Music: From Genesis to re-evaluation

Flares, Abba and disco have all been rehabilitated. Now Seventies revivalism faces its sternest test - prog-rock.
IT'S A strange spectacle, the Old Gabriel-era Genesis line-up standing around at Heathrow Airport for a promotional photo-shoot. Former members Antony Phillips and John Silver, who played with the band long before they became famous, have even been unearthed for the occasion.

"Is this the first time you guys have all been together in the same room?" the photographer asks. "Yeah, we've been let out by the nurses," replies Peter Gabriel.

"The zimmer frame aspect of this is too good to miss," Phil Collins tells the photographer. "Ah, but we've got computers now," the photographer reassures him. "So we'll end up with long, flowing hair and lithe tummies..." says Collins.

Genesis are the unacceptable face of British rock and even in a pop climate intent on recycling every last detail of 70s kitsch we hold our noses and avert our eyes from the excesses of the progressive-rock era. So a four-CD boxed set devoted to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis is an archival venture that invites the dusting down of all the old criticisms: that they were musically bombastic and absurdly theatrical in their presentation; that they were the dinosaurs that punk thankfully laid to rest.

When I get my allotted 10 minutes with Collins he tells me that "there are a lot of bands that are afraid to come out of the closet that would own up to being fans of the early Genesis", and follows up with a couple of anecdotes on how Topper Headon, drummer with The Clash, and a member of The Dead Kennedys had both approached him to admit - in whispers, no doubt - their guilty secret of having once been fans.

But by the Britrock catalogue of cardinal sins, Genesis were damned to start out with. Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks were ex-Charterhouse public schoolboys who were originally encouraged by the old boy network in the unforgivable shape of Jonathan King, the Svengali of tasteless pop pranksterism.

Many would see Genesis as King's ultimate revenge on pop, but even he couldn't have guessed at the longevity of his discovery. It's forgotten how odd their early work was, informed by a pop sensibility that took The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper as an incitement to push the structural envelope as far as it would go. Other influences were soul-based - both Gabriel and Collins, who joined in 1971, were and remain obsessed by the black musical tradition - which overlapped with an affinity for English church and choral musics.

The Archive collection recapitulates what made the Gabriel-era albums distinctive. For all the cod-mysticism of the earliest records - Trespass (1970), Nursery Cryme (1971) and Foxtrot (1972) - they now sound like awkward forays into describing, through musical textures and character- driven lyrics, a certain kind of Englishness.

In his ambitious study of "pop-life in Albion", England is Mine, Michael Bracewell locates an abiding landscape of British pop as "Arcady... recalled with the sentimental nostalgia of infantilism: the adult reflex that yearns in crisis to re-create the remembered comfort and security of childhood. Communing with Arcady through the English countryside, we can become children again."

In the early Genesis work, the music's folk-rock textures provide a green and pleasant backdrop for Gabriel's imagination to people with strange characters and a mixture of humour and grotesquerie. This period now sounds like the missing link between Monty Python and Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. The English nonsense tradition is fed through a certain fairy-tale savagery to emerge as... a rock frontman kitted out in a red dress and a fox's head.

Gabriel's penchant for rock theatrics set Genesis aside from their prog- rock peers, Yes and ELP, in a way that their baroque compositions couldn't. And by the time of their sixth album, Selling England by the Pound, they were pushing themselves to the Americans as Britpop avant la lettre. Gabriel toured this album done up as Britannia and singing about East End gang wars on "The Battle of Epping Forest" with mockney inflections that sound closer to Eric Idle than Mick Jagger or Damon Albarn.

The Genesis Archive prompts the question, why have they been so thoroughly airbrushed out of the line-up of credible British rock acts? Part of the answer must lie in the band having continued after Gabriel left, becoming first a core Establishment group, then an efficient if uninspiring pop machine. Had the last record with Gabriel, the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, been Genesis's swansong, the period of the Archive, from 1967 to 1975, might have been more acceptable for critical reconsideration. For, if the whole idea of the concept album has been revitalised recently thanks to artists as distinct as Radiohead, Goldie and Roni Size, The Lamb... is the granddaddy of them all.

Two CDS of the Archive collection are given over to a live version of The Lamb..., revealing it as their darkest work. Gabriel wrote the story of a young Puerto Rican gang member, Rael, undergoing a transcendental experience in a mythical world beneath the New York streets and has re- recorded the vocals for the current project. Over 30 years, his voice has matured from a choirboy quaver through what one rock writer described as "a raven-throated croak" to an emotive soul instrument. Two tracks in particular benefit from the revoicing: the sinister lullaby "Carpet Crawlers" and "Back in NYC", an all-out rocker covered by the late Jeff Buckley on the posthumous collection Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk.

If The Who could get away with Tommy, then Genesis have nothing to apologise for with The Lamb.... And, like Townshend's venture into rock-opera, Gabriel's also had its filmic connections. "I spent some time working with Alejandro Jodorowski who'd made El Topo, which was like a spiritual Western, very rough and violent. It made a huge impact on me. We devised a script together. In the last two or three years there have been three or four people that have expressed interest in pursuing it as a film.'

He admits that he's surprised when The Lamb... still comes up as an influence, "because I'm used to 15 years of people badmouthing prog-rock. Although there were some really embarrassing moments, there was a heart to what we were trying to do." But whether that is inducement enough for timid fans of early Genesis to leap out of the closet or not remains to be seen.