Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 2: the Collins years

Last time, we looked at the first six Genesis albums, with Peter Gabriel in the lead singer role. When he left the band at the end of the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour, things did not look good for the quartet he’d left behind. But they decided to carry on without him, promoting drummer Phil Collins into the lead-vocal slot. Collins would go on to sing lead on eight Genesis albums, two more than Gabriel had — but were they good?

7. A Trick of the Tail (1976)

Out of the gate, I’d say the signs were very good. The first album of the Collins era feels very much like an organic continuation of the band’s previous work, almost like a direct sequel to Selling England by the Pound. The opener, Dance on a Volcano, is as jagged, experimental and rhythmically challenging as anything on the earlier albums, and rightly remained a concert favourite for many years: it opens the 1993 live album The Way We Walk, Volume 2.

Elsewhere, Entangled seems to be a medical nightmare, Squonk tells the tale of a curious creature that dissolves into tears when captured, and Mad Man Moon — one of my favourites — could be about anything or everything, but sounds gorgeous whatever it is. It highlights the essentially melodic nature of Genesis’s work, something that can occasionally get overlooked in among all the rhythmic changes and lyrical abstraction.

Arguably the album’s centerpiece is its title track, the story of a creature from a non-human culture who is captured by humans, imprisoned and put on show. He persuades his captors to journey with him to his own city, but the moment they they catch a glimpse of it, he vanishes and they are left without their prize. All this is told in a jaunty, cheerful style, and — crucially — from the perspective of the creature himself. When he describes his home city to his captors, it’s genuinely moving:

There beyond the bounds of your weak imagination
Lie the noble towers of my city, bright and gold
Let me take you there: show you a living story
Let me show you others such as me —
Why did I ever leave?

To my mind, the album ranks alongside the last four of the Gabriel era, making up the last of the quintet that have a real claim to the title of best Genesis album.

And what makes all this even better is that while Genesis were creating such fine music as a four-piece, Peter Gabriel was off writing and recording the first of a series of solo albums that were equally fascinating. His first — titled Peter Gabriel, as were the next three — would not be released until a couple of months after Genesis’s next album, but was well worth waiting for, a crazy variety-show of rock, doo-wop, theatrical experiments and music whose genre there is no name for: what, after all, is Moribund the Burgermeister?

So it seemed that the break-up of the classic line-up of Genesis, which first looked like a tragedy, was to result in an explosion of more creativity: the Gabriel-less Genesis and the Genesis-less Gabriel both freed to do their own thing, and doing it brilliantly.

8. Wind & Wuthering (1976)

The same quartet that had given us A Trick of the Tail went on, at the back end of the same year, to deliver Wind and Wuthering: an album for which critical opinion seems to be high, but which to me is a definite step down. The opener, The Eleventh Earl of Mar, is strong enough, and it’s followed by Banks’s even better tale of a warrior deserting a primitive tribe, only to find himself unwillingly set up as the ruler of another: One for the Vine. But after that, the rest of side 1 falls apart rather, with the relatively mundane ballad Your Own Special Way and the instrumental filler Wot Gorilla?.

Side 2 opens with a siller-than-usual playlet, this one about a mouse escaping a cat, but does contain two gems. Blood on the Rooftops is a strangely affecting domestic ballad, reflecting a comfortably distant despair at the state of the world and a nostalgic yearning for simpler times. Thematically it echoes Selling England by the Pound, but musically it enters new territory, opening with a nylon-string guitar introduction, and drifting into a wistful vocal that strenuously resists breaking out into Big Performance mode even in the chorus. The whole thing is intimate and introspective, and all the better for it.

And after two more rather inessential instrumentals, the album closes with another beauty (and long-term concert favourite): Afterglow, a surprisingly straightforward ballad with a distinctive propulsive pulse and an unexpected key-change for the chorus.

At the time, Wind and Wuthering seems to have been perceived and reviewed as being on a par with its predecessor; but to me, there is much less substance to it, due in large part to the diminishing influence of Steve Hackett whose guitar lines had so recognisably propelled the more inventive songs on earlier albums. Indeed, Hackett felt his ideas were being overlooked on the new album, and his disillusionment with Genesis quickly reached the point where he, like Peter Gabriel, walked out. Unfortunately, unlike Gabriel, he wasn’t able to make much of a go of his solo career.

9. And Then There Were Three (1978)

Gabriel and Hackett, two of Genesis’s most distinctive characters, were both gone by 1977. So when the band set out to record their 9th album, it was down to a trio of Banks, Collins and Rutherford, who picked up guitar duties alongside his work on bass. The resulting album’s name recognised this diminution: And Then There Were Three. Unfortunately, it also reflects it, with a selection of eleven mostly forgettable songs. Honestly, as I read through the track-listing now, I find myself completely unable to remember how more than half of the songs go.

