Sunday, July 8, 2018

Genesis - Nursery Cryme

It's been nearly 50 years since Genesis recorded Nursery Cryme, the album that cemented the early Genesis sound, and one considered by many to be among the finest artistic achievements of progressive rock. In America (for me in L.A. on KMET, fiddle-dee-dee), progressive rock was less a category than something that fit in with Bowie, The Who and Humble Pie (to express the divergence of styles), and the big guns of course were Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The undercurrent, from King Crimson to Gentle Giant, wasn't found on radio, even FM radio, and only in the Phil Collins led era did Genesis hit the airwaves.

But Genesis pushed the boundaries of rock both lyrically and instrumentally with fantastic, often bizarre lyrics; long, thematic tracks; an obvious classical influence and departure from blues-based traditions; and unparalleled musical virtuosity (and long before Yes and ELP). The band wed the heaviest jams of the day to acoustic, pastoral passages to create a tapestry of light and shade. "Our idea of a guitar-based tune," recalled guitarist Steve Hackett, "usually meant that the 12-string [acoustics] carried it. Often we would have three 12-string guitars playing at once — Mike, Tony and me — which created a sound like a harpsichord, and you couldn't really pin down what you were hearing. Mike Rutherford was very into Joni Mitchell at the time, which also influenced our acoustic side." Hackett, who began his musical journey as a blues harmonica player, continued, "I grew up listening to the blues and Bach, and I never thought that they would meet and create a third thing. The two styles seemed to be at odds with each other."

Nursery Cryme explored odd time signatures, modal compositions, and introduced a new technique to rock music that would redefine electric guitar playing in the next decade: two-handed tapping. "I came upon the tapping technique when I was trying to play Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue," said Hackett. "I realized that I couldn't play it the way I wanted to hear it using standard technique, so I started tapping onto the fretboard with my right hand. I used that technique all over Nursery Cryme including parts of 'The Musica Box' and 'The Return of the Giant Hogweed.'" Tony Banks sometimes harmonized Hackett's legato lead guitar lines on the keyboard for dramatic effect using a distorted amplifier or fuzz box to achieve a similar sound. "We had a guitarist who was trying to sound like a keyboard player and a keyboard player who was very good at sounding like a guitarist," Hackett observed.

"Part of the reason that the English progressive rock bands of the early 1970s drew from such varied influences was the wide variety of music broadcast on British radio prior to the deregulation of the airwaves [which may explain the lack of progressive rock in America]. Today, many stations only play one style of music, and I suspect the people who grow up listening to this stuff may be subject to less-wide musical tastes than the ones that we had while developing our musical base. We were listening to blues, rock and jazz from America, and we were also hearing our European roots, all on the same station."

An essential ingredient in the Genesis sound that was shared by other progressive rock bands was the use of the Mellotron, an electro-mechanical ancestor of the modern synthesizer, to achieve an orchestral sound. "We weren't trying to sound classical, but the spooky, eerie quality of the Mellotron flutes and violins became a big part of our sound. I was in love with the sound of it for a very long time — although they were incredibly temperamental and took four men to lift, like pallbearers." Peter Gabriel also played flute with the band, adding yet another dimension to the sound. Faux harpsichords and orchestras aside, however, there are musical passages on Nursery Cryme that are as prototypically heavy metal as anything by Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. "Sometimes I'd be playing distorted rock guitar weaving through these delicate textures, so I had to play very quietly," said Hackett. "I'd be playing pastoral rock guitar, if that’s not an oxymoron. Often I had to play almost like a reed instrument. At times, I even tried to sound like a synthesizer or like a voice."

Lyrically, Genesis shied away from "the mating ritual," as Hackett dryly put it, in favor of fairy tales and mythology—a direct contrast to the approach that the Rolling Stones and other English groups were taking at the time. Some critics complained that the band's lyrical approach felt more like research than soul-searching. "It's not that we weren't writing romantic music," says Hackett. "It was just romantic in a different way—we were romancing something else. Our lyrics were often third-hand and not based on personal experience, which is quite typical of the progressive approach. These were early days, and we took a lot from literature." Interestingly, Hackett is in error stating that they weren't creating "romantic" music. This was romance in the true sense of the word, in literature it would be called "chivalric romance," and encompassed the marvel-filled colorful eras of knights and armor, of dragons and damsels in distress. (Bernie Taupin's lyrics for Elton John are the atypical modern version of romance, particularly on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which is filled with songs on Western heroes and painted ladies and sleazy Saturday nights).

The classic Genesis line-up of Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford lasted but a few years, but those years were rich in complexity, indeed like Stone Soup.  
While Henry Hamilton-Smythe minor was playing croquet with Cynthia Jane De Blaise-William, sweet-smiling Cynthia raised her croquet mallet high and gracefully removed Henry's head. Two weeks later, in Henry's nursery, she discovered his treasured musical box. Eagerly she opened it and as "Old King Cole" began to play a small spirit-figure appeared. Henry returned - but not for long, for as he stood in the room his body began ageing rapidly, leaving a child's mind inside. A lifetime's desires surged through him. Unfortunately the attempt to persuade Cynthia Jane to fulfill his romantic desire led his nurse to the nursery to investigate the noise. Instinctively Nanny hurled the musical box at the bearded child, destroying both.