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Hindsight is 2020: #1 - Firth of Fifth

from Selling England by the Pound, 1973
Listen to it here!
Here at the end, it’s only appropriate to go back to the beginning. Well, a beginning, at any rate. You see, streaming internet radio was a relatively new service during my college years. I’m not talking about simply pulling up a local radio station’s website and streaming its actual live radio feed, mind you, but the idea of subscription-based, curated music; radio stations made especially for an individual. We tend to take that sort of thing for granted now, and there are a number of options, but for a student in the mid-2000s, it was a novelty. I don’t recall exactly how I heard about the particular service I used, but I made a free account and decided to try it out.
I don’t know exactly what I expected. I imagine that I didn’t expect much at all, frankly. The idea of “you say you like this one song so we’ll give you other songs you like” felt a little like “yeah, right” to me. But modern live radio wasn’t proving interesting to me anymore, and I liked the idea of being exposed to new things, so I figured, why not? The first thing I was asked after confirming my new account was to “create a station,” and to do that I had to select a song or artist I enjoyed so it could find more things like that. That was a really interesting question I hadn’t quite been prepared to answer. What do I want to hear more of? I like Journey, but do I want a radio station dedicated to arena anthems? I like The Beatles, but will a 60s rock station have any staying power for me? I like a bit of 80s and 90s pop, but will that actually expose me to much of anything new?
In the end, I made what in hindsight was one of the most important musical decisions of my life. I told the service to build me a station around the song “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding” by Elton John. My parents both liked Elton John and I’d heard a fair bit of his music, liking almost all of it. Great piano rock stuff. Yet this song had captured me in a different, deeper way. For one thing, it's eleven minutes long, and the first half of it is entirely instrumental. It runs through multiple moods with an arrangement covering a lot of different sounds...it is, in a word, “progressive,” though that wasn’t really a word in my musical vocabulary at the time. And then the second half was this exquisitely-arranged jam of a song; thumping piano rock, melodic guitar solos, intricate bass work, outstanding vocal harmonies, and again a range of sounds and moods. In my mind, this was a totally unique thing in the world of music, utterly captivating start to finish. “Give me more songs like that. Do any even exist?”
It took a bit of time. Through selectively “liking” or “disliking” tracks, I was refining the station’s perception of my musical taste and driving it towards discovery of other music in this vein, though I got a wide variety of other great stuff along the way as well. My routine at the time was that I’d boot up World of Warcraft, mute the game, turn on this station, and do some mindless in-game tasks so I could just enjoy the music. At one point, a song came on that I didn’t recognize, though I knew Phil Collins’ voice instantly. The station listed it as “Old Medley (Live)” from Genesis. I wasn’t too keen on hearing live versions of things, since I traditionally preferred studio versions unless I was physically at the concert myself, but this was new, and I’d always liked Genesis growing up. Knew all their hits and could recognize a few album cuts as well here or there, so eh, I’ll leave it on. At nearly 20 minutes long, this was bound to have something interesting.
The opening bit was pretty good even though it didn’t leave a tremendous impression on me right away, but then came “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, and hey, I know that one! Then another bit I didn’t recognize, though it sounded pretty strong, with a big “Wow” moment at the end. Then off into a keyboard solo...that’s pretty good I guess, cool drumming too. And that’s when my musical life really changed. Because after that keyboard solo wound down, I heard a guitar solo that made me stop everything else I was doing and just kind of go, “Whoa….” for a while. The medley went on into something else and touched lightly on a number of other songs I half-recognized, but I was still in that guitar solo in my head. I had to know what in the world I’d just heard. So I pulled up a browser and searched for this “Old Medley” to find its component parts, eventually learning that this section was from something called “Firth of Fifth”.
“Well that’s a ridiculous name.”
Tony: There's a river in Scotland called the Forth, and the word for a delta or inlet in Scotland is a “firth.” So, it's known as the Firth of Forth. It's sort of north of Edinburgh. So, I thought, forth, fifth, you know, “Firth of Fifth.” We're talking about the early '70s here, so it was a little bit pretentious, in a way. But it's quite a fun title. It's totally untranslatable, of course, so I'm always getting these questions from Germans and French people asking, "What does it mean?" It sounds more profound than it is because it was supposed to be just a slight joke, really, as a title. 1
So I hunted for the song. Back then YouTube wasn’t replete with music and I didn’t really have any ability to pull it up on-demand anywhere, but somehow I managed to locate this track somewhere and play it in its entirety. And man, it was something else.
