Thursday, 2 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #76: A Trick Of The Tail (1976)

Genesis' only entry on the chart is A Trick Of The Tail, their first album with Phil Collins at the helm which marked a return to the English eccentricity and psychedelia of Foxtrot (1972) and Selling England By The Pound (1973).By 1974, Genesis had become stalwarts of the progressive rock scene in Britain. Their early albums had a disarmingly psychedelic quality which became increasingly experimental as the 1970s wore on. By 1974, singer Peter Gabriel had caused tensions in the band; while the group philosophy had always been to write and perform as a collective unit, Gabriel was appearing ever more flamboyantly to hide his stage fright. In the studio he was increasingly absent due to difficulties with his wife's pregnancy, and yet insisted on writing the bulk of their lyrics. After the tour for their rock opera masterpiece, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) - which brought both to the fore - Gabriel left the group to look after his family and pursue a solo career. After auditions proved fruitless, Phil Collins took over vocal duties and the band became a four-piece.

'Dance On A Volcano', the album's opener, is in many ways indicative of the album's sound. Opening with Steve Hackett's gentle strumming and Collins' clever tom-tom work, we get a very amiable instrumental section. When Collins kicks in, the tempo quickens - tempo changes are one of the great features of this album, though arguably the division of songs into 'movements' is a key motif of all prog rock, good and bad. Contrary to perceptions, Collins' lyrics and delivery are nothing like his ghastly pop efforts in the 1980s - maybe he is deliberately trying to sound like Gabriel to provide continuity, but whether or not that is the case he sings very well.

'Entangled' continues this gently flowing vibe, with Hackett switching to acoustic. The lyrics, even if a little peculiar and incomprehensible, fit with the texture of the whole song. The opening lines, When you're asleep they may show you/ Aerial views of the ground,/ Freudian slumber empty of sound blend serenely into the mix, producing something which makes it increasingly possible to believe that (a) Genesis could manage without Gabriel; and (b) at one point in his life, Collins could actually write good songs instead of producing ones designed to make you haemorrage.

'Squonk' is the first slip-up on the album, and is also the first song Genesis recorded with Collins as the vocalist. Before he comes in, we get the faint sound of an oboe, hinting that this is to more a more ambitious piece. As is so common with ambitious pieces, the end product is a disappointment. The lyrics seem like a hotch-potch of ill-fitting influences, including nursery rhymes - All the King's horses and all the King's men/ Could never put a smile on that face - which sound hopelessly cloyed. For all the impressive efforts of Tony Banks on keyboards and Mike Rutherford on bass, this is rather directionless.

With the faults of that in mind, 'Mad Man Moon', is a great rebound. Beginning with the wonderful combination of piano and flute, this is tender, stripped-back and in no way cloyed or clich├ęd. The verses and chorus see Collins under control on the vocals and drums, neither of which are imposing enough to crowd out the wonderful arrangements. Rutherford's presence is less here than on 'Squonk', but if you listen carefully you will spot his talent. The chorus is fairly catchy, unusual for a prog song, but the best part of this song is the middle section. With simple percussion to back him, Banks run riot on the keyboards like he is gliding through keys made of water. The lyrics here are witty and upbeat, catchy in a strange and unexplainable way:

Hey man, I'm the sand man,
And boy have I news for you;
They're gonna throw you in gaol
And you know they can't fail
'Cos sand is thicker than blood.
But a prison in sand is a haven in hell,
For a gaol can give you a goal
And a goal can find you a role
On a muddy pitch in Newcastle,
Where it rains so much, you can't wait for a touch
Of sun and sand.

Despite the many great qualities of 'Mad Man Moon', the true masterpiece of the album is 'Robbery, Assault And Battery'. Another Banks masterpiece, this song about a petty criminal opens with a wonderful passage in 7/8 time. The great thing about the lyrics is not (just) that they tell a clear story - but that they flow in such a way that they appear to rhyme seamlessly, even though it becomes obvious that they don't. Once again, amidst the glorious riffs there is a sumptuous middle section devoted to Banks' solos, and while his contemporary Rick Wakeman tended to lose the plot somewhere along the way, this is relatively tight, creating a very likeable little number.

No sooner have we reached such heights, though, that we are brought back down to earth with a bump in the form of 'Ripples'. This sounds rather pointless. It's the complete opposite of the previous track: while the former didn't see the need to rhyme and yet sounded fantastic, this is a deliberate attempt at extended pop, where the rhymes are forced and frequent. The chorus is no better - Sail away, away/ Ripples never come back/ Gone to the other side/ Sail away, away would be more at home in any 1980s mediocre pop song. It's a lazy effort and a worryingly accurate harbinger of things to come.

The title track is punchier and rockier. Rutherford and Banks have achieved a better balance between themselves, even though Hackett remains underused. The lyrics are reminiscent of Syd Barrett's work in that they have a strange charm to them which is impossible to pinpoint or explain. Sure, They've got no horns and they've got no tail/ They don't even know of our existence is hardly a match for Take a couple if you wish/ They're on the dish ('Bike'), but they're both decidedly English and dignified.

'Los Endos' ends the album on what amounts to a whimper. Beginning like an outtake from a long-forgotten Yes album, this ends up a mish-mash of half-baked phrases welded together with the best riffs from all the previous songs. This might have worked better, had this been a concept album or a song cycle. But because A Trick Of The Tail is neither of these things, it has the essence of a bolt-on outtake, something for cultists to unravel while the rest of us fall asleep.

Considering the quality of Gabriel's output both with Genesis and his subsequent solo career, A Trick Of The Tail already gets some points for demonstrating that the band could not only carry on without him, but produce something decent along the way. Rather than extending the themes of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - racism, modernity and nightmare - this is a regression back to the earlier, more eccentric sound. And yet this doesn't feel like treading water. The songs will grow on you as you give them space and attention. There are some times when we glimpse worrying hints of a certain member's disastrous venture into the mainstream, and Rutherford is often drowned out by the other instruments, only coming into his own on 'Squonk'. In short, this is an amicable effort, but in hindsight it is no surprise that Steve Hackett left after the Seconds Out tour.

3.75 out of 5

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