Monday, April 2, 2012

Surprise! => Bible Stories: Supper’s Ready

Genesis: Supper’s Ready

I was going to write about this song for the “Surprise!” theme, but instead decided to use it for the Bible Stories theme. And yet, I am daunted by the prospect of writing about “Supper’s Ready,” a nearly 23 minute suite. It either is a masterpiece, filled with complex, varied music that was expertly played, with odd time signatures and brilliant, impressionistic lyrics, or it embodies all that was wrong with progressive rock in 1972. Or maybe both. And in keeping with that theme, this is a long and somewhat twisting post.

I was introduced to Genesis in high school by my friend Chris. At the time, we started with the early Phil Collins fronted albums, but as we pawed our way through the cutout bins at Korvettes, we educated ourselves about the Peter Gabriel led version of the band. I know that we were both completely blown away by “Supper’s Ready,” which took up pretty much the whole second side of the Foxtrot album. I know that we listened to it over and over, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. In retrospect, it is incredible that they created this song in their early 20’s, only a few years older than I was when I first heard it.

With the benefit of the Internet, I’ve gotten some guidance about “Supper’s Ready,” some directly from the perpetrators, and others from people with more time and knowledge who have tried to interpret it. I am by no means a Bible scholar, so I’m relying on others for much of this discussion.

According to Peter Gabriel, the idea for the song came from an experience that he had with his then-wife Jill, who went into a trance and started speaking in voices which led him to write a song about the struggle between good and evil. No drugs or alcohol were involved, Gabriel insists. He has been quoted as saying it is "a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible....I'll leave it at that." The title refers to "great supper of God" referred to in the Book of Revelation. Here is a nice concise description of what the Book of Revelation is about:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ was given to John by God “to show his servants what must soon take place.” This book is filled with mysteries about things to come. It is the final warning that the world will surely end and judgment will be certain. It gives us a tiny glimps of heaven and all of the glories awaiting those who keep their robes white. Revelation takes us through the great tribulation with all its woes and the final fire that all unbelievers will face for eternity. The book reiterates the fall of Satan and the doom he and his angels are bound for. We are shown the duties of all creatures and angels of heaven and the promises of the saints that will live forever with Jesus in the New Jerusalem.
But this is a music blog, so let’s talk about that, a little. The song consists of seven parts. The first three parts begin the story of two lovers, who change form and go on a mystical journey culminating in an intense battle. Part 4 slows down and ponders the aftermath of the battle—until there is a surprise—The narrator sings “We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower.” And an almost Pythonesque voice says “A flower?”

At which point, the odd, “Willow Farm” section begins, an almost vaudevillian sounding piece with strange vocal effects and lyrical word play, but which continues the theme of transmutation (which is a common motif in Gabriel’s lyrics). Then, a second surprise--a door slams, a whistle blows and a voice says “all change,” followed by even odder vocal effects and word play. I’m pretty certain that the Pythonesque humor is no coincidence—the show was running in England during this time period. Genesis and Monty Python were on the same record label and, apparently, the band invested in “The Holy Grail.” Not to mention the fact that Brand X, a band which Collins was a sometimes member of, released an album that included a song called “Algon (Where An Ordinary Cup Of Drinking Chocolate Costs £8,000,000,000),” a direct reference to a Python sketch, and for which Michael Palin wrote the liner notes. But I digress.

Now, it is time to get to the Bible part—the Apocalypse in 9/8 section. The program that the band handed out when they played “Supper’s Ready” said: "At one whistle the lovers become seeds in the soil, where they recognise other seeds to be people from the world in which they had originated. While they wait for Spring, they are returned to their old world to see Apocalypse of St John in full progress. The seven trumpeteers cause a sensation, the fox keeps throwing sixes, and Pythagoras (a Greek extra) is deliriously happy as he manages to put exactly the right amount of milk and honey on his corn flakes."

We have direct references to images from the Book of Revelation, including Magog (representing the enemies of God), fire from the skies, dragons rising from the sea, the number 666, and seven trumpets playing (here, though, they are playing “sweet rock and roll”). But, it appears that good triumphs over evil, and in the last section, the music triumphantly states, with bells chiming (again directly referring to Revelations):

There's an angel standing in the sun, and he's crying with a loud voice,
"This is the supper of the mighty One",
The Lord of Lords,
King of Kings,
Has returned to lead His children home,
To take them to the new Jerusalem.

I hope that you are still with me. I probably haven’t listened to “Supper’s Ready” all the way through for years, but have done so a few times this weekend, and it still has that same powerful effect that it had on me 35 years ago. Give yourself 23 minutes and listen to it, and let me know if I am crazy.

My goal is to post about a song shorter than 3 minutes next week.

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