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I Know What I Like And It's "Firth of Fifth": A Musical Analysis and Ethnographical Ex

February 20, 2017

Steve Hackett's electric guitar solo in "Firth of Fifth" from the Genesis album Selling England By The Pound (SEBTP), in 1973, is considered one of his most well-known and popular solos of Genesis' career, not just by fans, but by Hackett himself: "I tend to play the 'Firth of Fifth' solo pretty much every gig because it's really my best known electric solo and arguably Genesis' most famous electric guitar solo. It was a rare moment where I got a look-in for a continuous three minutes or so on a Genesis album, in those days, Selling England By The Pound. I still love this solo" (Hackett, 2015, 59:12).

Through musical analysis, ethnography, outtakes, and interviews, this paper will explore the creative processes that went into making "Firth of Fifth", and postulate what musical elements continue to make this song captivating for both Hackett and his fans 43 years later. This information is of specific interest to anyone who may wish to do works of similar quality, or who are interested in knowing where Hackett’s musical creativity came from. This paper attempts to answer why the song “Firth of Fifth” has remained noteworthy amongst fans for over 43 years.

The Musical Analysis

In Macan’s book Rocking the Classics, he describes the structure of “Firth of Fifth” as resembling “an arch form”, which from the middle, mirrors the direction of its opening (A B C A C B A) (Macan p.109). Macan simplifies this by referring to it as a sonata form. The A section is a lengthy instrumental overture. The B section is an “exposition”, which contains the verses. The C section is the instrumental “development”, which contains a new theme. This section then returns and develops the A and C themes, before section B returns as the “recapitulation”, before concluding with an instrumental coda that heavily borrows from the A section.

My own interpretation of the form is similar to Macan's; however, I divided the sections further, and believe there are several sections between Macan’s A B C A C B A form. I don't believe Macan's "sonata" model accurately reflects the piece's form, nor should it be considered a sonata. Typically speaking, a symmetrical form like A B C A C B A is better described as an "arch" form, instead of trying to justify it as being a sonata form. Secondly, by grouping both solo and transitional sections into one section (i.e. the "recapitulation"), key structures, transitional measures, chord variations, and other formal variation details are missed if labelled as simply one section.

According to Macan, there are three musical elements that distinguish Genesis apart from other progressive rock bands: their usage of harmony, meter, and clarity of arrangement and timbre. The differences between these three elements are exemplified in “Firth of Fifth” (Macan p.106).

In terms of harmony, Macan notes that Genesis frequently uses diminished seventh and triadic chords including major seventh, minor seventh, and triads with added sixths. Macan believes these aspects are “part of the prog syntax” (Macan p.107). The band uses the “relative instability of modal harmony to effect their modulations” (Macan p.107). Holm-Hudson notes that unlike other progressive rock bands like Yes, Emerson, Lake, & Palmer (ELP), and King Crimson, Genesis' music avoids overt blues models. Instead, their harmonic style draws on "intricate - and often unpredictable - chromatic passages reminiscent of late 19th century Romanticism. This aspect of their harmonic style makes Genesis' music notably more Romantic - in an authentic sense - than such contemporaries as Yes or ELP" (Holm-Hudson 2010 p. 100).

As previously seen through the musical analysis chart, sections are used to unobtrusively pivot the music into a new key. This is often achieved through using chromatic mediant relationships, a hallmark of the chromatic harmonic language of Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, César Franck, and other nineteenth-century composers (Holm-Hudson 2010 p. 101). A chromatic mediant relationship is when two keys, or two chords, have roots a minor third or major third apart, of the same quality. As an example, Holm-Hudson suggests that moving from a C major to E major chord requires subtle contrary motion of individual tones, as C moves to B, and G moves to G#: (C,E,G - B,E,G#). This would be a chromatic mediant progression because the chord roots (C and E) are a third (mediant) apart from each other, and yet the second chord has been chromatically altered from E minor to E major (Holm-Hudson 2010 p. 100). Holm-Hudson believes it is this kind of chromatic harmony engaged by Genesis' keyboardist Tony Banks, that gives Genesis its distinctive sound: "Banks' chord voicings often progress chromatically from one to the next, a technique I refer to as maximally smooth chromatic voice leading" (italics in original. Holm-Hudson 2010 p. 100). Another example of transitional techniques is through the use of pivot chords, as seen in the verses (section B) and solos (sections D & F). This more “functional” harmony creates smooth passage shifts from one key to the next. Unlike other progressive rock songs that surprise the listener with unexpected key changes, “Firth of Fifth” requires the listener to consciously re-evaluate each key and section.

