Having jumped in the deepest of deep ends in terms of guilty pleasures with my recent essay on my uncomfortable response to some of the James Bond films and novels, let's swim a little closer to the shore and artistic terra firma. I want to turn at this point to guilty pleasures that are not necessarily toxic, but which are of dubious merit, or those that combine abundant measures of both the meritorious and the miserable, and the essential quality of which is therefore confusing and ambiguous. The genesis, so to speak, of this whole series on guilty pleasures was an idea I had a little more than a year ago for an essay on how to think about art or cultural artifacts which we cannot decide whether or not we think are good, which we find both attractive and repulsive, and which alternately and even simultaneously are in some ways unmistakably impressive and plainly mediocre in others.
At the time I specifically had in mind the 1974 Genesis double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and its various other incarnations. Since the late 70s, when I first heard it, I've had a very ambivalent relationship with this piece, or rather set of pieces, of music. I think high on everyone's list of guilty pleasures, or things they enjoy without respecting much or even at all, would be certain kinds of pop music. Almost everyone enjoys, at some level, some version of catchy, appealing musical drivel, for various reasons. But the question becomes a lot more complicated when for many years one cannot decide whether a certain piece or set of music is actually good or bad, whether we are responding enthusiastically to something that is a totally guilty pleasure or is something we can really defend wholeheartedly or at least in part.
Because I hadn't thought about it systematically, but the question would crop up in my mind regularly from time to time, I had the idea of doing a little essay on whether or not The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is actually any good. I had self-consciously been hoping that writing such an essay would “resolve” the question in my mind once and for all, after an incredible amount of back and forth over many years. But something interesting happened in the process of preparing to write that (this?) essay: I decided that the question wasn't as difficult as it seems and that, on balance, The Lamb simply had to be consigned pretty firmly to the “not good” category once and for all. For a while that seemed satisfactory. But over time, it hasn't.
So I return to the original problem, once again with a degree of ambivalence about the object in question, and it raises a set of extremely difficult questions. How do we respond and relate to works of art we both respect and dismiss simultaneously at different levels? How do we deal with those occasional objects that seem both not only worthy but impressive in some ways and incompetent or even pathetic in others? Is it possible for something to be both really very good and undoubtedly pretty bad at the same time? Is it possible to tease apart that which is recuperable from that which, honestly, must be permanently dismissed? What kind of guilty pleasure is involved in appreciating that which we find “good" about such an object while frankly admitting that a great deal about it is “bad?” Is this the aesthetic and intellectual equivalent of a bad or even abusive relationship or friendship? Shouldn't we maintain high enough aesthetic standards that objects that are woefully and probably fatally flawed are dispatched without too much sentimentality? But then, should we really privilege the head over the gut in such a manner when it comes to something as instinctive and emotionally direct as music? These are just a few of the questions this problem opens up and there's no hope at all of answering them here. Yet even teasing out the difficulties of addressing them ought to provide some serious food for thought and at least clarify some of the questions and problems if not provide any answers.
Before we go any further, obviously I have to spare some attention to what I mean by “good” and “bad” in artistic terms. Historically there was some resistance to the introduction of literary studies as an academic discipline at all on the grounds that “gentlemen cannot be examined on matters of taste” and so forth, as distinguished from scholarship in the classics and languages, for example, that were traditionally seen as sufficiently rigorous. But the very premise of literary studies, among other well-established and obviously legitimate disciplines, is precisely that there are systematic methodologies for reading and more broadly aesthetic interpretation, and that there is something vitally important to be gained by the application of such techniques to literary and other artistic texts. This is, of course, another way of saying that literary studies and critical theory assert their own relevance, if not primacy. But this relevance is almost universally accepted, and has been for many decades (imagine if a university decided to try to completely abolish its English and Comparative Literature departments, for example), and at its heart lies the idea that artistic and aesthetic judgments about literature and other arts are not only legitimate but can and should be systematic and rigorous. Of course the question of how to read and evaluate artistic artifacts and judge relative merit (the last is not necessary, although it's extremely difficult to pursue these studies without at least implicit value judgments at some level) is ancient, vexed and, ultimately, irresolvable. But I can't go forward with the question of ambivalence of judgment of artistic merit without providing some sense of what I'm talking about beyond arbitrary expressions of “taste.”
