Savouring Genesis's "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway": Prog Rock Countdown #9

Savouring Genesis's "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway": Prog Rock Countdown #9

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) is my favourite album. I love the concept so much that I’ve toyed with writing a novelization of the story. There’s far too much than can be said about this album, and much has been said by others, including in an academic monograph. The album is so full of stuff: the variety of music, the creativity, the complexity of the song writing, the insanity of the story, the ambition of the concept, the accompanying short story in the liner notes. Rather than form a coherent review, I’ve opted for something a little different. As I listened to the album, I typed out my thoughts. Below is an edited version of my stream of conscious reactions. Since I was already familiar with the album and have given it a lot of thought in the past, the comments will be pretty opaque to anyone not familiar with Lamb, so do yourself a favour and listen to it first. Or, if you’ve got some time to really listen, follow along with my commentary as you get absorbed in each track.  

“The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”

This intro makes me very glad that I recently bought a remastered copy of the album, since those keys come out much clearer, and you can hear the chimes or whatever in the background.

Now I’m just air drumming too much. The opening track is already probably the bounciest, most upbeat song Genesis had written until that point.

Peter Gabriel has said something along the lines of him wanting to write a sort of epic hero’s journey type story, and he wrote the protagonist Rael as a street tough who would be among the least likely people to go for such a journey. But part of the hero’s journey is refusal of the call to adventure, so, I dunno, maybe he only skimmed his Joseph Campbell.

Ooh, now we’ve gotten to the bridge and the drums and guitar cut out, and it’s the first instance of a song on the album containing a section that is pulled from a different track. In this case, the bridge anticipates “Carpet Crawlers”, which changes the tone from the upbeat adventurous start to one of introspection and bewilderment.

Most of this track describes people and weird things happening on the street as Rael moves about, evading cops or something.

This outro is like a cover of “On Broadway”, but in sort of a mocking way, with Gabriel singing super low.

“Fly on a Windshield”

I’ve said it before, but I love when an album transitions seamlessly from one song to the next. Here it’s a gradual fade out of the first song as the eerie synths and minor key guitar chords build up then slow down to some dissonant chords. Then “I'm hovering like a fly, waiting for the windshield on the freeway” and bang! more eerie sounds of slide guitar and heavy drums. This is one of the first great moments of the album.

The opening track is simply sort of surreal, with a few things out of place or not adding up, but here, the lyrics, when they kick in for track three after this solo, get weirder and weirder.

“Broadway Melody of 1974”

There’s a bit of time distortion or something, as Gabriel describes movie characters and actors moving across some ethereal screen that flies across Rael’s vision, with him somehow trapped or enthralled. So many cultural references. I know some of these characters, but I don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. What is the parade for? Is it somehow a commentary on Hollywood? Lamb was supposed to be Gabriel’s foray into American culture, so maybe this is a love song to all his favourite stars and Americana.

This outro is confusing. It’s a nice plunky keyboard thing, very slow.

“Cuckoo Cocoon”

Slowing down some more for Cuckoo Cocoon. This is the first point where the story of the album makes sense to me. Rael is trapped in a cocoon – made of film? He’s clearly been transported somewhere, and this is his first moment to breathe, look around and think about what’s happening. As a listener, we’re in the same boat. The dreamy music, and first bit of flute is pleasant and the lyrics are easier to follow, so now we have time to catch our breath and figure out what is going on with this album.

In the cage.jpg

 “In the Cage”

What began as being stuck, but having some breathing space, turns sinister: “I got sunshine in my stomach” is sung with some pleasant guitar chords, but that thumpy bass suggests scary stuff ahead, then the buzzing synth comes in, followed by more elaborate drum work and spacey keys and guitar. Music quickens, gets increasingly complex, and lyrics come fast and furious. This song always feels like a chase scene from a movie. Sense of movement, danger, or even of being pursued. Ironic since Rael is in a cage and trying to escape. But he is moving, turning and revolving. The walls move too, with stalagmites and stalactites closing in. And he’s being pulled, stretched, churning his stomach, panicking, “get me out”.

Upbeat, light, and now he sees some new sights. Other people in cages? This is where the liner notes come in handy. He’s seeing his confederates in crime being punished, I think. This is like Dante’s Hell perhaps. Hard to say what kinds of tortures they are enduring because here's where the big solo comes in with its zippy synths and syncopated drums – no lyrics to describe what’s happening behind the music. Really quite a fun section of the album.

