The A to Z of Genesis - Tony Banks in conversation about Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot. Interview conducted by Peter Morton, Jonathan Dann and Alan Hewitt. Memorabilia from TWR archive.
TWR: How much of the material was written for Nursery Cryme before Steve joined?
TB: Pretty much everything apart from Musical Box, which was a hangover from the days of Ant and Mike. It always was more Mike’s thing as he had used a tuning on the twelve string where the top three strings were all tuned to F# - that was where the working title came from. Ant certainly embellished those parts and I always felt that Ant should have got a credit on that song as part of the writing team. We then took it somewhere else and the melody line at the end of the song was actually written at the time that Mick Barnard was with the group, so that was his contribution to the song.
That track has the influence of three guitarists on it. Everything else on the album was in some sort of form by then. In fact, on Fountain Of Salmacis, the first main part was something that I wrote when I was at university; I had that bit in the back of my mind for a long time as something to use and it wasn’t until we got things like the Mellotron and realised the things that it could do that it really took shape. Most of the songs were written during a rehearsal period, the majority of which was done down at Tony Stratton-Smith’s house in Crowborough. It wasn’t a particularly easy period as I remember, we were struggling a bit with some of the songs.
At that point, Musical Box was a live success, we wrote The Return Of The Giant Hogweed and that took over from The Knife as being the song to close the live set and it worked pretty well. Fountain Of Salmacis worked well, it was something of a departure from the norm. There were a couple of rather weird songs on that album - For Absent Friends - which I could live without, and Harlequin which was a bit embarrassing. I think the song is alright but the performance is rather poor.
TWR: Who wrote Happy The Man? Did you think it made a good single?
TB: I didn’t have much to do with it really. I was sort of there if you know what I mean? (laughs) I was happy with it being a single. I quite liked it actually. That was quite fun to do. Once again, Mike had another tuning on the guitar where everything was tuned to a chord and he played a riff on that that sounded good. I played guitar along with him and we built it from there. We had two or three songs like that. We had a song before that called Grandma. That dates back to Ant’s time with the group, it had a folky feel to it. I really didn’t have much to do with the writing of it I have to say, but it was a nice easy song to play live. I suppose it came as a result of being on the road just too long with Lindisfarne! (laughs) We had to do one song like that! It was also a nice contrast to the heavy intense stuff.
TWR: Gradually as the albums progressed the tracks became longer until they culminated with Supper’s Ready. Were the band trying with this piece in particular to create a sort of rock symphony?
TB: I don’t think so. We didn’t realise how long it was until we put it all together. I said before that Stagnation was the most significant track on trespass for me, then we did The Musical Box which was a development from Stagnation. When we began to work on Foxtrot we started writing a song that sounded as if it was going to become a similar number. So, I had this idea that in the middle of all the softer sounding parts, that we should go straight into Willow Farm which was a song that Peter had written completely on his own. So, we did that and it sounded great. Then came that idea, the idea that we could go on to the next sections with the improvised 9/8 section which was just a jam which Mike, Phil and I put together.
It came together in the studio. I had a part at the beginning with just chords and a part at the end with just chords. The part at the beginning I had always seen with vocals on it, the part at the end I had just seen as being a big bank of harmonies. Peter had all these lyrics and when we were in the studio he started singing over that last part. When he first did it I thought “ this is wrong, this is my bit. I want my keyboard solo there!” (laughs) So I was a bit against it but I soon realised that it sounded really good and we kept it. The idea of reprising The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary man came with that. The song didn’t seem that long. We thought we’d written a track that was perhaps a little longer than before but we didn’t realise it was as long as it became until we finished recording it. It wasn’t until we finished recording it that we got to hear it all the way through, as it was done in sections. We had different engineers and producers for that album, and some parts were done with one engineer and other sections with another one.
TWR: Why were different producers involved with the album?
TB: Charisma wanted us to have a hit so they thought they would bring in Bob Potter who had worked with Bob Johnson in America with people like Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. He had also worked with Lindisfarne. Bob Potter had been his engineer and Charisma thought that he could tighten things up a bit and stop things getting too arty for their own good. He came in and we just didn’t see eye to eye at all. I did the introduction to Watcher Of The Skies and he said it was awful, he felt it sounded like 2001 A Space Odyssey. We were playing the song live by that time and that part seemed to work well, so after a week he went. He was quite straight up about it, he said that he felt that we didn’t see eye to eye. So, Charisma scrambled about trying to find us someone else and they came up with Dave Hitchcock.
We changed engineer during the course of the album as well because we weren’t happy with the sound the guy was getting. We realised when we got John Burns in as the engineer that we could communicate with him; we were after the same sort of thing. It was such a relief actually, and we found ourselves bypassing Dave Hitchcock more and more. Eventually it got to the stage where we almost didn’t need him there. It was quite a difficult album to make but when we finished it and heard Supper’s Ready all the way through we thought it was really great. We played it to Richard (MacPhail) and he thought it was great, he was playing it in the van all the time. We thought we had written something strong, we hadn’t performed it live at this point so the whole thing came about by accident. There were little parts on there like the Apocalypse section where the organ solo on that started out as a very tongue in cheek thing. I thought I would play like Keith Emerson to see what it sounds like. There were little phrases in there that were supposed to be almost humorous in a way. The other idea on that was to just keep the notes simple. Mike had a riff which was very simple and I said; “If you can keep just to three notes; E, F sharp and B then I can do any chord I want on top of it” I could go major, minor all sorts of things. It was great fun actually as I could go for the really dramatic stuff like a C major chord on top of that, which sounds very tense and that’s how it developed. I was very satisfied with the result of that.
TWR: How do you look back on the song now?
TB: It was a very important piece. It justified its length which is quite difficult to do sometimes. It was obviously a series of pieces but the concept of the lyric was good in the sense that it was completely over the top; a fight between good and evil. I think that on most levels it worked very well, although it was perhaps something of a fluke - I have to say that. There are one or two parts that in reality we shouldn’t have stuck with if we had the chance to review it but all the parts stand up pretty much, they flow nicely from one to the other. In particular, the reprise of The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man at the end was good. That was a part I had written at university which I wrote on guitar. It has simple chords but they sound nice on guitar. The idea of doing it at the end of the song with the Mellotron was something that never occurred to me but it sounded great. There is some lovely guitar at the end there too. There are just lots of little bits that came together.
TWR: Get ’Em Out By Friday was Genesis’ first protest song. What inspired that?
TB: The lyric was Peter’s lyric. As is the case with virtually all Genesis songs, the music was written first. It was developed out of a riff that I had and it became a bigger sort of jam. I think it was based very much on something he had read in the newspaper but I can’t remember very much about that. With PA’s in those days you could never hear the voice so we actually peformed one song on stage with no lyrics at all; Pete was just making noises! (laughs). He introduced it as a song called I’ve Been Travelling All Night Long and no one noticed the difference! It’s a good lyric, I like it a lot although I had nothing to do with it at all.
TWR: Do you remember recording the In Concert show for the BBC at the Paris studios?
TB: No, I have to say I remember absolutely nothing about it at all! (laughs) I didn’t know we did that one! The only thing that I remember from that period was the Belgian TV show and that is because I have seen the video of it recently where we are playing in front of the white background. I thought the sound on that was surprisingly good but I don’t remember that In Concert one, I’m afraid.