By “good” generally speaking I mean that which succeeds on its own terms, which achieves the implicit goals set down in its own structures and produces the effects it appears to be striving for. Simply put, does it create the response in the audience that is built into its project, especially when that audience is well informed and critical? That strikes me as a minimal requirement of artistic merit. Another obvious characteristic is a dynamic relationship, which can be complementary, contradictory or even calculatedly and suggestively arbitrary, between manifest and latent content on the one hand and formal attributes on the other hand. In other words, does the artifact communicate its messages formally as well as in terms of more overt content? Third, does the expression reflect a certain mastery of formal technique, which of course can also be expressed through a calculated and deliberate rejection of or opposition to those formal techniques, and/or real insight into the manifest and latent subject matter being addressed by the content of the message? Really great art is only achievable, it seems to me, when both formal mastery and suggestive insight are combined in a given work. A successful work minimally has to contain a little bit of one or the other at the very least. Without either formal mastery, which could include radically original and even intuitive techniques, or reflective insight, which again can be either carefully thought through or possibly also intuitive – in other words, without disciplined talent and/or significant intelligence at work – I'd argue it's going to be very difficult to find an artistic product significantly meritorious. There are important additional questions, of course, such as: Does it open rather than close down space in which ideas can operate, proliferate, and evolve? To what extent is it relevant to material that came before and after it, and what role does it play in cultural change and development? Does it seem to have continued or heightened relevance over time, and so forth? Obviously such judgments depend on the criteria and methodologies employed for interpretation and analysis and are also culturally dependent, so a large degree of subjectivity is perforce involved. But this hardly constitutes a resort to arbitrary "tastes" or prevents the development of rigor and serious, systematic thinking about the question.
This, more or less, is what I mean by “good,” at least in this context. By “bad” I therefore mean a marked absence of such qualities. In particular the failure of a work to produce its apparently intended effects or to marshal structures and forms that are consistent with its attempted messaging are rather obvious failures. It almost goes without saying that I can identify maddeningly large quantities of both what seemed to be “good” and are obviously “bad” aspects to The Lamb, which gives it its ambiguous status in my own experience. I'm really not trying to write only about this one, by now somewhat obscure, double album from the 1970s, but rather to use it to discuss more broadly the problem posed when one can identify much of both the good and the bad in a single object and is therefore confronted with this conundrum of judgment, especially over a long period of time. If one were able to simply dismiss an object like this or forget about it, it wouldn't be that much of a problem. The deep ambivalence comes when moving on is difficult and when the ambivalence neither resolves itself nor fades into the distance but instead persists as a nagging question that demands a resolution (which is probably not fully achievable).
The Lamb, it should be acknowledged from the outset, can be seen in a way as a synecdoche for the usually dreadful genre of progressive or “prog" rock that emerged in the late 60s, specifically following the release of King Crimson's extraordinary 1969 debut LP, In the Court of the Crimson King. That record, which is pretty brilliant in a lot of ways and was certainly groundbreaking, had an enormous influence in very wide circles especially in Britain, and can't be held responsible for the grotesque excesses to which it helped to give rise. Prog rock, especially of the Crimson-influenced variety, rested on two interesting and theoretically worthy ideas: first, that European rock musicians could and should move away from the blues/R&B roots of American rock music and start to explore European classical and folk traditions which might have (and actually sometimes did) produced a really interesting variation on a limited field; and second, that a more elevated level of instrumental precision and compositional complexity, often rooted in formal classical or jazz training, would make rock music more exciting and interesting to listen to. Sounds good. Unfortunately, in practice for the most part the genre lurched from one level of self-indulgent excess and absurdity to another and was rapidly characterized by ludicrous displays of pomposity and self-grandiosity.
The introduction of classical influences that began rather promisingly with early King Crimson quickly went off the rails in a very ugly way. Crimson had included in their first tour playlist in 1969 a rather stunning version of Mars from Gustav Holtz's The Plants, which had obviously influenced both their overall style and several of their specific songs (in subsequent years Crimson produced a number of variations on Mars under different names in a repeated nod to this aspect of their roots). They never bothered to put their straight 1969 version of Mars on any of their formal releases at the time, but it can be heard in some of the frequently breathtaking live recordings of that tour released many decades later. From this interesting side-experiment, the band that epitomized most of the worst excesses of prog rock, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (including the original Crimson bassist/vocalist and in-house lightweight Greg Lake), extrapolated an abominable album-length demolition of Modest Mussorgsky's 1874 piano suite, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It was dreadful for Mussorgsky's original composition, for rock music, and, above all, for its audiences (who might better be described as victims). The pomposity of prog rock in general and its biggest villains, ELP, in particular, probably reached its nadir in the god-awful 1977 Works, Volume I double LP, especially the first side of the first disc which was defaced by Keith Emerson's "Piano Concerto No. 1," no less. And, yes, it's as contemptible as you no doubt fear.
As for the heightened levels of instrumental competence and formal training that tended to accompany prog rock, these were undoubtedly real but generally never made it beyond, or at least quickly degenerated into, empty pyrotechnics without any artistic merit whatsoever. Without adult supervision, self-restraint or real writing ability, prog rock types typically deluded themselves that pomposity, grandiosity and empty instrumental pyrotechnics were a substitute for well-written, enjoyable or interesting music. Worse still, they forgot or denied they were still operating in the field of pop, in which the ultimate goal has been and remains a perfectly honed, catchy and diamond-like three-four-minute love song or something equally perfectly formed but simple. The very notion of a catchy tune, which is the sine qua non of pop music, became anathema to this genre of it. A particularly egregious example of this was another leading UK prog rock band, Yes, which managed to assemble some extremely talented instrumentalists indeed but which, in several decades of dedicated and earnest labor, never managed to compose a single remotely interesting or decently composed song. Their music, usually difficult and demanding to perform, was nonetheless almost always a prodigious mess full of sound and fury and signifying nothing whatsoever. Almost all of it is downright unlistenable.
