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Good Bones: Remembering Genesis’ A Trick of the Tale, by Todd E. Johnson

Engraving of “The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones” by Gustave Doré

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Ezekiel 37:1-3

I was working with an architect and his staff as outside consultants on the renovation of a seminary chapel. The building was big and bulky, more imposing than hospitable. The worship space within was cavernous and impersonal, and designed to accommodate a student body far larger than the one currently matriculating at this divinity school. In the process of developing the proposals for the seminary community’s consideration about the future of this space, I earnestly suggested that we propose razing the building and starting over. The response was quick and sure. “This building has good bones. We can work with a building with good bones.”

Good bones. Underneath it all there was a supportive structure that was solid, providing a formidable shell within which we could create a new vision, a new space, a new experience for the next generations of seminary students.

Underneath the edifice is what counts. The wisdom of books and covers in steel and concrete. But it is more than just an architectural adage. It is transferable wisdom, insight that can be applied to many other areas of life, areas like music.

To the Boneyard

In 1999 Playboy magazine asked number of artists for their top ten best songs of the millennium. One of them was Richard Thompson, who called Playboy’s bluff and gave them songs that easily predated the implicit 19th-20th century time frame of their query. Thompson’s list began with a 13th century piece, “Sumer Is Icumen In.”

Thompson’s list was never published. But it spurred Thompson on to consider what a set of the greatest songs of the millennium might be. And so he created the concert and recording, 1,000 Years of Popular Music. (Listen here.) It is comprised mostly of songs from the 19th and 20th centuries, but enough songs from previous centuries to give one a sense of the continuity of popular music over the previous ten centuries. Performing these songs acoustically with Spartan arrangements his work also unmasked a number of songs I had dismissed out of hand as having good musical bones. Exhibit A is Brittany Spears’ “Oops! I Did it Again,” revealing it to be a dark song about inflicting pain in relationships. He stripped it down to its bones, revealing the song beneath the song and forever changing how I listened to that song, and many in his set list.

Thompson did what many a good cover version has done over the years, reveal hidden aspects of a song that you thought you knew, but were masked by the original interpretation, production, and arrangement. Now, when given a chance, I listen down to the bones.

Wearying Bones

Some years ago, as my 50th birthday was approaching, I virtually convened a few of my high school friends and suggested that we celebrate our first half-century of life with a “mix tape.” We came up with the idea of 50 songs for 50 years. I agreed to put the mix together, but soon realized that the parameters were too large and the musical canvas too small. So we agreed on 5 disks for 5 decades, but only of music that came out in our three years of high school. Like any good “boxed set” I wrote a commentary detailing the contents and the reasons for the selections. In my general introduction to that set (before the requisite disk by disk breakdown) I wrote the following:

My passion in life is research. This was an opportunity to do just that—and I learned a great deal. I never knew that Neil Sedaka and Frankie Valli had the best years of their careers in the 1970s. I did not realize how divers music was and was becoming. I did not know the seismic shifts taking place in the recording industry and radio at the time. I simply took it all for granted. I became aware that some of my favorite recordings came from this era: Auger and Tippets’ Encore, Winwood, Shrieve, Di Meola and Yamashta’s Go, Paris’ Big Towne, 2061 and Winwood’s first solo recording Steve Winwood. None of these made the mix. I also discovered that Genesis’ A Trick of the Tale may hold up as well or better than anything I own from this era, a forgotten favorite. I already miss the excuse to explore the music of these three years.

Although saying that “Genesis’ A Trick of the Tale may hold up as well or better than anything I own from this era” is certainly a disputable claim and a debatable opinion, I reached it by having learned to listen to the bones of those songs. Allow me to make my case.

This Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail official playlist will play the entire album in order.

Forensics: Studying the Bones

A Trick of the Tale was released by Genesis in February of 1976 in the wake of the departure of Peter Gabriel, the band’s front man and primary lyricist. Between the tour of the last record with Gabriel, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), guitarist Steve Hackett gathered the other remaining members of Genesis to record his solo record, The Voyage of the Acolyte (1975) which included some older, unreleased Genesis material. It was recorded not knowing if the musicians would ever play again as Genesis. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyage_of_the_Acolyte)

The remaining members gave it the old college try and put together some material for a new record. With Hackett having spent most of his best ideas on his solo album, the other three members carried the lion’s share of the writing and arranging; two albums later Hackett would leave the band and the next album would be entitled And Then There Were Three… Those three were drummer Phil Collins, Tony Banks on keyboards, and Mike Rutherford on bass and guitar. And those three would own the airwaves through much of the 80s.

Though then still a quartet, they were fine musicians with new songs and a laudable back catalogue. But they had no lead singer. Collins, who has sung lead on one song earlier in Genesis’ career, helped singers who were auditioning in both their interpreting of both Gabriel’s rather squawky voicing of the lyrics and the new, distinct sound of the songs they had written. Unable to find a replacement who could handle both the old and new, Collins took on the role of lead singer. The result was a new, cleaner, updated sound, a bit lighter on dramatics and Lewis Carol-like stories and characters (though still with the requisite art rock pyrotechnic musicianship), and a tunefulness that sometimes escaped the grasp of earlier Genesis songs.

