Sunday, 26 July 2009


As part of an occasional series of reviews of things for no better reason than they happen to be lying about- an appreciation (yes, really!) of Genesis’ ‘The Knife’

Absently thumbing through the shelf of old records left in our living room, the detritus of past tenants unknown, I realise I’ve never actually heard ‘The Knife’ by Genesis. I’ve not listened to anything off their second album Trespass for that matter, but it’s ‘The Knife’ which was supposedly their inaugural moment - the point where they threw a six to start and hit upon their classic sound. A story I’ve heard so many times, without ever actually hearing the track it centres round. So I take it for a spin and discover, over a quarter-century after I foreswore off all things prog, that it’s actually pretty good!

Perhaps that’s not quite as surprising as it sounds. Genesis had a plus point their contemporaries lacked – negativity. While ELP were the soundtrack of the techno-fix culture and Yes indulged in New Age platitudes, Genesis sought to disturb and unsettle. (Hence the famous story that William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, headhunted frontman Peter Gabriel to write for horror films.) And better still, they exuded English menace, homing in on pastoral garden suburbs until they revealed the snake in the grass.

But all of that starts here so part of ‘The Knife’s’ appeal inevitably becomes the contrast between it and the album it closes, like a switchblade suddenly pulled at the end of a dinner party. As Wikipedia put it, “The song was unusually aggressive for Genesis at the time, as most of their work consisted of soft, pastoral acoustic textures and poetic lyrics.” The album cover reflects this concept. (And if that’s all tantamount to saying it wakes you up after a dreary album, I have to admit to quite liking a couple of the earlier songs, such as ‘Visions of Angels’... I must be getting old!)

Ultimately, though, it’s the contrasts within ‘The Knife’ that truly make it work. For once the inevitable suite of parts really do fit together into a greater whole, and some of them are even (gasp!) catchy. Check out the segue from the flute-and-keyboard-wash sequence into the clashing guitars, a mighty riff that would have done credit to Black Sabbath.

But perhaps the classic contrast, the one which really sums up the song, is between the slow measured chant (“we are on-ly wan-ting free-dom”) and the more manic delivery of the verses. Satire will often ape the voice of its targets in order to ridicule them, but when delivered by a singer this age-old trick gains an extra resonance. The song draws much of its sinister feel from the way the malevolent, self-serving leader is speaking directly at us, as if hypnotising us – “some of you are going to die...” Oratory is raised to the level of a malevolent spell. (For a very different piece of music which pulls exactly the same trick, try The Dead Kennedys’ ‘California Uber Alles’. As singer Jello Biafra explained “I like to slip in behind villains and expose them that way.”

It’s notable that Gabriel would return to this character of the charismatic charlatan (albeit with more humour to alleviate the blackness) with ‘The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man’ from their later magnum opus ‘Supper’s Ready’. (“Look, look into my mouth he cries, I bet my life you’ll walk inside”.) An explanation for this fascination might lie buried in the bands’ history. Most school-based bands are formed out of a desire to grab attention, and scrabble a set together in order to justify getting up on stage. But with Genesis it was the reverse. They had set out as a team of songwriters, who first made recordings simply to demo their songs and only reluctantly took to performance. And as the front-man, Gabriel would have been thrust further into the limelight than the others.

Perhaps, given the task of working out quite consciously what a performer needs to do, he became aware of how manipulative the exercise can actually be. Perhaps in working out how to gain a crowd’s attention he also grew aware of how dangerous such a power could be in the wrong hands. Consequently he took on the persona of an anti-messiah who will whip up his followers, but lead them only from behind.