The only one of the prog rock bands whose instrumental brilliance was sometimes able to overcome a complete absence of songwriting talent or, worse, a militant disinterest in the craft of songwriting, was the aforementioned King Crimson. The band, which continuously changed members except guitar ace Robert Fripp, produced very few well-written songs, but quite a lot of very interesting and sometimes exciting music, and especially inventive and dynamic live improvisations (along with the Grateful Dead they are probably the only well-known rock band to really risk that on such a scale for so much of their history, although that's surely the only thing those two bands have in common). Because of these qualities, Crimson had interestingly delayed levels of influence on the music scene, with their work from the early 70s, for example, having a profound impact on early 90s grunge bands like Nirvana and many others (Kurt Cobain apparently considered Crimson's Red the best LP he had ever heard, and I can understand the sentiment). Even so, much of Crimson's output is so badly written that, like almost all of the rest of 70s prog rock, it can't escape being cringe-inducing.
The punk revolution of the mid-70s was aimed straight at the heart of this rot, and I'm not sure there's been a more salutary self-correction in any aspect of popular culture in recent decades. John Lydon (soon to be renamed Johnny Rotten) reportedly first came to the attention of the Sex Pistols' future manager and mastermind Malcolm McLaren because, among other things, he was wearing a T-shirt with "I hate" penned in above its prefabricated Pink Floyd logo. Quite right! And, of course, with its psychedelic-inflected aesthetic and Roger Waters' unusual (for prog rock) ability to sometimes write a decent song, Pink Floyd was hardly the worst of the bunch. It's crucial to understand that The Lamb was released on the brink of the punk counteroffensive and during the very depths of the prog rock fiasco, and that this is reflected in its contents in a really fascinating and complex way, for both good and ill. Prog rock, for the most part, was unable to avoid self-important grandiosities like the concept album, especially the concept double album. In many ways, The Lamb is the last of these, although Pink Floyd's Animals and The Wall might be seen as final holdouts. But while it participated in so much of prog rock's excesses and errors, The Lamb strikes me as one of the very few products of that genre still worth listening to, at least in part. It's errors and failings are generally typical, but its genuinely interesting features were quite unusual and noteworthy at the time, and remain intriguing and engaging.
Genesis were always something of a lesser light in the prog rock world of the early 70s. They were fairly late to gain any real attention, and while they sometimes tried to copy aspects of Yes' pseudo-classical style, they weren't nearly as good at actually playing their instruments. A more significant difference was the fact that they began as a songwriting collective and always took the idea of songwriting much more seriously than most their prog colleagues. They came across as what they were: not exactly a group of upper class twits, but certainly a group of upper middle-class public (i.e. private) school boys. The band was founded in the late 60s at the Charterhouse school, and the class exception, working-class drummer Phil Collins, was a subsequent hire. This was a key origin of some of Genesis' distinctive quirkiness: their early songs were infused with a strange pseudo-Edwardian sensibility, nursery rhymes and riddles, an absurdist sense of humor particular to the English middle and upper classes, a kind of soft liberal politics that tends come with a certain amount of privilege, and a familiarity with classical and English literature and traditions that was otherwise (probably mercifully) rare if not entirely absent from the subject matter of other rock songs.
Using, as he has throughout his career, a combination of weird and occasionally good ideas and genuine audacity to make up for a marked lack of real singing ability and any other obvious innate talent, their singer Peter Gabriel gained attention for the group through his outlandish costumes and makeup, striking even by the prevailing glam rock standards of Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Some, like the notorious “old man” mask used in live performances of The Musical Box, were extremely effective, while others were ridiculous or simply unconvincing. But it had to be said that Genesis were at least toying with a level of theatricality that was largely if not entirely unprecedented. As with their subject matter, their live performance staging was unexpected and quirky enough to distinguish them from the rest of the prog rock pack.
And then there was the sound. Partly by accident and partly by design, Genesis had early on discovered how to create a unique and very atmospheric musical quality that fit a lot of their subject matter perfectly. Frequently based on multiple 12 string guitars, flute, unusually delicate keyboard touches by Tony Banks and light, haunting, almost ghostly, electric guitar flourishes by Steve Hackett, the sound had a lilting, faded, autumnal and almost musty quality. It sounded as antique and fragile as the nursery and schoolroom subject matter they frequently wrote about or invoked. It seemed, and still seems, an anachronistic and inappropriate set of musical qualities and subject matter for any version of rock and remains quite unique, especially since all efforts to copy it have failed completely. It either works for you or it doesn't. Most listeners are left extremely cold and unmoved by the effect, but for some of us the sound itself seems to possess “magical” or at least deeply evocative qualities that are undeniably affecting. The opening passages of Cinema Show, for example, with its extremely delicate interplay of 12 strings and flute, has an evocative quality that's almost ineffable, but if it works for you, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If one of the unarticulated and even unconscious aims of prog rock was to create a genre that was more European and less American, in this sense early Genesis probably succeeded more than any other effort to find an overall musical quality, a “sound,” that was not just clearly European but unmistakably, almost militantly, English, complete with faux-old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy and calculatedly "quaint" qualities, and that uniquely absurdist English sense of humor.
