I realise that 1970s “prog-rock” music is far from being everyone’s cup of tea, indeed it is many people’s idea of purgatory. However, one of the most memorable concerts I attended last year (2014) was the York Barbican date of Steve Hackett’s “Genesis Extended” tour in October. Hackett was lead guitarist with the band Genesis in their period of amazing musical creativity in the 1970s. After he left, Genesis enjoyed much greater commercial success with material that, for me, was woefully inferior. His recent tour was devoted exclusively to him playing music from the band’s classic period (i.e. when he was in it), alongside a specially recruited new group of musicians.
This was not the standard top-up-our-pensions reunion tour of old-stagers going through the motions. Nor was it the sort of rigidly faithful, but emotionally barren, nostalgia-fest that a tribute band might trudge through. Instead, at the York show I went to, the music sounded utterly fresh and vital. The warmth of the (sold out) auditorium’s response seemed to stem not simply from the repertoire’s familiarity, but also from our being genuinely moved by it anew. Standing ovations at several moments felt entirely spontaneous, rather than being prompted by the routine genuflections usually accorded yesteryear’s rock stars just for managing to climb on stage. If you find all this rather sad, middle-aged-man stuff, then I should inform you that the cultured woman who accompanied me to the gig enjoyed it thoroughly too.
Perhaps part of the reason why this music can be so compellingly revived is that it had an antique quality, at odds with its times, when it was first recorded. This was one of the things that first attracted me to Genesis, when, as a teenager, I heard a track of theirs played on Radio 1 by the late John Peel. The song (Harold the Barrel) was from the Nursery Cryme album, then newly released, and I was impressed by its otherworldly quality. I was already keen on nineteenth century history and, on buying the album, was struck by how it invoked the Victorian era in its artwork and lyrical themes. The song The Musical Box features repressed desire and murder in a Victorian nursery. Return of the Giant Hogweed concerns a Victorian explorer bringing home a malevolent plant. The Fountain of Salmacis reflects the Victorian preoccupation with the classics of antiquity. And there is a Victorian ornateness and grandeur to the highly melodic musical settings too, which reflects their imaginative lyrical content.
Much of the material from Hackett’s time with the band has this sense of telling stories from the past, and it couldn’t be further removed from rock music’s usual (rather limited) portfolio of subject matter. During the concert, Hackett coined (I think spontaneously) the phrase “keep the museum open” about what he and his band were doing. I think that they were also keeping the museum alive by adding a crucial spark of newness. The past is always open for reimagining, which is perhaps a suitable thought to present on a New Year’s Day. I intend, in these pages, to continue keeping the museum open in the New Year.