Some works of art have a long gestation period, taking their artist through trials and tribulations until they see the light of day. For Anthony Phillips the process of writing, recording and releasing his excellent album The Geese and the Ghost lasted 8 years. During the 1970s this was considered eons, with popular music styles shifting dramatically from one year to the next. By the time it came out in 1977, the 3-chord, 2 minute song and disenchanted youth were back in fashion, backed by record labels with a money-oriented agenda and a sharp eye on the singles chart. An album of pastoral music, Merrie Olde England themes, long instrumentals and aesthetics of the classic progressive rock era was the last thing they wanted on their roster. “I was one of these guys being called an old fart when Punk Rock came around and I was 26!” Phillips recalled in an interview. But as out of place as the album was for its time, it is a magnificent achievement, a perfect blend of British folk, progressive rock and orchestral arrangements.
The journey that Anthony Phillips took towards the release of The Geese and the Ghost started during the summer of 1969, when upon finishing high school he was writing material with Mike Rutherford. The two were close friends, going back to Charterhouse boarding school, where they formed the band Anon, covering songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and British blues rock music. After merging with another band from that school, Garden Wall, the band Genesis was born. Now, after Genesis released their debut album From Genesis to Revelation, they were working on more ambitious material. In particular they started playing 12-string guitar duets and arrangements: “We were doing this double 12-string stuff that was beginning to sound vaguely original. Whereas more of the early writing was all terribly derivative, this was more our own voice coming through. The way we were approaching it was using the 12-string as more of a harmonic instrument, not necessarily as a song with strumming.” These writing sessions yielded bits of music that ended up on Trespass, Genesis’ second album. Songs such as Stagnation, Dusk and White Mountain are a fine example of that exquisite guitar work. Other ideas were discarded as the band started to move into heavier sound with a Hammond organ and electric guitars on songs like The Knife. 8 years later some of these music ideas would show up on the title track of Phillips’ debut album.
One piece of music Phillips wrote during that time was Collections, written on piano. He decided to keep it to himself and not share it with the rest of the band, as he recalled: “Perhaps it was too oddball. It didn’t seem formatted enough and of course, everyone was very sensitive about doing any sort of piano things in front of Tony Banks. They had to be acceptable in some sort of way. That’s not a criticism of him, it’s just that he was a very good pianist.” Years later Phillips developed the tune, added a beautiful arrangement to it and included it on The Geese and the Ghost.
The second part of the journey began shortly after Phillips left Genesis, following the release of Trespass. Leading up to the recording of the album, during the early months of 1969, the band was constantly playing live gigs. During that period Anthony Phillips started developing stage fright: “I’d had glandular fever before I went on the road, which physically had knocked me back without realizing it. It’s this thing that stays in your system for a long time, and it can affect your nervous system as well, which I didn’t know at the time. I kept getting sick while we were on the road, and it wasn’t just colds. I was very weak all the time and it was the glandular fever. I was quite a natural, keen performer, but I just started getting stage fright. In other words, you sort of look at your hands playing the guitar and you’re thinking, ‘Hang on, how am I doing that?’ Going on stage had started to become a major challenge and eventually I just thought it wasn’t really for me.” Phillips left the band and never went on tour again.
Very little writing of new music was taking place within Genesis before Phillips left the group. The constant touring followed by the recording of Trespass left no time to dedicate to new material. Departing from the band gave him the freedom to focus on writing: “After I left, after having done very little creative work, there was a great outpouring of material… all of the stuff like God If I Saw Her Now, Which Way the Wind Blows, most of ‘Henry’… all came steaming out.”
Although the creative juices were flowing, Phillips realized that his knowledge of music notation, arrangement and composition is considerably lacking. He developed a renewed interest in classical music, something that was usually ignored in the youth circles he was socializing with during his school years and the early Genesis days: “I suddenly started discovering all this amazing music and realizing that I was terribly limited. My guitar playing was limited, and I couldn’t play the piano at all, so I set to it. I hadn’t read a note of music till I left Genesis, so I found myself at the age of 19 not having any technical prowess under my belt at all. I was hearing certain orchestral pieces like The Karelia Suite, by Sibelius. It was sort of a revelation to me where I’d hitherto thought of classical music as being kind of mannered, almost like a part of a court ceremony, not very emotional. Pretty, but not very emotional. Suddenly, this Karelia Suite was just bursting with life and rich melody. That was the piece, amongst others, that made me think, ‘Gosh, I need to know how to do that. I need to understand the skill.’” Phillips immersed himself in learning the craft, practicing many hours on classical guitar and piano. He enrolled as a student at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and started teaching music part time.