I noted above that they started out as a songwriting collective rather than a band as such and that unlike most of their prog rock colleagues they took the notion of songwriting seriously and worked hard at it. At some point that kind of single-minded effort is likely to begin to pay off, but quite a lot of their early work suggested trying too hard by half, and it has to be admitted that they produced some of the worst songs, in terms of the interplay of music and lyrics, but I can think of. Two of them were featured on Selling England by the Pound, the 1973 LP that immediately preceded The Lamb. It was certainly their most polished performance up till then, but also brought out the worst of their excesses, and reflected those typical of prog rock generally. Firth of Fifth, for instance, is a bombastic but certainly not terrible, and in some ways very interesting, instrumental track, but the words, whoever was responsible for them, are definitely my candidate for worst written lyric of all time, at least when combined with a plausibly defensible if grandiose instrumental. Insofar as it does make any sense it is inane and insulting, but mostly it just makes no sense, and in a bad way.
Another particularly cringe-inducing song on Selling England is the endless The Battle of Epping Forest, which I suppose was intended to be a satire of some kind of contemporary British culture. Epic fail. It's musically unlistenable, and the lyrics, which are almost certainly the handiwork of Peter Gabriel in his very worst, are an object lesson in how not to write words for a song. Everything is a belabored pun, play on words, unfunny joke, lame cultural reference and so forth. No doubt its a distant descendent of Bob Dylan's masterful satire Desolation Row, with its grotesque parade of clichés and cultural icons bitterly anatomizing a brutal heartbreak. As Stephen Sondheim once observed about Ira Gershwin, you know something has gone badly wrong when while listening to a song one can't help imagining the writer sweating over a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, trying to pack as much wordplay as possible into the text, when a lyricists' actual role is to be, insofar as possible, invisible. This disastrous and elementary failing was repeated in parts of The Lamb, to devastating effect.
An excess typical of both early Genesis at its worst and prog rock's undisciplined grandiosity in general, also found on Selling England, is the abuse of the third section of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, The Fire Sermon, in the god-awful lyrics for the aforementioned Cinema Show. Needless to say Genesis missed Eliot's point entirely and only succeeded in demonstrating the immaturity of their songwriting craftsmanship, rather than their erudition or upper-middle-class education. Yet for all of that, the sound was unique and compelling to some and it was clear that these people, Gabriel in particular, were at least really trying to write effective, emotionally powerful songs in the context of a genre that generally speaking did not recognize, and even dismissed, the need for any such thing. That something good was eventually going to emerge from so much effort, in spite of so many blunders and false starts, was probably inevitable.
The Lamb both is and isn't it, which is what makes it such a difficult text. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway actually has at least five distinct incarnations that overlap with each other but can be viewed as at least somewhat discrete entities. First, it's a largely and deservedly forgotten short story by Peter Gabriel that was included in the interior gatefold of the original double LP. It can be dispensed without any second thought, being poorly written and completely inane. Gabriel had developed a storytelling technique during early gigs to entertain the audience during the frequent band re-tunings in live performance, and some people found it charming and engaging. It certainly helped to give Genesis another element of uniqueness and deepened its quirky style. But in truth Gabriel never displayed much talent as a prose storyteller, and this short story suggests that his choice of profession as a musician and performer rather than as a writer was a wise one. Second, The Lamb is a studio double album released in 1974 combining lyrics and music in a set of songs that purport to tell a similar if not the same story. Of course this is what most people think of when we refer to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Third, it also refers to the rather extraordinary 102 performance world tour, which on a good night was probably one of the most remarkable concerts one might have hoped to see but which was never filmed or even properly recorded. Fourth, there are the recordings of live performances: numerous bootlegs (and, yes, I admit to possessing modest collection of these) of varying qualities of performance and recording, and the nearly complete version from The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles recorded on January 24, 1975 and released, with considerable tweaking, in the Genesis Archive 1967-75 box set issued in 1998. Even more than the original studio recording, I'd consider this last version close to definitive, although some of the other raw live recordings such as the one from the Wembley Empire Pool in 1974 and several others are also indispensable. Finally, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is also the name of the first and crucially important song of the whole set, and can therefore can refer to that as a stand-alone in any or all of the numerous versions performed by Genesis or Gabriel over the years.
