Sometimes I chuckle at the irony that digging into the backstory of perhaps the most quintessentially British of the 1970s progressive rock bands often reminds me most immediately about the pros and cons of democracy. The power of the plurality, and the lofty ambition of consensus for the greater good, are offset by lobbyists who jockey for position to make their voices heard loudest, as well as the bitter disappointment of the minority in the matter.
Genesis, more than most of the bands of their time and place, seem to have the most aloof view of their long and varied discography when compared to their fiercely loyal fandom. ELP and Yes routinely subject their members to a semi-regular round of dredging up soggy reminiscences for another batch of remastered discs twice a decade; Robert Fripp simultaneously keeps his distance from the prog-era while excavating all manners of personal and musical detritus for the lavish King Crimson 40th anniversary series; and even David Gilmour and Roger Waters have consented to being filmed waxing lyrically and nostalgically about Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here for “Classic Albums” TV documentaries.
While Genesis’ material has indeed been systematically re-released in the latest media formats in this century (particularly revolving around the 2007 Turn It On Again tour which reunited the three-piece lineup for a victory lap around Europe and the U.S.A.), the members of the band have seldom lapsed into the same kind of soft-focus glances at their “glory days” as the aforementioned examples. Perhaps these prominently ingrained Britons – in the U.K. the press have long prefaced articles on Genesis with some mention of their origin at the exclusive Charterhouse school – have retained some intrinsic lack of sentimentality that (rightly or wrongly) characterizes men of their country in that era, but few bands remain as dispassionate towards the totems of their canon. Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks still use print appearances to make the case for their leadership of the band while cutting each other down to size in the process. (Banks, the keyboardist and longest serving member along with Mike Rutherford, is the least famous alum of the principal members but is acknowledged by the rest of his band mates as the leader and guiding voice of the band); Phil Collins has never been shy about comparing the more catholic tastes of his own artistry to his first groups’ more stodgy reputation; and Steve Hackett has attempted to chip away at his appearance as “just the lead guitarist” by emphasizing his writing contributions to the band in print and on-stage.
Perhaps going through the retrospective paces for these gentlemen brings up the hardships, toils, political maneuvering, and necessary compromises that naturally result from a truly collaborative artistic endeavor. Other than a few years of score-settling between 1976-1981 (in which Genesis tracks were credited to individual writers for the first and only time, seen by the band to be a corrective to the assumed narrative that the singer was also the writer), most of the discography is actually truly group-composed, generally via two methods:
- Group jams / improvisations would taped and mined for interesting material as a musical backdrop; subsequently the band might sit and learn what they had previously improvised in order to tape a cleaner backing track, and then one member of the group would be responsible for the top-line and lyric. During the most successful period of Genesis’ career (the poppier, more single-oriented 3-man era from 1983-1992) the band members did not even bring in any pre-composed material to the studio sessions, starting jams from scratch and turning them into Top Ten singles over a period of months;
- Each member of the band might show up to a rehearsal sessions with any manner of pre-composed snippets of material (in every single Genesis book, video documentary, or rehearsal footage, the band uses the word “bits” as their lexicon for any musical or lyrical material generated in a writing session) which would be put up for consideration and subsequently arranged into a workable shape. A track like “Supper’s Ready” for instance contained “bits” brought in by all five members of the group combined with jams / improvisations later codified into a full arrangement.
“The Musical Box,” released as the opening track of the Nursery Cryme LP (October 1971), could perhaps be labeled as Op. 1 for Genesis, in which the juvenilia and transitional material, respectively, of their first and second albums (1969’s schoolboy-pop From Genesis To Revelation and 1970’s first dip into longer forms on Trespass) begins to make way for a more defined and mature style. By the time the track in its form on the LP was completed (apparently during the end of 1970), it subsequently appeared in nearly every live performance of the Peter Gabriel era, the only track of the 1971-1975 era to do so. As I intend to unpack the composition further, I hope to demonstrate just how much of an archetypal piece of music the track ended up becoming for Genesis across all of its wide-ranging discography; much of what music fans love about Genesis is already in full flower on this track, and its successful realization in the studio and on-stage strongly motivated the directions the group took in both media.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of “The Musical Box” is how the track truly bridges the early and mature eras of the group. Because Genesis’ compositions were often routined in rehearsal and the studio, few working drafts or unreleased versions of their tracks exist either officially or as bootleg material. “The Musical Box” is one of the very few exceptions; a guitar demo and work-in-progress studio and live takes of this track exist, some of which have even been officially released.
Until the release of his own Archive Collection in 1998, many Genesis fans might not have realized just how much of the music for the track was written by Anthony Phillips, lead guitarist and songwriter in the band from its inception until the summer of 1970, often credited as the group leader in the early days. It is still startling to hear the demo labeled “F Sharp,” recorded by Phillips and Mike Rutherford on two twelve-string guitars in a highly unusual tuning (the top three double-strings all resonate on F#, hence the title of the demo and the key of the song); almost all of the music that eventually appears on the studio track is here in this 3-minute study with the exception of the coda (“she’s a lady…” onward). While there would be many changes in instrumentation and arrangement (as well as a significant lengthening of some sections) the basic bedrock of “F Sharp” remains in all iterations of “Box” on the way to the finished track. I would be interested to know whether Phillips was included on the publishing when the track was first released, credited to “Genesis” as a collective writing entity, nearly a year after his departure.