Check out this monstrosity of time signatures. 2/4 into 4/4 that’s actually more like 16/16 back to 2/4 into 13/16 into some 15/16 stuff as well? I’d heard this stuff in the synth solo in the medley, but with the full band playing it didn’t really register. Now, hearing this stuff on only grand piano in the song's intro, it was just this overwhelming feeling of “WHAT?!”
Tony: I just played it on a piano. It was kind of difficult at the time. I remember in the studio we were in, it was very difficult to get the noise of the pedal out of the way, so I tried to play it without the pedal, which was a bit difficult to do because it's not the easiest thing to play. But it was something I'd written and developed. I had this sort of arpeggio idea that I was working with. I'd written another piece which used a similar feel, which we never ended up using, and I just had this section of it, which I then developed and made this piece of. I thought it worked really well as a piano piece on its own, and then it worked well with an arrangement, as well. So, it's just one of those things. With Genesis, we just did what appealed to us, really. We didn't worry too much how other people were going to respond to it. It was a fun thing to do. It's a difficult thing to play live because, at the time, I didn't have a real piano. I tried to play it on the electric piano and that was quite difficult. I don't think it ever really sounded very good, but it was fun to try. 1
It’s a shame that a mix of sound quality concerns with logistic issues prevented this intro from being played live until it was too late in their careers to do the song in full anyway, because that piano intro carries a LOT of water for setting the stage for everything to come. At this point I knew that I’d likely hear this absurdly complex melody again in synth form, and I knew that guitar bit was going to show up later, but I had no idea how I’d get there. Yet I had a sense from hearing this piano intro that the rest of the song was going to measure up just fine.
The piano intro concluded, but by “concluded” I really mean “the band exploded in on a huge chord” as Peter began singing the opening lines. “Oh, that’s right, Peter Gabriel was in this band, wasn’t he?” The lyrics he was singing didn’t seem to mean much to me. Some decent turns of phrase like “And so with gods and men // the sheep remain inside their pen // though many times they’ve seen the way to leave.” That’s a good bit! What it means I couldn’t really tell you, but it certainly sounded profound at the time! And these words were being well-delivered by a voice with an unusual quality to it that made the whole thing somehow more mysterious. Even so, there didn’t seem to be much tying these various phrases together. And…did he just say “cancer?”
Tony: We were a bit stuck for an idea for a lyric. We started off writing very simply about a river, then the river became a bit more...a river of life. You know, it’s quite allegorical and I don’t think it’s our most successful lyric. I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the lyric on that. It’s a great piece of music but it’s a pity we didn’t get a better lyric. I don’t think it says very much. We tried a bit too hard. It just didn’t come, whereas the other one we wrote on the album, “Cinema Show”, we were much more pleased with. There we had a specific idea to aim for. 2
Nevertheless, it’s all pretty compelling, and oooh, “undinal” is a fun word. Sirens’ cry? So is this song actually nautically themed then? I think I can dig that. Oh hey, a flute! That was unexpected. This is really good, really haunting. Pretty and understated but totally entrancing. Oh like a siren! I get it now!
Tony: With “Firth of Fifth” I was pretty pleased with that at the time, I have to say. Because you had lots of bits in it… My favorite bit really is what was a flute solo. And I’d really just seen it done like that, just flute and piano. 3
Steve: As the melody starts to move and it starts to weave upwards and duck downwards...it’s got lots of bendy notes in it. Slightly oriental sounding, slightly sort of French-impressionist-Erik-Satie-type melody stuff. Originally Tony played it on piano and I thought, “It’s a very interesting sketch, but we need to flesh this out.” When you first hear that melody, Peter Gabriel plays it on flute along with the piano… I think there’s something very poignant about the melody. I don’t know...it seems to touch people. In fact my mother, whenever she comes to a gig, she says, “It always makes me cry, that thing.” 4
Then this piano bit again picking up tempo - man, this is really getting going now! And then, ahhhhh I know this! It’s that synth solo from the medley! But man, I hadn’t heard just how crazy that drumming is before, or those oscillating guitar sounds. This is really something else!
