With their 1972 album, Foxtrot, Genesis shot for the moon, and ended up floating through a cosmos of Prog greatness: organ solos, Keats references, insane time signatures, and impeccable musicianship. For many listeners, Prog Rock is tricky territory: its musical extravagance and lyrical affectation can come off as too pretentious to swallow. These were, after all, obviously intelligent songwriters who were very in touch with their creative egos. Prog’ers like Genesis mastered complex drum fills, flute interludes, and classical influences — but they never quite mastered the art of subtlety. And so, to appreciate the genre is to take it on its own terms, and accept it for what it is: a marriage of intellectualism, experimentation, and rock. To enter the world of Foxtrot is like touring a Baroque palace — it may be tempting to poo-poo its grandeur, but there’s also much to be gained from appreciating its art.
Why We Love It
Foxtrot is a 51-minute album with only six songs, mostly because the final track, “Supper’s Ready”, is a whopping 23 minutes long. Of course, songs of this length and scope weren’t uncommon in the Prog Era. YES’ Tales from Topographic Oceans has only four songs, coming in at 20 minutes each. Genesis’ lineup morphed over time, but the Foxtrot era was arguably the band’s best: Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Steve Hackett, and Michael Rutherford. Each member was a musical titan in his own right, which explains the band’s ease in picking up instruments like oboe, flute, cello, and tubular bells. Frontman Peter Gabriel also brought a showman’s background to the table, and live Genesis shows became a thing of legend for their lavish theatricality.
According to rock lore, a fan approached guitarist Steve Hackett after one show, claiming to have to seen God during the band’s rendition of “Supper’s Ready”. Hackett allegedly responded: “I was just trying to play the chords right!” That pretty much sums up the entire album: every inch of it aims for the highest possible realms of genius and divinity. Foxtrot absolutely aches with ambition and rigor: obscure New Testament references, English history, allusions to Pythagoras, Greek myth, etc. And with song sections called “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men” or “Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the delicious talents of Gabble Ratchet),” it’s obvious that Genesis was self-aware enough to wink at their pretentions. And even more: that they were capable of having fun.
And yet, there’s no shortage of sincerity on the album — at large, it’s seriously massive and massively serious. On “Watcher Of The Skies,” (a Keats’ reference, of course), Gabriel sings: “Will you survive on the ocean of being? Come ancient children hear what I say/ This is my parting council for you on your way.” How on earth should a then-22-year-old get away with such self-importance? The answer comes in the next line: “Sadly now your thoughts turn to the stars/ Where we have gone you know you never can go.” In this way, Foxtrot hinges on the notion of artist as prophet, as somehow touched by the rare and dizzying flame of genius — a light and a spectacle for everybody else. The album is a grand show of pyrotechnics, teetering between the profound and the masturbatory. Each listener may decide to what extent the album succeeds, but there is inarguably something tremendous happening.
What They’re Doing Now
Genesis would go on release many more albums, even in the wake of their flamboyant lead-singer’s departure — Peter Gabriel moved on to have a highly successful solo career. When Gabriel left, drummer Phil Collins stepped in to sing, and the band’s sound gradually changed into something totally different than what we hear on Foxtrot. (For a more detailed explanation, watch Christian Bale’s hysterical monologue on 1980’s-era Genesis in American Psycho). Collins, of course, would go on to have his own successful solo career, and the other musicians in Genesis eventually delved into various other projects. Foxtrot, though, stands out as a jewel conceived by now-royalty in the blinding vigor of their youth.