Beauty is, as they say, in the ears of the beholder. But some songs can define a genre. In this article, Erik Neuteboom describes how and why Genesis' Supper's Ready defines symphonic rock, and how this track has shaped him and his musical taste.
It's been almost half a century since I discovered symphonic rock. I was 15 years old and heard the album Genesis Live at a friend's place, early 1976. I was blown away by the unique sound of Genesis with Peter Gabriel. A musical turning point in my life. The mix of folk, classical, and rock, performed by five excellent, creative and adventurous musicians who, despite musical differences, give each other the space in harmonic and diverse compositions that range from pastoral to bombastic.
The intriguing photo on the cover of Genesis Live, with singer Peter Gabriel in his octagonal mask and black cape, was taken during the epic composition Supper's Ready. That song is not on the album for budget reasons. Record company Charisma wanted to have a single LP for a low price, to increase the scope. Very soon after I got struck by my love for progressive rock, the album Genesis album Foxtrot of course came into my possession. Side B: Supper's Ready. This still is my favourite prog-rock composition, despite heavy competition from Yes' Close To The Edge and Awaken, or La Villa Strangiatio and YYZ by Rush, ELP's Pictures At An Exhibition, Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and Lady Fantasy by Camel.
Early 1980s a group of friends and I enjoyed a performance of Supper's Ready on a bootleg video a friend had brought home from London. Mediocre quality, but magical! Later we learnt that this was the famous Shepperton Studio October 1973 tape, which were never properly released officially. (There is a very poor version on the Genesis 70 - 75 box.)
In 2012, the people from The Genesis Museum put a lot of work into restoring these tapes. And the results you can see on their YouTube channel. Remastered and in HD. I based the following report on that version, as an ode the Ultimate Prog Epic.
Part 1: Lover's Leap (0:00 - 3:47)
The opening of this exciting and dynamic musical epic of more than 20 minutes is dreamy with folky plucking on acoustic guitars. Steve Hackett and Tony Banks on 12-strings, Mike Rutherford on a 6-string.
Peter Gabriel's singing is very varied, from modest to expressive eruptions, supplemented with vocal harmonies of various band members. Halfway through, Banks switches from his guitar to sparkling game on piano (Hohner Pianet), soon in harmony with Gabriel's flute game.
The text is about a man who returns to his partner after a long time and tells about a supernatural experience, this is based on a personal experience of Peter Gabriel.
Part 2: The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man (3:48 - 5:43)
In this short second part, Gabriel puts on a crown of thorns. Then the music turns into bombastic with organ waves and bright guitar playing. Gabriel comes with powerful singing, in the style of an experienced rock singer.
Part 3: Ikhnaton And Itsacon And Their Band Of Merry Men (5:44 - 9:42)
The music returns to an airy atmosphere, with a lot of whistle and soft organ sounds. But after this, another bombastic eruption with driving organ waves, euphoric vocals, and fierce guitar playing by Hackett (influenced by the aggressive guitar sound of Robert Fripp, of which Hackett was a big fan). He really offers a powerful extra dimension here. On the visual side, Gabriel steals the show, with an energetic mobility, full of crazy movements and runs (think of the "Silly Walks" by John Cleese). Banks is spreading organ arpeggios. This is the "old Genesis" in full glory, A unique sound and thus influential.
Part 4: How Dare I Be So Beautiful (9:43 - 11:04)
This short part contains a psychedelic organ sound and dreamy play by Hackett, with his characteristic use of the volume pedal. It is the perfect prelude to the next piece that starts with the words ...
Part 5: Willow Farm (11:05 - 15:36)
... "A flower?!" by Peter Gabriel.
After this he puts on his legendary light-orange flower mask, based on the BBC children's series The Flowerpot Men.
Genesis changes from folk to rock again, powerful and exciting. Gabriel excels with hilarious vocals and lyrics, full of word jokes such as "If you go down to Willow Farm, to Look for Butterflies, Flutterbyes, Gutterflies". He hops and jumps around, like a foal entering the meadow for the first time. It's so comical, a unique vocal and visual presentation.
Halfway through, after Phil Collins blows a whistle of Phil Collins and "All Change!", there's a a pumping Rickenbacker bass, exciting things even more. Gabriel continues to hop and sing euphorically. Originally this was a separate composition, but Banks wanted it as a middle part here, for more dynamics and variation.
