Fifty years ago this week, a new record arrived in shops called Nursery Cryme by the largely unknown British band Genesis. The cover showed a Victorian-era schoolgirl wielding a croquet mallet in a vast field full of disembodied heads. The songs inside were just as bizarre, including “The Fountain of Salmacis” and “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” The former is a detailed telling of the ancient Greek myth of Hermaphroditus, while the latter is about an obscure, venomous plant that wreaks havoc in England when brought over from Russia. Both songs are over eight minutes long, and it’s hard to imagine anyone writing them that didn’t recently graduate from an elite British boarding school.
The core of Genesis (singer Peter Gabriel, guitarist-bassist Michael Rutherford, and keyboardist Tony Banks) were indeed recent graduates of the 400-year old boarding school Charterhouse. But Nursery Cryme marked their first release since they were joined by 21-year-old guitarist Steve Hackett and 20-year-old drummer Phil Collins. Both were incredible talents who elevated the band to new heights of creativity, even if many critics were less than wowed by Nursery Cryme.
“Nursery Cryme‘s main problem lies not in Genesis’ concepts, which are, if nothing else, outrageously imaginative and lovably eccentric,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Richard Cromelin, “nor with their musical structures — long, involved, multi-movemented frameworks on which they hang their narratives — nor even with their playing, which does get pretty lethargic at points. It’s the godawful production, a murky, distant stew that at best bubbles quietly when what is desperately needed are the explosions of drums and guitars, the screaming of the organ, the abrasive rasp of vocal cords.”
Cromelin has a point. Nursery Cryme was recorded in less than a month with a minimal budget and the production is quite shoddy, though subsequent remasters have improved things quite a bit. But the songs came alive when the group hit the road. Here’s video of the band playing “The Musical Box” at a 1973 show.
It’s a typically batty song about a young girl named Cynthia who decapitates her friend Henry during a game of croquet. His spirit gets trapped in her musical box where it ages rapidly. He then re-emerges as a very angry old ghost and tries to attack her sexually. She’s saved by her nurse who hurls the musical box at Henry, returning him to the spirit world.
It’s hard to think of a stranger tale to tell in a rock song, but “The Musical Box” remained a part of the Genesis live show for decades. As you can see from this video, Gabriel dressed up as Henry’s old-man ghost for the climax. If he ever decides to reunite with Genesis, he’ll be able to play this part without the mask since he’s aged naturally into the part.
Back in 1971, Nursery Cryme was seen by most as a minor, eclectic work by an English art-rock band, but Rolling Stone did see real potential. “At times you can actually detect a genuine electricity in their music (which lies roughly within the territory staked out by Yes, Strawbs and Family, with a touch of Procol Harum),” wrote Cromelin. “It could be simply a matter of taking off the lid.”