Genesis’ Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips + Ray Wilson on ‘Firth of Fifth,’ ‘The Knife,’ ‘Musical Box,’ others: Gimme Five

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They never sold as many records, never got any where near as much attention. But that doesn’t mean the separate tenures of Genesis’ Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips and Ray Wilson aren’t worth exploring.

Quite the contrary, actually.

Both Phillips (1967-70) and Wilson (1996-98) appeared in transitional periods that occurred on either ends of the long Genesis narrative, and both were involved with musical moments that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand — whether they burned up the Billboard charts or not.

Hackett, meanwhile, was part of the middle 1970s-era that saw the Peter Gabriel-led edition of Genesis make arguably its most important work, even if they never had a synth-driven MTV video to go with it. Maybe, actually, because they never had one.

If you’re looking for platinum-selling mainstream sounds, the most reliable source will always be the post-1977 trio lineup that featured Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford — and, to be fair, we liked some of their stuff, even during the sheeny doldrums of the 1980s.

Hackett, Phillips and Wilson, however, stopped in to give us important insights into some quirkier things, some more long form things, some things that arrived blessedly free of A&R considerations and video directors, some things that probably will never sell — and, in most cases, wasn’t meant to.

As you’ll see, that’s not always a bad thing …

“DANCING WITH THE MOONLIT KNIGHT,” (SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND, 1973): A crescendoing, Mellotron-driven epic that moved from accapella reverie to brawny rock bravura, even as Hackett employed both his tapping technique as well as an interesting sweep-picking sound.

“That tune started off with the influence of a Scottish song,” Hackett tells us, “then it moved into something that I think of in a more elegiac way — something nostalgic and wistful, and common to a lot of Genesis tunes. Then it bursts forth, it fights off its shackles, really takes off like a rocket, into another section, which seems to borrow from something that sounds more Russian in a way. It’s European, but then at times, it turns into the jazz that I liked originally — but big band, with the accents.”

Selling England, named after a lyric in this song, was at that point a commercial peak for the group — reaching No. 3 in the UK and going gold in America. More than four decades later, “Moonlit Knight” still possesses a sense of crepuscular mystery.

“What I was doing was something that was akin to a violinist’s bow technique, where you are picking across the strings and then back again very quickly,” Hackett adds. “That’s called sweep picking. Again, I didn’t name the technique, but I seem to have invented it. It was just another way of playing very, very fast. Violinists, J.S. Bach, they all would have been there first, of course. I think it was Bach’s sound that I was trying to play on the guitar. It worked particularly well on that album.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We recently dug into deep cuts from across the solo Genesis repertoire, uncovering overlooked favorites from Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Steve Hackett.]

“THE KNIFE,” (TRESPASS, 1970): The capstone on a transitional album, as Genesis begins to assume its more familiar 1970s-era prog-rock identity with longer compositional ideas and decidedly pastoral subject matter — not to mention the cover-art debut of artist Paul Whitehead, who’d handle the next two Genesis albums, as well.

Much had changed between the group’s more pop-focused initial effort and this 1970 follow up, the result of an aggressive touring schedule that eventually drove original guitarist Anthony Phillips from the lineup.

“There was a huge, lost world of material in between,” Phillips tells us, “as we went from our school-boy holiday song-based album through similar songs, but more mature, through to our first experiments with longer forms. Tony began using the organ, as we left (debut album producer) Jonathan King’s more commercial song-based stable. Then, there were long jams, with heavier riff ideas — like “Knife,” etc. We had to raise the tempo and power to get noisy crowds to listen when we ventured out on the road! In short, we went from songwriters who played a bit on an album to a fully equipped, fighting-force live band — and most of the transitional material betwixt those two points bit the dust.

By the time Nursery Cryme arrived in 1971, Phillips had been replaced by Steve Hackett and Phil Collins had taken over for drummer John Mayhew. The five-man lineup that would eventually hurtle Genesis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if not to the toppermost of the poppermost, was set.