That’s harsh, I know, but it’s based on having listened to the album more than a dozen times. If songs like Deep in the Motherlode and The Lady Lies, despite their evocative titles, have not yet left an impression on me, I think I’m entitled to wonder when they will. I will say, though, that both sides end strongly: side 1 with the album’s most involved composition, Burning Rope; and side 2 with the immediately likeable single Follow You, Follow Me.

The thing is, this is an album that I wanted to like, and I feel like I’ve given it every chance. It falls down because Rutherford’s guitar work, while competent, doesn’t have a tenth of the character of of Hackett’s. By this stage, Genesis are merely an amputated version of the band they used to be. There was a way to be a three-piece Genesis, and for that configuration to make sense; but Banks, Collins and Rutherford had not yet discovered it.

But then …

10. Duke (1980)

It was about 1982, I was about fourteen years old. I was one of the second clarinets in the Bishop’s Stortford wind band, and Katie Gould was one of the first clarinets. She was the first girl I was ever strongly attracted to. I won’t dignify my half-formed adolescent yearnings by saying I was “in love”, but that’s what it felt like. And just like million of other fourteen-year-old boys through the centuries, I handled these feelings competently and maturely by never saying a word about them to her. I doubt she remembers me at all.

But somehow, somewhere along the line, she gave me a C90 cassette with two albums on it: Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and Duke by Genesis — cut off near the start of the penultimate track, Duke’s Travels, because the album was too long to fit on a 45-minute side. And I mention all this because I wonder whether it leaves me inclined to assess Duke more positively than it warrants on its own merits.

But I think it does work, because — unlike And Then There Were Three — it sounds like the work of a three-man band, rather than a four-man-band that’s lost one of its members. There is a unity and a coherence to it that I don’t get from the previous album. The two break-out hits, Misunderstanding and Turn It On Again, while they bear very little resemblance to classic Genesis, do fit comfortably onto the album alongside more proggy songs like Cul-de-sac (about the invasion of the Earth’s surface by underworld dwellers) and Guide Vocal (a lament which to me reads like a sequel to Watcher of the Skies).

Maybe this is too kind. In among the more ambitious and interesting songs, Rutherford’s Man of Our Times is pointless and contentless, Collins’ Please Don’t Ask is straight-up maudlin. In fact — I’d not noticed this before — the three Banks songs are my favourites (Guide Vocal, Heathaze and Cul-de-sac).

11. Abacab (1981)

And this, for me, is where it starts to go unambiguously wrong. I prefer the Gabriel-era albums over the Collins ones, but I can see that the early Collins-era albums are really good in their own way (aside from the fact that I don’t seem to be able to get a grip on And Then There Were Three). But for the first time, with Abacab, a Genesis album feels merely like a less good do-over of the previous one, rather than something that’s pushing in a new direction.

With that said, there’s still a lot to like on this album. The rot may be setting in, but it’s not fully taken hold. Yes, the album features the atrocious Who Dunnit?, and follows that by ending with a trio of entirely forgettable songs. But the opening five songs are all pretty strong, some of them excellent. Keep it Dark tells a deliciously ambiguously story of a man who has either been kidnapped by thieves, visited an alien world, travelled to the future, had a spiritual vision, or suffered a hallucination — there’s really no way to tell which. Better still is Me and Sarah Jane, a charmingly meandering song that shifts through several moods to tell an off-kilter story of … well, I don’t know. Can anyone help me out? Anyway, whatever it’s about, it’s interesting — lyrically, melodically, rhythmically, harmonically.

And that’s the thing. In the glory days of Genesis, “interesting” was perhaps the single most consistent quality you could attribute to their work. By the time of Abacab, some of the songs are still interesting, but some definitely are not. And that is a trend that, sadly, will continue.

By the way, I notice that my favourite song on this album is once again a Banks composition — the only one, this time — and that I have little interest in the Rutherford and Collins compositions. But since they each get only one each, and the other songs were perpetrated as a team, that may not mean so much this time.

12. Genesis (1983)

By this point — ironically, given the eponymous title — essentially every trace of Genesis has now been eradicated. If you gave this album and, say, Foxtrot to someone who knew nothing about popular musical history, there would be nothing in common about the two that would cause that person to guess that they were by the same band.

And yet Mike Rutherford says it’s one of his favourite Genesis albums. And I’m not saying it’s bad, exactly. That’s All, for example, is a fine pop song — catchy, easy to listen to, a proper ear-worm. But not a Genesis song.

