The Day We Reached Jerusalem By Way Of Willow Farm
Fifty years ago this month, a new LP (remember those? If you don't, ask yer grandad) 'dropped' (as they say nowadays, and with a troubling lack of shame in doing so).
It was by an English rock band who - having started out doing short, quite well-crafted pop songs, which had been widely ignored and buried under over-egged arrangements - had developed something a bit more complex once they had ditched (or been ditched by) their previous management and record label. This was at the start of the 1970s, when simplicity was slowly but inexorably being replaced by outright bombast. So many different bands were trying to do essentially the same thing; the musical equivalent, in fact, of all those fiction - especially science fiction - writers of that age who had decided that telling a story engagingly and comprehensibly was of little value next to the opportunity to show off their 'technique' (see under Moorcock, Michael for prime examples of this terminally self-regarding pretentiousness).
The band had already released two albums in this mode, and whilst those discs had gathered some critical approval and the group a loyal, if small, following (if only mainly in Italy for some reason), people expected little more from their third outing as a 'progressive' outfit than that which they had provided before, stylistically speaking, even though the members of the group were already considered to be very competent musicians.
People can be wrong.
The album was called Foxtrot, and it was by Genesis, a group which had formed at an English 'public' (that is to say, 'private') 'school' (that is to say, 'haven for sadists and abusers') in 1967, although two or three line-up changes between then and 1972 had brought at least a couple of plebs - albeit middle-class plebs - into the ensemble.
Side One could be thought of as taking what Genesis had done on their previous two outings - 1970's Trespass and the following year's Nursery Cryme - and developed them somewhat. The lead-off track, Watcher Of The Skies, was certainly a powerful opener, its portentous Mellotron introduction from Tony Banks being followed by an underlying pattern in (mostly) 6/4, overlaid with somewhat verbose lyrics (for once, Banks couldn't complain about the lyrics getting in the way of his music - as he did with regard to another track on this side (q.v.) - because he had co-written the text with bassist Mike Rutherford). A forceful finish was followed by Time Table, a Banks solo composition of a more pastoral tone, contrasting a mediaeval scene with the same place centuries onwards in our own time. The third track, Get 'Em Out By Friday, had lyrics by the band's front man, one Peter Gabriel, and is both contemporary - describing as it does in its first section the then-current trend for forcing people in cities out of their old, organic communities and into high-rise slums where no-one knew anyone - and futuristic, foreseeing a time when humans would be bred to be shorter so that more of such meat resources may be fitted in to the coming age's accomodation (this is something which has actually happened since, of course, but without shrinking the average height of the populace first). This is the track of which Banks (and Rutherford) have complained since of being too 'wordy'. The side ends with Can-Utility And The Coastliners which is a re-telling of the Canute legend ('Canute'-ility, geddit?) and which features some strong bass pedal work from Rutherford.
Side two begins innocuously enough with Horizons, a short solo acoustic piece by Steve Hackett (one of the two members who had joined prior to Nursery Cryme - the other being drummer and backing vocalist Phil Collins) based on Bach. Although not ever intended as such, it ended up being considered a prelude to...
...a twenty-three minute epic, comprising seven distinct but interconnected parts, which tells the story of two lovers who embark - perhaps somewhat against their will - on a spiritual journey which takes them via a religious con-man to a bizarre farm, before leading the listener onward to the Apocalypse and the Second Coming.
Alright, it may not seem to be particularly promising a prospect; there was an awful lot of this around at the time (yes, Mr. Anderson (J.), I am looking at you), and the listener seldom emerged from the other end of them more enlightened than when they entered. And the putting together of different moods and styles of music in such pieces often didn't come off.
But this track was different. It moves from a pastoral beginning through standard rock to a mad and surreal landscape of weird characters before taking us into The Final Battle and its climactic resolution. But the parts mesh together perfectly and create a seamless experience for the listener; there are no grinding of the gears in moving from one section to the next.
The genesis (as it were) of Supper's Ready (for this is what we're talking about) was a series of psychic - or possibly psychedelic - experiences undergone by Gabriel and his then-wife Jill some time in about 1971. Gabriel then took that as the starting point for the lyrics of the whole piece (something which he also did, rather less successfully, on their 1974 double album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway). The two lovers are transported to the realm of The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man - who turns out to be a false prophet selling salvation to the gullible; a type we have seen more and more of in the intervening years - and on to a battle scene and its aftermath, where Narcissus is turned to a flower....
