See below for further details on each section of the song.
Nearly 23 minutes in length, the song is divided into seven sections. A number of musical and lyrical themes do re-appear throughout. The melody of the verse in section I reappears as a flute melody between sections II and III. The melody of the chorus in section I reappears with new lyrics in the coda to section VI. The song that comprises the majority of section II reappears briefly in instrumental form at the beginning of section VI, and then returns to form the body of section VII, with new lyrics.
One commentator regarded the structure of "Supper's Ready" as a variation of sonata form—a musicological analysis by Nors Josephson proposes that "section VII may be viewed as a Lisztian, symphonic apotheosis" of the "cyclical fanfares that originated in section II." On the other hand, the individual components of "Supper's Ready" are much closer to traditional rock songs than they are to classical pieces, even if they contain elements of both.
The song undergoes multiple changes in time signature, key signature, Leitmotif, instrumentation, and mood.
The song's writing is credited to the whole band (Banks/Collins/Gabriel/Hackett/Rutherford). In various interviews, Banks mentioned that he composed several of the musical progressions whilst still a university student; Gabriel authored most or all of the lyrical content, as well as the "Willow Farm" section; Collins apparently contributed much to the arrangements and segues from one section to another. In Olivier Lecart's book Genesis, Mike Rutherford hints that he was responsible for the unique rhythm of "Apocalypse in 9/8".
This section features a gentle arpeggiated guitar backing (with Hackett, Banks and Rutherford all playing 12-string guitars), soft electric piano (Hohner pianet), bass pedals, cello and flute, and a section with folky three part vocal harmonies (which omit the third note of the chord). The only percussion used is triangle, cymbals, and bells.
Lyrically it tells of a man returning home after a long time to be greeted by his lover, and mentions supernatural imagery ("six saintly shrouded men"), which Gabriel claims relate to a genuine spiritual experience which occurred with himself, his wife Jill and producer John Anthony. According to Gabriel, during a late-night conversation, his wife began speaking with a completely different voice. Gabriel held up a makeshift cross out of a candlestick and another household item, and Jill reacted violently. Jill was eventually calmed down and taken to bed, but neither Peter nor John Anthony slept that night. On another occasion, also late at night, Gabriel looked out of the window of his wife's parents' house to see what he perceived to be an entirely different lawn, across which seven shrouded men were walking. Gabriel recounted that these experiences led him to contemplate notions of good, evil, and the supernatural, and eventually inspired the lyrics to "Supper's Ready".
In the programme given out at Genesis concerts at the time, "Lover's Leap" was explained as: "In which two lovers are lost in each other's eyes, and found again transformed in the bodies of another male and female."
This segment was performed as part of an acoustic medley on the group's 1998 Calling All Stations tour with Ray Wilson on vocals.
Banks composed the chord progression whilst still at University. When performing the song live, Gabriel would don a "crown of thorns" headpiece at this point. The piece segués into the next with a "Lover's Leap" reprise.
The programme describes this section as follows: "The lovers come across a town dominated by two characters; one a benevolent farmer and the other the head of a highly disciplined scientific religion. The latter likes to be known as "The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man" and claims to contain a secret new ingredient capable of fighting fire. This is a falsehood, an untruth, a whopper and a taradiddle, or to put it in clearer terms; a lie."
This section is much more dynamic than the previous two, with lively drums, an elegiac electric guitar solo, and a lot of interplay between the guitar and organ (including a section with fast organ and guitar arpeggios, Hackett employing the "tapping" style of playing). The lyrics refer to a battle of some sort, presumably involving Ikhnaton.
The programme spells "Itsacon" as "Its-a-con". It describes this section as follows: "Who the lovers see clad in greys and purples, awaiting to be summoned out of the ground. At the G.E.S.M's command they put forth from the bowels of the earth, to attack all those without an up-to-date "Eternal Life Licence", which were obtainable at the head office of the G.E.S.M.'s religion."
This is a slow and gentle section, the only instrumentation being treated acoustic piano chords, each chord being faded-in on the recording, thus losing the piano's characteristic attack and sounding more like an organ (it was done on Hammond organ live). The title is a catchphrase used by the band's early music-business contact, Jonathan King. The lyrics deal with the aftermath of the preceding battle, and referring to the Greek myth of Narcissus, who turned into a flower.
The programme describes this section as follows: "In which our intrepid heroes 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."
Live in concert, Gabriel would appear in his "flower mask" (by Gabriel's own admission, partly inspired by the BBC children's programme The Flower Pot Men). This section features vaudeville-style sections, the Mellotron Mark II's "combined brass" tape set, sped-up vocals, and musique concrète noises of trains and explosions. Lyrically, it has a Python-esque quality, dealing with elements of the absurd in the English psyche, "there's Winston Churchill, dressed in drag, he used to be a British flag, plastic bag, what a drag!" and numerous elements of word play, boarding schools, agricultural depravity and social conformity. The lyrics also reference Foxtrot's cover artwork ("the fox on the rocks") and a song from Nursery Cryme, Genesis' previous album ("The Musical Box").
