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Back to the Nursery

Revisiting Nursery Cryme

“Nursery Cryme”, Genesis’s third album from 1971, surprisingly features in David Hepworth’s new book covering the notable musical releases of that year (although it turns out only on the cover, barely being mentioned in the text), and also looks likely to be one of the featured albums in the next series of Johnny Walker’s Long Players show on Radio 2. Quite a turn-up for a lesser-known work that lies just outside the canon of what are usually considered to be the classic era progressive rock records.

Indeed, its inclusion in 1971: Never A Dull Moment smacks of ticking off one of the name bands of the era but being tied by the focus on that specific year to a second tier release rather than, say, “Foxtrot” (which was recorded and released the following year - incidentally, if you want a review of that, you could try David Quantick’s recent effort for Ram Album Club or you could listen to it yourself and come to a fairer conclusion).

That’s not to say that Cryme lacks its charms and it is, of course, the first release from the “classic” (one might say definitive) Genesis line-up. There are at least three standout tracks on it (although you’re probably about to discover that my three choices are not entirely your three) and, had the band been able to maintain that level of interest for the remaining cuts, it would probably have been up on the podium alongside their following three albums.

Moreover, the overall themes of the record seem to hark back to the previous century, an affinity for tales of long ago that, while in keeping with their prior work, would become less prevalent going forward. There’s a sense that Genesis are exploring the dark flip-side of all that Victorian whimsy from the peak years of English psychedelia only four years previously - “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”, Alice in Wonderland, music hall revivalism, etc. Now we have the young girl from the nursery sweetly decapitating her little cousin with a croquet mallet (before nearly being sexually assaulted by his ghost); Victorian explorers spreading deadly plants from the far reaches of the Empire; and good old-fashioned public scandal as a mild restaurant owner becomes caught up in a manhunt, with accompaniment from a grotesque chorus of popular opinion. The dominant organ-playing of Tony Banks further underlines all the nineteenth century melodrama.

And yet inbetween the grand guignol of The Musical Box and Return of the Giant Hogweed lies the gentle vignette of For Absent Friends, with a solo vocal debut from Collins lamenting the twilight years of ‘a widowed pair’. Nothing in particular happens; they leave the park as it shuts one Sunday (poignantly catching sight of a girl with a pram) and attend the evening service at the church before catching the bus (on a Sunday night! You can tell we’re in olden times). But that a group of callow young men should be reflecting on the tribulations of lonely elderly folk, territory little covered since McCartney sang of Eleanor Rigby, is remarkable in itself. The older generation are noticeably absent from the historical memory of the swinging sixties and revolutionary seventies, except perhaps to mutter disapprovingly from the sidelines about long hair and the forgotten benefits of national service. Yet here are a bunch of hirsute Heads gently mourning a world eclipsed by their own contemporary milieu. On the second side, Seven Stones also concerns itself with a mysterious, omniscient old man and a more traditional society of ‘tinkers, sailors and farmers’, although arguably to lesser effect as musical climaxes rear up seemingly unmoored from the rather opaque lyric. Harlequin too appears to hark back in melancholy to livelier times, and is probably the last pure gasp of the pastoral folk sound from their initial period with Anthony Phillips in the band.

The album closes with Fountain of Salmacis, considered by the band themselves to be something of a turning point in their development. For myself, while there are several appealing moments within (such as the mellotron textures on the intro and the solos), the lyrical concept with its basis in Greek myth (you know, you let young Hermaphroditus out to play with his new bow and arrow and the next thing he’s in an awful scrape with some watery bint in the forest before they/them comes home chanting about transgender rights) feels rather high-flown and, with its arbitrary scansion, bears the hallmarks of being written in isolation from the music. Meanwhile, the bompty-bompty-bomp rhythm of the verses that the band tends to fall back on in less inspired sections has already become hackneyed since its introduction on The Knife. While perhaps an essential stepping point for the group, it ends up sounding like a tentative dry-run for the more wholly successful Watcher of the Skies, which would open the following album.

What holds the album back even more than its unevenness is the abysmal production quality. While it was never likely to have ended up sounding as good as the big releases of the year that were recorded in top flight studios - richly appointed pieces such as Sticky Fingers and Tapestry - it barely even compares with similar middle draw albums of the period from fellow prog acts like Yes and Crimson. Try, for example, Fuchsia’s debut album from 1971, produced by David Hitchcock who would go on to work on Foxtrot (which even then, still wouldn’t sound as good as that). It sounds like most of the meters were running hot throughout recording, Gabriel’s voice in particular frequently distorting at the loudest moments. That subsequent remasters have still failed to entirely correct these problems suggests they’re embedded at source, on the tapes.

If you’re curious about Genesis, don’t start here - pick one of the three subsequent studio albums and then work backwards. It’s not without charms, but equally it’s a transitory moment where some of the most important elements are audibly not yet lined up. Quite what Walker/Hepworth are going to make of it with their avowedly mainstream tastes, I struggle to imagine.