According to Macan, the second element that defines Genesis’ style is their usage of “asymmetric and shifting meters” (Macan p. 107). In “Firth of Fifth”, the primary examples of shifting time signatures occur during the A sections. Within the first three bars of the song, there are three unique time signatures: 17/16 (4+4+3+3+3), 15/16 (3+4+4+4), and 13/16 (3+3+3+4). However, during “Firth of Fifth” the asymmetrical meters are used in moderation. All other sections are in common time, and have the occasional 2/4 bar. In the same way they use harmony, Genesis continue to mix the complex with the common in order to create contrasts and commonality.

The final musical element Macan discusses is Genesis’ use of clarity through arrangement and timbre. Macan describes their sound as “clean” due to the band’s lack of distortion and over-arranging. Macan notes that unlike Keith Emerson from ELP and Rick Wakeman of Yes, Tony Banks rarely distorts his Hammond organ’s timbre, nor does he use it percussively like Emerson. His use of the Mellotron is conventionally used to create choral or string orchestra impressions. Similarly, Hackett uses “warm” electric guitar tones that are characterized by a controlled fuzz-tone. There is hardly any distortion; instead Hackett uses overtones, bends, and vibrato to create a stirring, violin-esque narrative.

It is also important to note the spacing and general “open textures” used in “Firth of Fifth”’s arrangement (Macan p. 107). Compared to other prog bands like Gentle Giant, Genesis come off as rather minimalist. For instance, during the synth solo in section C, there is no virtuosic guitar or cluttered soundscapes. Similarly, during the flute and guitar solos, the keyboard is very constricted and merely providing harmonic backing. Even Hackett’s guitar solo is very cautious in terms of spacing, both with regard to pauses and sustained notes. As a result, more clarity is achieved through the de-emphasis of virtuosity. In the 2007 interviews for the Genesis 1970-1975: The Box Set, Genesis bassist Mike Rutherford comments:

It's about more space. We're taking the main theme of the song and letting it run for about four minutes with a lovely guitar solo playing the melody and some lines in between. We're starting to give sections more space and more time to sit in one mood rather than move on too fast (Rutherford, 2007, 20:05).

Through harmony, meter, and arrangement, “Firth of Fifth” manages to blur the lines between the familiar and the unknown, the complex and the common, and the functional with the whimsical. Perhaps it is this blending that has allowed the song to become the epitome of what Genesis has become known for. Macan echoes this sentiment, and writes:

“Firth of Fifth” is, in my opinion, the finest nine and a half minutes of music that Genesis have ever put down: it exemplifies virtually every major aspect of their Gabriel-era style, is extremely well put together from the standpoint of structure, and represents one of the band’s finest achievements in every realm save perhaps the lyrics (Macan p.106).