The programme describes "Willow Farm" as follows: "Climbing out of the pool, they are once again in a different existence. They're right in the middle of a myriad of bright colours, filled with all manner of objects, plants, animals and humans. Life flows freely and everything is mindlessly busy. At random, a whistle blows and every single thing is instantly changed into another."
"Willow Farm" was originally a stand-alone song, with music and lyrics by Gabriel. At one point, while "Supper's Ready" was being written and assembled, Banks or Gabriel had the idea of including "Willow Farm" in the middle of it. Banks commented that this jarring, fast-paced piece prevented "Supper's Ready" from seeming too much like a repeat of their earlier epic "Stagnation".
After the vocal section of "Willow Farm" ends, there is a reflective interlude, not definitely belonging to either "Willow Farm" or the following "Apocalypse In 9/8". It starts with bass pedal, electric guitar, organ and Mellotron drones, then proceeds with soft guitar and flute.
At this point, the drums enter, with the rhythm section striking out a pattern using the unusual metre of 9 beats to the bar (expressed as 3+2+4). The lyrics employ stereotypical apocalyptic imagery, alternating with an organ solo from Banks (played in 4
4 and 7
8 time signatures against the 9
8 rhythm section), then switching to a climactic vocal from Gabriel, and the Mellotron "three violins" tape set. Banks has said that his approach to writing the solo was to parody the style that Keith Emerson had developed with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In live performances, during the organ solo, Gabriel would don a bizarre "Magog" outfit with geometrical headdress which can be seen on the cover of the band's Genesis Live (1973) album. This headdress seems to be associated with the mention of Pythagoras-he of the Pythagorean theorem fame (Euclidean geometry). "Gabble Ratchet" is a reference to the Hounds of Hell; they are usually portrayed as geese, which explains the sound effect heard during this section (18:48–18:53 on Foxtrot). They are also known as "Gabriel's Hounds". The programme for the 1972/3 tour refers to this section as "co-starring the delicious talents of wild geese".
The programme describes this section as follows: "At one whistle the lovers become seeds in the soil, where they recognise other seeds to be people from the world in which they had originated. While they wait for Spring, they are returned to their old world to see Apocalypse of St John in full progress. The seven trumpeteers cause a sensation, the fox keeps throwing sixes, and Pythagoras (a Greek extra) is deliriously happy as he manages to put exactly the right amount of milk and honey on his corn flakes."
This segment was performed as a standalone once in 1978 and on the first leg of the 1986 Invisible Touch Tour as part of the "In the Cage"/"...In That Quiet Earth"/"Supper's Ready" medley.
"As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs" is a folklore variation of the logical tautology that "X = X" and in this context is a reference to certainty and faith—being absolutely convinced of the ultimate victory of good over evil and that God and Heaven do indeed exist. "Aching Men's Feet" is a play on "making ends meet". "Apocalypse" segues into this part via a slower section that reprises the lyrics from "Lover's Leap" in combination with the chord progression from "The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man", backed by a pressed snare drum roll and tubular bells. During live shows, a flash charge would be fired and Gabriel would discard his Magog costume to reveal himself in shining white apparel that glowed when exposed to black light. During one gig, he attempted flying on a kirby wire, and was nearly strangled. From this point to the end, drums, deep bass pedals and Mellotron brass are present, as are Blakean lyrics which reference The New Jerusalem (The Crystal City of God that is established after the death of the Anti-Christ) and the Second Coming of Christ with reference to the biblical Revelation 19:17: "I saw an angel standing in the sun. He cried with a loud voice, saying to all the birds that fly in the sky, Come! Be gathered together to the great supper of God."
After completing the lyrics in this section, Gabriel would pick up and raise an active blacklight tube, holding it near himself, upraised with both hands, as though it were a sword. Gabriel would be the only one lit onstage at this point and would actually appear to be glowing from the combination of blacklight, his reflective white costume and fluorescent makeup. Gabriel considered this effect to be a theatrical way of symbolizing the victory of good/light over evil/darkness.
The piece fades out on overdubbing cascading electric guitar parts. On the original recording this section is in the key of A, but because of Gabriel's inability to properly recreate the vocal performance onstage from either hoarseness or tiredness, the band regularly had to change the key to G.
The program describes this section as follows: "Above all else an egg is an egg. 'And did those feet ............' making ends meet. Jerusalem = place of peace."
This segment was performed as a standalone twice in 1978 and on the first leg of the 1986 Invisible Touch Tour as part of the "In the Cage"/"...In That Quiet Earth"/"Supper's Ready" medley.
