) told then.

On to much more socially acceptable rock'n'roll lyrical territory, with the prosaically titled Visions of Angels - a song apparently about Anthony Phillips rather fancying Jill Moore, who was the future Mrs. Gabriel. This being Genesis, the song isn't exactly My Best Friend's Girl, but it is the first piece of music on Trespass that doesn't sound like it was constructed by committee, and is all the better for it. The tempo of the song is at a level sufficiently pedestrian to enable the drumming to be tolerated, and the instrumental parts are given a certain charm by both the backing vocals, and the lack of solo work, which shows a degree of restraint entirely appropriate to the song. In fact, the backing vocals on this track are something of an anachronism - after this album, Genesis would rely on close harmony work between Gabriel and Collins, and so this is one of the few opportunities to hear a more chorale-esque approach, which personally I rather like. It may also be worth pointing out that this is one of the areas where the music most closely resemble that of King Crimson, whose debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King was staple listening material back at The Cottage. Certainly there are elements (but only in arrangement terms) in common between this track and the title track of the Crimson album, as there are between Dusk, and Epitaph.

The choral effect continues over the other side of the record, on Stagnation, which is the album's tour-de-force. A short vocal passage presages delicate acoustic guitar work, which in turn introduces an amazing keyboard solo. In an era when bigger, better and faster was very much the keyboard player's credo, the solo on Stagnation illustrates the virtue of constructing a solo that is complimentary to the music within which it is set, rather than illustrating how well one knows one's scales. Not until Rick Wright's work on Wish You Were Here can I think of a comparable display of musical taste by a keyboard player in a mainstream band. The coda to Stagnation features a melody that is now well known as the "play-out" melody to post-Seconds Out versions of I Know What I Like, and here sits as an effective conclusion to perhaps the first genuine classic in the Genesis canon. Parallels also here in the coda to Matty Groves otherwise known as the Orange Blossom Special, from the Liege & Lief album (itself a seminal album in the field of "electrified folk", recorded by Fairport Convention in 1969)

Sitting between this and The Knife, lies Dusk. A short but quite important piece, this is in some ways as close as we get to a purely Anthony-Phillips-led Genesis sound, yet echoes of this style of writing can be heard as far down the line as songs such as Entangled (from Trick Of The Tail).

Lyrically it ploughs the furrow of post-adolescent miserablism that would allow many an Afghan- coated colt to affect being "deep and sensitive" in the presence of their braided ladyfriends, as long as they remembered to whip off the LP before it got to The Knife.

Which brings us, to The Knife. Which will be a Genesis classic, as soon as half the band that perform on it do the decent thing and leave, and the bassist learns to play the instrument he's been saddled with.

Leaving the polemic aside, from a composition rather than an execution point of view, The Knife is a Genesis archetype. Composed mainly by Banks, the jig-like organ introduction leads into an apparent parody of a protest song, where the constantly accelerating lyrical delivery deliberately adds to the air of being swept along by the onrush of "the mob". The musical sections of the song mimic those of battle, with ebbs and flows, and the exultant musical climax, upon victory framed by the knowing couplet

"Some of you are going to die/Martyrs of course to the freedom that I shall provide"

So far, so good. The problem is in the performance. Mayhew drums as though his entire history in percussion has been limited to clattering coconut shells for horse's hooves in a Radio Special Effects unit somewhere. Rutherford's bass work is of a similarly lumpen standard, although it must in his favour be pointed out that he was the bassist by default, and his playing would improve immeasurably within the space of a couple of years.

However, it is Anthony Phillips' work that I would like to concentrate on here. Commentators with varying degrees of rose-tint on their spectacles have made much of what may have happened had Phillips remained within Genesis, and have even gone as far as to suggest that his was the defining voice of the band.

A cursory listen to The Knife illustrates clearly an alternative thesis - that Genesis would never have been able to expand out of a very small niche market with such an appalling lead guitarist. For all his undoubted ability and dexterity as a composer, and for all that his lead guitar work much later on in his career improves beyond measure, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that the guitar solo in The Knife (and if we're being honest, the electric guitar parts in Looking For Someone), are at best inspired amateurism, and at worst plain awful. The production on Trespass generally is quite muddy, which in places is a distinct disadvantage, but in the case of the electric guitar work probably rescues it from the "fingernails down a blackboard" tone that it very nearly aspires to.

To be fair, the band have said on several occasions that Ant's departure was a seminal point in the band's history, but this can be just as adequately explained by Phillips being a motivational force throughout whilst other members' academic and artistic careers provided viable vocational alternatives (Banks was ready to resume a University career; Gabriel had opportunities open at Film School).

To counterbalance these criticisms, attention should be drawn to Banks' and Gabriel's performance on The Knife. Gabriel shows the ability to project a powerful and aggressive vocal part, whilst lyrically underscoring the cynicism that lies behind most revolutionary movements at their apex. His flute work enmeshed with Banks' intelligent use of organ textures in the middle section of the piece is of a high standard, and is fully blossomed by the time of the Live album rendition, which is not entirely unconnected to the calibre of Mayhew's and Phillips' replacements. But that's me getting ahead of myself………………………….

To conclude, the "difficult" second album is indeed precisely that. Difficult. At times overstretched, at times immature, but capable of occasional flashes of genius. A glimpse of what might have been had Phillips stayed, but in my opinion a glimpse that would have led into a cul-de-sac, where the bands ambitions would have been curtailed by their lack of ability.

Copyright Manir Donaghue ©2000

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