This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre, in which the Ohio National Guard murdered four student protestors during an anti–Vietnam War demonstration on campus. “For a moment, time stood still,” Devo’s Jerry Casale told Rolling Stone in a chilling recounting of the events of that day. “It was like a Scorsese film, like Raging Bull, where suddenly Jake LaMotta is getting hit in the face and it goes into slow motion. And then it snaps back just like a Hollywood movie, and, bang! Back to real time. Here’s the blood, the screaming, the crying, the chaos.”
Just 16 days after the massacre, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young entered L.A.’s Record Plant studio to record “Ohio,” a furious, mournful diatribe about the event that called out President Richard Nixon by name. When many people think about Kent State all these years later, the song is the first thing that comes to mind.
But they weren’t the only band inspired to write a song about Kent State that year. More than 5,000 miles away in England, a little-known art rock group named Genesis had just signed to Charisma Records and were preparing to record their second LP, Trespass. Frontman Peter Gabriel, just 20 years old, penned the lyrics for a bold, aggressive new song entitled “The Knife.”
“The lyrics for ‘The Knife’ were partly me being a public schoolboy rebelling against my background,” he said. “I’d been heavily influenced by a book on Gandhi at school, and I think that was a part of the reason I became a vegetarian as well as coming to believe in non-violence, as a form of protest. And I wanted to try and show how all violent revolutions inevitably end up with a dictator in power.”
The song begins from the perspective of a violent revolutionary outlining plans for a brutal uprising. “I’ll give you the names of those you must kill,” he sings. “All must die with their children/Carry their heads to the palace of old/Hang them high, let the blood flow.”
In the final verse, the action moves to the campus of Kent State. As the student protestors chant, “we are only wanting freedom,” the National Guardsmen plot out their attack. “OK, men,” you hear as sirens blare in the background. “Fire over their heads.” (That exact command was heard by several people on the ground at Kent State that day and it appears in an extensive after-action report that was issued to the public.)
Musically, “The Knife” was unlike anything Genesis had written up to that point. Their early songs were light, poppy, and forgettable, but when they wrote the material for Trespass, they got deep into early prog-rock acts like King Crimson and the Nice, and the influence shows. The impact of the Nice was so intense on “The Knife” that they originally called the song “The Nice.”
Drummer Phil Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett joined Genesis months after Trespass came out and the band soon dropped most of the songs from their live repertoire, but “The Knife” remained as their show closer for years to come. To this day, it’s arguably the most intense song they’ve ever done. They last played it at the 1982 Milton Keynes Bowl reunion concert with Peter Gabriel. It was one of two songs that Hackett played on that evening, which remains the last time the Gabriel-era lineup of the group performed in public.
If the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t force them to delay their plans, Genesis are re-forming for a European tour in November. Gabriel and Hackett aren’t a part of it, but Collins did sing “The Knife” at a bunch of shows in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Even though this is the 50th anniversary of the song and Kent State, don’t expect him to do it again. To hear “The Knife,” fans will probably have to keep waiting for that mythical reunion tour with Peter Gabriel that will most likely never happen.