As I already noted, the “story” behind The Lamb, both written in prose by Gabriel and as reflected in the lyrics is, on its face, utterly inane and garbled. Its efforts at surrealism are largely, although not entirely, a failure and it simply doesn't hold together in a meaningful sense, at least in terms of its manifest content. There have been numerous efforts to “interpret” or otherwise provide meaning and structure to what Gabriel himself called “a big lump of story and music,” almost all without significant success. This is almost certainly because to a very large extent there is no there there, so to speak. To return to my proposition that the first quality of “good” art succeed on its own terms, The Lamb as a story, a concept and a unified whole fails utterly. You'd think that would be the end of things, but interestingly it's not. Among other things, there is a subtext in which a great deal of what is written, particularly in some of the song lyrics, has a latent meaning its author may not even have been fully aware of that regularly asserts itself in a very compelling manner.
During the period in which The Lamb was written, Gabriel was becoming increasingly unhappy with his relationship with the other members of Genesis, his role as a rock star and, I think, the way in which prog rock in general was proceeding. Sometime during the composition he decided to quit the band, and in the run-up to the tour he decided to take a hiatus from music altogether and apparently considered a change of careers. At the end of the tour in 1975, he actually did disappear for a couple of years only to reemerge in 1977 as a very compelling solo act. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd did a great deal of complaining in his songs about the hazards of rock stardom and the abuses of the industry, but, for a short time at least, Gabriel went beyond complaining to actually walking away. It didn't last, but it probably salvaged his ability to subsequently emerge as a major songwriter, performer and, at times, visionary, in the pop music field. At any rate his songs in The Lamb and on his first solo album strongly reflect this discontent and even anger. A year earlier in 1974, King Crimson honcho Robert Fripp dissolved his band indefinitely (it unexpectedly, even to him, reemerged in a barely recognizable form in 1981) and went underground to practice the New Age teachings of Bennett and Gurdjieff. It's less demonstrable, but it seems likely that Fripp too could see the writing on the wall for prog rock and decided to get out while the getting was good. And perhaps it's no coincidence that Fripp and Gabriel, the best of the bunch in most ways anyway, reemerged in new, stripped-down, post-prog forms in the late 70s with Fripp joining Gabriel's first tour (playing while concealed behind a stack of amplifiers) and producing (badly) his second LP.
It's been suggested before, but I do think The Lamb, in so far as it is amenable to and worth reading as a whole text, has interesting things to say about this set of issues that just so happened to be consuming its author at the time. It's probably best read as a kind of refracted diary of a frustrated and fledgling artist who feels entirely smothered by the very structures he created and is looking for creative and personal independence, that is to say for a way out. This certainly seems to be the only way to make sense of it all. Predictably, it is the refracted and displaced exploration of such sentiments that gives rise to the best and the worst of what The Lamb has to offer.
So what works on the album, and what doesn't, apart from an incoherent narrative that makes little diegetic sense and is essentially a string of non sequiturs both in a linear and even in a more attenuated, non-linear or surrealist framework? Well, to begin at the beginning, it has to be said that the opening of The Lamb and its title track, especially on the Archives and bootlegged live versions, creates a pretty spectacular musical effect. Rapid keyboard arpeggios are themselves circled with odd buzzing, fluttering sounds, gaining density and intensity until the first theme comes crashing through and the opening lyrics, "And the lamb… lies down… on Broadway," initiate the narrative in earnest. The effect is that of something being conjured out of nothing, of a strange, unearthly, and incorporeal presence suddenly and inexorably swirling into a shape and bursting into life with an abrupt and surprising muscularity. This opening track is strikingly effective at almost every level and was the only song on the album to be routinely performed by both Genesis and Gabriel in subsequent years. In other words, what is overall frequently a disappointing and even “bad” LP gets off to a remarkably “good” start.
Musically the opening sets the tone for the rest of the album, combining both powerful and delicate elements and emphasizing more simple and traditional rock song structures than Genesis had typically aimed for in earlier records. It also has some of the most effective lyrics on the entire record, first carefully creating its urban surrealist atmosphere, then introducing the angry, alienated outsider, Rael, “the imperial aerosol kid,” who is also implicitly violent and a sexual predator, and finally beginning a series carefully calculated pop cultural references and, more importantly, musical quotations. Unlike many of their prog rock colleagues, Genesis had tried to avoid musical quotations, including from classical sources for most of their early period. For The Lamb, however, they suddenly decided to literally litter its music and text with quotations and allusions. This process may start as early in the opening track as the third verse reference to Suzanne, possibly citing Leonard Cohen's 1966 classic that Gabriel would later rather brilliantly cover. It is unmistakably underway as the opening song ends with “they say the lights are always bright on Broadway, they say there's always magic in the air,” from The Drifters' classic. The musical and lyrical quotations in The Lamb are, importantly, mostly to either American classic pop and rock songs, or to distinctly American-inflected British rock such as the Rolling Stones (who are parodied at the very end of the album), and not to any classical or folk sources typically favored by other prog rock bands.