Edgy guitars, bells, drum solos, changing up the rhythm. And Rael sees his brother for the first time. This is my favourite idea on the album, that Rael’s brother is always dogging his steps, or just ahead of him. “But I shout out dear John please help me.” But he doesn’t. He remains silent, or is Rael voiceless? Still unclear if John can’t or just won’t help.

“Raindrops keep falling on my head.” More cultural homage? Another mini-cover.

In a trap again. Music moves, but Rael is unable to control his movement, though he’s being pushed and squished back onto the street, or maybe that’s only in his flashback, because he ends up elsewhere. In the cage, he fantasizes about turning to liquid to escape, but instead it’s the cage that dissolves. This is the first time it occurs to me that Rael’s thoughts may actually influence his surroundings. After all, the parade of movie stars follows descriptions of him waking up after sleeping in an all-night movie theatre. There’s gonna be more of this thought-to-action pattern. It makes sense since Gabriel has said that the story is written like a dream, and that’s why transitions from scene to scene never follow any clear logic.

I never noticed the outro here before. Thanks, remastered edition.

“The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging”

 Weirderst song? Maybe, but this idea of selling ”lifeless” human “packaging."

Whoa, never noticed the whistles here. Makes it more evocative of a factory.

The most overt cultural critique is in this song. Words like “bondage,” “packaging,” “clockwork,” “Empty in their fullness,” “everyone’s a representative” all evoke the buy and sell mentality of the modern world that we’re all complicit in. Rael screaming “I’m a big whore” reaffirms the inescapability of materialism and the need to buy and sell, be bought and sold. In my fanfic, the Grand Parade company would be the villain of the story.

“Back in N.Y.C.”

Whoa, “Back in N.Y.C.” begins with that same thumping bass from Cage. Is New York itself a cage, pushing and pulling its denizens who are forever trapped? And this song is about Rael’s history as a thug. Reliving his exploits. The vocals are sort of boastful, but the music is mismatched. These quick arpeggios and ridiculous, but understated drum work. Gabriel sings very pitchy and whiny, as if Rael is being defensive, but perhaps it is a confession. “I don’t care who I hit . . .  and I’m not full of shit. I don’t care who I hurt. I don’t care who I do wrong. This is your mess I’m stuck in. I don’t belong.”  His remorselessness. He is not in control. It’s the life he’s born into – like the cage.

This song has so many changes, and so many lyrics. I’ve never been able to follow it. It’s just too wild and complicated to ever get into. It’s great in the moment, but impossible to hold in my mind when it is done.

Here Rael is talking to us: “sitting in your comfort,” we “don’t believe I’m real.” In my fanfic, there’s a lot of metafictive stuff, and it is hard to tell how much happened and how much is Rael’s fevered imagination. But he is talking to someone here and defending his experience, insisting it happened even though we believe he is fiction. Of course he is, but that’s such a fun conceit of stories when they insist they are real. In keeping with one theme of the album so far, there’s such a blurred line between real and imagination, normal and bizarre. Is the Grand Parade a metaphor or not? Is the cage?

And the uproar is over. More twinkly synths and soft chords.

“Hairless Heart”

Flange Guitar solo. Man I love this one. So sad and satisfying. Mellotron comes in here and it is transcendent.

The end of “N.Y.C.” through "Counting Out Time" is about sex, as are parts of the second disc. That sudden end to the previous track is supposed to represent climax and release? Probably. And that makes this a sort of afterglow?
It’s confusing cause the next track is about Rael’s failures in his romantic and sexual exploits. I suppose one thought is leading to a further flashback.

“Counting Out Time”

The transition here is just slightly off, like Rael’s heart has skipped a beat in his excitement to get laid. Upbeat romantic-y music. Rael approaches sex as something he’s studied – there’s talk about reading up on the matter and needing to “get it straight,” “leave nothing to fate,” and to study “every page of the book, and now I’ve got the real thing, gonna take a look.”

“Counting out time” – thinking of complex human relationships like a machine – echoes of lifeless packaging. Refrain here is “erogenous zones I love you/question you.” You realize in moments like this that Rael has been unprepared for the real world, let alone his bizarre parallel world quest. In this set of flashbacks, Rael’s anger, libido, and naivety repeatedly lead him into trouble or disappointment. He doesn’t learn anything because on the second disc he’ll continue to screw up, with harsher consequences.

