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The Musical Box – Hammersmith Apollo

Hammersmith, Apollo
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4.0 10 OK

The 1970s was one of the richest periods of the British music scene – glam, disco, reggae, heavy rock and punk all made a significant impact on the decade.

Progressive rock (now truncated to prog) disappeared off the map when the Sex Pistols and co blew it all away with their explosive three-minute pieces of dynamite, sticking two fingers up to a bombastic style of music that was overblown, self-indulgent and irrelevant to the majority of people living in modern multi-cultural Britain.

Bands like Yes spoke to the white middle class of mythical landscapes in an incomprehensible language that satisfied the taste for escapism from the harsh real reality of extreme politics, national strikes and global uneasiness over the threat of nuclear war.

The death knell for prog came as Johnny Rotten’s T-shirt displayed the words I Love Hate  Pink Floyd,  but more recently Elbow frontman Guy Garvey has frequently been playing 70s Genesis tracks on his Finest Hour programme on Six Music and the Gabriel era has long been championed by Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Macone, although on the flipside I have to confess Jeremy Clarkson is a fan. Please don’t stop reading.

Many may not know that before Genesis metamorphosised into a bland but successful 80s pop trio they were at the forefront of prog under the stewardship of the eccentric Peter Gabriel, who had formed the band with Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks at public school Charterhouse in the late 1960s. Several changes of line-up followed until the band settled on lead guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer/part-time actor Phil Collins – the classic five piece recreated tonight by The Musical Box, a French-Canadian band named after one of Genesis’ best loved songs from the early years on the album Nursery Cryme.

The band were reprising the same tour from six years ago, the wonderfully melodic double concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a theatrical and surreal tale of a violent, sexually charged New York-living Puerto Rican teenager named Rael who encounters weird creatures on his travels through a bizarre underworld populated by snake women, lamia and slippermen. At one point he is castrated by Dr Dyper and his severed dick is later snaffled up by a raven. You get the picture. The album also turned out to be the swansong for Gabriel, who quit the band after the world tour of 1975.

Although The Musical Box are a tribute band their performance borders on technical obsession. Using the original slide show from the 1975 tour, the band also recreates the costumes, haircuts and mannerisms of the band members. Even the angle of the microphone used by Marc Laflamme, playing the part of Collins, is nerdily spot on.

It’s a performance that has to be seen to be believed: mesmerising, preposterous and wildly imaginative, all lapped up by a near sold-out Hammersmith crowd many of whom must have seen Genesis perform the album live over 35 years ago. I wasn’t one of those but the quality is breathtaking at times, particularly in the stronger first half of the album in which the intro to Fly on a Windshield had me choking up!

Lead singer Denis Gagne may not have the vocal range or the charisma of Gabriel but he and the whole band produce fantastic versions of the beautiful Carpet Crawlers, the twitchy In the Cage and the anti-consumerist Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging, while Francis Gagnon (Hackett) delivers a hauntingly perfect rendition of Hairless Heart.

In the background the slide show flashes up images of New York drop outs, civil rights campaigners and anti sexual revolution protesters. 1970s soft porn pics mix with images of Dali’s Premonition of a Civil War and Waterhouse’s Hylas and The Nymphs – all a bit dated compared to today’s pyrotechnics, but probably revolutionary at the time.

The evening runs out of steam towards the end but that’s probably more to do with the album than the performance which borders on the brilliant and grotesque. During the Colony of Slippermen Gagne emerges wearing a green costume plagued by enormous carbuncles and two flaccid balloons for testicles which are inflated by a tube during the song! Laflamme deflates one of them at the climax which goes down well with a crowd that has toilet breaks on their minds for much of the set.

The dash for the loo during the proggiest track, the Brian Eno-produced Waiting Room, was an ominous sign of things to come as men in their 50s and 60s hurdled over the backs of seats and scarpered down the aisles as if the Olympics had already started.

I mention this only because of a schoolboy error I made in placing my man bag under the seat. You can probably guess the rest.

Whether someone could not be bothered to make the bolt for the bogs or simply lost all self-control and self worth, having to wash a piss-drenched strap on a Saturday morning was not my idea of fun.

That was the only blot on a great evening as the final song ‘It’ is greeted with a standing ovation from most of the audience, some of whom may well be confusing the band with the real thing.

The band returns on stage for the same two encores from 2006 – a fantastic version of The Musical Box – which brings everyone to their feet at the climax of one of the best endings in rock – and Watcher of The Skies from the album Foxtrot. Both songs give Gagne the chance to dress up in outlandish outfits, the first as a hunched up, pervy old man and the second as something akin to Norse god meets Batman.

The song is nowhere near as good as The Musical Box but the crowd isn’t too bothered as Gagne promises to see us again “some time”. For some this has been about revisiting the past, for others the realisation of an old drama brought to life and for others (I’m thinking of my bag here) the occasion was all a bit too much.

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