Although Macan briefly mentions the repetition within the song in terms of its form, he does not touch upon the implications of the repeated sections. The song is essentially three musical ideas stretched across several developmental and transitional sections. In an interview with Something Else Reviews, Hackett notes, “Basically, it’s the same melody played three times with minimal variation. It’s done like jazz, with the statement of the theme then you go off and improvise, and then return to the theme. On ‘Firth of Fifth,’ when it comes back, it’s a larger arrangement. It’s the tune as written, then ‘let’s take this to the mountains,’ to a certain extent” (Deriso, 2012). One of the consequences of this setup is that the guitar solo has already been previously heard by the listener through the flute solo. The idea of introducing a solo melody before the actual solo the way Genesis has done is highly unusual. It gives the listener a sense of familiarity and security with the repetition during an otherwise unknown section. I believe the dispersed repetition and foreshadowing of other parts during the exploration sections has allowed the song to be easily digested by listeners. Melodies and ideas are more likely to be assimilated after one listen, making for an easier comprehension of otherwise complex musical elements.

The Guitar Solo Revealed

As previously mentioned, the guitar solo has five sections: an introduction, the main melody, an exploration section, a repeat of the main melody, and a closing section. With the unique situation of the solo material being exposed before the actual solo, several questions arose regarding the creation of the solo. For instance, since the flute previously played the main melody before the guitar solo, who wrote the melody, and how did it happen? During the 2007 interviews, Tony Banks commented on the creation of the main melody:

The way the guitar solo evolved is quite interesting, really because I had written the three bits and the second bit I'd written was really just a flute and piano melody and I had just seen it as that. We were playing it a few times and [it] sounded really nice. And then one day Steve started playing it. I thought, great! Let's put the Mellotron in with big chords! It was almost like a joke, we were sort of doing a la King Crimson with this big overblown thing. But then I thought, that's actually really good! So for the reprise of that melody when it came in the second half of the song, we said let's do it this big way and see how it works. And it worked really well. And it gave a chance for Steve to really do a proper guitar solo (Banks, 17:25).

This comment from Banks led to even more questions about the formation of Hackett’s solo. I was fortunate enough to converse with Hackett, and ask him about the solo's creation.

Quibell: From my understanding, the idea of introducing a solo melody before the solo through another instrument the way Genesis has done it is rather unusual. It gives the listener a sense of familiarity and security with the repetition during an otherwise unknown section. Was this intentional?

Hackett: Yes as far as I recall that was the case.

Q: I’ve come across some lovely studio outtakes. I believe they are from a 13-CD set entitled “In The Beginning”. They’ve confirmed that the introduction and exploration sections weren’t set in stone, as they are different in both outtakes. However, the main melody seems to be a set staple even this early on in the formation of the song. How much of an impact did the previously-written melody shape your introduction and exploration sections?

H: I felt the previous section was underdeveloped in terms of strength and atmosphere and that a larger arrangement would lift the melody. I wanted to give it a slightly oriental feel. There's the influence of the French impressionist music such as Erik Satie and Ravel as well.

Q: Was it restricting having to play around a set melody? How did the final version of the introduction and exploration sections come about? Was it an improvisation that worked and needed to be transcribed and practiced later, or was it eventually scripted?

H: The skeleton arrangement took it as far as it could with the addition of flute doubling the piano but once the whole band kicks in, to my mind, it becomes transcendent. The arpeggiating keyboard melody, I think, owes something to Bartok. Again, once the band are interpreting the solo piano introduction there is much more emphasis on accents and a reference to the Buddy Rich big band style in Phil's playing. For me the solo came about because I was playing it one day on electric guitar with all the bends, vibrato and sustain that are powered through the Selling England version. I decided to just use part of the melody in order to try to reinterpret the whole thing. It would have been non-guitarist in, and would have sounded too much like a technical exercise. I wanted to keep it romantic and imaginative. I visualised a bird hovering high above the ocean at the beginning of the solo with the high sustained F# note over the chord changes (E Minor, D Major over E). It was never scripted. Just kicked back and forth by everybody. (Quibell, 2016)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the SEBTP outtakes (for me at least) occurred during the last E minor arpeggiation in the concluding melody section (m. 161). Instead of playing an F#, Hackett played an F natural. At first I thought it might be a mistake, as every other F is sharp. However, the F natural at the end occurs in both outtakes in the same manner. For me, that semi-tone drop really changed the weight, dynamics, and feel of the song. The F natural demonstrates a bold leap outside of the conventional key signature box. The extra semi-tone down not only exaggerates the downward plummet of notes before the E minor arpeggiation, but also emphasizes the height of the arpeggiation. There is an added element of danger (leaving the safe-zone of the key), fragility (the melody line has sunken down slightly, changing its shape), and most importantly, depth. Essentially, the F natural changes the key from E minor harmonic to E Phrygian. It’s odd to think that one note could possibly make such a fruitful difference, but it appears to do just that! I asked Hackett if the F natural at the very end was intentional, and if so, why it didn’t make the studio cut. Unfortunately for me, Hackett replied, “I really don’t remember if it was intentional or not, but it really sounds interesting though” (Quibell, 2016).

