In April, Peter Gabriel will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work as a solo artist. He is already in the Hall as a member of Genesis, the progressive-rock act, which was inducted in 2010. Gabriel’s career has spanned an astonishing range of musical styles: from his early Genesis years, when he dressed in a flower costume while singing ten- and twenty-minute songs that sounded like excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan operas as reimagined by Lewis Carroll, to his later decades as a chart-topping solo act, world-music pioneer, video-music groundbreaker, and composer of soundtracks for prize-winning films including “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” As the co-creator of the WOMAD Festival and the founder of Real World Records, Gabriel was responsible for introducing many Western listeners (including this one) to artists such as Youssou N’dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The distance he has travelled during his five-decade career is so great that it can be hard to reconcile the prog-rock frontman of the seventies with the multicultural, multimedia impresario and human-rights activist who came later.
Gabriel’s induction comes on the fortieth anniversary of a watershed moment in his career: the release of “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” his last record with Genesis. Representing a culmination of the excesses of the progressive-rock era and also, in some ways, a fracturing of them, “The Lamb” abides as a turning point for both Gabriel and Genesis. A modest hit in its day, this surreal fantasia written by five Englishmen about a half-Puerto Rican street kid named Rael has held up far better than many of the big-selling, high-concept projects of their contemporaries, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Jethro Tull. In its ambition, inventiveness, and sheer strangeness, “The Lamb” is a precursor to more recent rock-music milestones like Radiohead’s “O.K. Computer” and the Flaming Lips’s “Soft Bulletin.” The album’s ambiguous lyrics and story line continue to generate fervid discussion and commentary on blogs and in chat rooms. If one measure of a work of art is the quantity of critical exegesis it inspires, then “The Lamb” is the “Ulysses” of concept albums.
I’ve been listening to “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” for three decades now, and I haven’t tired of it—which is something I can’t honestly say about the rest of the Genesis catalogue. The record was a kind of looking glass for my youthful dreams, as crucial as the movies of Martin Scorsese and the novels of Paul Auster in fostering a long-distance fascination with New York that prompted my move to the city after college. Guided by Kevin Holm-Hudson’s critical history, “Genesis and ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’,” and several biographies of the band and its members, I’ve spent the past few weeks immersing myself once again in the mysteries of “The Lamb.” On the eve of Gabriel’s induction into the Hall, there remains no better place to look for the roots of his artistic transformation.
“The Lamb” was written and recorded during the summer of 1974. By that time, Genesis had been together for seven years and released five albums, establishing a reputation for long, intricately constructed songs featuring multiple mood changes and unconventional time signatures (“Apocalypse in 9/8” is the partial subheading of one of their longer numbers). After some early personnel shifts, the band had stabilized its lineup in 1970: founding members Gabriel (vocals and flute) and Tony Banks (keyboards) along with Mike Rutherford (bass and guitar), Steve Hackett (guitars), and Phil Collins (percussion). Intense touring—as many as two hundred shows a year—had helped them develop a strong following in the U.K. Their fifth album, “Selling England by the Pound” (1973), rose as high as No. 3 on the British charts. Though that LP made it only to No. 70 on the Billboard Hot 100, Genesis had supported the record with a long tour in the U.S. (their first), where an embryonic fan base had begun to grow. The exposure to America, and New York in particular, would inspire their next project.
The band operated as a coöperative, equally sharing all music-writing credits. The lyrics were also a collaboration, usually between Gabriel, Banks, and Rutherford. Yet, in performance the members of Genesis were anything but equals. In typical fashion for a progressive-rock act, the four instrumentalists sat or stood in a semicircle, rooted to their spots, intently playing. Front and center was Gabriel, who looked like he’d stormed in from a commedia dell’arte show in the theatre next door. With face paint, an overgrown monk’s haircut, and a tight-fitting black jumpsuit, he bounced around the stage telling stories, donning costumes and masks, and pantomiming. Holm-Hudson correctly argues that Gabriel’s performances are much more akin to early David Bowie than to those of other prog-rock singers like Jon Anderson, of Yes. The video below, of the song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” from 1973, is a representative example of his dynamic stage presence. It also gives the viewer an indication why the other members of Genesis might have begun to resent the growing impression that they were merely a backup group for their charismatic lead singer.
