This is what happens when someone puts an important nugget (back) in(to) my head.
A few days ago, Rick Beato posted a typically amazing “What Makes This Song Great” about “Dance on a Volcano” by Genesis, and of course I had to bookmark that. But it didn’t stop there, ha! Now reminded anew of the immediate post-Gabriel Genesis, I figured I’d use my 20-mile trip to and from the office for a review A Trick of the Tail and/or Wind & Wuthering….except I didn’t have those synced to my phone.
I did, however, have Seconds Out.
It is difficult to overstate just how important this album was to me when I first heard it as an early teenager–and even today, looking back on everything I’ve heard since, if I were asked to declare a “best live album I’ve ever heard”, then Seconds Out would be very much in contention at the Holy Trinity level.
In 1984, having just undergone a core, fundamental change in how (and how actively) I listened to music, I had just made the conscious decision to “go backwards” and listen to the earlier discographies of both Alan Parsons and Genesis, whose brand-new records (Ammonia Avenue and Genesis, respectively) had much impressed me. I was hungry to pursue something that caught my interest, and this was the stereotypic chance to make a critical first impression. For Alan Parsons, based on what I’d read, I chose 1979’s Eve first, and that certainly sold me on pursuing the rest of his discography over the next few years. For Genesis, being a bit more on the fence about where I should start, I somewhat arbitrarily chose Seconds Out, severally because 1) it was live, 2) it was a double album, 3) it seemed to cover tunes spanning several studio records, and 4) what was all this about a 24-minute song?
First impression indeed. I was blown away, immediately. At the time, I knew nothing–truly, nothing–about production, about what makes a great performance, about technical musicianship, about complex arrangements and time signatures, about songwriting, about the pros and cons of live vs. studio recording, about what makes a cohesive album vs. a loose collection of individual songs. I’d only pick those things up after years of listening and learning further; now, of course, I can articulate just how impressive this record is in all of those terms and more, but at the time, I was just beginning the journey, and had none of that to lean on.
All I knew is that it spoke to me, right down in that innermost place where I really live. And what I find fascinating to observe, now, is that it still does.
Described in one word, the sound is massive; played at any volume, it hits you in the chest like you’re right there, up front in a 50,000 seat stadium–even though the actual venue was a tenth that size. This speaks both to great production, and great live sound engineering.
The performances are epic. I’d never heard anything remotely like that before–the swirling, squealing sounds and vocal expression of Hackett’s guitar, the saturated urgency of Rutherford’s bass, Banks’ amazing chord movement and timbre selection on keys*, and of course the absolutely thunderous drumming of either or both of Phil Collins and Chester Thompson. (At the time, I had no idea who Bill Bruford was, but noted the different style on the lone track from the previous tour; this was an early lesson for me in being able to distinguish players by the uniqueness of their styles.) I could hear these separate things even if I didn’t know what to call them yet, and taken together as a whole, the impact on me was simply immense. To this day, when I mentally conjure up the sound of almost any of the compositions that appear on Seconds Out, it is the live performance that usually appears first in my head**. (Really, it’s only “The Musical Box” that is different in that way–probably because what’s on Seconds Out is only the ending section of the much larger original piece from Nursery Cryme.)
And the songs themselves were, and remain, timeless. Listening now, in 2019,over forty years since these songs were first given to the world, can anyone really tell that “Supper’s Ready” is from 1972, or “Dance on a Volcano” from 1976? I was amazed to find that when I first played “Supper’s Ready”–the original Foxtrot recording–for my then eight- and six-year-old girls, they both loved it immediately. (As in, they still request it by name two years later, without my prompting.) Sure, growing up with me as a dad has probably given them a different sort of palette than other kids in general, but still, there is obviously something there that speaks things that people can relate to.
Anyway, I was delighted to find out, while prepping this post, that Genesis itself has made the whole record available on YouTube. For anyone who happens by here who doesn’t already know it, do please gift yourself the introduction!
* Tony Banks is one of the few keyboardists of his time, who I do not associate strongly with gratingly irritating, wanky synth timbres. Oh, even he nearly lost me a few times here and there, but he remains, historically at least, probably my favorite electronic keyboard player.
** I don’t think it’s fair for me to say, of any of the Gabriel-era compositions, that I prefer the original recording, or any of the live variants (Gabriel- or Collins-led) that followed it. In my artistic world, words like “prefer”, “favorite”, and “best” usually either have no meaning at all, or are useful at a far more granular level than that of an entire recorded piece, live or otherwise. After all, one of the great pleasures of art is that the primary appreciative conjunction is and, not or. To wit:
“Led Zeppelin or John Coltrane? Robert Fripp or Michael Hedges? Django Reinhardt or Frank Zappa? Queen or Ravel?”
(wrinkles nose) “‘Or‘? What is this ‘or‘ of which you speak?”