… except that, of course, it is a Genesis song, by definition. It’s a song by Genesis, making the music that Genesis presumably wanted to make. Who am I to dictate what kind of music they should make? Why should they be constrained in 1983 to make the same kind of music they were making a decade earlier? Wouldn’t that be musical stasis, a retrograde and constricting approach?

I’m sympathetic to that analysis, I really am. But here’s the thing: there is actually nothing constricting about the hugely exploratory and experimental music of early Genesis. Much as I love (say) The Return of the Giant Hogweed, Watcher of the Skies and Cinema Show, they don’t actually have that much in common — except for that questing spirit, looking for something musically and lyrically new. By contrast, the later Genesis retreats into a relatively small corner of musical space, emitting songs that increasingly sound like each other.

I think that’s a tragedy.

Addendum. After writing that, I thought to myself “That has to be too harsh”, and I listened through the album again. It’s not too harsh. Aside from the catchiness of That’s All, there’s basically nothing on the album for me to love.

13. Invisible Touch (1986)

See Genesis (1983).

Token concession: I suppose Throwing it All Away is OK, in a non-Genesis kind of way.

In the interests of honesty, I must mention that these albums sold like crazy. Duke, Abacab, Genesis and Invisible Touch — not to mention We Can’t Dance, which we’ll get to shortly — all went to #1 in the UK. Even more impressively given how much more insular music was in the 1980s, Invisible Touch reached #3 in America. It was certified quadruple platinum in the UK (1.2 million sales) and 6x platinum in the US (6 million sales) so plenty of people disagree with me about these albums.

Oh well. Turns out 7.2 million people can be wrong.

14. We Can’t Dance (1991)

It took five years after Invisible Touch for Genesis to record another album — most of that time spent just lying around, having toured in support of the previous album, then simply taken four years off.

I don’t know whether it’s just that my expectations had fallen through the floor by this point, but I do actually kind of like We Can’t Dance. Not properly like it, like Selling England or A Trick of the Tail, but I consider it up there with, say, And Then There Were Three or Abacab. I see it as a bit of  return to form — a last hurrah, or rather a penultimate hurrah if you count Calling All Stations (see below).

Maybe part of the reason this album is a step up is simply that the songs are longer, and have more time to breathe. Two of the songs top ten minutes, and a couple of others come in around six to eight. Yes, there are still throwaways: Jesus He Knows Me is the very definition of by-the-numbers pop, aiming at the softest of targets. But they’re in there with thoughtful compositions like Driving the Last Spike and Dreaming While You Sleep. And the title track, while insubstantial, has a really solid, distinctive feel to it: you couldn’t confuse it for any other song. And of all the slow ballads that infest the later Genesis albums, Hold on my Heart may be the best, with its mournful harmonic progression — though the mechanistic drums, presumably the work of a machine, stop it from being all it could have been.

What remains absent, as it has been on the last few albums, is vivid instrumental countermelodies or solos. Guitar solos of any substance went out with Steve Hackett back in 1976 — Rutherford is much more undemonstrative guitarist — but what puzzles me is what’s happened to Tony Banks, who lest we forget was responsible for all those crunchy mellotron chords and mono synth lead lines back in the day. It’s the same man playing on these later albums, but you’d hardly believe it: he really seems content to sit on synth pads and let Collins’ voice do all the work. Again, it’s not bad; it’s just so much less ambitious than the work he did in the past. I really wonder why.

Anyway, Genesis toured We Can’t Dance to huge crowds. The album didn’t sell quite as well as the previous one, but still reached #1 in the UK (selling 1.5 million copies) and #4 in the USA (selling four million). It was, by any standards, a massive hit.

15. Calling All Stations (1997)

Banks and Rutherford had thought that Phil Collins would leave the band after Invisible Touch, and had been pleasantly surprised when he returned to record We Can’t Dance after a five-year gap. But this time, their guess was right: after another long break, Collins did indeed go off to do his own thing, formally announcing his departure in 1996 and leaving behind just two members of Genesis. Most people assumed that that would be the end, but instead the twosome recruited singer Ray Wilson and started work on what would prove to be a final album.

Wilson had come out of nowhere, his only previous band having been the post-grunge outfit Stiltskin. He seemed an odd choice for Genesis — not least because his gravelly voice sounded nothing like either Gabriel or Collins. For all that, he’s a decent singer — limited in range, but with a fine tonal quality. He shows to best advantage on downbeat ballads like Shipwrecked, but arguably doesn’t really sell the songs that call for a more overt display of emotion.