Much of the work on “The Lamb” was done at Headly Grange, a manor house in Hampshire that was used as a writing retreat by Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and other bands. The rat-infested house was reputedly haunted, and Phil Collins later said that he had trouble sleeping there. Beyond the spooky venue, a number of factors made the creation of “The Lamb” a stressful experience. In the midst of writing, Gabriel abruptly left his bandmates for a week to brainstorm with William Friedkin, the director of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” on a new project, which was a collaboration with Tangerine Dream and Philippe Druillet, the co-founder of Heavy Metal magazine. (In the end, Gabriel wasn’t involved in the resulting film, “Sorcerer,” which was released in 1977.) Gabriel’s departure, which felt like abandonment to the others, came at a bad time. Genesis was under tremendous pressure from their label, Charisma Records, which was eager to get the album out and put the band back on the road to recoup recording expenses. According to Holm-Hudson, Charisma had invested heavily in the band and, by 1972, Genesis was as much as two hundred thousand pounds in debt to the label.
Nevertheless, Tony Stratton-Smith, the founder of Charisma, gave the go-ahead for a record that promised to be markedly different from its predecessors. It was Genesis’s first double album and the first with a single narrative that would unite all the songs. Back from his hiatus, Gabriel decided that it was time to “move beyond the democratic process.” He insisted on having complete control of the story and the lyrics. Whereas the band was used to writing together in one room, on “The Lamb” they often labored separately. This led to some difficulties when Gabriel added story elements for which no music had been composed. Some of these gaps were filled by hasty improvisation while, for others, the band recycled unreleased material from earlier recording sessions. Tensions escalated even further later in the summer when Gabriel’s wife, Jill, gave birth to their first child, a daughter. It was a difficult delivery and the baby needed to be kept in an incubator for its first weeks of life. Gabriel was frequently away from Headley Grange attending to his wife and child—an absence that his bandmates didn’t always understand. Despite these tensions, the album finally did get made and was released in November.
Using first and third-person narration, “The Lamb” tells the story of Rael, a former gang member and graffiti artist (“Rael Imperial Aerosol Kid”). The album begins with Rael stepping out of the Times Square subway station where he has just tagged his name. As he emerges, a lamb lies down on Broadway, causing a cloud-like “wall of death” to descend on Forty-seventh Street. (In true-to-life fashion, nobody but Rael seems to notice the cloud or the lamb.) The wall pursues Rael north towards Columbus Circle, finally absorbing him. Once in the cloud, Rael sees a hallucinatory procession of images from American history and popular culture: Martin Luther King, Jr., Bing Crosby, Lenny Bruce, J.F.K., and Howard Hughes among them. He blacks out and wakes up in a cave, which he soon realizes is a cage. There is a flash and he sees a network of such cages strung together, like an image from “The Matrix.” Outside Rael’s cage is his brother John, who ignores Rael’s pleas for help and walks away.
Rael pursues John through a series of encounters that can be read as literal or metaphorical—or both. Rael witnesses “the grand parade of lifeless packaging,” finds himself among the “carpet crawlers” who are writhing across the floor towards a door. Later he meets Death himself, “the Supernatural Anaesthetist,” and enters a pool with the Lamias, who eat his flesh. Rael’s journey climaxes at the colony of the Slippermen, where he becomes one of their vile number, his body covered in sores and slimy lumps. The only escape from the colony is through the help of the notorious Doktor Dyper, who removes Rael’s genitals and places them in a tube. The tube is stolen by a bird, which flies away. Pursuing the bird, Rael sees a portal back to New York City, but elects to remain in the cloud when he notices his brother struggling in the rapids of a river. He dives in and saves John only to discover that his brother’s face is his own.
The recurring and often intertwined motifs of the album are death, renewal, and escape. These themes were representative of Gabriel’s feelings as he contemplated leaving Genesis. The singer has said that “The Lamb” is “like a ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ on the streets of New York,” a reference to John Bunyan’s allegory of religious salvation, composed in a jail and published in 1678. Both works are the products of vibrant imaginations populated by monsters. They share an overriding sense of life-or-death desperation. This was not new territory for Genesis, who often drew on Christian imagery, notably in “Supper’s Ready,” their epic retelling of “The Book of Revelation.” “The Lamb” is also indebted to Greek mythology, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film “El Topo.” There are allusions to the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, “West Side Story,” and the pop music of the sixties and seventies. Although the lyrics refer to such contemporary concerns as illegal drug use and the energy crisis, punning, wordplay, and sexual innuendo predominate (“mankind handkinds through the blues”), suggesting that the listener not take everything too seriously. In his parting words on the album, Gabriel spoofs both the Rolling Stones and the previous hour and a half of music: “it’s only knock and knowall, but I like it.”