Steve: And then you get a recapitulation of the solo piano thing that starts the thing out; it becomes a synth solo. Fast and furious drum and bass happening from Mike and Phil. 4
Tony: [This album was] the first time I ever used a synthesizer as well. So it was quite a big move for me to have this instrument, this ARP Pro Soloist thing, which was quite a simple monophonic synthesizer, but it had quite a nice little range of tones on it. And it was one you didn’t have to do any programming; just preset sounds, which was nice for me. Obviously “The Cinema Show” is very much based on that, but I used it throughout the album on little bits and pieces and it was a really interesting addition to the armory. In these days it was organ, piano, and Mellotron. To have something alternative to play lead on like this opened up possibilities for me… When the synthesizers came in it just opened up the keyboard world so much. 5
But oooh, hearing all this crazy synth solo stuff means that guitar solo has got to be coming up next, right? Right???
Tony: I think it’s the most successful all-round song on Selling England by the Pound. It’s a very romantic song. It builds to a climax with the guitar solo - which recalls an earlier flute theme - with masses of Mellotron. 2
Peter: Steve definitely I think gained in confidence and “Firth of Fifth” is very much a Tony piece, in terms of how it started and how it built. But Steve did let loose in I think probably the best way up to that point, at the end. 5
Steve: I tend to come alive when I think of Selling England... I think I was able to infuse that album with the enthusiasm of a player and as an interpreter on, for instance "Firth Of Fifth". Basically the whole song was Tony's baby from beginning to end, apart from the lyric which he co-wrote with Mike. [Yet] the thing that people mentioned about that song was the guitar solo, which is my most well known solo really, and really that interpretation of that melody played legato with all that anguish. 6
To my great surprise, the guitar sounded...different somehow. It wasn’t just the fact that there were twenty or so years between the recordings, either. No, the version I’d heard in that medley was a dazzling technical display, wowing me with a great melody but also the pyrotechnics of the player. This? This wasn’t that.
Steve: I play it at a deathly slow speed. Funereal speed. As a colonial guitarist it's different for Daryl. Seriously, to play someone else's part is almost impossible. I understand his need to play it differently. It is very difficult to play exactly the same notes as someone else... I think these things for musicians are not sacred. Somebody has always to give something of themselves. 7
And yet I wasn’t disappointed either. I may have missed a couple small embellishments, but I still got those same goosebumps. I was still completely enthralled by what I was hearing. A little confused, I suppose, but enthralled nonetheless. I did a bit more digging on it later; ah, this was a fellow named Steve Hackett who used to play with the band but had left. That does explain things a little.
The excitement didn’t abate there though; I still had a whole minute of song left! It’s another verse, eh? That works. Sounds good, sort of repeats that line about gods and men and sheep I liked. “The sands of time were eroded by the river of constant change.” Oh now that is good. Maybe all this meant something more and I just need to listen better, or maybe have the lyrics beside me.
And then a grand piano outro, fading out gently. What a pleasant little bow to put on the package.
Phil: It came to life on the [Trick of the Tail] tour. It really got a great audience reaction whereas before…‘Cause the ending is quiet and people would sit around waiting for somebody else to clap. Maybe it was because everybody knew it by the time of the last tour...And with two drummers it just seemed to happen. 2
Man...that guitar solo though. This song was nice, but that guitar solo.
...I’ma play it again.
Man, still impressed by how intricate this piano work is. OK, do these verses make more sense now? Who is “he” who’s riding majestic? What scene of death are they talking about? Oh they really did say “cancer growth.” Gross.
Tony: Mike and I wrote the lyric together, although it was mainly me - I won't put too much of the blame on Mike. I don't know really. It was just following the idea of a river and then I got a bit caught up in the cosmos and I don't quite know where I ended up, actually. But, it just about stands up, I think, for the song. For me, musically, it's got two or three really strong moments in it and fortunately they really carried us along. It's become one of the Genesis classics and I'm very happy for that. 1
OK, heading into the instrumental middle again...oh! That’s a guitar or something doing an actual siren wail! I didn’t even catch that before, that’s really cool!
Tony: Steve I think was really starting to find his feet a bit more as a player, and live and everything. And also he always contributed…A lot of Genesis music obviously required a sort of guitar, acoustic guitar picking and stuff, but people notice it less, I think. People tend to notice lead playing a little bit more. 5
Steve: With the show I am doing at the moment [my solo band] decided to do a full-length version...of “Firth of Fifth” rather than just the guitar solo. It is arguably Genesis' best-known guitar tune, and it is a damn good song there that isn't heard. I don't think even Genesis do that anymore, and maybe they never will. I do enjoy a lot of these songs in their entirety. The fact that I left the band doesn't mean to say that I am not, in spirit at least, one with many of those tunes. I still love them, for what it’s worth. 7
Hey, wait a second! That flute melody is the same as that guitar solo melody! That’s fantastic! This song is like three distinct sections but they all get done in different ways! What a brilliant approach to the music! How did they even figure out to combine them all like this?
