As Genesis reforms, I declare a Prog War – Aidan Smith

Prog was about ideas, ambition, pretentiousness, bonkersness, and drummers trapped in giant pods, writes Aidan Smith, as what he calls ‘the wrong Genesis’ reforms.

Genesis is reforming but in its post-Prog format with Phil Collins rather than Peter Gabriel, pictured on stage in Mexico in 2002, as lead singer (Picture: Armando Gallo/Peter Gabriel Ltd/PA)
Genesis is reforming but in its post-Prog format with Phil Collins rather than Peter Gabriel, pictured on stage in Mexico in 2002, as lead singer (Picture: Armando Gallo/Peter Gabriel Ltd/PA)

As I look out my office window I can see the battleground, or at least the site of it. The fourth-year common room at Broughton High School in Edinburgh was where we did our fighting. My band’s better than your band.

Mid-morning break and lunchtime. Reasoned argument, civilised debate – or if you were losing, bubblegum pinged with a ruler replicating a medieval trebuchet. I mean, we weren’t idiots. We knew about history. And such a lusty weapon would probably have figured in one of our favourite songs.

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The music we fought over was prog, progressive rock, although we didn’t call it that. To us it was simply the music of the times, the early-to-mid 1970s, and the only music there was. Everything else was pop, verse-chorus-verse, moon rhymed with June, subject: love. Prog would rather rhyme moon with vinegaroon (a scorpion), melacatoon (a peach) or contrabassoon (possibly played on prog LPs). Prog didn’t do love and therefore – don’t call me sexist, Millicent – the fourth-year’s girls didn’t do prog.

Heart skips a beat in 9/8 time

The Prog Premiership was Yes vs ELP and why you couldn’t like both bands is, I’m afraid, lost in the mists we used to cook up in the common-room loos from puffing on cinnamon cigarettes. In the Prog Championship, the keenest contest was between Jethro Tull and Genesis who’ve just announced they’re getting back together.

My heart skipped a beat – in 9/8 time, naturally – when I found out. It couldn’t be, could it? The band we queued up overnight to snaffle tickets for? The band who kept us waiting another five months while the guitarist recovered from a hand injury (presumably from playing at the speed of light)? The band who finally – at last – performed all of their double concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway at the capital’s Usher Hall in April, 1975, right in the middle of exam-swotting but what the heck? No, the group reuniting for concerts later this year, including two at Glasgow’s Hydro in December are sadly, tragically, the wrong Genesis.

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There were two: Peter Gabriel’s Genesis who were prog and Phil Collins’ Genesis who weren’t. Gabriel was the singer right up until The Lamb Lies... when Genesis were the strangest band around. When he left, Collins got out from behind his drum-kit to lead them and they turned into the most normal band anywhere.

Gabriel sang about giant hogweeds and Collins didn’t. Gabriel, insisting no drugs were involved, had a psychic experience in a purple and turquoise room – windows blow in, white-cloaked figures, sign of the cross, wife’s voice alters, she turns into a wild animal, calms down with a cup of tea – and this became the basis of the 23-minute Supper’s Ready. Collins, on the other hand, was responsible for the lyric “The only thing about me is the way I walk”.

Simpler, catchier, blander

Prog was about ideas, ambition, pretentiousness, bonkersness, grand follies, one artic per musician, double-necked guitars, triple-decked mellotrons, drummers equipped with J Arthur Rank gongs, drummers encased in giant pods, the pods jamming shut and having to be blow-torched open. The post-prog Genesis kept everything shorter, simpler, catchier, safer, blander, duller – and made millions.

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How we loved the Prog Wars in the common-room. A Jethro Tull fan would contend: “Our singer, Ian Anderson, can play the flute for a long time balanced on one leg.” The Genesis aficionado would counter: “Gabriel plays the flute and he can do this from under a fox’s head, in bat-wings, and while dressed as a flower, Britannia and venereal disease.”

Anderson, it should be said, would often edge these contests because he was state-educated in Edinburgh like us – the dux of Roseburn Primary, no less – while Gabriel and his chums emerged from Charterhouse.

But Gabriel was wonderfully weird with hair long at the sides and shaved on top – possibly a legacy of Charterhouse fagging – that we all craved but were never brave enough to copy. In record shops, before I could afford to buy it, I used to study the cover of the Nursery Cryme album – a Victorian girl playing croquet with human heads – and will it to give me nightmares (and it did).

Baldy heids

Poor Collins, he’s never been scary and he’s never been cool. It was a great effort to turn up on both sides of the Atlantic for Live Aid but he blotted his copybook by (allegedly) planting trees on Mull to dodge tax and (allegedly) divorcing his wife by fax. But, divorce the scandals from the Collins-era Genesis and I’m sorry: musical snob that I am, I know what I like (in your wardrobe) and it’s not I Can’t Dance or Mama or Invisible Touch.

To be honest, even if it were Gabriel-era Genesis who were reforming I’m not sure I’d want to be there. They were fantastic in ’75 and, embellishing like a prog solo, have become even better in my memory. Best to remember them as they were, as we were. Revival shows can be exercises in cynicism and money-making – all the hits but no chat acknowledging the passing of time. At least Tull’s Anderson, playing Perth eight years ago, surveyed all the baldy heids picked out by the spotlight and enquired of one member of the audience: “You sir, 52 you say, have you had your prostate checked?”

Next time in the fair city he thought he might screen a video of his colonoscopy. I see he’s back in Perth in October. Genesis, the challenge has been set. The Prog Wars never end.