“The Carpet Crawlers”

I don’t know why "Carpet Crawlers" is the band’s sort of theme song, but was it ever powerful when they closed their 2007 shows with it. The lyrics here are very specific to the fantasy world they’ve created. Some of the lyrics are poignant: “no hiding in my memory,” etc.
But mostly it’s about “crawling toward a heavy wooden door where the needle’s eye is waking” and such narrative scenes. It’s hard to find any specific metaphor, though as a whole, we can take it as further allegory for lack of free will: “there’s only one direction in the faces that I see . . . pulled up by the magnet, believing they are free.”

 “Gotta get in to get out” is the chorus. Stuff like that is all about compulsion to live by a script. Rael is the outsider, the one who resists and tries to break the mold rather than go along. At least, that’s what he becomes. In the flashback, he uncritically follows a pattern set out for him of anger against authority. I mean, the idea of following rules read in a book in order to romance a woman is evocative of how un-independent he is early on. “Carpet Crawlers” is the turning point for Rael – he sees the “carpet crawlers heed their callers” and in the next two tracks, he tries to find an alternate root. He’ll still be a follower though, since he takes the blind Lillywhite Lilith for his guide. But at least he begins to think about his goals and what they mean and how to achieve them.

Carpet crawler.jpg

“The Chamber of 32 Doors”

Sometimes I think this is my favourite track on the album. It’s dark and sad, got haunting synths and staccato picking. More bells and percussive sounds. Then the melody picks up and it is sort of upbeat in the bass, but it’s a fake out and slows down.

“They believe they can control the game, but the juggler holds another pack. I need someone to believe in someone to trust.” Rael is speaking about figuring out which door will lead out of the chamber, but it’s the first time he admits vulnerability, and that’s a moment for enlightenment.

When talking about trusting the country man, the music gets almost like a country sound, so that is very cool. It’s also a little upbeat.

More allegory here – 32 doors, all but one lead right back to the same chamber. And all these different character types, like 

The priest and the magician,

Singing all the chants that they have ever heard;

They're all calling out my name,

Even academics, searching printed word.

My father to the left of me,

My mother to the right,

Like everyone else they'er pointing

But nowhere feels quite right.

This album is all about growth, identity, change. It makes sense as a quest narrative, because so many heroes go through these sorts of dilemmas. They are on a set course for life, but something monumental happens, and suddenly they have to question and change, and fight.

“I’d gladly give up all of my dreams if you could help me find a door that doesn’t lead me back here again.” The status quo is no longer desirable. Too much has changed, too much has been seen and thought and felt. Rael is just a kid growing up and reconsidering everything he knows.

“Lilywhite Lilith”

Side three begins really energetic and upbeat. It’s a moment of optimism as Rael meets a ghostly guide to help him find his way. Naturally, she is a sort of goddess type, though, since her name is Lilith we can rightly expect her to lead him not toward freedom, but toward destruction. Just after the second chorus (“she gonna lead you right”) the music goes wonky and into a minor key, and then she leaves Rael in the darkness all by himself, and it starts a little bit like “The Cage.” That pulsing bass is back, with matching guitar.

“The Waiting Room”

Easily the worst track on the album, “the Waiting Room” delivers what it says. Rael is left in the dark with slowly approaching bright lights in the distance. For about five minutes, we hear discordant jangling bells and chimes, wood blocks, spacey synth, and woodwind sounds, ghostlike voices, shattering glass, and other noises. Like “Cuckoo Cocoon,” this is a moment of rest for Rael. Yet, without lyrics, we have nothing to interpret but the unsettling noises. This is probably Rael’s final moment before he is completely absorbed by the other world. No more flashbacks, no more identification with Rael as he once knew himself, though there will be a fleeting glimpse of normalcy toward the end of the album. About two thirds of the way through the track, it sounds more like a song. There’s a melody of sorts trading off between guitar and synth, and the drums and bass are playing too. It’s an interesting experiment, and certainly in character for the story of the album.

“Anyway”

Wait, this is my fave track. That creeping keyboard, and the lyrics all about Rael becoming fossilized, turned into oil. He’s becoming part of the Earth itself. But now he hears a train or a woman on horseback. Really questioning his sanity his now. The melody ramps up only to jerk to a stop. Then you get some heavy crash cymbals and toms and low staccato chords on keyboard and guitar. And then the album’s biggest guitar solo, but still some staccato bass to keep it threatening.

