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German Genesis Fanclub: 25th anniversary

The Lamb over Italy

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A different point of view...


We can finally experience what we did not dare dream of ten years ago. We were damned to know this fantastic, crazy work of art only second-hand, through the tales of the happy ones. With The Musical Box nothing is second-hand, it is an artrock feast, as if you could watch the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel for a whole day. Being in Milan, a closer example is looking at the Scala on the cathedral square. But the Lamb show is more than just one of the great pieces of art mankind has created: It is multi-dimensional in that several art forms and media are brought together, and only their combination brings them to full bloom. 

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Take the slides, for example. They are a central component of the stage choreography and really deserve our attention. Slideshows are an obsolete technology, increasingly replaced by videos in the early 80s just like VHS videos have now been replaced themselves by the DVD. In the mid-70s we all knew slideshows. Teachers used them in school, political lectures were usually illustrated with slides, unless the projector broke down, that is. Never before or after has a slideshow played such a central role in staging a concert as in The Lamb – an art form of its own, with three sets of slides on three screens above the stage to illustrate the content of the songs with series of images. As he would later with the video clip, Gabriel tried out all the aesthetic options and explored them to the end. The slide sequences sometimes show three separate images; then they all show the same picture, or just a detail changes or there is a bit that develops like a little film; then there are abrupt changes. Sometimes one or two of the screens go dark so that only one is left. Sometimes the screens are used for a shadow play by Gabriel-Rael-Denis, e.g. for the appearance of Death who dances a little shadow play dance at the beginning of Here Comes The Supernatural Anaesthetist. The slides work only in the context of the show, so anybody who wants to go there will do best to sit as close to the centre as possible to really experience the impression the slides leave with the stage setup and the light show. The Lamb is a thunderstorm for the senses. Every time one listens to the studio album they will discover new thing; to fully take in and appreciate the slides we would have to see this show a hundred times and still we would discover something we had not seen before. The barrage of visuals directed at the audience that makes them feel they cannot process it consciously – this barrage is intentional; it is an element of surrealism. The slides are intended to work in your subconscious, the intoxication is a stylistic device. We probably need to elaborate a bit on that.

Watching the slides reveals that they have three dimensions, as it were, that come from different art movements, realism, surrealism, and situationism. All three were used and mixed up by intellectuals of the left after 1968. There occasional parallels to Monty Python’s early films. Let us begin with realism, the prime example of which is photography. The photo is the epitome of realistic art.

In The Lamb Genesis were much closer to reality through the story of a Puerto Rican immigrant in New York than in their previous rather classical, mystic stories (beautiful and conveying a message though they were) that had the occasional onslaught of realism as in Get ‘Em Out By Friday on Foxtrot or biting cynicism as in The Battle Of Epping Forest on Selling England. The slides in the introductory song The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, in Back In N.Y.C. and in The Light Dies Down on Broadway show realistic scenes from poor people’s quarters and their everyday life: no more myths, but harsh reality. Rael is, as it were, a punk before the term was coined [translator’s note: in German, the word ‘punk’ does not necessary refer to antisocial or even criminal behaviour but rather to young people with colourful hair-dos who just hang around and cultivate the “no future” feeling]; he also has, in a way, “no future” – at least in the beginning of the story, not at the end). Unfortunately, three years later the punk generation have forgotten that as well as scenes from the street fights between youth and student movements and the police that frequently occurred in Italy in the early 70s. Genesis played just one gig in Turino, the other shows were cancelled because of “political unrest” – which is quite apt for the show, for Rael comes from this reality of political street fights. This is reflected in Rael’s choice of clothes as well as in the slides.