The third chapter begins in 1973, the year Phillips completed his studies and Mike Rutherford had a little time before Genesis went on tour in support of their milestone album Selling England by the Pound. The two started working together again, completing the writing of Henry: Portraits from Tudor Times. In addition the two started rehearsing with Phil Collins and decided to cut a demo of the song Silver Song, which they had written back in 1969 as a farewell to Genesis’ first drummer John Silver. The song was not released by the Charisma label, perhaps thinking it unwise to release side projects of Genesis members. It finally appeared many years later on the reissue of The Geese and the Ghost, a fine document of an early solo vocal feature by Collins as part of Genesis, along with For Absent Friends from Nursery Cryme and More Fool Me from Selling England by the Pound.
We advance to the summer 1974, when Mike Rutherford was on another break from activity with Genesis after they completed their touring for Selling England by the Pound. Phillips assembled a home studio at his parents’ house at Send Barns in Surrey with two TEAC tape machines and a mixing desk. The project was interrupted when Rutherford was called back on duty as Genesis were embarking on their ambitious project The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but divine intervention cast its spell with an unexpected accident. Steve Hackett, gifted lead guitarist for Genesis, crashed a wine glass on his hand, thus rendering it useless and delaying their tour for that album. Phillips and Rutherford used the lull in activity to make additional progress on the album: “We had this reprieve and although it wasn’t enough time to do the whole thing it was enough to get going. Which Way the Wind Blows was the first piece we kicked off with. That was on electric guitar but played to sound like classical guitar.”
Another Steve Hackett connection to the album was injury-free, with the inclusion of his brother John in the recording sessions. John Hackett, a flute player who can also be found playing on many of his brother’s albums, remembers: “The first time we met I seem to remember Ant picking me up and driving me back to his parents’ house. It looked like an old farm house, with low ceilings, quite a sprawling affair, with a large studio at the back. There were a couple of reel-to-reel 4-track recorders which were very impressive for a home studio at the time. Ant immediately put me at my ease introducing me to his brother Rob, who was a talented oboist. The arrangements we played involved a good deal of interplay and some unison work between flute and oboe and I seem to remember Ant coming up with the word Floboe for this delightful combination.” That combination can be heard on the track that closes the original LP release, Sleepfall: The Geese Fly West.
The sessions did not lack a good amount of fun and humor in the best British sense of the word. John Hackett continues his fond memories: “As we sat down, Ant handed me the flute part. After a few moments I started to quake inside – the page was covered with probably the most difficult passages I had ever seen – all manner of runs and leaps in every conceivable note grouping of sixes, sevens, nines and elevens, with constantly changing time signatures. In short, it looked like something written by Stravinsky on speed, and was way beyond my abilities. Ant saw the look of horror on my face and calmly handed me another piece of paper. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said ‘It’s a joke! This is the real flute part…’”
The last part in the creation of the album brings us to Tom Newman’s barge, summer of 1975. Who is Tom Newman and what’s with the barge, you ask. Well, Tom Newman is the man who helped build The Manor Studio, Virgin Records’ famous recording studio where many classic albums were made. His producing career started with a bang when one of the first recording artists to use that studio was none other than a 19-year old Mike Oldfield, putting together the bits and pieces that would become the mega successful Tubular Bells. In 1975 Newman left Virgin and built a recording studio appropriately named The Barge on the Regents Canal in London’s Little Venice. On this barge the remaining parts of the album were recorded, including the recorders for Henry: Portraits from Tudor Times, violins for The Geese and The Ghost, cor anglais for both these tracks, and Phil Collins adding his vocals. Phillips recalled a funny story involving timpani drums that did not fit into the barge and had to be recorded remotely on a larger neighboring barge. Recording was interrupted sometimes by other barges ramming into the floating studio. The sound engineer for the aforementioned Tubular Bells, Simon Heyworth, joined the sessions and became such a vital part of the process that he ended up with co-producer credits on The Geese and the Ghost.
