Genesis - Nursery Cryme

Nursery Cryme

Released 1971 on Charisma
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 12/06/2014ce

Side 1
1. The Musical Box 10:24
2. For Absent Friends 1:44
3. The Return Of The Giant Hogweed 8:09

Side 2
1. Seven Stones 5:08
2. Harold The Barrel 2:59
3. Harlequin 2:53
4. The Fountain Of Salmacis 7:54

Nursery Cryme isn't so much Unsung as Unfairly Overshadowed. So popular are the next three Genesis LPs (Foxtrot, Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) that they tend to edge Nursery Cryme out when it comes to the granting of Classic Status. It didn't make the top 10 when Mojo Magazine published its reader-selected 'How To Buy Genesis' feature, but if I had to judge their LPs by cover art alone, it would easily be my favourite, and for me it's the first true Genesis album, which sees the band honing a distinctive musical language: a peculiarly English sound, with its own textures and moods, which is often as strangely archaic and ominous as that gatefold illustration.

1971 was the year it all came together for Genesis. Their 1969 debut From Genesis To Revelation hinted at their progressive tendencies in form only; at their manager/producer Jonathan King's suggestion they came up with a concept album based on The Bible, but also had to pander to his taste for light psych pop and the Bee Gees. The LP wasn't bad (apart from the production), but it was perhaps for the best that it bombed and King lost interest in his musical protogees, meaning they could stamp their own identity more firmly on 1970's Trespass. With 3 lengthy songs per side, this was proper prog, albeit with a strong folky quality thanks to extensive use of delicate six-string fingerpicking. Trespass provided the first real set-piece for their live show in the form of aggressive closing epic 'The Knife', but it wasn't until drummer John Mayhew and lead guitarist Anthony Phillips jumped ship and were replaced by Phil Collins and Steve Hackett respectively that the perfect line-up was in place and the band's potential could be fully explored. Much-maligned as he is for his increasingly staid solo output, Phil Collins was the killer ingredient just waiting to be added to the mix, a drummer who could cope with difficult time signatures without sacrificing an ounce of power, as well as being a useful second vocalist. Hackett also turned out to be exactly what the band needed; an egoless ensemble player who could nevertheless add interesting new shades to the musical pallette of a band whose ethos regarding creative equality extended to a full five-way writing credit on each song, regardless of who wrote it.* The final essential new addition to the band was a Mark II Mellotron, purchased from King Crimson and integral to the Genesis sound from this point onwards.

Nursery Cryme was also the point where Gabriel decided his studiously concentrating band mates lacked stage presence and he decided to liven things up by adding a strong dose of theatricality to live performances, acting out the songs with the help of an array of increasingly outrageous costumes. The sight of Gabriel stalking menacingly around the front of the stage in a scary mask while the rest of the band sat hunched over their instruments made for a potent contrast. The theatricality was further enhanced by a series of bizarre stories he invented to serve as introductions to the songs. It's also important as the album on which they established a unique approach to songwriting which stood them in good stead for many LPs to come, and is the record that best utilises their public school background, twisting upper middle class clich├ęs into surreal and sinister scenarios, none more so than on opening song 'The Musical Box'.

As with many of their longer songs from this period, the initial listener response is likely to be one of bafflement, as the song works its way through a series of contrasting movements beginning with Peter Gabriel gently singing 'Play me Old King Cole' over a baroque folky backing, and climaxing with him screaming 'Won't you touch me, touch me, won't you touch me, touch me, now! now! now! now! now!'. A low, ominous guitar riff signals early on that something may be about to happen, but the transition occurs shortly after the requested 'Old King Cole' is sung and then all hell breaks loose. Phil Collins' drumming hints at the Keith Moon power that Who fan Mike Rutherford was hoping the replacement drummer might bring to the group, and Tony Banks plays a guitar solo on the keyboards, a sound he discovered when putting them through a distortion pedal during the period when they were having to make do without a guitarist following Anthony Phillips' departure. The meaning of the song is only half-suggested by the lyrics, which is perhaps why the text of Gabriel's live introductory narration is printed alongside the lyrics inside the gatefold sleeve:

'While Henry Hamilton-Smythe minor (8) was playing croquet with Cynthia Jane De Blaise-William (9), sweet-smiling Cynthia raised her mallet high and gracefully removed Henry's head. Two weeks later, in Henry's nursery, she discovered his treasured musical box. Eagerly she opened it and as "Old King Cole" began to play, a small spirit-figure appeared. Henry had returned - but not for long, for as he stood in the room his body began ageing rapidly, leaving a child's mind inside. A lifetime's desires surged through him. Unfortunately the attempt to persuade Cynthia Jane to fulfill his romantic desire led his nurse to the nursery to investigate the noise. Instinctively Nanny hurled the musical box at the bearded child, destroying both.'

