CSFTD #36: Genesis – The Musical Box

A well-known Canadian Genesis tribute band passed through Manchester last weekend. They call themselves The Musical Box after what is possibly the most dramatic song that the genteel public school prog rockers ever performed live, although the 23-minute long pseudo-religious journey that is Suppers Ready, which took up an entire side of the album Foxtrot, pushes it hard for that accolade.

The Musical Box was originally released on Genesis’ third studio album, Nursery Cryme, in 1971 and recorded by what is still regarded as the classic Genesis line-up of Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins. However it appears that its origins were with a founding Genesis member, Anthony Phillips, who played on their first album, the Jonathan King-sponsored From Genesis to Revelation, and on second album Trespass, before quitting to become a solo artist. He is credited with writing an instrumental piece called F# on which the song was based and The Musical Box is indeed written in the key of F#.

As with a lot of Genesis’ early work the lyrics (the work of Gabriel although Tony Banks may have had a hand too) were based around a fairy story, in this instance one that Gabriel wrote about two children. The girl, Cynthia, kills the boy, Henry, by bashing his head off with a croquet mallet. Later, when toying with his musical box, the song ‘Old King Cole’ plays and the spirit of Henry emerges. But he ages very rapidly before her eyes and as he experiences an entire lifetime’s worth of sexual desires in moments he pleads with her to permit him to satisfy those desires. However, a nurse hears the commotion and intervenes, throwing the musical box at what is now a withered old man, destroying them both.

In true Genesis fashion not only did an image of the croquet mallet-wielding Cynthia appear on the album cover of Nursery Cryme (this was in the days when they were works of art) along with the nurse and several severed heads, they can also be spotted in the background on the following album cover, Foxtrot.

I could end this review right here with that basic description, but it says nothing about the live performance, which was something to behold, believe me. The example here, from a Belgian TV performance in the early 1970s, is quite sedate compared to some I witnessed.

Typically in live performances, Gabriel would disappear during the instrumental section and return wearing an old man mask for the final verse and unzip the chest section of his black jumpsuit as if trying desperately to attract Cynthia in his final moments. As he sang, “You stand there with your fixed expression, casting doubt on all I have to say” he then stooped and spat out the words “why don’t you touch me, touch me, touch me NOW, NOW, NOW!” as a floor spotlight on the darkened stage repeatedly lit up the hideous mask.

Gabriel was known for his failure to keep his colleagues informed about what he was planning to do and the very first time he did it he actually donned the fox head mask he would later use on Foxtrot rather than the old man mask. I’ve seen the video of it but unfortunately can’t trace it. The look on the faces of the other band members, particularly the rather stiff and correct Tony Banks, is a joy to behold.

The video shows how Genesis could often be somewhat un-tight in the early days but in fairness the music was very complex and difficult to play live. The standard of the arrangement is, to my mind, what all bands should aspire to, irrespective of their styles.

As dramatically as it was performed live, it doesn’t compare with the most unexpected and astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in a live musical performance, namely Gabriel disrobing instantly from his Magog costume in the blinding flash of a magnesium flare into the shimmering silver suit of The Second Coming and flying up into the air, at the Drury Lane Theatre at the end of Suppers Ready in 1974.

Those days will probably never return, which is as it should be, but I do feel some sympathy for those too young to have witnessed the theatre of prog at its best.

Gabriel left the band a year later after his burgeoning public persona became too much for the other band members (I was at the Birmingham Hippodrome the night he made the announcement), and Phil Collins emerged from behind the kit to take on vocal duties (no-one could be found to replace Gabriel until they looked within their own ranks). Genesis continued to make albums, but with a more mainstream pop flavour and generally found greater commercial success. Various personnel were employed and the last time the band played (Banks, Rutherford and Collins) was in 2007.

Collins has had the greatest success as a solo artist though Gabriel is probably more highly respected for his own solo work and for his Real World Studios, the WOMAD festival and support of organisations such as Amnesty International. Rutherford is probably best known now for Mike and the Mechanics. Tony Banks had less success with his solo albums and drifted towards classical work, releasing two albums (he was classically trained as a pianist as a child), while Steve Hackett, the first band member to release a solo album, has had a lengthy career as a solo artist with 25 albums to date and is also the only band member to play as a ‘tribute act’ to Genesis.

Hackett is the classic line up member who has expressed the greatest interest in a reunion. In 2014 all of them came together for a BBC documentary in which they seemed to get along just fine.  With Collins coming out of retirement now, who knows what might happen? And if they performed The Musical Box Gabriel wouldn’t need to go up in the loft to find the mask any longer.