Our protagonists are suddenly and discordantly thrust into a bizarre world where everything constantly changes in the most discombobulating manner - a frog turns into a prince who turns into a brick, then an egg, then a bird, to give just one example - and who are then ejected from this funny farm to engage in a period of quiet reflection, before being returned to their point of origin to see the Apocalypse (as described by John who, when he wrote it, was clearly on something rather more than just Patmos) in full swing. Good (however defined) triumphs, of course, and the Lord of Lords, King of Kings returns to lead his children to The New Jerusalem.
So that's the story, but how about the music?
(I have to warn you at this point that this is an extremely cursory overview, the sort you are likely to get from someone who has no academic or professional qualifications or expertise in music, but who simply knows what he likes and tries to share his enthusiasm with a wider audience - yes, both of you. Should you be interested or intrigued as a result, there will be a chance for you to get a bit more depth by viewing one of the videos I link to at the bottom of this piece).
The acoustic, pastoral style - which had featured heavily on the band's two previous LPs - starts off the piece with no fewer than three twelve-string guitars (played by Hackett, Rutherford and Banks) along with Gabriel's flute. A harder section, with the full band, brings us to the world of the Sanctuary Man before a reprise of the original theme on that same flute.
We are then cast into battle by a faster and far more dynamic sound with strong interplay between guitar and keyboards. In the chaos of the aftermath, a slow, elegiac mood is struck by a sequence of piano chords which are faded in so as to cancel any attack to the notes...
...before - with a descent of crunching chords - we enter Willow Farm, featuring a music-hall style tune, sped-up vocals by Collins and various disorientating sound effects reflecting the surreal comedy of the tableaux presented by the lyrics.
(This section was originally a standalone song by Gabriel, but the band decided to put it in at this point to break up the overarching earnestness of the whole piece).
Another short, reflectve section then brings us to the red meat of the whole track. Apocalypse in 9/8 is so called because it is, and it is. However, astute listeners will spot that, although drums (a tour de force by Collins), bass and guitar are all in that time signature throughout, Banks' organ line is mostly in 4/4, switching to 7/8 from time to time to bind more tightly with what the other three musicians are playing. The result of this is a highly effective weaving of the keyboard line in and out of the relentless rhythm.
This whole section concludes with a climactic lyric ("Six-six-six is no longer alone [...] and the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll") set to a storming chord progression using the string tapes of Banks' Mellotron.
And then, there is peace. The two lovers are returned fully to one another to a reprise of the very first section (with slightly changed lyrics), before - with lyrics reminiscent of William Blake - they follow on to the Holy City. At which point, the track - perhaps in recognition of the potency of the Zeigarnik Effect - fades out.
The overall impression is - fade-out notwithstanding - one of completion. There is a wholeness to the piece, the junctions between the sections being well-crafted and not remotely jarring (except where intended to be, as at the start of Willow Farm). The track flows all but seamlessly between scenes, textures and styles, and it is played with enormous confidence, drive and aplomb. This was doubtless helped by producer David Hitchcock having reminded them that they didn't have to record the whole thing in one go, but concentrate on getting each section right in turn and then using short entr'actes to bridge between them. In terms of the sophistication of the music and the concepts of its storyline, Genesis may well be said to have peaked as early as 1972, and nothing they did in the quarter-century of recording they did thereafter could have come close to matching it, although this is down mostly to the fact that they didn't even make the attempt, realising it to be a fool's errand; instead, they went very successfully elsewhere, mostly to large stadia and the top of the pop charts.
One more point; the maturity of thought involved in the creation and execution of Supper's Ready would have been remarkable in musicians of any age. When you consider that all the band's members were scarcely into their twenties at that time, it is an astonishing achievement, one which has quite rightly become regarded as one of the pinnacles of rock music.
I will conclude by giving you three opportunities to hear it. If you're determined or curious enough, set aside an hour or so for all this.
Firstly, here's the track itself. This is a slightly remixed and remastered version which - amongst other things - corrects a wrong (though not discordant) bass-pedal note played by Rutherford on the fade-out of the original release (and said fade-out is somewhat longer as well):
Secondly, we have the American composer and academic Doug Helvering - whose YouTube channel is often interesting and enlightening; there are things about Supper's Ready which I hadn't previously appreciated, even though I don't know Mixolydian from Myxomatosis - reacting to hearing it for the first time, and being simply blown away:
And finally, a remarkable animated film by Nathaniel Barlam which captures visually much of what is special about the track:
Your Supper's waiting for you...