Damn That Song Is Heavy - Genesis, "Fly on a Windshield"
When it comes to 1970's progressive rock, I've always been in the King Crimson camp. The classically-influenced stylings of bands like Emerson, Lake, & Palmer always felt to me as though they were wading into the deep end of the pretention-pool. Despite this, I have a huge soft spot for Genesis' 1974 concept-album masterpiece The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway - which is probably the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the era - and particularly the song "Fly on a Windshield." These days, most people know them for their post-Gabriel pop era, with Phil Collins as singer, while their earlier, more experimental work has gone undersung.
Where do you start with a song like this? Guitarist Steve Hackett explores the far reaches of the instruments' capacity - from single-note distortion to fickle tape-delayed free-form lines (which sound improvised to me). Bassist Mike Rutherford created an almost grindcore-heavy bass tone more than a decade before Napalm Death. Keyboardist Tony Banks and singer Peter Gabriel craft a lush sonic blanket of string, choral, and organ arrangements that is as foreboding as it is lovely.
"Fly on a Windshield" encapsulates the 70's. It's one of those rare songs that captures the essence of rock n' roll at the time, while also pointing in new directions. It arrived at the height of big-budget recordings, so on a production level, it's as masterfully recorded as any Zeppelin or Steely Dan track. It's artful without being art-y. And, arriving a year before "Kashmir," it contains probably the heaviest backbeat of the era.
It'd be good to talk about Phil Collins, a truly maligned drummer who's been reduced to the dude who made "In The Air Tonight." But before he stepped into the vocal spotlight, he was laying down some truly unique drumming for Genesis, particularly on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. His pocket playing sits somewhere between the powerhouse of John Bonham and the light, gospel-influenced playing of Levon Helm. And "Fly on a Windshield" is a masterclass in drumming, particularly for more advanced players looking to branch out.
There are the fills, of course, which are among the most inventive of the era. Phil plays the drums in such a lyrical way - some of the fills sound almost like vocal parts, particularly in the climax that anticipates the song's concluding section. There's also the lovely, extended decrescendo at the end - how many rock drummers of the era could play with such precision and chops at low volumes? There's the insane backbeat, dragging ever so slightly. There are the accents, which lovingly groove in, around, and with the instrumentation.
And then there's the tone. Mastodon's Brann Dailor has called Phil Collin's drum sound on Lamb Lies Down one of the best-sounding drum recordings of all time, and a key influence on their masterpiece Crack the Skye (another track, "The Colony of Slippermen" is also acknowledged on "Colony of Birchmen" from Blood Mountain). For all the convoluted orchestration going on in the background, Phil's drum sound is the voice of the song: a true rarity even in prog.
I've always been fascinated with how in the 1970's, punk culture was completely at odds with bands like Genesis. Although an album like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is self-indulgent in some ways, it's really no more pretentious than the New York Dolls' outfits, Richard Hell's lyrics, or Television's intellectual punk. Songs like "Fly on a Windshield" anticipated what was to come in the 90's, when bands like Candiria and the Dillinger Escape Plan bridged the gaps between these two genres.