The dual 12-string sound that defines many early Genesis pieces was largely the province of Phillips and Rutherford, and a feature that Steve Hackett was expected to, and did so happily, comply with during his tenure as guitarist in the group as well (note that well into the 90s and 21st century both Phillips and Hackett continued to cultivate their acoustic techniques alongside their electric guitar explorations, while Rutherford largely abandoned the acoustic guitar as well as his more serious commitment to bass guitar to become a Stratocaster-wielding electric guitarist). A January 1970 studio run-through created as part of the soundtrack to an unaired BBC documentary and titled “Manipulation,” (unheard until officially released in 2008) again begins as another pass through “F Sharp,” but the second instrumental verse adds an organ obligato, while the instrumental section features more sedate drumming by John Mayhew when compared to the major overhaul of this material in the studio recording, particularly once the drum chair was occupied by Phil Collins.
If Anthony Phillips occupies the Pest Best / Stu Sutcliffe position in Genesis’ history, then Mick Barnard might be profitably compared to Andy White; a man rather lost to history but for a line or two in a retrospective piece on the group. The little-known gap guitarist who played in Genesis for a few months in the fall of 1970 before Steve Hackett was hired is remembered by the band as being a bit of a step behind the senior members of the group in terms of live experience, which necessarily kept his tenure brief (Platts 2001 is the only book on the band to feature an interview with Barnard, and is worth reading solely for these passages). How fitting, perhaps, that the one track he left a mark on in their corpus is also “The Musical Box;” Tony Banks relates in Russell 2004 that some of the final lead guitar lines incorporated into the studio take originated with live performances during Barnard’s tenure.
Banks has elaborated more fully about the short period of time in which Genesis were forced, by necessity, to honor a few live engagements as a four-piece band (Gabriel / Banks / Rutherford / Collins) without a lead guitar player; the short-term solution to performing any tracks that featured lead guitar solos (the work-in-progress version of “Box” and “The Knife” are my two educated guesses as to which tracks absolutely needed a suitable lead line to be realized) was for Banks to overdrive his electric piano through a guitar fuzz pedal and play lead lines with his right hand while keeping chordal accompaniment with his Hammond Organ in the left hand (Mike Rutherford experimented with keeping rhythm on 12-string guitar and low end on an early set of bass pedals, pointing the way to another future Genesis auditory trademark). For a still-nascent performing musician, initially proficient on piano but forced to work with the organ instead for live work, as Tony Banks was as the time, the leap in technique needed to accomplish this endeavor satisfactorily marked a major leap forward for his own ability to develop multiple sound textures within a multi-keyboard setup. It is for this reason that the final studio take of “The Musical Box” features what would easily stand out as the most coruscating, even grungy, lead lines ever committed to tape by Banks. Until I was able to watch the full Shepperton ‘73 performance video when I was a teenager, I hadn’t even realized that the second set of solos in the track were from a keyboard and not the guitar. From 6:33 – 6:45 of the studio track Banks unfolds a highly out-of-character use of dissonant minor and major 2nds (essentially playing keys that are right next to each other) which creates an even more intense jumble of distorted notes. The keyboard work is just as galvanizing and energetic as the first studio appearance of new members Steve Hackett and Phil Collins.
In 2017 Phil Collins’ reputation seems to be undergoing a major rehabilitation in coincidence with his official autobiography and latest return to live performance, both titled Not Dead Yet, cheekily enough. He probably does not need any more defenders reminding the casual listener what a gifted drummer and singer he once was, and the caliber of percussive work he brought to Genesis marked a major leap forward from the capable but less distinctive drumming of John Silver or John Mayhew from the two previous LPs. He relates in the DVD interview for the Nursery Cryme reissue that the galloping drum part he unfurls during the faster instrumental sections was influenced by “The Weaver’s Answer” by the band Family (released on the album Entertainment in the spring of 1969); the undulating drums of that track are taken at a break-neck pace by Collins, who emerges right from the first track of his Genesis career as a virtuoso drummer of the highest caliber, and indeed perhaps the most accomplished musician in Genesis, period. His uncanny knack of blending his voice with Gabriel’s so seamlessly is also evident from the outset.
