Dancing in Time to Genesis's "Foxtrot": Prog Review #14

Dancing in Time to Genesis's "Foxtrot": Prog Review #14


As my introduction to prog-era Genesis, and, in a way, prog in general, Foxtrot (1972) holds a special place in my heart. Although I was into Rush by the time I bought Foxtrot, maybe somewhere around 2004, I wasn’t at that point clear on what progressive music was and what put Rush in that category. Being already familiar with 2112 (1976), I wasn’t that surprised by the side-length “Supper’s Ready,” and to this day I am less interested in that song than the rest.

Still, “Supper’s Ready” is a stunning song that shows off Peter Gabriel’s histrionic vocals like nothing else in the band’s career. The band had already played with songs delivered from multiple character perspectives, and this led to Foxtrot representing the height of the band’s theatrical song writing, surpassing even The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in a willingness to experiment with a diversity of sound and complex musical arrangements. 

The ambition is clear in the opening swells of “Watcher of the Skies,” telling the story of how special this album is. I was a 20-year-old still obsessed with 90s Canadian alternative (and I still love that stuff at 34), so the proto-electronica sequencer-like synths that begin Foxtrot were my entrance into a whole new world of music. It was unlike anything I’d heard to that point, and “Watcher of the Skies” along with “Supper’s Ready” are among the most unique songs Genesis put out.

Foxtrot is unique in many ways, in fact. It contains Genesis’s only science fiction themed songs (as far as I can tell), which is doubly unusual since sci fi is such a staple of prog lyrics. These post-apocalyptic tracks, “Watcher of the Skies” and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” are, in turn, a tale about an alien witnessing the end of mankind, and a Dickensian epic in which the common folk are evicted from their homes “in the interest of humanity”. This has something to do with the bureau of “Genetic Control” issuing a “four-foot restriction on human height”.

“Watcher” matches the lyrics with futuristic instrumentation, but “Friday” goes the opposite direction, with more traditional rock sounds, and periodic emphasis on a simple flute melody representing the old-fashioned lifestyle of the poor tenants. For all their futuristic weirdness, both songs reflect a theme common to the album, a sort of Romantic pastoral hearkening back to a past that can never be recovered. It’s the prog equivalent to Wordsworth’s poetry or Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” the classic late eighteenth-century poem that laments the death of rural life at the onset of the industrial revolution in England.

Every song on Foxtrot, the instrumental “Horizons” excepted, explores this idea of a lost past or cultural decline. Whether it’s the nostalgic medievalism of “Time Table” or the mock epic fatalism of “Can-Utility and the Coastliners,” each chronicles the futility of human effort ending in death and destruction. A slight exception is “Supper’s Ready,” which tweaks the theme of entropy, inserting a stronger emphasis on transformation by incorporating Greek myths, notably Narcissus’s transformation into a flower, and applying that to the changeability of the lovers’ feelings and the insecurities of modern living. In the end, the lovers beset with bizarre shadowy assailants are reabsorbed into the Divine Unity:

There's an angel standing in the sun, and he's crying with a loud voice

"This is the supper of the mighty one"

Lord of Lords

King of Kings

Has returned to lead his children home

To take them to the new Jerusalem   

There are layers to the allegory, and irony almost certainly, that I am not addressing here, but this is a significant shift from the ending of the first four tracks covering, respectively, mass extinction witnessed by a solitary being, the lament of a simpler time long gone, eviction and gentrification, and the exploits of scoundrels recorded only in a book whose leaves lie scattered in the sand. “Supper’s Ready” likewise expresses change and loss, but in that song only is there a culmination with something substantive, and even desirable.

The lyrics are complex and moving, but they’re easy to overlook in the face of the grandness of the music. Shifts in speaker, tone, plot, and theme are all beautifully mirrored by changes in the rhythm and melody; only “Time Table” and “Horizons” comprise a single movement, and nothing else on the album is remotely simple.

Above and beyond all that Foxtrot has to offer, it is personally important; it awakens in me a nostalgia, but not the one advocated in the lyrics of the songs. I have strong memories of listening to this album while biking to work at six in the morning on my way to my first job. Somehow, it’s the lesser track of the album that began to speak to me most forcefully. “Time Table” lamentingly describes a medieval lifestyle and the decay of its physical remnants. These lines in particular never fail to grab my attention:

A dusty table

Musty smells

Tarnished silver lies discarded upon the floor

Only feeble light descends through a film of grey

That scars the panes

Gone the carving

And those who left their mark

Gone the kings and queens now only the rats hold sway

And the weak must die according to nature's law

As old as they

Perhaps an echo of Tennyson, it’s the kind of thing lovers of fantasy and historical fiction would latch on to. My connection, however, is closely linked to a specific moment in a video game. In The Secret of Evermore (1995), one section is set in a medieval area. There, you must explore a dilapidated castle wherein the ruler of the land is hiding from an imposter. To reach the true queen, you must first defeat this nasty fellow:

Rat King.jpg

Naturally, “Time Table” makes me nostalgic for my all-day video game sessions.

A final personal connection to this album brings me to “Horizons”. This true oddity of Foxtrot is nothing more than a deceptively simple classical guitar melody so beautiful I had my wife’s uncle learn to play it when I walked down the aisle at my wedding.

I don’t just love Foxtrot; I feel a special attachment to it. And, yet, it is still only my third-favourite Genesis album.  

 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

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Yes – Close to the Edge

  4. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  5. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  6. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  7. Rush - Moving Pictures

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

  9. Pink Floyd - Animals

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  13. Can - Future Days

  14. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

Stop for King Crimson's "Red": Prog Review #15

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Pink Floyd's "Animals" Tamed: Prog Review #13

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