Take a little trip back with… The Musical Box. A little trip back to 1973, the world of cosmic lawnmowers and Britannia, the world of Peter Gabriel’s time as front man of Genesis, the quintessential English prog-rock band. This was 1973. This is, to all intents and purposes, Genesis!
Technically, The Musical Box may be a classed as a tribute act, but this label does them a great dis-service. After many years of near-misses, I finally caught up with them as they completed the UK-leg of their world tour at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall last October. This was a highly polished re-enactment of Genesis’ 1973 set as performed on the American leg of their Selling England By The Pound tour, because of the plain black backdrop known as The Black Show.
The Musical Box are set to return to these shores in the autumn with a brand new set, A Genesis Extravaganza, covering the period 1970 – 1977. For the first time the show will not be a faithful recreation of an original historic performance but split into three acts each covering a different period in Genesis’ early years.
The extraordinary thing about The Musical Box is that they are from Montreal in Canada. Peter Gabriel is portrayed by Denis Gagné whose first language is, of course, French. He learned his English by listening to albums by… Genesis.
“Montreal was the port-of-entry for the classic wave of British rock and prog music: Genesis, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd,” says The Musical Box’s remaining founder member, and musical director, Sébastien Lamothe. “I guess we grew up as musicians, and music lovers, very influenced by these bands and there is a very definite love-story between French-Canadians and Genesis and Peter Gabriel.
“Like most of my peers in the band and the production crew, everybody was too young to see the original shows in the early 70s. I was born in 1970, so it’s the classic story of an older brother or friend saying ‘Now sit down and listen to real music!’ They put on a Genesis album and it was a classic right-of-passage to the more serious music, like prog. I was a teenager at the time and it was the late 80s.”
The Musical Box were formed in 1993 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Selling England, but trying to recreate that show was, at that time, extremely difficult. “It was a serious error for us!” Sébastien told me. “There was no YouTube, no internet. I didn’t see any of their shows, I was only born in 1970 myself! We could only go from a few pictures on the covers of albums and I was absolutely mesmerised by the Genesis Live album pictures, which I still think today was one of the most amazing live pictures ever taken. It was so simple, so basic, yet so powerful. There was the myth that came with it and that just made us more thirsty for it.
“When The Musical Box began and we attracted more and more audience, we began playing not just locally but in the US and eventually we came over to Europe and the UK. We’re talking 12-15 years ago and things were still very limited on the internet. There was not that much stuff out there. The cool part is that because of our attention to detail a lot of people were drawn to us. They came to see us after our concerts and give us their Super8 films and whatever material they had from the original concerts. That was how we built an exclusive and original bank of material about the show to piece it all together.”
One thing that always impressed me about the progressive movement was the standard of musicianship. Genesis were synonymous with long, intricate pieces but their live performance was always a faithful reproduction of their studio work. At the gig I found myself listening, particularly closely, to the solos: Guillaume Rivard’s (as ‘Tony Banks’) keyboard work on The Cinema Show and Firth Of Fifth: the guitar interludes of François Gagnon (as ‘Steve Hackett’), all note perfect, just stunning. Marc Laflamme’s drumming and percussion work is a reminder of just what a superb drummer Phil Collins was before he stepped out from behind the kit to become a world-superstar.
Sébastien, who plays bass and 12-string guitars in the role of ‘Mike Rutherford’, added that Genesis, themselves, have been extremely supportive of The Musical Box. “Genesis were gracious enough to invite us over and we had access to the original album tracks to help us with the musical arrangements, and some of the equipment. We met the guys and chatted with them, a very special moment.
“They have been very supportive. This was something important to us. Not only did we need their support, as a bunch of guys who were, to begin with, just fans. It was important for us to know that they were appreciative and that they liked our approach and our attention to detail and the respect that we’re showing to their past.
“Beyond that we also needed Genesis’ input because there was still some information missing and some materials as well, such as the famous images that were projected during their performances in the early ‘70s. It was something that could be faked, but it’s not our way of working and we needed access to those things. Eventually, Genesis heard about us and got familiar with our work and became comfortable enough to give us that extra push and access to a lot of exclusive, original material. This includes the slides that we are projecting during The Black Show, Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. These were an intricate part of being able to create this authentic level to our performance. It was necessary for it to feel real.”
And feel real it does. In their pursuit of authenticity, trying to re-enact those historical events, The Musical Box are in possession of much of the original Genesis equipment from the seventies. This includes not only the guitars, keyboards and drum kit but also microphones, amplifiers and soundboards.