Tony: I had these three bits I’d written, which I originally assumed would go into three different songs. But I think, probably because the others wanted my stuff sort of [shoved into] a kind of Banks ghetto, they all ended up in the same song, which ended up being “Firth of Fifth”. I really just strung the three bits together; well, made sense of them in a way to make them good. 5
Phil: “Firth of Fifth” was one of those things where Tony just sort of, you know...we’d all get together to play each other our bits, of which he had hundreds. Mike had quite a few and Peter had a few. And we’d be steamrollered into playing “Firth of Fifth”. 5
Tony: It was pieced together with the whole group around so it was one of those things where the group arrangement is quite important. There were three separate sections and it was Mike’s idea to put them together. I was thinking of keeping them separate, but they worked very nicely together. I’d offered some of it at the time of Foxtrot and Phil found it very difficult to play on it - this one part of it - so we dropped the idea. I’m glad we did ‘cause I developed it a lot better. I think it was great to be told “no” at that point and produce something a lot better as a result of it. 2
This thing works really, really well as a flute melody too. They must have had this wicked guitar solo and some genius figured out “it could probably work scaled down on flute, too,” and then they actually did that! So cool.
Tony: The way the guitar solo evolved was quite interesting really. Because I’d written the three bits, and the second bit I’d written was just really a flute and piano melody. I’d just seen it as that. We played it a few times and it sounded really nice. And then one time Steve started playing it, you know. Started playing it [big] like this. I thought, “Well, great! Let’s put the Mellotron in, big chords!” It was almost like a joke. We were kinda doing this sort of “a la King Crimson” is how we saw it. Just this overblown thing. And I thought, “That actually sounds really good, this!” So for the reprise of that melody when it came in the second half of the song, we said, “Well, let’s do it this big way. See how it works.” And it worked really well. It gave a chance for Steve to actually do a sort of proper guitar solo. 5
Tony: And so we used that as the sort of peak for the song, and stuck all the other bits in with it. It’s just an example of how...If I’d written the song on my own and it had just been credited to me, it would never have done that probably. It needed the whole band there to do the other thing with it. And that’s the sort of thing you get out of a group. I think it just leads you places you weren’t perhaps otherwise gonna go. 3
Well hello again, guitar solo. You’re looking lovely this evening. You know, it’s OK if you’re not as technical as that live rendition. This is actually way more artistic I think. Sounds a lot more like it’s “supposed” to sound, if that makes sense. And good grief, he’s holding that note out forever!
Steve: I was bending all the notes… I remember one or two people said, “It sounds a little bit Indian, almost like a sitar.” There was a note that I was able to sustain that would work nine times out of ten. At the top I’d do a high F#, and just with proximity to the speaker cabinets, it fed back. So it sounded like I had perfect sustain on every note; I didn’t. But I was able to fade in the notes on the beginning of it and sort of wait for it, wait for it, wait for it. Coast over, sort of atmospheric section. 5
Ooooof those big chords on the guitar’s second run through the main melody. That deep bass. It’s a guitar solo, but the guitar isn’t even what makes it so strong! It’s everything else. That guitar is just riding on top of it. Perfectly.
Steve: So you have that idea of the song, the whole sort of idea of water; the sea and rivers and all of that. Very Genesis kind of tone poem type stuff. And I was trying to create the idea of a bird in flight. So I held it and made it sustain, and I thought, “Well, this could be a little bit like a seagull over a calm sea.” And then it becomes more turbulent... It’s just one of those gorgeous melodies. 4
So daggone good. Did they play it live in full? I bet they played it live. Probably no fade-out ending there either. I’ma find it live. Oh, here it is.
Tony: We’re doing “Firth of Fifth”...and musically it stands up very well... It’s a sort of period piece… We’re not trying to change the old songs. It’s nice in some ways to recreate the era. Because you’re playing in a way you don’t play now but did play then. It also means that the songs stand up for themselves, the old and the new. But we’ve always done that you know. 8
Aww, no piano intro here. No flute either! Phil’s singing too, but that’s fine, I love Phil. But this still sounds really good. That bass comes through really well during the guitar solo. And hey, my embellishments! They’re back, but still done really tastefully! I guess this is actually the best of both worlds! THOSE BIG CHORDS. And man, I didn’t notice before, but this thing just rolls on longer than guitar solos typically ever have a right to, doesn’t it?