Surrealisms, the first exaggeration of realism, developed in France in the 1920s. Its most important theorist was André Breton, the best-known surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Many slides in The Lamb carry surrealist motives, e.g. the nudes who have their erogenous zones surrounded by markers (in Counting Out Time) or the imagery for The Lamia. The second half of the show has more images that were inspired by or painted by Dali. Surrealism, whose influence shows in Gabriel’s lyrics alongside that of C.G.Jung, promoted the liberation of the subconscious: desires, it claimed, were forced into the subconscious by conventions and repressive education; they had to be expressed without being distorted by rational considerations that represented repressive ideology; achieving that was liberation. Such an ideology is too simple, of course, because it boils down to saying that all eruptions of emotion are great as long as they are authentic because the repressed desires come to the surface. The surrealists denied or did not want to see that there are problems, too, in the subconscious and that it is not emancipating per se. The surrealists employed various techniques to bring out the subconscious. A painter, for example, must not have a rational idea of what his painting should look like; they had to begin painting without thinking to express the subconscious in their paintings. André Bretons “automatic writing” followed a similar idea: He wrote poems without thinking; he just wrote down as fast as possible what his subconscious prompted him to write. Gabriel may have done some automatic writing himself amidst the chaos of the Lamb recordings and his family issues when he hurriedly wrote the Lamb lyrics. Those words that sound so meaningful, poetic and deep today were sometimes written in a desperate hurry. Surrealists would not see any discrepancy in that; on the contrary, this was exactly what surrealism was about. Painters or lyricists were thrown out of the surrealist movement because it was felt they thought too much, took too long or their products were too “rational” or too much a representation of reality and realism instead of dreams, the subconscious and desires. This is why surreal paintings always stand out from realistic ones. Many slides in the show are basically surrealistic paintings, dream experiences, unfiltered desires from the subconscious (as in Dali). The ambivalence of surrealism is expressed well in the slides during Counting Out Time: Various slides show images of nude women, which is typical for surrealism because repressed sexuality was one of the main topics of surrealism. This can certainly be considered patriarchical, for most of the surrealist theorist were men, and when they thought about their repressed subconscious the outcome were naked women. Gabriel went beyond that, though (assuming Gabriel was involved in the selection of the slides): These patriarchalisms are transcended on several levels in the slides. At one point the erogenous zones are distributed all over the female body, not just in the bikini zone, the message being: The whole body is an erogenous zone, it is about a whole new experience of sexuality; if you expand the idea of the slides you could say that erogenous zones are everywhere in life, and so the lyrics and slides of Counting Out Time already anticipate It, the utopic realization of fortune (the It that is in all things, beings and humans) at the end of The Lamb. This prelapse is realized in the slides through the third stylistic device, situationism.

Situationism developed in the 1950s in France, mainly at the universities of Strasbourg and Paris. Its most important theorist was Guy Debord. Situationist slides are basically simple photos that are placed in a different context, a different ‘situation’ (hence the name situationism). This creates a tension and invites new interpretations. For example, mixed in with the realistic and surrealistic slides of Counting Out Time there are suddenly photos of cliché smiling couples from the 1950s  in conservative clothes – just what the sexual revolution in the late 1960s wanted to overthrow. These couples smile broadly, but they are placed in a different context and remind everyone that the idea of what a happy experience is has changed.

But Counting Out Time itself has an ambivalent context: The surrealistic male view of the erogenous female zones is broken by the fact that the “mistress” causes Rael “unexpected distress” (“I’m a red-blooded male and the book said I could not fail”). This is the protest of women’s liberation, with women declining to be sexual objects for the obsessions men unleashed through surrealism. The self-deprecation and satire in the song expose how ridiculous it is to consider women only as objects of male sexuality. This is not the definitive message of the song but a possible reading inspired by the slides and the open character of the lyrics. Such interpretations are always subjective, of course. During the concert the slides are frequently combined with situationist stylistic devices borrowed from cartoons and collages. The erogenous zones are designated, for example, through the sketch of a hand with a pointing finger – just like Monty Python have used it in their early films: a definitely situationist device.

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This is just one example from one song to illustrate how much depth there is in these slides. The crazy thing about The Lamb is that one could do the same for every single song. Since that would certainly overstep the limits of a concert report from this über-event we shall return to our starting points of Milan and Turin.

In both shows and particularly considering the artistic use of the slides it becomes clear why it was the students in north-Italian cities such as Milan and Turin who discovered Genesis from 1971 onwards and who found their intellectual – and perhaps even political (the period of leftist terror came later) - development mirrored in their music. The cities were centres of the Italian student movement that was far from over in the early 70s – see the cancellation of Lamb shows because of “political unrest”. This generation of students was interested in art, but in revolutionary art. They wanted to expand their horizon and put it in relation to social problems. They were interested in this kind of music – so much for Genesis as a band for the middle classes, a prejudice of the music press that is as popular as idiotic: Where you are coming from is meaningless – Karl Marx was middle class, too! The Lamb anticipates Peter Gabriel the agitator for human rights, the supporter of Amnesty International, the founder of Videowatch who was solidaric with threatened worker unions in Africa, the founder of world music who lends his studio for free to penniless African musicians. Question: If the influence of surrealism and situationism was that strong, why north Italy and not France from where these art forms originated? An attempt at an answer: The May ’68 was repressed much more abruptly in France than in Italy where revolts and uprisings occurred throughout the 70s and the spirit of the ’68 movement continued in ever new movements: Milan and Turin were the cities where students founded the Autonomia Operaia, a left-wing anarchist movement that had closer links to workers’ protests than it ever had with the Autonomen in Germany. If you walk through Milan or Turin today or go through it by bus it will become obvious why that is so. These cities look rather grim and grey in January 2005. A smog cloud hangs above the city centre. The buildings are boxy, ugly and altogether very un-Italian, with big thoroughfares and inhospitable blocks of flats everywhere. No wonder every tourist makes a wide berth around these cities. It is stressful to live there, and the tristesse really begs a permanent revolt.

By fang
English by Martin Klinkhardt

The Musical Box


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