The Fan Perspective

After conversing with Hackett, I felt it necessary to reach out to the fans and get their perspective on the song 43 years later. I used ten Genesis Facebook groups in order to conduct my fan ethnography. I wanted to know which adaptation of “Firth of Fifth” the fans considered to be the quintessential version, and where “Firth of Fifth” ranked amongst the fans’ Genesis catalogue. I suspected “Firth of Fifth” to be highly beloved by the fans, but I wanted to find out just how much of a staple it has become.

In total, I obtained 200 responses, with 93% of the respondents being male. The vast majority of subjects were in high school either in 1973 when “Firth of Fifth” first came out, or in 1977 when the live album Seconds Out was released. According to the fans, the quintessential version of “Firth of Fifth” comes from the Seconds Out album, with 43% of the vote. In second place was the studio version with 27% of the vote. Hackett’s Genesis Revisited album from 1996 was third with 8%. Honourable mentions include Hackett’s Genesis Revisited Live at Hammersmith 2013 (4%), the Zurich, Germany bootleg from the Wind & Wurthering 1977 Tour (3%), Hackett’s Tokyo Tapes 1998 (2%), and the B side of “That’s All” from 1983, which was played by guitarist Daryl Stuermer (4%).

During the fan analysis, I asked what it was about Seconds Out (1977) that stood out from the other versions. 22% believed it was Hackett’s guitar sound, effects, and technique that made this version stand out above the rest. Although it wasn't specifically mentioned by the fans, I wondered if there was a sentimental reason behind the fans liking Hackett's sound the most on this version. After all, it was the last thing Hackett contributed to Genesis before his departure in 1977. According to Tim Rogers, lead guitarist for the Genesis & Steve Hackett tribute band The Soil, Hackett had a completely different setup during Seconds Out than when he recorded "Firth of Fifth" in 1973. In 1977 Hackett used a custom pedal board made by Pete Cornish, along with Roland 120 jazz chorus amps with Roland speakers. This pedal board offered more reverb, echo, and fuzz effects through extra pedals and phasers. Whereas in 1973, Hackett had a six pedal board including a Cry Baby Wah-Wah, Colorsound Octivider, Marshall Supa Fuzz, Shaftesbuty Duofuzz & Echoplex switch, Schaller Volume, and an MXR Phase 90. Hackett was also using a Hiwatt 4x12 Cabinet. Although fans mentioned an increase of vibrato in this version, Rogers believes it was Hackett's increased use of phasers and delays that made the vibratos more powerful. During the studio recording, Hackett was mainly using an Echoplex pedal for echo effects. Hackett's increased usage of echo effects, reverb, phasers, and delay pedals would later become the foundation of his iconic guitar sound during his solo period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One fan also referred to a “vibrato snarl”, which made the guitar have more of a violin tone. Rogers suspects this technique was achieved by the volume pedal. Due to the technology changes in Hackett's 1977 guitar setup, fans seem to resonate with this particular guitar tone, more so than what had been previously recorded on the studio album in 1973.