While I have emphasized the work brought to “The Musical Box” by his two preceding axemen, the Steve Hackett lead guitar style and approach to orchestration is quite in evidence on the final recording as well. As related in Dodds 2007, he remembered that when the finished track was being put together that there was no musical representation of a musical box in the piece at all; the solution was his creation of the delicate guitar phrases (taped at half-speed to sound impeccably precise and high pitched when run back at the normal speed) in the intro and answering every instance of “play me my song.” His guitar lines during the first solo also introduce many of the Hackett trademarks he would become known for; sinuous legato lines (often achieved by playing lines on one string that might have been realized more easily with alternate fingerings that would eschew the portamento he was seeking), smooth and potently-controlled distortion on his guitar, and some of the earliest examples in rock music of two-handed tapping (heard at 4:26 of the studio take), his attempt to generate the same speed and dexterity as a keyboard instrument. The band has spoken of Robert Fripp being Hackett’s most formative contemporary influence at the time he joined the band, and his work in “Box” indeed evokes the work of the King Crimson guitarist more strongly than at any other time.
As was often the case, the work of creating a top-line and lyric to match it would often be the last piece of the puzzle to come together in finalizing a Genesis track. It is known that the entire lyric and vocal are attributed to Peter Gabriel, and his alternately pretty and powerful singing enhances the mood shifts of the music without overwhelming the finished track (see “The Battle of Epping Forest” for an example of when the backing track and the vocals seems to be fighting for space). The lyric is more allusive in hinting at the macabre story-line that Gabriel would include in the liner notes to the album and subsequently add as a humorous introduction to live performances; nevertheless, the blend of Victorian-era atmospherics with a darker sexual subtext (in true Charterhouse fashion, the lyric is oblique enough that one might not realize the boy whose head was accidentally dislodged from his head in the croquet game has returned to have his way with the young lady he fancies) can be gleaned from both sources.
Almost a year after the track was released, Peter was seized by a desire, borne of both of artistic and commercial considerations, to begin relaying the subject matter of the story in extra-musical ways. While the fox-head and red dress from 1972’s Foxtrot might have been engaged with for shock value more than anything else, the lasting visual image associated with “The Musical Box” in live performances is of Peter Gabriel returning to the stage during the second set of solos in a grotesque old-man mask, writhing around on-stage in various humorous depictions of the lustful urges of the protagonist, and singing the climatic vocals of “Now! Now! Now” in front of a huge white par light. It must be remembered that the subsequent reputation of Genesis as an act that needed to be seen on stage as well as heard begins with their nascent visualization of “Box;” just around the corner would lay the bat-wings, flower mask, and total immersive theater experience of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
The most important addition to the track outside of Anthony Phillips’ basic template from “F Sharp” is the coda section, which became the most well-known excerpt from the song due to its being used in various Genesis live albums (often as part of a medley of older tunes) between 1977-1992. After nearly seven minutes of music with an unchanging key center (unusual for Genesis but unsurprising because of the strange guitar tuning), the coda finally introduces the wayward harmonic instability that is a major feature of the Genesis canon in general, and is retrospectively attributed to the work of Tony Banks as the major writer and de facto leader of the band. Suddenly, the harmonic rhythm increases in a dramatic way (it is typical of Banks’ style that often every rhythmic syncopation can feature a wholly new chord, rather than single notes or “riffs,” so to speak. See 1980’s “Turn it on Again” for an incredibly catchy piece of New Wave that is scored to a guitar / keyboard figure in 13/8 time in which every single syncopation is another chord, traveling to and from B major as waywardly as possible!), and the Genesis sound of kaleidoscopic harmonic motion over bass pedal points is instantly recognizable here. 36 years after the track was recorded and released, hear Tony Banks mutter disappointedly at how Peter Gabriel usurped his instrumental contribution to the track: “he started singing over this bit and I thought, ‘Shit. He’s singing all over my bit.’” In Banks’ mind the delicate guitar arpeggios and Beethoven-esque organ codetta were better served as entirely instrumental expositions; to Gabriel the new section provided an ideal dramatic entrance for the conclusion of his story. The battle rages in the studio recording, where the final vocals are mixed far lower than the backing track (it’s as if the mixing team behind Exile on Main St. were suddenly in charge); live the charismatic lead singer with the unusual costumes definitely claimed the coda as his own musical and visual tour de force, providing an indelible and unforgettable ending to the song.
The sense of drama across the peaks and valleys of “The Musical Box” are present on a musical, lyrical / textual, and visual level across the board, which must indicate the high esteem all five members of the 1971-1975 Genesis place on it. Every live performance of this era but for a few 1975 shows contained it, and the reappearances of the coda during various Phil-Collins led live appearances indicate that it was treated as an early classic by group and fans alike. Fitting, then, that this song has a backstory as fitful, challenging, and equally rewarding as the finished product.
Dodds (ed.), with Banks, T., Collins, P., Gabriel, P., et al. Genesis: Chapter & Verse. Thomas Dunne Books 2007.
Fielder, H. The Book of Genesis. Limbo Books Ltd. 1984.
Gallo, A. Genesis: I Know What I Like. DIY Books 1980.
Platts, R. Genesis: Inside & Out (1967-2000). Collector’s Guide Publishing 2001.
Russell, P. Genesis: Play Me My Song: A Live Guide 1969-1975. SAF Publishing 2004.