Like the lead and title track of their last album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, A Trick of the Tale begins with an attention getting musical introduction. Whereas “Lamb” began with an extended piano run that lead into a propulsive beat, “Dance on a Volcano” quickly explodes into a musical intro of alternating rhythms and interwoven musical lines on keyboards and guitar on top of thunderous drums and bass. Not much of a melody, and lyrics which are a bit obtuse—allusions to the world wars? To mythical or cosmic battles? Who knows? Though not the strongest tune, hook-laden it is musically engaging, a concert favorite, and a sonic statement that Genesis was not going away—quietly or otherwise.

The next track “Entangled” is a folk tune with harmonies atypical for Genesis up to this point. Performed in concert with Banks and Rutherford playing 12 string acoustic guitars, and adding harmony vocals it was a sign of the bands branching out. An unlikely Genesis song given their past, the exception being the love song “More Fool Me” sung by Collins over an acoustic guitar on Selling England by the Pound. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyagd2EvwDU) Though it ends with synthesizer washes and a mellotron choir, this beautiful song (about a stay in an asylum) could easily be covered by First Aid Kit 40 years later. This is a precursor to the single of the next Genesis album, Wind and Wuthering, “Your Own Special Way.”

Squonk” is another rousing song akin to “Dance on a Volcano” but has much more hummable tune. Though not a pop tune, it is a song that could be covered by any number of garage bands who have the requisite chops. It shouldn’t be too surprising that Tony Banks styled this song after Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir.” It lacks some of the prog-rock accoutrements that makes music from bands like Genesis and Yes sound a bit dated four decades later. What may have disappointed Genesis and art rock fans then, makes it sound less timebound today.

Mad Man Moon” ended side 1 on the vinyl record. A quieter piece about trying to survive a desert’s journey (Genesis’ version of “A Horse with No Name”?). This is a beautiful ballad offering a glimpse of Collin’s vocal stylings on future songs like his “Against All Odds.” Still, clocking in over 7:30 and having its share of extended musical interludes it betrays its vintage, but somehow manages to transcend them. By the end of side 1 you have heard a number of prog-rock fugues, but none of the extended and excessive solos that often typified the mid-70s. And you have heard some great tunes.

On vinyl you are now turning the disk over. Regardless of how you are listening you are now crossing into the second half of this album (four songs a side), and it continues with another upbeat song. This song, “Robbery, Assault, and Battery.” always sounded to me the most like early Genesis of anything on this record. The dynamics remind me of “I Know What I Like” with its catchy chorus. Lyrically it is story told in multiple voices, like “The Battle of Epping Forest”—both from the album Selling England by the Pound. This was the first song to get airplay on FM radio and was in heavy rotation. To this day I am not objective about this song. Though I objectively believe it is fine, I still think of it as overplayed all these years later. Still it has the hooks, which is why it was an FM staple.

It is followed by yet another slow song. But what a slow song it is. Hands down one of the most beautiful songs in the Genesis catalogue. “Ripples” is a melancholy song about beauty lost over the years and the challenge of aging in general. Over 8:00 in length, it is not ready for the hit parade with its extended musical excursions. But they are gorgeous and forward the song in ways that continue the lyric musically. An abridged and slightly more upbeat version by Renaissance lead singer, Annie Haslam, may be more accessible, but is a less rewarding listen.

The song that follows is the title track, and it is the closest thing to a pop tune on the record. A clever story in a playful tone, a simple tune with great hooks, “A Trick of the Tale” is the song that convinced me to buy the record in the summer of 76. It was simply refreshing to hear it come on the radio. When pouring back over mid-to-late 70s music, I discovered that early prog-bands like Genesis and Supertramp, made the transition to pop band over the course of a few albums, Somehow Supertramp’s “Give a Little Bit” doesn’t make them sound like the second coming of Pink Floyd as they were declared when they released Crime of the Century. The musical transition between was what I call “prog-pop.” I put “A Trick of the Tail” in that transitional prog-pop category.

The last song breaks the pattern of fast-slow song couplets. “Los Endos” is an instrumental written by the band together with a reprise of both “Squonk” and “Dance on a Volcano.” It is a great art-rock instrumental with no extended solos and lots of hooks. No great melody here, but a great way to bring the album to a close, and many a Genesis show for years to come.

Valley of Dry Bones?

With the exception of the first and last songs on the album I could imagine Richard Thompson adding a version of any of these songs to his 1,000 Years of Popular Music set list because there is song craft beneath that shiny prog-rock polish. Maybe not the virtuosos that ELP or Yes were, maybe not the show band that Jethro Tull was, yet these 8 tracks always take me somewhere when I listen to them, and its not always backwards to the past as so much of the progressive music from this era does.

When I researched the music of my high school years I discovered many things. Such as, how boring extended guitar solos can be and, how boring each member of the band taking a solo can be. Not very surprising, I suppose. But I was surprised by how many favorite songs and albums haven’t weathered well over the years. And just as surprising was how much like picking up a conversation with an old friend and carrying it forward listening to A Trick of the Tale was and is. Those bones still have life in them four decades on.

…suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.…and (then) breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet…

Ezekiel 37:7-8,10

Todd E. Johnson

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