“THE MUSICAL BOX,” (NURSERY CRYME, 1971): Hackett joined Genesis in time to make some influential contributions on Nursery Cryme, Genesis’s first project with the classic five-piece lineup. The album would reach the Top 40 in England and shoot all the way to No. 4 on the Italian charts on the strength of standout tracks like “The Musical Box.”

Originally an instrumental by the newly departed Anthony Phillips, this track eventually emerged as a band collaboration with lyrics based on a Victorian fairy tale courtesy of Gabriel and a eye-popping turn by Hackett. The guitarist fashioned a completely new sound through the use of a new fretboard technique — now simply known as “tapping” — that later reached a broad audience through the fiery soloing of Eddie Van Halen.

“When I joined the band, the song ‘The Musical Box’ was already written,” Hackett says. “They were performing it live. They said to me: ‘As soon as you join the band, we’ll share all of the writing.’ So, I came up with guitar parts on top of what they had written. I was trying to come up with something suitable. I thought: ‘I wonder if it is possible to use both hands on the fretboard?’ You could play extremely fast on one string. I quickly realized that the sky’s the limit for anyone who wants to use that technique. Eddie has, of course, acknowledged the influence. I came up with the technique, and he gave it a name.”

“THE DIVIDING LINE,” (CALLING ALL STATIONS, 1997): The intricate yet propulsive high point from an admittedly uneven album gives new life to the argument that this edition of Genesis — and one-album frontman Ray Wilson — never quite got a fair shake. Of course, he’s since parlayed this brush with fame into a solo career that includes Genesis-related albums and tours. Wilson even recently appeared with Hackett to record a new version of “Carpet Crawlers,” joining together two different eras.

Still, you can’t help but wonder at what might have been: “Yes, I wish we’d had more time, but I don’t see it as unfair. I knew what I was taking on and I knew that it would have good and bad moments. As I said before, I feel the music we created together was good — and also an important part of the Genesis catalog. We should have continued, no doubt, but that’s life. I do 130 shows a year and I love what I do. The name Genesis is one of the main reasons I am able to do this. I love writing and creating new music and performing those songs, but I also love playing the many great songs from the Genesis collection. So for me, life couldn’t be better.”

Wilson offers the lyric with a confidential insistence, far more in keeping with Gabriel’s approach than the departed Collins, and Nick D’Virgilio (of Spock’s Beard fame) does a credible impersonation of the angular drumming style that Collins made famous. And yet this song, this album and this lineup quickly sank without a trace? “I look at it as an unfinished job,” Wilson adds. “We made a good start and then they gave up, that’s my view. When replacing someone as talented and famous as Phil, it’s going to take time and patience. However, I think we did a good album together, so that’s what really matters to me.”

“FIRTH OF FIFTH,” (SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND, 1973): Featuring one of Hackett’s most memorable interludes, this rhythmically complex Tony Banks track finds the guitarist echoing Peter Gabriel’s flute melody and then building upon it — creating a stirring, violin-esque narrative.

“I was playing it on electric guitar,” Hackett says of those initial sessions, “then it struck me that it had certain similarities with other melodies that I had been playing that I liked. It ended up with aspects of Eric Satie, and aspects of King Crimson. The song had an aspect of blues, an aspect of gospel about it. It had something of English church music — but it also had an aspect of something Oriental or Indian, almost. So, it was a fusion of influences. But at the time, we weren’t using the word fusion and we were using the word progressive. It would eventually be described as progressive, which was a catch all phase covering an awful lot of bases.”

In the intervening decades, “Firth of Fifth” has become a staple both in Genesis’ and the guitarist’s live repertoire. It has, in fact, appeared on three of Hackett’s albums – most recently in the expanded version of 2009’s Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth.

For Hackett, who likes to craft brief bursts of imagination within a larger song structure, this remains one of his longest-ever recorded solos: “I think it can support that, though, because it’s thematic,” he tells us. “Basically, it’s the same melody played three times with minimal variation. It’s done like jazz, with the statement of the theme then you go off and improvise, and then return to the theme. On ‘Firth of Fifth,’ when it comes back, it’s a larger arrangement. It’s the tune as written, then ‘let’s take this to the mountains,’ to a certain extent.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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