Retrospective: Supper’s Ready

“Supper’s Ready” (1972) is an extraordinary 23-minute journey through the Book of Revelation, the kind of song millennials can’t sit still for. It’s about two lovers who are raptured and visit different worlds; when they return to Earth, the Apocalypse of John is in full force — the seven trumpeters, the earth disgorging obscenities, the sky raining fire, everything — until Peter Gabriel finally heralds the New Jerusalem. This is what epic songs should aspire to, with ambitious themes that seem out of reach. Think of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (26 minutes) and Rush’s “2112” (21 minutes). As grand as those operas are, they have nothing on the apocalyptic suite by Genesis that I’m discussing today. “Supper’s Ready” is a tapestry of sky-high drama — the highest you’ll find in any song — and, if I had to name one, my favorite rock piece of all time.

Guitarist Steve Hackett said the song was about “creating a film for the ear rather than the eye”, though it turned out to be for both. The band performed it live as a full-blown drama, with Peter Gabriel donning new make-up and costumes between the acts. Today’s generation doesn’t have the patience for 20+ minute songs, any more than they have for 3+ hour films, but that’s their loss. The ’70s were a golden age of music and film making. “Supper’s Ready” is the Godfather of rock songs. Both were released in ’72, and we’ve rarely seen their like since.

The song looks to the past and future, both stylistically and narratively. It’s the stuff of classical concertos and symphonies, but also a futurist odyssey. It harks back to the bible while raking forward to the world’s end. It carries its weight through all seven acts with ease, and plays on every musical grade — fast, slow, hard, soft, acoustic, electric, folk, ballad, high-energy instrumental — never clashing in tone. Though it’s possible to listen to any one of the acts as an individual track, I’ve never done that or had the desire to. For me it’s the 23-minute package deal every time. Each delivers more as part of the whole.

The lyrics are brilliant but demanding; they don’t make the story easy to understand. So here’s the outline:

Act 1, “Lover’s Leap”. The lovers are getting ready for dinner, when robed men descend and rapture them from the earth (their real supper is waiting for them elsewhere). They proceed to visit different worlds.

Act 2, “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man”. They come to a town dominated by two figures — a wise farmer, and the leader of a scientific religion who is called “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man”. This spiritual leader claims to contain a secret new ingredient capable of fighting fire, but he’s a pure fraud.

Act 3Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men“. They walk across fields and see a group of warriors who serve the Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man. At the Sanctuary Man’s command, the warriors pour fourth and attack people who don’t have an up-to-date “Eternal Life license”.

Act 4, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?” They investigate the aftermath of the battle and discover a solitary figure obsessed by his own image. They witness an unusual transmutation, and are pulled into their own reflections in the water.

Act 5, “Willow Farm”. They climb out of the pool, and are again in a different world, in the middle of bright colors everywhere, and surrounded by strange objects, plants, animals and people too. Life flows freely and everything is mindlessly busy. At random, a whistle blows and every single thing is instantly changed into something else.

Act 6, “Apocalypse in 9/8“. Another whistle blows, and the lovers become seeds in the soil, where they recognize other seeds to be people from the Earth they came from. As they wait for the spring season, they are returned to Earth to see the apocalypse in full progress: God’s wrath pouring out over the planet.

Act 7, “As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs“. Christ comes again with the new Jerusalem. Everyone banquets in the great supper of God.

You don’t have to be Christian to be swept up by this, anymore than you have to be pagan to lose yourself in the Iliad and Odyssey. “Supper’s Ready” is a song that depends on theological considerations that you will simply take or leave. It’s power lies in its bipolar madness. Genesis put artistry in the service of extreme beliefs, not to preach, but to show how far progressive rock could go, and by Christ-come-again they succeeded.

 

Listen here and sing:

🎶

Act 1: Lover’s Leap (0:00-3:47)

Walking across the sitting-room, I turn the television off
Sitting beside you, I look into your eyes
As the sound of motorcars fades in the night time
I swear I saw your face change, it didn’t seem quite right
And it’s hello babe, with your guardian eyes so blue
Hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true

Coming closer with our eyes, a distance falls around our bodies
Out in the garden, the moon seems very bright
Six saintly shrouded men move across the lawn slowly
The seventh walks in front with a cross held high in hand
And it’s hey babe your supper’s waiting for you
Hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true?

