the West End
A segment of rock music history is created this evening by the appearance of Genesis at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for five nights. There have been a few Sunday night concerts at Drury Lane in the past, but never before has a rock group taken over the house for a week. It is fitting that Genesis should be the group to do so, because they are one of the most theatrical bands around.
Three of them, including their lead singer Peter Gabriel, were educated at Charterhouse. It was this background that made them first approach another old Carthusian linked with pop, Jonathan King, who some years ago had such a success with his own song Everyone’s Gone to the Moon.
The idea was that the emergent members of Genesis should write, and perhaps perform, hit singles. However, it soon became apparent to all concerned that this was not their line. Peter Gabriel recalls: “I think we did actually once have a song recorded in Italy by Rita Pavone’s brother”.
Gradually, and thankfully, they began to develop their own identity which no longer involved Mr. King, nor a wish to make the Top Twenty. What happened was that they developed along highly individual lines not far from the style of Pink Floyd. But although the Floyd have always used stage lighting and effects to great benefit, Peter Gabriel began to explore the use of mime and costume.
Recently, Keith Reid, Procol Harum’s thoughtful and serious-minded lyricist, told me that rock was embracing theatrical effects in a desperate attempt to take the minds of their audiences off the poverty of the music. I put this point of view to Gabriel when we met, to which he replied: “It may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it applies to us, otherwise I wouldn’t stick around. The theatrical aspect is something I’ve enjoyed from the start. It’s a way of getting over to the audience what we’re trying to write about.” Genesis basically deal in fantasy, the reflections of a world where nothing is quite what it would seem.
This week’s performance will be based largely upon their latest album, released towards the end of last year, Selling England by the Pound, which calls upon Gabriel to appear at one moment as Britannia and later as a gangster. This last charade, The Battle of Epping Forest, was actually based on a news clipping from this newspaper about a gang fighting it out some years ago amid the leafiness of a forest glade.
Events like this appeal to Gabriel’s sense of humour. He grinned at a recollection of the group’s recent first big American tour: “We’ve got a big underground mystique on the West Coast. There was this guy from Rolling Stone magazine presenting a theory that we were the last British underground band. We got a great welcome when we played, and what’s more they liked us at the end.”
In fact Genesis are the latest product of British provincial audiences who latched on to them in their formative days. They get little airplay on the radio, have never been seen on Top of the Pops and indeed have never appeared on any television show in Britain; nor do they release “singles”. Their popularity depends purely on “live” performance and their four albums. But it is essentially their stage presence that is the main ingredient in their gradual success. Gabriel underlines this view when he says: “I think there will be quite a few groups demanding a more theatrical presentation, and that will go on until it reaches the point where skilled actors, mime artists, and film-makers will become on an almost equal level with the musicians, and do the thing professionally.”
Genesis already use back projection, stage lighting, and Gabriel’s disguises, but this does not detract from their music, written by all the members of the group, which often leans heavily on, for want of a better description, public school sepulchral. Anyone who thinks rock music is only reflected by the Top Twenty would do well to call in at Drury Lane this week.
Thanks to John Lock for finding this piece, and Jill McMahon for typing it
More mentions of Procol Harum in The Times