However, before we start calling the song’s distrust-your-leaders message ‘proto-punk’ or some such, it could easily be argued that it is in many ways quite a reactionary song. The masses are a bewildered herd, hoodwinked by a few fine-sounding phrases. (Gabriel had something of a predilection for comic commoners, not the nicest notion for a public schoolboy to adopt.) The claim that an event like the Russian Revolution was derailed by sanctimonious but self-serving leaders seems less than controversial. But to go on to claim that they were able to cause such an event by sheer skill in rhetoric seems absurd. It could also be argued that the true horror of messianic leaders is their ability to convince even themselves of the rightness of their cause, something missing from the song. But one song can only tell us so much, and its effectiveness should above all be judged as a piece of music. And not for little reason did this rattling number remain a live favourite for years...

And before I’m accused of going soft, I also tried to listen to the final offering from classic-era Genesis, the double concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Which I found to be pretty much the way you expect double concept albums to sound, overheated, babblingly incoherent and ultimately unendurable. Most likely, what makes ‘The Knife’ palatable now isn’t that it was forward-looking but precisely the opposite. It was created when prog was still nascent, when lots of funny time changes weren’t supposed to rend killer riffs redundant. So perhaps the prog revival doesn’t start here after all...

NB The video clip below starts part-way through the song, but you can hear the whole thing via the ever-reliable Spotify.

Coming soon! More records from that old shelf...


  1. Jim no longer from around the corner29 July 2009 at 19:20

    Genesis?! Getting a bit dodgy, Gav!

  2. Don't judge before hearing the track!

    The only other comment was from Andrew Hickey,who even added it to his Spotify playlist! I quote: "The Knife by Genesis is included after reading Gavin B’s post about it – it’s almost good enough to forgive them for Phil Collins." (You can find it via the links.)

  3. I really should be going to bed instead of commenting on random old posts on this blog, but I was so shocked to see The Knife of all things reviewed that comment was required. It's good, but I have to admit that Stagnation is my favourite track from that album -- seems much more sinister, more impressionistic rather than narrative.

    But of course the whole album pales in comparison with the next year's Nursery Cryme, of which more than half of the tracks are touched by genius. I guess you're not likely to go on to review that, but if you did then you can be assured you'd have at least one reader!

  4. Blimey, you really are reading through my old posts! Carry on like this and my readership average could burst into single figures!

    I'm really more a fan of Gabriel's solo career (especially the eponymous third and fourth albums), but have recently come to terms with the fact that some Genesis tracks are actually quite good! Listening to the three albums from 'Trespass' on I only tend to like one or two tracks per album. But I did like 'Music Box' from 'Nursery Cryme', so you never know...

  5. Well, I know a year late, but a good review is a good review :-) Agreed on Gabriel's solo career, although my favourites of his albums are Us and Passion; Untitled 3 and 4 were superb, too, mind you, as was Untitled 1. And I have a lot of time for So. Even things like The Rabbit-Proof Fence are worth listening to.

  6. Gabriel 4 was very much a revelation to me at the time. It was before I'd heard any industrial music so all that business of scraping paving stones and sampling it into tracks... Played that album to death during my A-Levels! Haven't actually heard it in years but reckon I would still like it.

    I kind of went off things for So, I felt it lacked the deranged invention of earlier albums and the production was a bit slick. Think I saw him on the TV doing a couple of tracks off the new album (the covers one). Can't say I was terribly sold, but maybe if I heard the whole thing...

    That whole thing with The Elders is ghastly, though!

  7. Hmmm ... I sense a series of Gabriel-album reviews coming up on my own blog.

    Point taken on So: it is polished, very polished, and a huge break from the four untitled albums that preceded it. Still, beneath the glittering surface there is substance. I stick with Us as the pick of the crop, though. It seems to hit the right point between IV and So.

  8. I'm not sure I've ever properly heard Us.

  9. Well, what are you waiting for?!

    Incredibly, it seems to be out of print; but there are second-hand copies on Amazon and no doubt in many other places, and there are those who, unlike me, might point out that sites such as the Pirate Bay might also offer a route to the music.

  10. "The masses are a bewildered herd, hoodwinked by a few fine-sounding phrases."

    Very clever of you to have written a thirteen-word summary of 2016-2019 UK political history back in 2009.