Mike: Once again it’s a nice section. You know, it’s about more space. We’re taking the main theme from the song and just letting it run for about four minutes, with a lovely guitar solo playing the melody and some lines in between. So we’re starting to give sections more space, and more time to sit in one mood rather than move on too fast. 5
Steve: It’s kind of become Genesis’ most well-known guitar solo. So yeah, I was allowed to play - forever, it seems - this great long guitar solo in the middle of something written by Tony. 5
Ooh, the outro! Is it gonna fade out? Whoa hey! It didn’t! In fact it ended exquisitely!
...I’ma listen to it again.
Come back to me, oh marvelous solo. I shall earn your company by listening to the rest of this music as well, but then with me you shall stay, forever and ever.
Tony: I suppose on this it was more of a genuine guitar solo. Some of the others were a bit tricksy; he was kind of thinking very hard about every note he played, and so it didn’t sort of soar in quite the way that this does. Where I think he allowed himself to have a bit more freedom with it, particularly before the main melody starts; just some really nice little phrases and stuff. So he sounds more like a real guitarist. 5
Steve: Iconic instrumental stuff... It aspires to symphonic rock at its best. I think without the Mellotron, that wouldn’t have happened. This is three guitar takes all played back together for the last time around that favorite melody. John Burns, who was engineering at the time, said, “Why don’t we just play them all back together?” So I was able to get away with something that’s nearly a three minute guitar solo. Unheard of for Genesis back in those days, but I think the whole song is absolutely beautiful. Of course, it’s also I think memorable for keyboard players as well. But being a guitarist of course, I have favored the famous guitar moment! 9
...Guys, I never did stop hitting that replay button. “Firth of Fifth” is not only my favorite Genesis song, and not only one of my favorite songs period, but it’s the song that broadened my musical horizons. It’s the song that taught me what “progressive” means. It’s the song that sent me spiraling down into what then felt like a dark, bottomless pit of Genesis material to explore. Well, I’ve explored that shadowy pit now. I’ve mustered enough light to identify one hundred ninety-seven individual works of art down here, and I’ve assembled them into a big pile so I can climb back out. And here, at the peak, is the song that got me into this mess in the first place. I always liked Genesis, but “Firth of Fifth” made me a Genesis fan in earnest.
Steve: When I play guitar on "Firth of Fifth" to this day it still feels like flying over a beautiful ocean. 10
I’m soaring right beside you, Steve. Every time.
Let’s hear it from the band!
Steve: The song had an aspect of blues, an aspect of gospel about it. It had something of English church music, but it also had an aspect of something Oriental or Indian, almost. So, it was a fusion of influences. But at the time, we weren’t using the word fusion - and we weren’t using the word progressive. It would eventually be described as progressive, which was a catch-all phase covering an awful lot of bases. I think it can support [its length] because it’s thematic. Basically, it’s the same melody played three times with minimal variation. It’s done like jazz, with the statement of the theme then you go off and improvise, and then return to the theme. On “Firth of Fifth”, when it comes back it’s a larger arrangement. It’s the tune as written, then “let’s take this to the mountains,” to a certain extent. 11
Phil: “Firth of Fifth” was a big tour-de-force. 5
Tony: This album I think we came together much more as players. We sound convincing as players to a greater extent… There’s a bit more technique in there. I always like to think that technique is just another sort of paintbrush, in a way. It’s something you can use, and it can be very effective at times. It should never take over. I think with some groups it takes over; it becomes “the technique’s the thing.” You know, you’ve got a guitarist who can play so fast that he can’t stop doing it. And we’re very happy...I’m very happy to just sort of sit down and hold down chords, which I do a lot of the time. And other times, you’d go mad. The contrast works and you just use it [to] illustrate something you want to try to illustrate with a piece of music you’re writing. That’s the thing. And I think Steve’s playing on this was really good. Obviously the “Firth” solo was a standout moment for his time with us. 5
Peter: Most of our stuff took time, took a few plays to sort of open up to a listener. But if they got it, it would stick around for quite a long time. 5
The sands of time may erode, but “Firth of Fifth” is a constant in my life. Thank you all for taking this journey with me. And thank you Genesis for making it possible.
1. Songfacts, 2018
2. NME, 1977
3. Genesis - The Songbook
4. Steve Hackett, 2020
5. 2008 Box Set
6. The Waiting Room, 1997
7. Genesis-News.com, 2009
8. Sounds, 1981
9. Steve Hackett, 2020
10. HackettSongs, 2018
11. Something Else, 2014
submitted by LordChozo to Genesis