Fans were quick to comment on the quality of sound and musicianship from the band as a whole by using words like “organic”, “raw”, “edgy”, and “authentic”. There was a strong connotation that live is always better than studio due to its spontaneity and vulnerability. This version of "Firth of Fifth" contains slight variations when compared to the studio version. There is the occasional added or exaggerated note bend, as well as several note length changes (two quarter notes are played instead of a half note). However, when comparing the presence of the guitar in Seconds Out to SEBTP, both versions vary greatly. Some fans believed the guitar seemed further buried in the mix for the majority of the song. It’s only during the solo that the guitar is pushed to the forefront. In the 1990 documentary Genesis: A History, Banks jokes: "It was funny because he [Hackett] just didn't turn up one day when we were doing the mixing of Seconds Out, the live album. So he didn't turn up, so we mixed him out of the rest of the album and that was it really! [Laughs] No, I wasn't really expecting it. I was kind of surprised because on Wind & Wuthering, I felt he did some of the best writing contribution he'd ever done for us" (Banks, 1990, 49:07). Regardless of the mix, 28% of fans commented that the overall sound and musicianship during “Firth of Fifth” from Seconds Out was “spot on” and the band were “in their prime” during that tour. To a certain extent, Hackett disagrees.

In Sketches of Hackett, he notes: “I really felt at home in 1973-4 particularly when we were playing in America... ...I felt we were playing all the best numbers; we had three albums to draw from that I had been involved in... ...I felt I knew what I was playing and I knew who I was... I was wearing a terrible jacket with strawberries all over it! (laughs)” (Hewitt, p. 29-30). “By the time we hit Los Angeles, we were doing a series of Christmas concerts. I really felt the band were absolutely at their best. I felt that I was playing guitar in the world’s best band at that point. I really felt that.” (Hackett, 2007, 7:19). Hackett was gaining more confidence as a player and as a member of the band. Gabriel comments: "Steve definitely, I think, gained in confidence and 'Firth of Fifth' is very much a Tony piece in terms of how it started and how it built, but Steve did let loose in I think probably the best way up to that point at the end" (Gabriel, 2007, 20:23).

After asking the fans what their preferred version of the song was, I asked Hackett the same question. He replied, “I've always been happy with my original version, but I also enjoy playing it live, and I think possibly my best version is on my recent DVD Live in Liverpool” (Quibell, 2016). It is interesting to note that unlike both 1973 and 1977 versions, Hackett no longer uses his Gibson Les Paul. These days, Hackett mainly uses a Monterey Fernandes, which contains a built-in sustain pickup with upper harmonic and Floyd Rose tremolo. The sustain pickup is controlled by an on/off switch, and a three-way toggle switch that selects between sustain only, sustain with harmonic overtone, and harmonic overtone only. Hackett prefers the Fernandes over the Gibson due to its "all-in-one" convenience, particularly with the built-in sustain. Hackett notes: "The reason why I'm playing this [Fernandes] rather than the Les Paul is because it's got the ability to be able to sustain notes. ...That's a great facility to have because there's no tyranny of volume" (Guitarist, 2015, 00:06).

Now that I knew what fans regarded as the “most authentic” “Firth of Fifth”, I wanted to know just how special the song was to them, and how it ranked amongst Genesis’ extensive catalogue. While 33% regarded it as their favourite Genesis song of all time, an impressive 85% listed it within their top five. The remaining 15% placed it within their top ten. Only one out of two hundred subjects placed it below their top ten (placing it at number twelve). The only song that seemed to offer much competition was Foxtrot’s twenty-three minute epic, “Supper’s Ready”. Fans were quick to comment on how the guitar solo stood out to them the most. Several subjects described in great detail visions similar to Hackett's of soaring, flying, and floating above water when hearing the solo. I found this particularly fascinating, as Hackett said he tried to “visualise a bird hovering high above the ocean” (Quibell, 2016) when originally creating the solo.