Just the twinkly keyboard, and then back to the verse. Talk of exploding, being buried alive, more stretching. It is more of “the Cage,” a feeling of being trapped. Rael thought finding the right door would mean self-direction, a path of his own, but here is, once again living life on rails, without choice and moving in only one direction.

“Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist”

Right up to death’s door, literally. Death in one of his favourite avatars is a doctor, an anaesthetist. And here’s another solo. Super upbeat; Phil Collins (I think) is even singing very faint, high pitched “la la las” or something similar. The track has a sense of finality to it. It’s pleasant and happy, like everything’s working out after all. An illusion, of course, that fits in with Rael being drugged and once again transported somewhere new.

The outro sounds like coming out of a euphoric trance. Slight discord in the high notes.

Lamia.jpg

“The Lamia”

Minor keys on the piano, and Rael is being led by his nose toward a strange scent, finds his way into a large chamber.

Oh yea, THIS is my favorite track. Once again, it’s a soft piano melody that is both beautiful and dark. Those drums start going, and guitar follows. Suddenly we’re moving quickly and there are the Lamia! Graceful snake women seducing Rael, and he’s powerless to resist their “siren’s call.” They welcome Rael: “We have been waiting for our waters to bring you cool” is where the track finds the most motion, and then stops, restarting with just piano. Like “the Cage,” there’s a contrast of motion and stillness in both the music and the narrative.

It’s clear now that everything has led up to this, that the Lamia may have put all this weirdness into action. Rael goes to them and they begin caressing him, eating him alive; “with their tongues, they test, taste and judge all that is mine,” and “they nibble the fruits of my flesh.” But as soon as they taste his blood, they melt away and declare their eternal love for Rael. Now their empty snake-lady shells float in the water. Rael is devastated. This is the reverse of his sexual encounter from earlier, where all their planning ends in a disappointing moment of self-negation. Now it is his lovers’ turn to shrink away after so much careful preparation. It’s implied, though, that their disappearance is part of the plan, since we later learn that they’ve played this trick before with many other men.

Rael then eats the bodies? Most disturbing line of the album: “it is the scent of garlic that lingers on my chocolate fingers.” I Don’t know why that always stands out to me. It’s vivid and unpleasant, yet alluring, somehow. Just like the Lamia!

Rael departs, but looks back with regret. Another big guitar solo, but slow and sad. The drums are pulling their weight to keep it buoyant, just like those floating Lamia skins, so described as “silent sorrow in empty boats”: also, the name of the next track. This outro is still going into a fadeout.

“Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats”

Another instrumental. Like “Hairless heart,” short and very soft. But this one is played on echoing keyboards and a touch of guitar. The synthesized choral voices swell real loud and mournfully against the guitar arpeggio, and it is beautiful. Now just the guitar and atmospheric sounds, without the vox. I never noticed that acoustic guitar chord stuck in there randomly.

There’s a fade down, but the vox is back and something different is around the corner.

“The Colony of Slippermen”

Different indeed. Weird distorted guitar and keys, plus eerily upbeat wood blocks, and more odds sounds are piling on. An unwelcome cymbal splash, some clicking or snapping. That cartoonish string synth or something is more prominent while everything else is silly and sinister.


Fade down and silence. That was the first minute-forty-five of this track.

“Babadeebum. I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Random allusion. Now the tune is upbeat with a kind of marching band tempo. Descriptions of the slippermen are grotesquely poetic:

I've never seen a stranger crowd;

Slubberdegullions on a squeaky feet,

Continually pacing,

With nonchalant embracing,

Each orifice disgracing

And one facing me moves to say "hellay".

His skin's all covered in slimy lumps.

With lips that slide across each chin.

His twisted limbs like rubber stamps

Are waved in welcome say 'Please join in.'

My grip must be flipping,

Cos his handshake keeps slipping,

My hopes keep on dipping

And his lips keep on smiling all the time.

The slipperman costume that Gabriel wore in live shows sounds real uncomfortable, and Gabriel’s theatrics during the “Lamb” tour were apparently a real sticking point with the rest of the band. Still, I’d love to travel back in time and see one of those spectacles.

Why does the slipperman have this raspy voice when they’re described as rubbery or slick and slimy? Rael is horrified that he is now like them. He learns that communing with the Lamia has disfigured his body. Are the impermanent spatial relationships on the slippermen bodies meant to somehow connect to their sexual incontinence?  

More motion on the chorus. Rael’s just being told where he is and where he needs to go.