The choice of these quotations is very calculated. Gabriel and Genesis were deliberately trying to move away from the Edwardian, classical, mythic, swords and sorcery, fantasy, quaintly English and “airy-fairy” as they put it, subject matter and tone they were most closely associated with. The effort was only partly successful, but indicates an understanding of where unmistakably diminishing returns were becoming clearly evident. The attempt to create a “gritty” urban setting in a version of New York City, to center on an unpleasant and possibly dangerous main character who is a violent gang member, and to toughen some of the music while retaining a signature delicacy at times, all reflected this impulse. And in quoting American and American-inflected classic pop and rock songs, Genesis was obviously trying to say, you've misunderstood us: we aren't Yes, ELP and company, we're more interested in and responsive to the great songs we all know and love and were trying to write new ones rather than compete with or mimic Gustaf Holst, Wagner or Chopin. Gabriel's idol, after all, was Otis Redding.
At times, The Lamb either succeeds in this ambitious transformation, or at least comes very close. Probably the most striking and, for those who respond to and like it, emotionally affecting track on the album is Back in NYC, which is a huge deviation from anything Genesis ever did before or after. Some people have identified it, and its narrator Rael, as proto-punk, and whether one agrees with that extremely debatable interpretation or not, we're certainly dealing with an angry, violent and vicious character giving full vent to his rage. The live version on the Archive and many other bootlegged live performances find Gabriel at close to his finest, and for whatever reason (quite possibly linked to his frustration with the band and the whole direction Genesis was taking) he almost too convincingly comes across as an angry, unstable and at least slightly dangerous persona in some of these performances. Throughout the 80s and into the 90s he displayed similar flashes of anger on album and stage in a weird love/hate relationship with his audience that was only resolved, perhaps, with the LP So, best known for its love song to the audience In Your Eyes, and probably not fully until even later with the conciliatory album appropriately entitled Us. Musically, Back in NYC is also quite unique for Genesis and seems to set the stage much more for Gabriel's solo work such as San Jacinto, his unreleased cover version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and his collaboration with Afro-Celt Sound System, When You're Falling, which seems to be more or less of a reworking of NYC.
But however effective it clearly is in the opening track and in Back in NYC, the character of Rael is often extremely problematic and at times constitutes one of the greatest failings of The Lamb. To effect the shift Genesis were looking for, he had to be as "othered" as possible: American, not English; Puerto Rican, not white; half, not fully, Puerto Rican (no indication of "the other half"), have a name that kind of sounds right but really does not exist, and so forth. Worse, Gabriel was simply unable to get his voice right in the lyrics. Gabriel's own deeply English vocabulary, phraseology, references and sensibility come through time and again, and there's no way any listener can credit Rael the narrator as a successfully constructed a half-Puerto Rican New York street kid gang member. It is possible, of course, to hear Rael as GabRael rather than "Real," and therefore as yet another mask the Genesis singer was using to thinly disguise aspects of his own persona. Gabriel's subsequent development of a powerful confessional style of songwriting suggests that consciously or unconsciously this is what he was trying to do. But given my criterion that an artistic effort ought to minimally succeed at least on the terms it lays down for itself, I don't think it's possible to see Rael ultimately as anything other than a grand miscalculation and an effort to pull off a kind of ambitious cross-cultural ventriloquism for which Genesis and Gabriel did not possess the requisite capital or knowledge-base.
Listing the vast number of phrases, sentiments and formulations that are easily identifiable with what must have been Charterhouse culture but completely inappropriate for anyone of Rael's purported description would be far too tedious. The worst examples are concentrated in the weakest song on the album, in my view, The Chamber of 32 Doors, especially its celebration of the “country man” versus the “town man.” The distinction of town versus country is quite deep in the English culture and psyche, but has no rhetorical equivalent in the United States, especially in New York City (it matters little whether the voice speaking in that part of the song is assumed to be that of Rael himself or some advice-giving relative as some have suggested). Beyond that, the song is just awful. It anticipates Gabriel's future confessional style, but it fails both formally and in terms of satisfying its own clear-cut agenda, and its emotions are bathetic at best, a kind of melodrama we will come to in a future Ibishblog guilty pleasures essay.
Another of the low points comes soon after the excellent opening track and the stunning short follow-through, Fly on the Windshield (a metaphor much later appropriated by Depeche Mode), which quickly gives way to Broadway Melody of 1974, which is similar to and almost as bad as The Battle of Epping Forest, though mercifully much shorter. It's basically a series of bad puns and lame cultural allusions that are supposed to be clever, evocative and, I suppose, surrealistic, but are merely tiresome and annoying. Again, a sub-Desolation Row fiasco. Obviously there is a point being made here about nostalgia, which was running deep in Anglo-American culture in 1974, but the song feels like a checklist and produces Sondheim's "Gershwin effect" of primarily evoking the image of the songwriter sweating over his wordplay to the exclusion of lyrical effectiveness or, for that matter meaning.
