Genesis: “Eleventh Earl of Mar” (Wind & Wuthering, 1976)

Once more, I’d like to compliment Jake Mohan on his outstanding series of posts on Peter Gabriel-era Genesis over at One Week One Band. In his final post, he wrote this:

Critics who point to Gabriel’s departure as the point where it all went pear-shaped are, frankly, full of it; A Trick of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering, both released in 1976, are gorgeous albums every bit as sonically and thematically ambitious as their predecessors. After these two, Steve Hackett will also depart, and I’m more inclined to pinpoint that as the pivotal moment when the band made an overt shift to a smaller-scale, pop-oriented sound.  

With the caveat that I like Genesis’ pop era, I agree with that assessment 100%—Genesis’ first two post-Gabriel albums are among my favorite prog albums, and they are really proggy. My favorite song between the two LPs is this one, “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” which is all the proof you need that the band’s lyrical concerns hadn’t changed much.

Mike Rutherford’s lyrics are pretty specifically about the Jacobite uprising of 1715 (aka “The Fifteen”), in which the 11th Earl of Mar, John Erskine, played a pivotal role. The Fifteen was one of a series of abortive and failed attempts to return James II of England/VII of Scotland (his number varies depending on the territory we’re talking about) to the throne after he was deposed and sent into exile. James was the last Catholic monarch of Britain, and the Stuart line ended when his daughter, Anne, died on the throne in 1707.

Anne was succeeded by George I, the first Hanoverian monarch of England. That’s a lot of background to get to the bit the song is about: Erskine’s involvement in the uprising. The Earl, whose nickname was “Bobbin’ John” because of his constantly shifting allegiances, was James’ point person in Scotland, and it was Erskine who raised an army in rebellion against George on James’ behalf. 

The song actually includes a verse about James’ arrival in Scotland:

See the Stuart all dressed up

He’s got eyes in the back of his head

Who came in a cockleshell boat

That could only just float,  couldn’t even lift a sword

dressed too fine and smelling of wine

Otherwise, the song chronicles Erskine’s progress (and setbacks), but it does it with such emotional language that it doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Actually, it feels like a pretty damn kickass rock song, from the ominous opening theme to the thundering “you promised” refrain.

This is what made the pre-pop Genesis such a great band, or one of the things, anyway. here, they have some pretty esoteric subject matter, especially to a non-British audience, but they turn it into something thrilling and filled with memorable melodic turns. And while Mohan is right to point to Hackett’s departure after Wind & Wuthering as the real turning point for the band, you can here a little of the increased directness to come in this song, with its straightforward synth melodies, big chorus and harmonized lead guitar. 

I think the band’s transition was helped by the fact that Phil Collins sounds non dissimilar to Peter Gabriel singing this stuff. Over on his solo records, Gabriel himself evolved almost exactly in parallel to his old band, and they both reached their points of maximum fame simultaneously in the 80s. 

Prog rock was some of the first music I ever loved, and I still listen to a lot of it, so it was a treat to see someone do such a great job talking about some of the best of it. And it got me to listen to pretty much the entire Genesis catalog again (up through Invisible Touch, anyway), so thanks again, Jake. It’s been good listening.

Oh, and 11th Earl of Mar, John Erskine? Mar is in northeastern Scotland, but the Earl died in Aix-la-Chapelle, France (present-day Aachen, Germany), having lost the trust of most in the British political system, and even James and his descendants. Could’ve been worse, really—the leaders of earlier rebellions were executed, drawn and quartered.