This story provided the inspiration for the superb artwork which stretched across the front and back cover - a Victorian girl standing on a croquet lawn littered with severed heads, the mallet held in readiness to strike again. Artist Paul Williams also came up with the album's clever title, just as he did with Trespass and Foxtrot - his other sleeve designs for the band.

Track 2, 'For Absent Friends', comes as something of a surprise: a brief acoustic song composed by new boys Hackett & Collins (although of course all 5 band members get credited), and sung by Phil Collins himself. Despite being the powerhouse cockney drummer amongst a bunch of posh public school boys, his vocal style in those days was quite soft, especially compared to the hard, some might say grating, style it attained in later years. Collins confessed that he thought he was auditioning for a Crosby, Stills & Nash type of band judging by the tracks from Trespass he was being given to test him; in fact CS&N records were among the ones Jonathan King had given to the group to listen to in preparation for their debut, so it seems they hadn't entirely shed King's influence at this stage. 'For Absent Friends' is a very pleasant little ditty, which, with its theme of two elderly widowed people going to church to pray for their dead spouses, wouldn't have been too out of place on Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends album. Its main function here seems to be to provide a light interlude between the two weighty songs that take up the bulk of side one.

In his book 'Genesis: The Gabriel Era', author Bob Carruthers says that next track 'The Return of the Giant Hogweed' isn't one of the band's stronger compositions, a ridiculous statement that makes me question the value of any of his other opinions. It is of course an all-time classic, and the first Genesis song to tell a story from the point of view of several narrators. Opening with a fabulous twiddly duet between guitar and keyboard, it is hard to tell which instrument is which as Banks plays his keyboard like a guitar (i.e. through the distortion pedal) and Hackett plays his guitar like a keyboard, using the two-hand tapping technique later associated with the likes of Eddie Van Halen. This is one of the first examples on a rock record and it sounds like nothing that has gone before. The song itself is similarly unconventional, sounding as if the band has come up with an awkward instrumental and defied Peter Gabriel to turn it into a song, to which he has responded with lyrics that are similarly intractible. The result is a total delight, both as a piece of oddball storytelling and as an exercise in quirky melodicism. The point of view alternates between those attempting to stamp the Hogweed out ('They are invincible/They seem immune to all our herbicidal battering') and the narrator telling the back-story in long, winding sentences ('Long ago in the Russian hills/A Victorian explorer found the regal Hogweed by a marsh/He captured it and brought it home') and finally (following an interlude entitled 'The Dance of the Giant Hogweed') the victory cry of the Hogweed themselves ('Mighty Hogweed is avenged/Human bodies soon will know our anger/Kill them with your Hogweed hairs/HERACLEUM MANTEGAZZIANI/Giant Hogweed lives!') leading into an astonishing climax in which Collins pulverises the drums to help push Banks' most fuzzed out, supercharged mellotron playing to the outer limits. This is what prog rock was invented for.