It is interesting to note that no respondent discussed the lyrical content; only musical aspects were mentioned. Could this be due to the lyrics not being easy to relate to? Is the music too domineering? Macan believes that the lyrics don’t necessarily tell a story. Instead, the narrative lies within the music, while the lyrics provide suggestive imagery with frequent references to nature (sky, waterfall, trees, lillies, rivers, sand, inland seas). There are quite a few references to water in the lyrics. The name “Firth of Fifth” is actually a play on the Firth of Forth, a bay on the east coast of Scotland near Edinburgh. Perhaps this is why several subjects mentioned water in their visions. Macan writes, “I do not see the lyrics of ‘Firth of Fifth’ as among the band’s best. On the other hand, the music itself is so strong that it is able to impose at least the illusion of narrative coherence on the lyrics” (Macan, p. 109).

Although the fans acknowledged Peter Gabriel’s flute solo with high regard, and praised Tony Banks’ virtuosity on the keys, it was Hackett’s solo that received the most attention. I reported my fan findings to Hackett, and asked him what he thought makes “Firth of Fifth” so timeless for the fans with regard to the rest of the Genesis catalogue. Hackett replied, “It's a particularly iconic track!”

Statements of Affirmations

At the genesis of this Genesis paper, my goal was to answer why “Firth of Fifth” has remained noteworthy amongst fans and Hackett himself for over 43 years. After conducting a musical analysis, fan ethnography, and an interview with Hackett, I believe I have discovered several possibilities.

As seen with the musical analysis portion, “Firth of Fifth” mixes both complex time signatures (17/16, 15/16, 13/16, 8/16) with standard common time. Harmonically, Banks relies on chromatic mediant relationships in order to move succinctly between chords that typically wouldn’t follow one another. There are no blatant chord surprises or key signature changes, only gradual shifting from one to the next. This is amplified with the song’s exposed arrangement. There is barely any distortion or sections with many instrumental layers. The sounds are “clean” and the individual instruments are easily accessible in terms of the mix. Even the form surrounds the unknown sections with familiarity, creating easy transitions for the listener to follow. The lyrics do not distract the listener from the music. Instead, they enhance the musical experience by conveying scenic suggestions to further develop the listener’s understanding of the musical story being told.

Another important aspect that must be taken into consideration is the notion of nostalgia, and the many perceptions associated with it. As previously noted, the majority of subjects surveyed were in high school between 1973 and 1977. Many shared stories of when they heard the album for the first time and how it connected with certain life events. It seems a lot of positive memories of youth, innocence, ambition, finding one's self, and other discoveries, have become associated with Genesis' music. Naturally, listening to the music conjures these memories and reignites their musical associations. Ultimately, the music provides a comfort zone that listeners continue to enjoy regularly. However, for these fans, Genesis is much more than just the soundtrack of their youth - it is the perpetual background music of their very existence. This music does not remain reserved for a small portion of their past. Instead, fans have continued to listen to Genesis throughout their lives, creating new meaning and memories along the way that extends far beyond their teenage years of association.

Even Hackett looks back at the recording of SEBTP with warmth: “I have fond memories of Selling England as a time when, although my personal life was in turmoil, the group was breaking new ground. We were going where no band had gone before!” (Bowler p.81). During this time, Hackett’s first marriage was collapsing, and according to Bowler, Hackett “sought refuge in his work with Genesis pouring all his time and energy into it as a means of escape from his domestic problems” (Bowler p.81-82). Despite the otherwise negative time for Hackett, the sheer power of the music and its creation triumphed over the pain in Hackett's personal life. The experience of creating SEBTP left Hackett with such a lasting impression of pride, satisfaction, and positivity, that it remains his favourite Genesis album of all time (Something Else, 2015).

All of these aspects combined, allow for the song to be easily digestible with its commonality and familiarity, whilst maintaining the irregular musical nutrition Genesis fans crave. I believe it is this fruitful relationship that ultimately makes “Firth of Fifth” timeless.


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