Meanwhile, Banks and Rutherford keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last three or four albums — all interesting sound-beds but little in the way of memorable melody and none of the inventive instrumental soloing that marked out earlier Genesis. Songs like There Must Be Some Other Way summon up a degree of urgency, but remain somehow anonymous.

The whole album has rather a strange quality. Much of the while it doesn’t quite feel like their hearts are in it, and one might feel that Banks in particular is rather going through the motions for the want of something better to do. For all that, it never fails to sound good, in fact the production may be the best on any Genesis album. It reminds me, more than anything, of Chris Rea’s Road to Hell: beautiful but sort of boring.

A few years after the album’s truncated tour, Banks and Rutherford called Wilson and told him they didn’t want to continue … and that was that, bar some reunion tours with Collins in the 2000s that never yielded any new songs.

Calling All Stations is a strangely downbeat ending to the Genesis story. For all that I sort of like it — more than Genesis or Invisible Touch, anyway — there’s something ignominious about starting out in such a blaze of idiosyncratic creativity, and ending with such a lugubrious offering. I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that, artistically if not commercially, Peter Gabriel was far more successful after the post-Lamb split than the band that he left behind.

Forty years after their glory days, it’s easy to forget just what a force of nature Genesis were in the early 1970s. The run of four albums from 1971 to 1974 (that is, Nursery Cryme to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) were all so overflowing with ideas that any other band could have strung that material out into four decades worth of material. The many live performances from this era that have made it onto YouTube show just how far their music was from the mainstream, then or now; yet its sheer quality — its melodicism and fascinating textures — made it commercially successful nevertheless (if never to the same extent that the later, stripped-back sound, would achieve).

Their influence on music that’s followed has been enormous — not so much in the 1970s, as more recently, in the late 1990s and and into the 2000s, with the emergency of neo-prog and indeed prog-metal. Since what’s emerged from these genres is among my very favourite music, I owe those 1970s pioneers are great debt.

Genesis: we salute you!


11 responses to “Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 2: the Collins years

  1. Pingback: Genesis: a tragedy in 15 acts. Part 1: the Gabriel years | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. Jon Wensley

    As I went to Wembley to see Genesis during the “Invisible Touch” tour, I can clearly state that apart from the fact I saw Genesis live, I remember almost nothing about the event,

    Sums that one up really.

  3. I love that the album where things started “to go unambiguously wrong” for you is my favorite Genesis album. :) But I started with Collins-era Genesis and solo Peter Gabriel and found my way backwards to the early stuff.

  4. Well, NoJoy, of course a big part of what makes music so fascinating is that different people can perceive it so differently. But I’m honestly a bit baffled that an album with Who Dunnit?, and that ends so weakly, could be someone’s favourite of the fifteen!

  5. Histories of the band now seem to say quite openly that the first era saw Gabriel and Banks vying for pole position, which was part of the reason why Gabriel left. The part in ‘Supper’s Ready’ where Gabriel insisted on singing over Banks’ keyboard solo probably sums the whole thing up. But Banks was only briefly running the show, because Collins soon stepped forward and eclipsed him. And Collins’ approach was… well he once said himself “fuck it, let’s sell out.”

  6. I’d not heard that about a Gabriel/Banks competitive dynamic. (I guess I didn’t do a lot of research for this, I mostly wrote what I feel about the actual music.) Interesting. Do you have a reference?

  7. Gabriel dubbing his vocal over Banks’ keyboard solo, and the subsequent less-than-enthused response, has been referred too quite often, for example here. His generally being in conflict with Gabriel, mostly from a BBC documentary, don’t know if that’s on YouTube or wherever. There’s a bit where they’re lined up for some retrospective Q+A, they’re asked where the friction came from (or something similar), and Gabriel immediately points to Banks.

    In the prog days, this being before effects pedals could do what they can today, it was easier for the keyboardists to move outside the standard ‘rock’ sound, so they could get acclaim. There’s probably a reason with Emerson got named first in ELP. However, Banks never really sang lead and it’s notable he ceded authority to the two successive vocalists. Which is about as rock band as you can get, the front man being the main man.

  8. My story is very much like NoJoy’s except that I started with the Genesis album. I listened to it for one of the first times on a long dark car journey in the rain and it always brings back memories.

    I think of Genesis as being two different bands with Duke being the album where they pivoted from one to another. I consider Calling All Stations to be a solo project which happens to have two of the band members on it. Without Phil it’s just not Genesis.

  9. Pingback: Paul Simon: Paul Simon (1972) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  10. Pingback: What I’ve been listening to in 2018 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  11. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 41 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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