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Critic's pick: Genesis 1970-1975

© by Walter Tunis Contributing Music Critic970-1

It seems only fitting that the rock 'n' roll book of Genesis ends at the beginning.

After two mammoth 2007 boxed sets chronicling the band's transformation from a prog-rock beacon to the stadium-filling pop outfit that made Phil Collins a star, we have the roots of when Genesis was, during a five year run, something extraordinary.

1970-1975 isn't about the Collins-era Genesis, although Collins the drummer is certainly a key player on these recordings. Instead, it rewinds the band back to when a young Peter Gabriel was the focal, and vocal, point.

A wildly charismatic singer who then wore fox heads, bulbous masks, sunflower headdresses and often frightening layers of theatrical makeup onstage, Gabriel came to define Genesis' formative years. But despite a faceless debut pop album (From Genesis to Revelation), Genesis — on record, anyway — was a band of equals, with keyboardist Tony Banks, guitarists Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett, bassist Mike Rutherford and, eventually, Collins adding key colors to a rapidly evolving musical ambience.

The new boxed set collects everything from 1970's Trespass (the only album here to feature Phillips) to 1974's surreal urban opera The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The intense clarity of the 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound remastering provides an almost punkish charge to Get 'Em Out By Friday, from 1972's Foxtrot, and new dimension to Kaye's parachuting keyboard runs on Riding the Scree near the end of The Lamb. Aside from that, 1970-1975 lets us view the thrill-seeking Gabriel era of Genesis as an almost complete whole.

The story begins with the wintry warmth of Looking for Someone, the twilight hued, post-psychedelic leadoff track from Trespass. The follow-up albums, 1971's Nursery Cryme (which introduced Collins and Hackett), Foxtrot and the 1973 breakthrough Selling England by the Pound elongated song-structure forms dramatically. Foxtrot's 23-minute Supper's Ready, for example, isn't some indulgent jam-fest, but an artful, almost operatic song cycle.

Gabriel often was a madcap host for Genesis' music, playing town crier in the hysterical The Return of the Giant Hogweed (from Nursery Cryme) and the hapless day laborer in 1973's I Know What I Like, the closest thing the Gabriel-era roster scored to a hit single.

In other instances, there is beautiful but fanciful drama in the way Gabriel finds balance between despondency and elegance against Banks' myriad keyboard orchestrations on The Musical Box, Watcher of the Skies and The Foundation of Salmacis.

The music was all exquisitely British until Gabriel went underground for The Lamb, Genesis's epic but almost indecipherable New York street opera. Banks and Gabriel steal the show here, from the beautiful meditative menace conjured on Carpet Crawlers (the song Collins sang at the close of every show on Genesis' Gabriel-less reunion tour last year) to the echoing, pre-punk urgency of Back in NYC. After The Lamb, Gabriel bolted, changing his life, politics and career — not to mention Genesis' music — forever.

There is a ton of bonus DVD and audio material on 1970-1975, including montages of Gabriel's early stage costumes, concert performances taped for European television (including a fascinating reading of Supper's Ready) and glimpses into The Lamb's way, way, way off Broadway stage show.

And there you have it — the remastered beginning of a once-audacious band. The later hits were certainly huge, but nothing was ever so glorious as the genesis of Genesis.

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