Interview with Kevin Holm-Hudson, Author of “Genesis and the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”

Genesis and The lamb lies down on Broadway

In November 1974, Genesis released their seminal album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. A weird, sprawling concept album on two LPs, The Lamb remains both a high point of 70s progressive rock and a signal of its impending demise. After this album, Peter Gabriel left Genesis to embark on a successful solo career, and the rest of the band, fronted by Phil Collins, eventually moved in a more pop-friendly direction. Today, The Lamb stands out in the band’s discography as an object of enduring fascination. I spoke with Kevin Holm-Hudson, music theorist and author of Genesis and the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, to discuss the album on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary.  

Genesis in 1974 (L-R: Banks, Rutherford, Gabriel, Hackett, Collins)

Genesis in 1974 (L-R: Banks, Rutherford, Gabriel, Hackett, Collins)

How would you sum up the story of the album in a few sentences?

The central character is a New York street punk named Rael, who comes out of the subway in Times Square one morning, and he’s swallowed up into a giant cloud. He sees his life sort of flash before his eyes—some people think he’s died—and then his consciousness goes through a series of episodes and encounters with strange creatures. Peter Gabriel said it was modeled a bit after John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where this person takes this kind of journey and encounters these different characters.

Is The Lamb a spiritual journey?

I think so, but it’s also a psychological journey. It can be read at a number of levels. Gabriel was reading Carl Jung during this time, so there’s some Jungian psychology in there. There’s a lot of different ways to read it and perhaps that’s another reason why it’s survived so well. Fans will continue to argue the finer points of what the album’s supposed to be about. Gabriel has never revealed it himself. There’s no official word from him as to what all the different characters mean.

This is a very dense album with a lot of allusions and references, like at the end of the first track, when it quotes from the Drifters song “On Broadway.” 

Yes, there are literary references scattered throughout, historical references, characters like Howard Hughes and Groucho Marx and the serial rapist Caryl Chessman. There are musical references like “On Broadway,” The Searchers song “Needles and Pins,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was a hit for B.J. Thomas. One of the important characters that Rael encounters is called the Lamia, which comes right out of Jungian psychology and is kind of a temptress, a bit like the Sirens from Greek mythology. The Lamia also has connections with the goddess figure Lilith, and there’s the song “Lilywhite Lilith,” which comes right before Rael encounters the Lamia. So there’s a number of these rich references all the way through.

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Why did Gabriel include all these references from such a wide variety of sources?

I think he was enjoying all the word play and got carried away a little bit. But, in the broader sense, some writers have pointed out that there’s a kind of hippie aesthetic or an almost esoteric aesthetic to progressive rock, that this was music for a cult audience and it wasn’t intended for pop radio. Its first fans were in the British university intelligentsia. So I’m inclined to think that Gabriel planted all these rich references in there because he knew that at least some of his audience would pick up on them.

That’s also a way to draw people into the album. 

Right. The less you reveal the more you entice people to listen to it again. It doesn’t yield all its secrets on the first listening.

There’s another clue as to why forty years later I’m talking to you about it.

Yes, I’m sure of that. And if we’re talking about the progressive rock genre, it’s one of a handful of touchpoint albums for people to get an idea of what this style is like.

Kevin Holm-HudsonWhy does The Lamb hold up after four decades?

It still has a very contemporary focus. It was a departure for Genesis because up to that point they were known for doing these odd, eccentric, English fantasy soundscapes. But Peter Gabriel was determined to break away from that. He came up with this story that was set in 1970s New York, and a lot of the songs abandon the elaborate multi-sectional suites in favor of songs that had verses and choruses just like regular rock songs. In some ways it prefigured some of the changes in punk and new wave.

I’ve always thought of The Lamb as emblematic of the kind of music that punk and new wave bands were rejecting when they started making short, tight, somewhat unpolished songs. 

Well I don’t want to necessarily say that The Lamb is a “punk” album. But there’s the difference in Gabriel’s singing style for one. He’s singing in the character of a street tough and his singing style is much more harsh and aggressive than it had been on previous albums. I think that Peter Gabriel saw that the entire enterprise wasn’t going to last much longer, that progressive rock was heading for a demise, whether because of self-indulgence or industry changes or any number of things like that.

Was The Lamb a kind of transitional album between the heyday of 70s progressive rock and what would come after?

I would say it’s maybe a swan song. It’s kind of a culmination and an acknowledgement that progressive rock as a style was about to reach its end, or perhaps should reach its end. I think Gabriel in particular was seeing it that way.

Is this Genesis’s masterpiece?

It’s a flawed masterpiece. There are some fans that prefer the album immediately preceding this one, Selling England by the Pound. Musically that is probably their most accomplished, because they did retreat a little bit into simpler forms on The Lamb. But just for sheer imagination The Lamb is definitely an apex in Genesis’s early period.

Because after this…

Of course, Peter Gabriel left the group right after the making of the album. He stayed with them for the tour because they were contractually obligated to do it. But early in the tour he told the rest of the band that he did not want to continue. So that was a painful experience for them, every night playing with him and knowing that he was going to be leaving after the tour was over. It sort of signaled the end of Gabriel’s era with Genesis and set the stage for Phil Collins to step up.

What was the writing and recording process like?

Peter Gabriel came up with the story idea and it took him a long time to write the lyrics, basically separated from the rest of the band. They’d be in a room working on the music, he’d be in another room writing out the lyrics, which meant that without Gabriel’s musical input, the band cast about for ideas and did a lot of jamming. During this time Gabriel had been approached by the film director William Friedkin who was a hot property in Hollywood. He had just made The French Connection and The Exorcist. He had this idea for a film and wanted Gabriel to be a story guy and come up with weird ideas for the movie. The rest of the band resented that because they thought he was going to leave to work on this film project. Also, during the sessions Gabriel’s wife had a very difficult pregnancy. Then their daughter was born and she was in an incubator for a while. So Gabriel was under a lot of personal stress. For a lot of the recording, he and the band were essentially working apart. The band would come up with the music and Gabriel would come in and sort of pile the lyric on top of it.

So there was a lot of tension built into the recording sessions.

I think so, and to this day in the interviews you can detect that there’s still some lingering tension. [Keyboardist] Tony Banks, for example, doesn’t really like to talk about The Lamb and kind of discounts its importance. He says it wasn’t really the album that broke them in America. But it was their most successful American tour at that point, and brought them attention in the major magazines. So in some ways it did break them in America. But I think Banks in particular is still a little jaundiced towards the project.

Do you hear the influence of this album on other artists through the years? 

I discovered, actually after I had finished the book, that Jeff Buckley had covered one of the songs, “Back in N.Y.C.” I thought, wow! Jeff Buckley did that? It’s one of those albums that still gets picked up by people from time to time.

Does the album mean something different today than it did forty years ago?

I’ve always thought of progressive rock as being essentially a timeless genre. When I listen to it I don’t necessary think about the 70s the way that I do if I’m listening to a James Taylor record. It doesn’t carry that same kind of zeitgeist. I listen to it ahistorically, and I think that a lot of listeners who hear the album now might also be inclined to listen to it that way. It doesn’t really strike me as being a 70s album. But it sure doesn’t sound like a 2014 album.

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