I’ve been so far from here
Far from your warm arms
It’s good to feel you again
It’s been a long long time
Hasn’t it?

Act 2: The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man (3:48-5:43)

I know a farmer who looks after the farm
With water clear, he cares for all his harvest
I know a fireman who looks after the fire

You, can’t you see he’s fooled you all
Yes, he’s here again
Can’t you see he’s fooled you all?
Share his peace, sign the lease
He’s a supersonic scientist
He’s the guaranteed eternal sanctuary man
Look, look into my mouth he cries
And all the children lost down many paths
I bet my life you’ll walk inside
Hand in hand
Gland in gland
With a spoonful of miracle
He’s the guaranteed eternal sanctuary
We will rock you, rock you little snake
We will keep you snug and warm

Act 3: Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men (5:44-9:42)

Wearing feelings on our faces while our faces took a rest
We walked across the fields to see the children of the West
But we saw a host of dark skinned warriors standing still below the ground

Waiting for battle

The fight’s begun, they’ve been released
Killing foe for peace, bang, bang, bang
Bang, bang, bang
And they’ve given me a wonderful potion
‘Cause I cannot contain my emotion
And even though I’m feeling good
Something tells me I’d better activate my prayer capsule

Today’s a day to celebrate, the foe have met their fate
The order for rejoicing and dancing has come from our warlord

Act 4: How Dare I Be So Beautiful? (9:43-11:04)

Wandering in the chaos the battle has left
We climb up the mountain of human flesh
To a plateau of green grass, and green trees full of life
A young figure sits still by a pool
He’s been stamped “Human Bacon” by some butchery tool
He is you

Social Security took care of this lad
We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower
A flower?

Act 5: Willow Farm (11:05-15:36)

If you go down to Willow Farm
To look for butterflies, flutterbyes, gutterflies
Open your eyes, it’s full of surprise
Everyone lies like the fox on the rocks
And the musical box
Oh, there’s Mum and Dad, and good and bad
And everyone’s happy to be here

There’s Winston Churchill dressed in drag
He used to be a British flag, plastic bag, what a drag
The frog was a prince
The prince was a brick, the brick was an egg, the egg was a bird
(Fly away you sweet little thing, they’re hard on your tail)
Hadn’t you heard? (they’re going to change you into a human being!)
Yes, we’re happy as fish and gorgeous as geese
And wonderfully clean in the morning

We’ve got everything, we’re growing everything
We’ve got some in, we’ve got some out
We’ve got some wild things floating about
Everyone, we’re changing everyone
You name them all, we’ve had them here
And the real stars are still to appear
(All change!)

Feel your body melt
Mum to mud to mad to dad
Dad diddley office, Dad diddley office
You’re all full of ball
Dad to dam to dumb to mum
Mum diddley washing, Mum diddley washing
You’re all full of ball

Let me hear your lies, we’re living this up to the eyes
Ooh, aah, na-na-na
Momma I want you now

And as you listen to my voice
To look for hidden doors, tidy floors, more applause
You’ve been here all the time
Like it or not, like what you got
You’re under the soil (the soil, the soil)
Yes, deep in the soil (the soil, the soil, the soil!)
So we’ll end with a whistle and end with a bang
And all of us fit in our places

Act 6: Apocalypse in 9/8 (15:36-19:59)

With the guards of Magog, swarming around
The Pied Piper takes his children underground
Dragons coming out of the sea
Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me
He brings down the fire from the skies
You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes
Better not compromise, it won’t be easy

666 is no longer alone
He’s getting out the marrow in your backbone
And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll
Gonna blow right down inside your soul
Pythagoras with the looking glass reflects the full moon
In blood, he’s writing the lyrics of a brand-new tune

Act 7: As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs (20:00-22:54)

And it’s hey babe, with your guardian eyes so blue
Hey my baby, don’t you know our love is true?
I’ve been so far from here, far from your loving arms
Now I’m back again
And babe, it’s gonna work out fine

Can’t you feel our souls ignite?
Shedding ever-changing colors
In the darkness of the fading night
Like the river joins the ocean
As the germ in a seed grows
We have finally been freed to get back home

There’s an angel standing in the sun
And he’s crying with a loud voice
“This is the supper of the mighty one!”
Lord of Lords, King of Kings
Has returned to lead his children home
To take them to the new Jerusalem!

🎶

From the album Foxtrot, 1972.

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