A number of the other tracks fail along similar lines. Anyway and The Colony of Slippermen fall back into the public school cleverness trap in an extremely ineffective manner and the whole trope of Rael and his brother facing the twin specters of castration and suburban domestication seems crude and juvenile. The Lamia is in some ways a well-written song, but again resorting to classical mythology and Romantic poetry (in this case John Keats, in Slippermen, William Wordsworth) not only doesn't work and sounds silly, but worse it seems to contradict a lot of the other imperatives Genesis seemed to be setting themselves and the album in earlier parts of The Lamb. It comes across as a retreat, a surrender to a familiar and played-out style and, in a sense, an admission that the new path either wasn't working or couldn't be sustained. It is as if, as the double album progresses, the creative energies deployed on both sides of the first disc simply burned themselves out and Genesis increasingly allowed themselves to slip back into very familiar and therefore completely ineffective territory that it was the whole point of The Lamb to move beyond if not repudiate. Under such circumstances it's hard to avoid self-parody, but if that danger was not entirely avoided in be only partly successful effort to create a new, gritty, urban and slightly menacing atmosphere on disc one, by Slippermen Genesis begin to sound like a parody of their old selves. Of course it's an inglorious spectacle.
To oscillate rapidly back towards the album's charms, largely located on the first disc, the songs that work best are, not surprisingly, those most directly reflecting Gabriel's claustrophobia, fear and despair at the time. Cuckoo Cocoon has as much of the trapped and sedated but anxious as one might wish: "this feels so secure, that I know it can't be real, but I feel good," etc. In the Cage seems to work extremely well on almost every level. Genesis continued to perform the song for many years after, and because it's so well-crafted it stands alone perfectly. It slowly gain steam and increasingly and then frantically builds to a moving and effective crescendo that condenses and releases a great deal of tension. That its author felt trapped by something serious is evident on first listening. And while there isn't any direct quotation, there certainly is the (entirely positive and, insofar as possible, unpretentious) influence of Bach in Tony Banks' keyboard solo (for a prog rock band, Genesis was remarkably unconcerned with the pyrotechnical solo, no doubt because they aspired to write effective songs).
I am unusual, I think, among admirers of The Lamb in appreciating the track that follows In the Cage, the unheralded and much-maligned The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging, which musically is probably the simplest song on the entire album, but which I think contains genuinely clever and effective lyrics. Those interested primarily in complicated or interesting musical structures will no doubt find little of interest in it, but I would argue that it demonstrates Gabriel's slow maturation as a wordsmith, and at an earlier point in his career it might have fallen victim to the “Gershwin effect,” but doesn't. Again, the song goes directly to Gabriel's growing anxiety about becoming a commodity. In his brilliant song Solsbury Hill, the highlight of his first solo effort after leaving Genesis, he insists that "I walked right out of the machinery," a boast rendered increasingly hollow as it is being used in more and more TV commercials. Nonetheless, if Solsbury Hill is to be seen, as it should be, as Gabriel's declaration of independence from Genesis ("today I don't need a replacement, I showed them what the smile on my face meant"), then songs like Grand Parade and the others served as fair warning, due notice and further evidence of a decent respect to the opinions of mankind as they say.
No such unorthodoxy attaches to my very high regard for "The Carpet Crawlers," which is undoubtedly the highlight of The Lamb, and therefore certainly the best song Genesis ever produced with or without Gabriel. There is some dispute about whether Gabriel was responsible for both the lyrics and most of the music or only the lyrics and the essential melody, but it hardly matters. Here, at last, by those criteria I laid out the beginning of this essay is a product that can unequivocally be identified as “good” in every possible sense. There have been many efforts to decipher who and what these carpet crawlers might be and why their refrain is “we got to get into get out.” I don't think there's any great mystery about it, however. The song describes, in figurative but unmistakable language, the perils of ambition and working within a system of ambitions, of the trap that they set for the individuals “who are pulled up by the magnet, believing they're free.” It seems to me almost impossible that song could have been written by anyone who wasn't giving voice to a degree of outrage at their own captivity in such systems and the distortions of personality and behavior they inevitably produce.
In particular I find the often ignored introductory section to be exceptionally evocative and effective, and the clearest sign that Gabriel's ambition to become a serious songwriter, after so many fiascoes and false starts, was finally beginning to be realized: “A salamander scurries into flames to be destroyed. Imaginary creatures are trapped at birth on celluloid. The fleas cling to the golden fleece, hoping they'll find peace. Each thought and gesture are caught on celluloid. There's no hiding in my memory. There's no room to avoid.” Self-destruction, self-creation and re-creation, self-delusion, self-defeat, illusory ambition, the pointless yearning for and relentless punishment by entertainment industry success, the passionate desire for and intense fear of creating a permanent artistic record, and the self-recrimination and self-loathing these produce are all powerfully invoked here. The fact that it leads directly into an exceptionally beautiful song that continues to press the case with powerful and evocative imagery and a haunting chorus and refrain, and which builds to an extraordinary intensity, only reinforces the sense that we are dealing, from the outset, with an entirely successful and indeed remarkable work of art, a truly great song by any standards. Whether he wrote only most or basically all of it, bootlegs of the tour suggest that Gabriel consistently produced powerful vocal performances of the song, even on the (frequent) evenings in which his voice and/or singing abilities were less than impressive. And no matter how many times Phil Collins has tried to sing it, the song was and remains entirely owned by Gabriel.