John is here for some reason, and the two go to the Doktor to get cured of the slipperman condition. The cure is castration. There’s too much symbolism for a song that moves the narrative forward so quickly. My typing can’t keep up.

Rael gets to keep a reminder of himself in a yellow tube, which is almost immediately snatched up by a giant raven. More motion. This is chase music with a videogame-like synth.

Solo ends and tempo changes while Rael chases the raven. Staccato. But now back to the verse with that bouncy keyboard. Pretty upbeat singing about having to get Rael’s member back from the raven flying away.

And John refuses to help. BIG moment for Rael. After all, he can’t trust anyone but himself to look out for him. So much for the lessons of the chamber. No one at all is a trusty guide.

“I’m in the agony of slipperpain” “The chase is on.”  A bit like “the Cage” again. It’s clear to see that certain tracks are pillars of the album. This one and “the Cage” mark out the centrepieces of the first and fourth sides of the album. It is so well structured. I’ve always wondered how much thought went into tracking the album so that each half, or each side, directly parallels sound and thematic content. Is the mirroring as perfect as it feels?

Slipperman.jpg

“The Ravine”

A bit like a shorter “Waiting Room.” A whistling sound evokes the empty space of the deep crag. There’s something going on very faintly with the guitar, but it is blotted out by that whistle. More awe inspiring than terrifying, since it’s meant to evoke the sublimity of nature, not supernaturalism. Two minutes is a long break between actual music.

“The Light Dies Down on Broadway”

Here’s that mirroring. This is a minor key version of “Lamb” with different lyrics. Appropriately, this is Rael’s opportunity to return back to the real world. A portal, or perhaps just an image, of New York hangs in the rock above Rael’s head. He can hear the sounds of the street and must make a choice to keep going after his missing appendage or escape the nightmare world. He’s suspicious about the nature of reality: “just the entrance to another dream?”

The chorus has a very high flute that’s really charming.

Before he can get to the portal, Rael sees John writhing in the water and calling for him. Rael must choose to claim “the freedom I had in the rat race, or stay forever in this forsaken place.” Perhaps there is no difference? Rael amazingly decides to help the brother who never once would help him. This is that triumphant moment when the hero reveals his moral growth. Self-sacrifice.

The outro has a lot wah and flute. It’s weird and fun.

“Riding the Scree”

This track perfectly matches music to action. Super fast distorted keyboard shenanigans on top of a bouncy rhythm section with some squealy guitar accents. Rael is sliding down the mountain in hopes of reaching his brother and rescuing him from drowning. And yet it is so upbeat most of the way through. Some sense of panic in the once again racing keyboard in the middle section.

I always forget this track has lyrics. The melody slows, and Gabriel describes his slide, noting the difficulty he’s having overcoming his fear. “Evel Knievel? You got nothing on me” in yet another of Gabriel’s allusions to American culture.

This fake-out fade out ends with a high pitched “here I go,” followed by more of the action music from the beginning, then sudden shift to downbeat spacey keys like in the previous track.

“In the Rapids”

They snuck in a ballad here. Light guitar and Rael is strangely calm and sombre as he finds himself struggling to swim to his brother. The water is too strong, yet the music is soft and slow. The action here is similar to the previous track, but musically it’s another complete flip. Drums and electric guitar pick up as Rael reaches John and they ride the rapids together. Still not as frantic as the previous track, but there’s a gradual build.

Here’s the big reveal: Rael reaches safety and looks at John: “That’s not your face; it’s mine. It’s mine!” A person can’t even trust himself.

“It”

“It” gets better every time. Now it’s frantic, but it sounds like a more commercial rock song. It was a single after all. What is It? This track posits that It’s everywhere and everything, “including in between the Cages” and “in between your legs. . . It is chicken. It is eggs.” Above all, “It is here. It is now.”  

My fanfic sees Rael becoming absorbed into the universe. He is It, and It is everything. The lyrics do list Spirit as being It at one point, so that tracks. Anyway, the lead guitar melody on this track is simple but incredible, set against frantic drum and bass work.

Oh yea, we leave off with more allusion: “It is only rock and roll, but I like It.” Was this whole album really about nothing more than rock and roll? Maybe rock can encompass everything and anything. Perhaps life is only as frivolous as rock and roll, and what matters is that we like It.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Yes – Close to the Edge

  3. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  4. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  5. Rush - Moving Pictures

  6. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  7. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

 

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