Part 6: Apocalypse In 9/8 (Co-starring The Delicious Talents Of Gabble Rachet) (15:36 - 20:50)
The musical climate returns to soaring, with psychedelic organ sounds and fierce guitar playing. It's followed by a passage with dreamy flute playing and soft organ parts. The tension in the music increases, you can feel it scalding to the culmination in a bombastic eruption with powerful vocals ("When the Gods of Magog") and a stirring rhythm (an English musicologist sees strong influences from Strawinsky's The Rites Of Spring).
Here we hear the rock side of Genesis again, with heavy guitar riffs by Hackett. Supported by a driving rhythm section (Phil Collins especially shows his talent here), Banks begins his phenomenally constructed Hammond organ solo, from classical to psychedelic, with projections of hellfire in the background. This instrumental passage develops into a very compelling and exciting, typical Genesis symphonic bombast!
From behind the scenes, Peter Gabriel slowly moves onto the stage, fascinatingly dressed as Magog, with that bizarre, octagonal, red mask and black cape, screaming "six, six, six!". Goosebumps! And what an exciting contrast with the folky pieces full of 12-string guitars and classical flute from the beginning.
Banks wasn't too happy with Gabriel's vocals over his solo at first, but later admitted that this adds an extra dimension to suspense. After slowing down for a while, Banks continues his organ solo to a fierce, screeching climax ("a sort of parody of Keith Emerson's playing," Banks once explained), with devilish laughter from Magog.
After this, Banks switches to majestic Mellotron violin sounds, supported by powerful drums. Finally, the playful sound of tubular bells, supplemented by organ and volume pedal guitar, culminating in a bombastic eruption.
A magnesium bomb explodes and Gabriel appears in a white glitter suit with beads, like an angel.
Part 7: As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (Aching Men's Feet) (20:51 - 22:54)
The last part is theatrical and compelling, like the end of a rock opera, with howling guitars and expressive vocals. Lyrics are full of religious references: “We have finally been freed to get back home", "This is the supper of the mighty one, Lord of Lords, King of Kings", and the climax "To a new Jerusalem" (inspired by a poem by William Blake).
Evil is conquered by Good, and the people return. Gabriel symbolizes this by raising an illuminated tube of "black light" in a breathtaking ritual, mesmerizing the audience like a high priest during a worship service in a cathedral.
That 'black light' reflects perfectly on Gabriel's fluorescent white suit and eye make-up. It's as if archangel Gabriel is holding a cross triumphantly. Magical!
As Gabriel lowers the lighted tube and slowly leaves the stage, the music fades and thunderous applause from the ecstatic audience follows.
If only I had been there, I often think, although Canadian Genesis tribute band The Musical Box gave a very creditable performance during their Genesis 70-74 tours since 2003. To me, Supper's Ready is prog history at its best, The Most Beautiful Symfo Song of All times.
And this is why.
During the more than 20 minutes that Supper's Ready lasts, Genesis manage to captivate, touch, carry, excite, and overwhelm me. Here, the epic whole is greater than the sum of its seven parts. They flow into each other beautifully. There is so much variation and dynamics in them, and there are so many creative inventions that an extra musical dimension is created, as if we, as a symphonic nation, are taken to the euphoria of a New Musical Jerusalem.
Supper's Ready is also the ultimate ode to the term symphonic rock. It is derived from a symphony: "a large orchestral work, which usually consists of four movements with tempo changes fast-slow-slow-fast". And Genesis perform that so beautifully and excitingly here, influenced, as I read somewhere, by composers such as Strawinsky, Liszt, Mahler, and Wagner. Not only in the alternation of musical climates, but also in the variation of instruments: from dreamy strumming on acoustic guitars to fierce Hammond organ bombast, from thin flute sounds to fierce electric guitar playing and from subdued vocals to expressive eruptions.
What a tension and dynamics in this unique mix of folk, classical and rock. Inventive and adventurous contributions from Hackett and Banks, a smooth and powerful rhythm section from Collins and Rutherford. And then Gabriel with his vocal acrobatics (in addition to pleasant flute playing) and lyrics full of humour, puns, and cryptic messages. On stage, Gabriel gave Supper's Ready an extra dimension with his dressing up, stage attributes and appearance, all of which makes Supper's Ready an unsurpassed symphonic epic.
TGM: the video stills are used by kind permission of The Genesis Museum, whose restored version of the original 16 mm film drove me to write this article.