The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

In early 1974, when British progressive rock band Genesis released The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I was a five year-old kid who had just moved into a new house and begun making friends with the kids who lived near me: three boys I’m still connected with 38 years later, though time and circumstances have inserted a few distances between us, as they do for everyone.

I honestly can’t remember what music I was listening to, if any, at that age — I have a vague recollection of owning a Hans Christian Anderson album, and maybe something having to do with Dr. Doolittle — but I know that if I’d listened to Lamb Lies Down when I was that young, I would have given it perhaps twenty seconds before heading off to play with my Legos. It’s not particularly accessible music: not for adults, and definitely not for children. It tells a very complicated story, best appreciated as a whole, and it does so in a very dense manner, both musically and lyrically. It’s a double-length “concept album” — a very heavy one.

As it happens, though, I was about 15 years old when I did discover Lamb Lies Down, and I fell completely head over heels in love right away. I’d never really heard anything like it. Sure, there were cousins both close and distant — Tommy, Sgt. Pepper’s, The Wall — but though they all enjoyed heavy rotation on my turntable, none had quite the same impact on me.

During the next few years, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Steve Hackett consumed a vast portion of my teenage record-listening hours, not to mention the lion’s share of my record-buying budget. I bought every LP they ever made as a group, even after Gabriel and Hackett left: right up until the artistic wheels came off the cart, to my mind, with the release of their underwhelming self-titled album in 1983. I even bought all of their solo recordings and the albums from their (sometimes bizarre and almost un-listenable) side projects.

I managed to see Genesis play live a couple of times during the tour for that disappointing album. (Not their last, though perhaps it should have been.) Despite the fact that the concerts were half-filled with the band’s most popular later numbers, I was thrilled by what I heard and saw. Both shows were among the most important musical events in my life.

The absolute highlight, of course, was a medley of songs from Lamb Lies Down. But it did also bug me that I had to hear those songs out of context. Because Lamb Lies Down tells a rather elaborate (if more than occasionally impenetrable) story, so hearing just a few songs mashed together was like reading Chapters 2, 5, 7, half of 8, and a few sentences of 13 from a novel. Very unsatisfying.

As it happens, I really had no idea what I was missing. I now understand that when Genesis toured after the original release of Lamb Lies Down, what they produced weren’t concerts but operas. Peter Gabriel wore a variety of increasingly complex costumes. He interpolated lengthy monologues between songs. He didn’t just sing, he performed. There were set pieces and (of course) elaborate lighting effects and — most importantly — a triptych of revolving images projected behind the band throughout the performance.

None of this would be surprising in 2012, of course. But in 1974, it was super-progressive. And it captivated people, too. On the original tour, the band sold out the Royal Albert Hall two nights in a row; a few nights later, there were plenty of empty seats in the same venue for a concert given by Led Zeppelin, a band to which history has been far more kind. It must have been something.

Not long ago, I actually had the chance to experience the show for myself: not a recording, but a complete recreation. A band called The Musical Box — named after a different Genesis album — has worked with the original members of the band to re-create (down to the smallest detail) the original production: costumes, lights, projections, and more. I caught the act at the newly-restored Howard Theatre in DC, and I was transported.

This is no amateur endeavor. The members of The Musical Box dress like Genesis, of course — every tribute band does that — but they’ve also completely choreographed literally every move they make on stage so that it replicates the original show precisely. They’ve treated the original tour as if it’s one of the great dances, using archival video footage (of which there is very little extant) to re-create every step, arm raise, microphone lift, and gesture. Musically, they aren’t as talented as the original five band members, a few of whom were seriously slick. But they capture quite faithfully the energy of Genesis’ live performances. It’s an impressive achievement.

How spectacular is it that I got to see that? A live performance from 1974, recreated down to the last detail 38 years later. (And I saw it, I should mention, with one of those friends I made way back when I was five years old; art brings old friends together, people.) And yet… I can imagine that some might find the endeavor troubling: those who believe the beauty of live performance is that it’s ephemeral. I have sympathy with that point of view, but I still had a damn good time.

I had fun, I should say… but not without a few moments of troubled wincing. You see… for as much as I love Genesis (the early stuff, before Gabriel left, and the middle stuff, before Steve Hackett left, but only two more albums after that), I cannot honestly praise them as highly as I did when I was younger. Adolescence makes us see things in extremes; if you’d shown me the rough patches in their musical oeuvre when I was a teen, I wouldn’t have been able to see them. Now they’re quite clear to me: obfuscation and pretension chief among them.

But the part of me that’s grown up to be a theater practitioner — who creates art like Lamb Lies Down all the time — now loves them a little bit more. They were big and bold and daring and theatrical. I heard it in the music, but I never fully understood how much until I saw for myself. I’m glad I found the album when I found it, not when it came out, and I glad I found this live performance when I was  ready to appreciate it, too. I don’t know if we all find the art we need to find when we need to find it, but that’s what happened here, and I consider myself really, really lucky.

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