There are only so many notes, and only so many ways in which they can be arranged. (Someone can do the math, I’m sure…and if I recall, some serialist did exactly that. Of course, once you start combining the notes, taking tone, texture, volume, and so forth into account, you’re not actually going to exhaust the possibilities at all.) So it is that occasionally, musicians will hit upon rather similar means to express vaguely similar ideas. Sometimes, the influence of the earlier upon the later track is obvious and logical.
Sometimes, it’s neither obvious nor logical. Then again…
In 1970, Genesis released Trespass, its first release that sounded somewhat like the Genesis people over the age of 40 remember. (People under the age of 40 think of Genesis as “that band Phil Collins used to be in.” This is not a discussion I am prepared to have – note only that Collins is neither the drummer nor the singer on this album.) The prog version of Genesis emerged here, and probably the most lasting song on this album is its nine-minute closing track “The Knife.” It’s a fine example of early prog, in which the somewhat underdigested traces of electric British folk-rock and psychedelia are clearly discernible, and whose ambition and multi-part structure was still novel and bold in its attempts to get beyond the confines of the three-minute love song. But what’s important for my purposes here is the guitar part that goes along with the lyrics “stand up and fight…” – listen to that, and keep it in your head.
And then listen to “Space Junk,” from Devo’s first album. Doesn’t the guitar line underneath the list of cities sound rather familiar?
Now at first, you might think that this is sheer coincidence: a bunch of prim British boys, steeped in fantasy literature and featuring a guy who played a flute and dressed up like a flower, versus the twisted little degenerate creeps from a decaying American industrial city, all proto-punk with their cynical, dark humor…what could they have in common? Other than a coincidental guitar lick, of course.
Then again, what could more typical of mid-seventies nerdy, awkward guys in their early twenties than listening to lots of prog rock? And that sense of humor? Well, vaguely anti-war and anti-authoritarian though Gabriel’s “Knife” lyrics could be, they’re not terribly amusing (at least not on purpose)…but flash-forward an album or two, and look at the situation conveyed in “Get ’em Out by Friday”…wherein the merged interests of large property owners and genetic engineers lead to restricting human height to four feet, so as to be able to cram more people into smaller space. I can almost imagine General Boy issuing such an order.