The choice of Rael as a protagonist was a welcome counter to the homogeneity of progressive rock, which was produced and consumed almost exclusively by white middle-class males. Gabriel claims that he could sense the change in the zeitgeist that would soon bring about punk and disco. “Prancing around in fairyland was rapidly becoming obsolete,” he told his biographer, Spencer Bright. He wanted a story about “the most alienated city-oriented person you could find,” acknowledging that Rael would be “the last person to like Genesis.”
The shift is also evident in the music. The songs are simpler, many of them following a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. Others consist of a repeating phrase which builds toward a crescendo. Moments of tremendous power (“Fly on a Windshield”; “In the Cage”) and surpassing beauty (“Carpet Crawlers”; “The Lamia”) occur throughout. As on previous Genesis albums, there are numerous ambient and experimental passages (to which Brian Eno made production contributions), but they are kept relatively brief. Often these interludes are functional transitions required by the larger story and the physical limitations of the LP record. While no one would ever mistake it for the first Clash album, there is far more grit to be found in “The Lamb” than in “Tales from Topographic Oceans.”
For its many delights, “the Lamb” also has numerous flaws. Rael never comes to life as a fully-rounded character. His quest feels incomplete, without a proper denouement. At times Gabriel puts words in his mouth that a kid from the barrio would never speak. On their own, the lyrics were incapable of bearing the weight of the story, requiring Gabriel to pen an expository synopsis that was printed inside the record sleeve. Some of the songs, especially in the second half, feel cobbled together. “The Lamb” also proved to be a challenge to perform live. At Gabriel’s insistence, the entire album was staged every night on tour, with only the encore set aside for older songs. An hour and a half of new material is a daunting way to try to build an audience. As on previous tours, Gabriel went through several costume changes. For the most notable of these, he was lowered to the stage inside a giant phallus from which he emerged in a Slipperman outfit that included swelling lumps, pimples, and boils. The costume also featured a set of (unreliably) inflatable genitals operated by a roadie offstage. The cramped attire made it difficult for Gabriel to position his mike properly, leading to poor amplification of his vocals. The other members of the band were not entirely taken with their frontman’s antics. In a television documentary about “The Lamb,” Collins pithily recalled the tour as “cutting edge but ‘Spinal Tap’… what ‘Spinal Tap’ was written for.”
There is, sadly, almost no video of “The Lamb” tour and what little is available—mostly from a 1975 show in Liverpool—is of poor quality. Those fragments reveal how much Gabriel had remade his image for the album. His hair was cut short and the bell-bottomed jumpsuit was ditched in favor of a white T-shirt and leather jacket. In appearance, he moved from glam to punk. At times, he even sang bare-chested, like Iggy Pop. This clip of “Back in N.Y.C.” from a 1975 show at the Shrine Auditorium, in Los Angeles, indicates how drastic the makeover was.
Early on during the tour, Gabriel announced to his bandmates that he was going to leave them. Difficult but amiable, the break-up was beneficial to all involved. Gabriel embarked on his remarkable solo career and, no matter what you may think of Collins-era Genesis, that incarnation of the band went on to sell millions more records than their “vintage” lineup ever did. A couple of songs from “The Lamb” persist in the Genesis set list, and you can still come across a track or two in the dustier corners of FM radio, but they don’t do well when separated from their host. “The Lamb” is stubbornly an album, not a collection of songs. Its integrity has been aided by its relative obscurity and its lack of a hit single or a concert film. Unlike “The Wall” or “Quadrophenia,” “The Lamb” has never been trotted out for a stadium-rock reunion tour (though Gabriel did for a time explore a movie adaptation with Jodorowsky). Since 1975, when Genesis and their lead singer parted ways, there has been only one proper way to experience “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” Close the door, put on your headphones, and cue up the first track.