I kept my favorite pieces of music from this album to last. The first is a lovely duet between two singers who did not meet each other, as their tracks were recorded at separate times. God If I Saw Her Now features the voices of Phil Collins and Vivienne McAuliffe in a lovely tune that Phillips composed four years earlier. McAuliffe, who sadly passed away at the young age of 50, was part of the unique ensemble Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, a curious and short lived episode in the lively history of British folk of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She then joined the excellent band Affinity for a brief period. Her tender, fragile voice is a highlight of God If I Saw Her Now.
The album is anchored by two long instrumentals, one on each side of the LP. The first is Henry: Portraits from Tudor Times, a suite made of seven short parts. Apart from the wonderful guitar work by Phillips and Rutherford there are interesting contributions in this piece by Lazo Momulovich on oboe and cor anglais and Wil Sleath on various flutes (baroque flute, recorder and piccolo), and the timpani that did not fit in the door. Phillips, who created a well-crafted and beautifully arranged epic here, talked about his desire to arrange: “We’d had a bad experience with an orchestrator on the From Genesis to Revelation album and I remember thinking, I don’t want to be in a position where I’m not in control again. Even if somebody else is doing it, I want to understand it. It wasn’t particularly easy at the age of 19 because the language of notation was alien to me, but I think the drive to do it was helped by the wish to be able to orchestrate.”
The majority of the second side on the LP is taken up by the title track, divided into The Geese and the Ghost parts 1 and 2. What strikes me on this excellent piece of music is how well the classical and ‘rock’ instruments are weaved together. If you want to ease someone who is used to listen to rock and pop into the esthetics of classical music, this is a great recording to play for them. Unlike other attempts done previously with a rock band and symphony orchestra playing on two sides of the stage, this sounds much more organic. Phillips commented on this: “The thing on The Geese and The Ghost was to try and integrate the two so that it came naturally. So you’d have a 12-string guitar playing with an oboe on top. I wasn’t, ‘Oh, let’s get a classical instrument in.’ It was sort of written for that. So you’ve got sort of rock elements and the classical elements integrating from the bottom up.”
The title for the piece, and the album, comes from sound patches that Anthony Phillips played on a synth, a somewhat ironic fact for such an acoustic sounding album. His website explains: “This originates from two sounds on the ARP Pro-Soloist synthesizer, which Ant played on the album. There was one sound with repeat echo that reminded Ant and Mike Rutherford of a flight of geese and another one that had a ‘ghostly’ quality to it, hence The Geese and the Ghost. On the finished album the sounds can be heard during The Geese and the Ghost part 1 at 4:40 (the geese sound) and 4:55 (the ghost sound) into the track.”
Anthony Phillips’ credits on the album, besides writing, arranging and co-producing the music, include playing the following instruments: acoustic 12-string, 6-string, classical, electric 6 and 12-string guitars, bass guitar, dulcimer, bouzouki, synthesizer, mellotron, harmonium, piano, organ, celeste, pin piano, drums, glockenspiel, timbales, bells and chimes, gong. Quite an achievement, but a blessing in disguise. Now that the recording of the album was finally done, the last part of the journey began, the simple matter of releasing the album. Or not that simple, as Anthony Phillips quickly found out. He started shopping the album to various labels and discovered that he was being compared to Mike Oldfield, that other young English musician who writes long instrumental pieces: “I think there was a strong feeling that there could obviously be only one Mike Oldfield. There was very much a feeling of that… ‘Oh, that’s been done, you know…’” Months passed before anyone showed interest. Finally it was the American label Passport, who previously signed a number of great bands such as Brand X, Camel and Nektar. In a period when progressive rock was in serious decline and punk ruled the air waves, The Geese and The Ghost was a stranger in a strange land. Surprisingly the record was able to get a glimpse of Billboard’s top 200 LPs list where it peaked at #191 on April 9, 1977, eight years after two high schoolers were writing tunes on two 12-string guitars.
The following sources were used during the writing of this article:
The official Antony Phillips website, particularly the interviews section
Booklet from the 2015 Definitive Edition of The Geese and the Ghost, a 2-CD reissue package
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these:
Thanks for directing me towards this undiscovered gem!! Also ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials is such a great record, and oddly relevant to today’s chaos…..
Thanks for the background on “Geese And The Ghost”. It is a very good album, although I only listen to it every few years. But when I do, I adore it. The interplay between Phillips and Rutherford really made it for me. I still have my original vinyl pressing, but bought a Japanese copy of the double-CD re-issue, which has “Silver Song” and demos that help show the progression to the finished product. Ant’s pop albums that followed had some good moments too, but I much preferred his instrumental collections.