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...