The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Illustrated (2020)
The concept album was not necessarily a musical form unique to the 1970s, but it certainly came to fruition at the time. There had been a number of "theme" albums in the past, usually by more traditional pop and soul artists, but the Who's Tommy managed to tell a somewhat coherent story while still being financially successful. A number of bands tried the same thing after that with varying degrees of success.
The problem was that, when trying to do a "rock opera," it was easy to fall into something like Jesus Christ Superstar. It also didn't help that an artist would have to write songs that supported the story, and this didn't always make for a good album. While The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars generally has an outline of a story, David Bowie wisely decided to go with songs that played on the theme rather than trying to present the story in a more musical theater style. Through live performances and interviews his fans got the gist of what he was doing, while the album contained a number of fine songs that could exist with or without the Ziggy concept.
Still, there have been a number of artists that have succeeded at the idea of a concept album beyond wildest expectations. For as good as Tommy was, Quadrophenia was even better. Pink Floyd, as indulgent as the album is, managed to turn out The Wall, while the 1980s saw one of the best examples of the form with Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime. If you will notice something in common with all of those, it's that there exist movies for all except the latter, and even then the band managed to do a condensed video version of their own that hit the basics of the story. That is why it has always confused me that no one decided to tackle The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the last Genesis album featuring Peter Gabriel and, despite its surreal story, definitely fitting in with the above works.
The truth is, I guess it has been; there is an Italian film version from 2010 listed on IMDB, but other than director and cast I can find next to nothing about it. In fact, nowhere else even lists it as existing, and even YouTube, where one would expect to find at least a trailer, doesn't have anything on it. It is a challenging story for the audience but, surprisingly, not a challenging one for a film-maker, as a good portion of the action takes place in various chambers in caves, with really no other main characters other than the protagonist Rael, a Puerto Rican gang member, and occasional appearances by his brother John. Many of the other characters serve as guides and obstacles and, as such, come and go as can be expected. The main challenge, and this is why assume it hasn't been done, is connecting with people who are not already Genesis fans and are willing to sit through a musical production heavily influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Enter artist Nathaniel Barlam. I first became aware of him when, in 2017, he illustrated the Genesis song "Supper's Ready", from their 1972 album Foxtrot. For those who don't know, "Supper's Ready" is considered one of the pinnacles of progressive rock, and lyrically it is quite a heavy piece to get. Barlam, even though he included a number of references to other Genesis albums and songs (as well as Monty Python) for fun, managed to break it down to what it is: the story of a couple, who have been apart from each other, sitting down to their first supper together in a long time, only to have the Christian apocalypse happen at that moment. It follows them as they observe much of what has been predicted to come, finally arriving together in heaven at the end. Barlam's illustration combined his own drawings as well as computer animation, largely using still pictures that appear to be panned over by a camera, slowly revealing larger pictures, it was simply the next best thing to watching old footage of the band playing the song live.
So, when shortly afterward, Barlam announced his intention to illustrate the entirely of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I was ecstatic. I was also concerned, because it is a major undertaking, and something he was doing as a side project. Lesser endeavors have fallen by the wayside, especially since his effort stretched over a three-year period. But, amazingly, he completed it, releasing the final song "It" at the end of 2019 and, as I was hoping he would, releasing a video on YouTube of the project in its entirety at the beginning of 2020.
Rael is a Puerto Rican teenager and gang member living on the streets of 1974 New York. One day, after spray-painting his name on the wall of a subway entrance, he exits just as dawn comes over Broadway. Strangely, a white lamb lies in the middle of the busy street. Rael, distracted, almost is hit by a cab - or so he thinks. He soon finds the city he knows fading away, and wakes up in a strange cave, covered in a white silky substance.
Unaware if he is dead or alive, Rael experiences a number of challenges as he makes his way through the caves. It also seems that his brother John is there as well, but despite Rael's pleas John refuses to help him on his journey. As he makes his way through Rael also experiences once again the elements that shaped him, from a turbulent family life to his first sexual encounter. Eventually he reaches a point where he must make certain choices - his own literal manhood, a return to his life in the City - or becoming the being he never had a chance to become.
To highly simplify the journey through the afterlife as outlined in The Book of the Dead, one must follow a specific path through the underworld, avoiding the temptations of various demons on the way, to come out the other end and either be reborn or to ascend. Rael obviously did not have the best life on Earth, but it is obvious many of the choices he made were his own, and throughout the story we find him overcoming the burdens he put upon himself as well as overcoming his baser needs. It can be a strange, and highly confusing, journey for the listener as well, even when following Peter Gabriel's short story in the liner notes.
Nathaniel Barlam, through his illustrations (and, helpfully, displaying the lyrics of the songs throughout) largely cuts through that. I give him a lot of credit for finding ways around certain scenes (particularly during "The Colony of Slippermen") that would not have made it past YouTube's censors, as well handling some of Gabriel's more obtuse lyrics. In the song "Back in N.Y.C.", for instance, there is a line that goes, "As I cuddled the porcupine, he said I had no one to blame but me." While it is obviously a less cliche way of saying "walking the razor's edge," demonstrating Rael's knowledge that he is not completely invested in his gang life, Barlam simplifies the porcupine to being a childhood toy that Rael treasured that is eventually cast away by John in an effort to make Rael grow up and face his reality. I also admire how everything that Rael sees is in reverse, keeping intact the question about whether Rael is actually dead or has fallen into a world between worlds.
There is also a lot less Genesis fan service than there was in "Supper's Ready", saving some of it for "It", where it is more appropriate. Still, we do get some references to other artists that Barlam is fan of throughout, used in faces of some of the characters. Which leads me to a criticism the first time I saw his illustration for "The Colony of Slippermen", where one of the men is obviously Donald Trump. But, seeing it all together, it's apparent by "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging" sequence that, even though Rael is plucked out of 1974, those who are trapped in the half-world are from all different parts of time, including Rael's future. While it still seems to be quite an obvious joke about where Trump would find himself in Gabriel's afterlife, it's not so jarring when seeing the whole thing without gaps between.
So far Nathaniel Barlam has only released this on YouTube, and probably only was able to achieve that since Genesis isn't blocked like so many other artists on there. That means that, through their arrangement, Genesis still gets royalties for the music, while Barlam himself was largely supported through Patreon for his efforts in illustrating the whole thing. While I still wouldn't mind seeing the Italian live-action version, I doubt it will be able to top Barlam's vision, and I know I am not the only one that hopes that at some point he can work with Peter Gabriel and the rest of the band to make this official and get a wider release. It certainly deserves it for the effort he put in, and the fact that he not only successfully completed it, but it is also one of the best animated films of recent years.
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (2020)
Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins
Director: Nathaniel Barlam
Link to view: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JszTrQdL314&t=1s