The final song on A Trick of the Tail, entitled "Los Endos", quotes from this segment near the very end. As the band fades out, Collins can be heard singing "there's an angel standing in the sun" twice in succession, followed by "free to get back home" as the last notes disappear. These are the only lyrics heard in the song, which is otherwise instrumental; this quote has generally been omitted from live versions (except for Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited: Live at the Royal Albert Hall and Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith in 2012).
Live performances of "Supper's Ready" were preceded by Peter Gabriel telling a story. This is the story told at the Rainbow Theatre on 20 October 1973 (as released on the Genesis Archive 1967–75 set):
"Old Henry went past the pet shop, which was never open, into the park, which was never closed, and the park was full of a very smooth, clean, green grass. So he took off all his clothes and began rubbing his flesh into the wet, clean, green grass. He accompanied himself with a little tune—it went like this." [Gabriel briefly performs scat singing over Collins's drum accompaniment.]
"Beneath the ground, the dirty brown writhing things called 'worms' interpreted the pitter-patter from above as rainfall. Rainfall in worm-world means two things: mating and bath time. Both of these experiences were thoroughly enjoyable to the worm colony. Within seconds, the entire surface of the park was a mass of dirty, brown, soggy, writhing forms.
"He was still pleased, old Henry, and he began whistling a tune this time to accompany himself." [Gabriel then briefly whistles the beginning of the hymn Jerusalem.] " 'Jerusalem Boogie' to us, perhaps. But to the birds it meant that supper was ready."
On the 1976 tour for A Trick of the Tail, Mike Rutherford told a story to introduce the song.
On the 1977 tour for Wind & Wuthering, Phil Collins would tell Peter Gabriel's "Romeo and Juliet" story from "The Cinema Show" to introduce the song. In these stories, Juliet wore a "I Love Gary Gilmore" T-shirt and instead of saying "time for 'The Cinema Show'", Juliet said "I want to go because I'm hungry and 'Supper's Ready'".
During the 1982 tour, Collins told a story before the song. Often this story would tie in to the song itself, but on some occasions he told a Romeo and Juliet story instead.
During the 1982 Genesis reunion show, Gabriel told a story about a woman on a subway train (which he had told during the Foxtrot tour, and which had appeared on the Genesis Live album cover), slightly altered to segue into "Supper's Ready".
After 1982, only fragments of this song were played live by Genesis. During the first leg of the Invisible Touch tour in 1986, the band played the last two parts ("Apocalypse in 9/8", "As Sure As Eggs Is Eggs"). During the We Can't Dance tour in 1992, Collins suggested they play "Supper's Ready" in its entirety, but was voted down by Rutherford and Banks. Finally, on the Calling All Stations tour in 1998, Genesis performed an acoustic medley containing the first section.
The song was played live during the Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, A Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering, ...And Then There Were Three... (only played twice), Three Sides Live encore, Invisible Touch, and Calling All Stations tours.Tony Banks – piano, Hohner pianet, Hammond organ, Mellotron, treated piano, 12 string acoustic guitar, backing vocals, RMI Electric Piano (performances from 1973–77), ARP Pro-Soloist synthesizer (1973-1977 performances), Yamaha CP-70 Electric Grand Piano (1982 performances), Sequential Circuits Prophet-10 Synthesizers (1982 performances), ARP Quadra Synthesizer (1982 performances)
Phil Collins – drums, backing vocals, triangle, tubular bells, percussion, lead vocals on Seconds Out live version and most live performances from 1976 onward
Peter Gabriel – vocals, flute, bass drum, tambourine and oboe (original studio recording and 1972–74 and October, 1982 performances)
Steve Hackett – electric guitar, 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars and guitar effects (on studio recording and 1972-1977 live performances)
Mike Rutherford – bass, 12 string acoustic and electric guitars, cello, backing vocals, 6-string electric guitar, Dewtron "Mister Bassman" bass pedal synthesizer (on studio recording and 1972-1974 live performances), Moog Taurus I bass pedals (on live performances since 1976)
Chester Thompson – drums on Seconds Out version and performances from 1977–82
Daryl Stuermer – lead electric guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar and bass pedals on 1982 performances
Bill Bruford – drums on performances from 1976
In 1982, Tony Banks used the Yamaha CP70 Electric Grand Piano to replace the RMI Electric Piano he used in the 1970s, plus an ARP Quadra to replace the ARP Pro-Soloist, and lastly Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 synthesizers which were used to replace his Hammond Organ and Mellotron. He also played 12-string acoustic guitar on section 1. Also, Mike Rutherford played two different six string Fender Stratocaster electric guitars and bass pedals for most of track except for the first two sections which he used an Ovation 12-string acoustic guitar and then an Alembic bass guitar for "Willow Farm". Daryl Stuermer played a Martin 12-string acoustic for first section then switched over to his Suntec Stratocaster electric guitar at beginning of "Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man" for rest of song. Chester Thompson played drums and Phil Collins did lead vocals and then drums on "Apocalypse in 9/8".