As for The Lamb on stage, it remains one of the more tantalizing mysteries for prog rock, and indeed rock in general. Gabriel-era Genesis was probably the most interestingly "theatrical" band ever, in the most positive and negative senses of the term, even though others perhaps before, and certainly since, have had more elaborate staging. This pattern clearly reached its peak with The Lamb tour, which bizarrely and inexplicably was never properly documented, let alone filmed. The staging included a studied and carefully constructed pitch blackness; three large screens showing more than 1,400 slides throughout the performance; a giant swirling cone that descended on Gabriel at the end of The Lamia; the most bizarre and elaborate costume, the Slipperman, that he or probably any other major rock figure has ever worn; and a life-sized and apparently convincing dummy second Gabriel that emerged with an explosion on the other side of the stage at the moment Rael realizes that his brother John, who he has been chasing through most of the narrative, is actually himself. An enormous amount of effort to reconstruct the spectacle, which was evidently quite remarkable, has been expended by numerous people, and one can get a generalized sense of it, but there is a palpable feeling in many quarters that it probably packed much more of a wallop than we can glean from the fragments. Or not. Very few of us will ever be sure. The tiny scraps of 8mm video that have survived, almost all of wretchedly poor quality, are extremely suggestive and enticing. So is the text of the tour program that describes the show as "multi-media," a concept that was fledgling at best in 1974.
One of my closest friends, who is a noted rock critic, a serious and canny cultural observer and a brilliant journalist, once told me that the one show he most regrets never having seen was Genesis in 1974. Even though I long had a soft spot for The Lamb, and had a sense of what an intriguing spectacle it must've been from photographs by Armando Gallo and others, at that time I told him I wasn't sure what he meant. But upon reflection, and especially after the release of the Shrine Auditorium performance in the Archive box set I was convinced and I told him so. One thing is for sure: the lack of a serious documentary visual record of the performance only adds to its mystique, which for those of us who like, or are even deeply ambivalent about, it is considerable. It is, for some of us, the mother of all the ones that got away without more than a few traces.
I've gone into all this background and textual detail in order, I hope, to make a broader point about how ambivalence in judgment of artistic merit works in practice and how difficult the questions it raises are. As promised, I haven't answered any of them. What I was trying to illuminate is why The Lamb is compelling both on its own merits and in terms of its relationship to a cultural moment, the immanent and probably overdue death of prog rock, but at the same time to be very frank about all the serious flaws and failings that hold me fast to a position of apparently irresolvable ambivalence. But if The Lamb marks in some senses one of the highest achievements and in other senses a crucial herald of the death of prog rock, it also anticipates several other new forms: the stripped-down post-prog music pursued by Gabriel, Fripp and other refugees of that ilk; Genesis' own post-Gabriel slow drift into garbage-pop artistic oblivion and concomitant commercial success; and possibly in some senses the imminent punk counterattack. Certainly for those who have significant regard for Gabriel's later achievements, especially beginning with Gabriel III (also known as “Melt”) in 1980, The Lamb is most clearly the end of one era and the glimmerings of the beginning of another.
I hope that by looking at the ways in which I am simultaneously attracted to and repelled by The Lamb, I have been able to begin to tease out a little bit of how ambivalence functions as a variety of the guilty pleasure. For me, in this case the effect is slightly vertiginous since the repulsion is at least as strong as the attraction, and such a strong case can be made for either embracing or dismissing the object overall. That parts of it can be unequivocally embraced and others unhesitatingly dismissed doesn't help much in resolving the question of the status of the whole, which ultimately must be subjected to some kind of judgment. In this case, and in all such ambivalent guilty pleasures, the guilt comes from tolerating what's embarrassingly bad in order to celebrate what certainly seems to be praiseworthy, and of course what we respond to emotionally. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that The Lamb is something I tend to listen to on a regular basis, especially in weakened, tired, emotional or euphoric states of mind. I couldn't live without this LP, but I wouldn't want to defend its overall merits in any kind of extended public debate.
Unlike the toxic guilty pleasures, such as the Bond films, in which I propose that the frisson of various forms of guilt is an intrinsic part of the pleasure, in this case the guilt attached to tolerating the indefensible is experienced more as a kind of shame, an embarrassment that must be tolerated because of an attachment to more positive qualities. It's a little bit like being with an incorrigible spouse or romantic partner who insists on behaving badly from time to time. Whether or not it's worth the effort, the guilt and the shame is a judgment call everybody has to make in each individual case. In this case, I bit the bullet and wrote and made public this long-delayed essay in partial and carefully attenuated praise of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway… at last. So be it. Let the shame of such a guilty pleasure be upon my head, and the heads of my children for that matter. In this case, the pleasures it provides are certainly worth it, and they have consistently proven that over several decades.