“It does bring a certain level of anxiety to each show,” Sébastien admits. “When Genesis purchased those keyboards, guitars and amps, they were brand new but our equipment is forty years old and more, so they’re breaking all the time. It’s a constant worry to have to perform and deal with this equipment. Every day, every show brings its own lot of anxiety, wondering whether the equipment will survive the gig.
“But, for us, that’s part of the show and once in a while on stage it happens that something does break. We feel that people get it and they understand that’s part of the performance, it’s the price tag for trying to be authentic to the real experience.”
Of course, the focus of Genesis’ live performances of this time was the eccentric and outrageous Peter Gabriel. In his 24 years in this role, Denis Gagné has perfected every expression, every little nuance, all of Gabriel’s quirky story-time introductions to the songs and a vocal delivery that defies logic. All of the classic Gabriel characters are here including the grass-chewing Cosmic Lawnmower (I Know What I Like) and Britannia (Dancing With The Moonlit Knight).
The shy Peter Gabriel had developed his characters as a shield behind which he could hide on stage. Does Sébastien see any of Gabriel’s personality in his own front-man?
“Denis is playing a role and, as we know, Peter was impersonating all those characters in this stage persona but I can see a lot of similar traits in Denis’s personality with Peter Gabriel. The same kind of shyness, yes, but this interest in weirdness in some ways and so it suits him really well. He grew up with this music, too, and learned his English through listening to Peter Gabriel’s little speeches between songs.”
It is now 25 years since Sébastien and friends set out to honour one of the most challenging bands of all time, both musically and visually. Did he, at that time, envisage a long career for The Musical Box?
“Like any musician that has made some kind of career out of it, you hope for the best. We were a bit more cocky when we were younger and we strongly believed in the pertinence and reason of doing such a project as The Musical Box. It was very important to us, we really believed in Genesis’ artistry and still feel to this day that there is something important and that we want to share with an audience.
“We believe in the mission and the mission statement and our work and the way we do it. Could we have projected, 20 years ago, that we would tour the world for so many years, having this kind of longevity which is fairly rare for any act?
“No! Of course not! It was more the simple and pure interest of putting this thing together and just trying to show people how avant-garde and advanced their performance was. Our longevity is based on the fact that the original work is so strong that it survived the test of time, that people still believe and the audience is still very touched with what Genesis produced 40 years ago. That says a lot about the quality and the genius behind everything that they’ve done.
“I always make the point of how with modern production, with all the technology, there are a lot of visual stunts and special effects that are commonplace but with Genesis, even 40 years later, they are still a delight and a very touching experience. It’s a great tribute to how original and powerful the music was and the visual signature of the band and Peter Gabriel’s theatrics were.”
Their longevity has also been helped by the level of interest in British prog music of the seventies in Montreal and French-speaking Canada.
“I always thought that would be a challenge but this music has touched a lot of people and a whole generation of musicians where I come from. French Canada seems to have produced a lot of musicians interested in pushing the limits and boundaries of their own musicianship. Through jazz fusion and progressive music they ventured into that kind of musical ability and Genesis has been one of the references for that type of music.
“When it’s time to find a new guitar player or drummer, there always seems to be this guy that grew up with this music, is very familiar with it and has even developed some techniques that are very close to it, so the language is not lost. If I were coming from the US, I might answer differently and it may be more difficult to find those guys.”
I never got to see Genesis in the Gabriel era, the Trick Of The Tail tour was my first Genesis gig, and so many more will have grown up with this music handed down from parents and elder siblings. Seeing The Musical Box live was everything I hoped it would be and they are back in the UK this autumn with their new show which will include a visit to the post-Gabriel era of Trick and Wind And Wuthering.
“For the first time this will not be a historically-based re-enactment of Genesis. This is something we are going to indulge in, something more personal covering Genesis music from across the seventies. We are also including a lot of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway material in the production. Lamb in it’s entirety is something we have done before but not something that we are planning to do again.”
The 10-date 2018 UK tour kicks off at The Cliffs Pavillion, Southend on 2nd October. The show will feature three distinct sets: Act 1 – The Wind’s Tail, music from Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering; Act 2 – Broadway Melodies, music from The Lamb featuring exclusive never before seen original photo slides from The Lamb; Act 3 – Before The Ordeal, music from Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound.
This is an experience not to be missed.
2018 UK Tour Dates
02/10/18: Cliffs Pavillion, Southend
03/10/18: De Montfort Hall, Leicester
05/10/18: The Anvil, Basingstoke
06/10/18: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
07/10/18: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
08/10/18: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
09/10/18: O2 Apollo, Manchester
11/10/18: Eventim Apollo, London
12/10/18: Theatre Royal, Brighton
13/10/18: The Forum, Bath
The interview took place at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall on Sunday, 29th October 2017, prior to the concert.