Whether by accident or design, side two seems to function as a showcase for the group's versatility, each song demonstrating a different facet of their capabilities. 'Seven Stones' wouldn't have sounded too out of place on From Genesis To Revelation, starting off as a sort of twisted take on an early Bee Gees ballad before heading into Moody Blues territory, with 'aahed' backing vocals and huge biblical chord changes which would have fitted well with the concept of that failed debut. The King Crimson mellotron is used to dramatic effect. 'Harold The Barrel' is an inappropriately jaunty account of a suicide, reminiscent of The Beatles trying to write something in the vein of The Kink's 'The Moneygoround'. A very clever piece of songwriting that shifts quickly between various perspectives, from a newsreader to various eye witnesses, figures of authority, Harold's 67-year old mother and Harold himself standing on a window ledge, the melody twists through a dizzying succession of chord changes, but is taken at such a confident pace that the effect is nowhere near as bewildering as it could have been in less capable hands. It can hardly be a coincidence that this vein of broad British comedy turned up on the first LP to which Phil Collins contributed, and it's possible his influence is also all over next song 'Harlequin', to which he seems to share equal lead vocals with Gabriel and again bears the strong Crosby, Stills & Nash influence he erroneously detected during his audition. As with 'For Absent Friends' it is pleasant but of little consequence, but again provides a few minutes for the listener to get a breather following the information overload of the previous song, and prepare for the magnificence of the closing epic 'The Fountain of Salmacis'. Even more so than with 'Hogweed', the lyrics read like a narrative that requires a great deal of prowess to shoehorn into a melody, but somehow Gabriel manages it. The bizarre story is not his own invention, but taken direct from Greek mythology: the legend of the nymph whose attempted rape of Hermaphrodite resulted in their two bodies being fused together. Her fountain is said to have the same effect on those who drink from it. Tony Banks steals the show on this one, with variations on a distinctive opening riff, absolutely gorgeous arpeggios at 3'15, an inspired little fanfare at 5'28 and dramatic mellotron swelling in and out of the mix. But this is all beefed up by a powerful rhythm section, Rutherford's melodic basslines locking into Collins' incredible drumming. Hackett gets to shine with a sublime closing guitar solo accompanied by more Moody Blues 'aah'-ing, before the whole LP concludes on one last fading-in Mellotron chord, as if to say 'That's your lot!'

There's always been a certain amount of disdain for Genesis, despite (or perhaps because of) their tremendous originality, inventiveness and musicianship. For the casual listener there was just too much complexity to take in on the first few listens, which is why those intriguing gatefold sleeves were so essential as an extra enticement. John Peel once remarked 'I used to go and see Genesis and after about three minutes I'd think, oh, I wish this would stop!', and I can sometimes see his point, the longer instrumental passages on subsequent albums occasionally sounding like they were put in just to fulfil the expected formula. But despite having never professed to being a fan, Peel must have suspected that the band had a certain originality worth preserving around this time as early in 1972 he got them in for a session on his show, four songs from 'Nursery Cryme' granted the rare privilege of being recorded in stereo at a time when most BBC sessions were still mono.**

Anyway, if you're a fan of Genesis, you'll probably already rate this album. But is Foxtrot really their greatest work just because of 'Supper's Ready'? And doesn't Selling England By The Pound become a bit patchy after the amazing opening 3 songs? Okay, I love both those albums, but the band couldn't have made them without spending a few albums working out what their style should be, and Nursery Cryme is where they first got it right.

* The fairness of this full band credit system is compromised somewhat by the discovery of the 'Genesis Plays Jackson' tape, an unused session recorded for the BBC in January 1970 which turned out to feature embryonic versions of later classics. 'Provocation' and 'Frustration' are Tony Banks riffs which eventually became Nursery Cryme's 'The Fountain of Salmacis' and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway's 'Anyway', but it is 'Manipulation' which is problematical. Pretty much an instrumental version of the first half of 'The Musical Box' it seems largely to be the work of then guitarist Anthony Phillips, but Nursery Cryme's blanket 5-way credit makes no concession to his contribution. Following Gabriel's departure in 1975, this system was discontinued so that only the actual composers were credited for each song, revealing that Tony Banks did the lion's share of songwriting, or rather was the most forceful when it came to getting his ideas used. Steve Hackett's departure after Wind & Wuthering seems to have been partly based on his irritation at the fact that in this democracy some band members were more equal than others.

** Peel's attitude to Genesis is an oddly inconsistent one. He must have liked the first session enough to get them in again, as they were back later in 1972 to record a 2nd session consisting of a storming rendition of the classic 'Watcher Of The Skies', plus 'Get 'Em Out By Friday' and 'Twilight Alehouse', two of their more patience-testing songs. Furthermore, Ken Garner's recent book on Peel sessions reveals that he became more of a fan when Phil Collins took over as lead vocalist, inviting him into the studio to talk about A Trick Of The Tail, and subsequently featuring several songs from Wind And Wuthering and And Then There Were Three on his show. So much for received wisdom.

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