Photograph by David Warner Ellis/Redferns/Getty.
Biblically, the New Jerusalem is mentioned in Revelation 21, where it describes Mankind reuniting with God. After completing the lyrics in this section, Gabriel would then pick up and raise an active blacklight tube, holding it near himself, upraised with both hands, as though it were a sword. Gabriel would be the only one lit onstage at this point and would actually appear to be glowing from the combination of blacklight, his reflective white costume and fluorescent makeup. Gabriel considered this effect to be a theatrical way of symbolizing the victory of good/light over evil/darkness. Some believe this "glowing" also reflects a spiritual transformation, changing from a fleshly body to a spiritual one as is depicted in the Biblical Rapture, also referenced in the preceding lyrics, "Can't you feel our souls ignite..". A last word:
PG: :Often I felt that I could talk to the audience through the band's material, and the audience would understand what I was trying to say, and I would have a release, and a conversation with the audience through that. I was singing my heart out there when I used to sing the 'New Jerusalem'… I was singing for my life. I was saying this is good over evil, and… you know, it was an old fashioned gesture, but I meant it and I was fighting."link
PG: "It was one night at Jill's parents' house in Kensington, when everyone had gone to bed… we'd just been talking to John… there's this strange room in the house in Kensington… I can never sleep there. It was decorated in turquoise and purple which are colours that are both quite high in the frequency range, and I think it was like an echo chamber for what was going on. It was late at night, and we were tired and all the rest, so it was quite easy for us to hallucinate or whatever… we hadn't been drinking or drugging, but… there was this girl who was an old girlfriend of John's and was trying to get back at him or something, and she was into magic and that sort of thing… "
Anthony: "Jill and I were having a conversation about power and strength and will. Suddenly I was aware that the whole room's atmosphere had changed, Jill had gone into some sort of trance. Suddenly the windows blew in, followed by extreme cold, followed by this psychic phenomenon."
PG: "… [Jill and I] saw other faces in each other, and I was very frightened, in fact. It was almost as if something else had come into us, and was using us as a meeting point. The curtain flew wide open, though there was no wind, and the room became ice cold… "
JA: "Neither Peter, Jill, or I were doing drugs or drinking. I realized it was a basic manifestation. I have seen it before, the room was full of cold astral smoke, psychic ether. The thing that scared me was that it started moving in the form of a tourbillion – the great wheel that projects spirits into the astrosphere. It is nothing to do with death. It is a phenomenon that can occur with people with strong psyches. If you go through one there is a good chance that if you come back you will never be the same."
(5) PG: "And I did feel that I saw figures outside, figures in white cloaks, and the lawn I saw them on wasn't the lawn that was outside. It was just like a Hammer horror film, except it was for real… I was shaking like a leaf, and in a cold sweat. ..Jill suddenly became a medium, and started spouting in a different voice… and it is very strange when someone you live with suddenly starts talking with another voice, and eventually I made a cross with a candlestick and something and held it up to Jill when she was talking in this voice… she sort of reacted like a wild animal. John and I had to hold her down. And the rest of the night we eventually quietened her down, and made her a cup of tea, and tried to talk her through. Then she slept downstairs in the sitting room, but neither I nor John slept a wink that night. Fortunately it hasn't happened since because it terrified her. At the same time, some weird things happened at the place where she worked, and at her house. These notes arrived with dates on them… her birth-date, and another date that was coming up in a month's time. We could only assume it was this girl who was trying to get back at her. We were very frightened when the date came up, and I stayed with Jill all day, checking that she wouldn't be… nothing could happen to her… no one could come and kill her, or something like this. Fortunately, we went past that date, and when twelve'o'clock came, and the day was over, I was very happy. Anyway, that's how I got into thinking about good and evil, and forces working against each other. That's the sort of thing that Supper's Ready was… fed on. This was the thing, you see. This is why I was put into this sate of mind really, only because the cross had worked. The cross, as a thing, meant nothing to me. I did it because I had seen horror films, and… just anything really that might have worked. I had experienced a sense of evil at that point – I don't know how much of this was going on inside my head and how much was actually happening, but it was an experience I could not forget and was the starting point for a song about the struggle between good and evil."
Gabriel has also been quoted by some as saying he felt he was "led" to the various sources he used in putting together the lyrics for the song.