Genesis & I: Part 1 –Discovery and Exploration

Several weeks ago (although it now seems like a lifetime ago) the internet was set abuzz by a cryptic message. An old black-and-white photograph of Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks hit Instagram on March 3, with the caption “And then there were three…” What could this mean? The world only had to wait until morning to find out, when the three gentlemen went on BBC radio to announce that their band, Genesis, was embarking on a reunion tour in November.

Immediately I yearned for tickets, but was rudely made aware that seeing Genesis this year would require purchasing airfare to the United Kingdom, since all the tour stops were there. That’s a long way from Toronto, and I’m not a rich man, so it looks to me like seeing Genesis in 2020 is not in the cards.

Strange, though, that this tour announcement came when it did. Amongst my friends and I, over the past few months, there seemed to be a degree of Genesis fever brewing. I tend to be drawn towards people with a mutual affection for music, and I was hanging out with a few in a neighbourhood pub featuring one of my favourite accessories – a TouchTunes jukebox. We traded guesses as to what the longest song in the jukebox’s enormous catalogue was, and I had to check if they had Genesis’ 1972 side-long opus “Supper’s Ready”. To my delight it was there, and I was ordered to put it on. Since then my friends and I have dedicated entire evenings to the band in all its evolutionary phases and offshoots, whether through jukeboxes or karaoke. It got to the point where my best friend got up on stage and muddled his way through the title track of their widely-maligned 1997 album Calling All Stations. As depressing as that song is, that night it provided heaps of fun.

If I’m being completely honest, though, Genesis has been a constant source of fascination to me since 1986. By that year, when I was 14-years-old, I had only been into pop music for a few years. For the entirety of the ‘70s I fed upon my family’s collection of classical, Broadway and easy-listening music. Sometimes a few of my aunt’s Beatles 45s would sneak their way in, but that was the exception, not the rule. My mother kept an easy-listening radio station on throughout the day that played a lot of orchestral “elevator-music” versions of the days hits, one of the most frequent being Genesis’ 1978 hit “Follow You Follow Me.” That limp rendition did nothing to spark my curiosity for the rest of the band’s oeuvre, let alone learn the band’s name.

The explosion of Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller album changed everything. Suddenly the pop music of the day was impossible to ignore. My older sister started to purchase her own records and cassettes, and I remember the one that introduced me to Phil Collins.

Against All Odds was a romantic thriller starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods. Director Taylor Hackford contacted Collins about recording a song for it, so Collins revisited a song he had written years before but had left off his first two solo albums. Its original title was “How Could You Just Sit There,” and like a lot of his earliest solo songs, he had written it about his crumbling first marriage. He retooled it, retitled it “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” and it took the record charts by storm. It hit number one in Canada on May 14, 1984, with a little help from my sister who brought home the 45.

As a 12-year-old weaned on softer music, I remember thinking it was a very pretty song, but I was struck by the rock edge Collins brought to his vocals on his last pass through the chorus. That was too much for my mother, but I found it interesting. I would soon have much more of Phil’s material to explore, as that song vaulted him to superstar status. The next year got off to a great start for him when his duet with Philip Bailey entitled “Easy Lover” hit number one in Canada, followed by the release of his megahit third solo album No Jacket Required, containing “Sussudio,” “One More Night,” “Don’t Lost My Number” and “Take Me Home.” In the midst of that he topped the charts again with another duet, this time with Marilyn Martin, called “Separate Lives” from the movie White Nights. By this point Collins was one of the biggest musical stars in the world. I certainly was enjoying his work.

Now you may still find it strange that I still showed no awareness of Genesis’ existence in 1985. I don’t know how to explain it. After all, their 1983 self-titled album was a big hit, and more than a few of my classmates enjoyed singing “It’s no fun being an illegal alien…” around the schoolyard. I honestly made no connection between that song and Collins, and that was also true when the band Mike + The Mechanics first showed up in late 1985. I remember my sister’s best friend was quite fond of their song “Silent Running.”

In May of 1986 Peter Gabriel, of whom I had never previously heard, released his fifth solo album entitled So, and the first single from it was “Sledgehammer.” The song and video blew my mind, and I wasn’t alone. The album became one of the biggest hits of the year, and I was eager to find out where this fascinating singer came from.

The very next month saw the release of Genesis’ new album Invisible Touch. I remember the first time I heard the title track on the radio, I thought it must be a new Phil song. But then I saw the video. It was Phil and the guy from Mike + The Mechanics, and the band was called Genesis. They were in a band together? Believe it or not, it was true, and the band had been around for a long time. Clearly I had a lot to learn. As the songs “Sledgehammer” and “Invisible Touch” gained heat that summer, I heard deejays mention that Peter had been the first lead singer of Genesis, and I had a hard time imagining it. Phil and Peter seemed like such different singers, and would Gabriel ever sing a song like “Invisible Touch”?

So that was how I first became aware of Genesis, when the band and almost every alumnus had found their greatest commercial success. Even their former lead guitarist Steve Hackett had a minor hit that year when his band, GTR, scored with “When the Heart Rules the Mind.” Unless you favoured Bon Jovi or Madonna, Genesis and Peter Gabriel owned 1986 and 1987. So spun off more hits like “In Your Eyes”, “Big Time” and “Don’t Give Up”. Invisible Touch sent “Throwing It All Away”, “Land of Confusion”, “Tonight Tonight Tonight” and “In Too Deep” into the top ten. For both Peter and Genesis, 1986 and 1987 represented a commercial peak they would never recapture.

I liked all those hit songs fine, but a deep dive into both those albums was a fascinating experience for me. The radio and video edit of “Tonight Tonight Tonight” slices out a lengthy exploratory instrumental passage, which builds the song’s mysterious and menacing mood. The album’s longest song, “Domino”, consists of two movements featuring long instrumental passages. To me, this showed a level of sophistication I was unaccustomed to from a lot of rock and pop in the mid ‘80s. The album’s closer, “The Brazilian”, features no vocals at all, but is a brilliant slice of trippy spaciness.

Similarly, So displayed Peter’s willingness to push against the boundaries of pop and rock, and allow different musical influences from around the world to filter in. “Sledgehammer” opens with the lone warble of a shakuhachi flute, an instrument native to Japan and ancient China. “Red Rain” has a grandeur found more in Rachmaninoff concertos than the pop and rock songs of the mid 80s. And “In Your Eyes” concludes with a striking vocal contribution from Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. After the love song builds to its feverish climax, N’Dour sends his voice up above the delicious gumbo the band has cooked up, singing in his native tongue. Not only was “In Your Eyes” a radical departure from “Sledgehammer”, it was probably the first touch of non-Anglo Saxon sound I had ever heard on top 40 radio.

Hearing such sounds had an especially big impact on me. While my mother is Canadian, my father was Greek, and he would take over the radio on Sundays because there was a station in Toronto that would broadcast an entire program in his native language. While everyone knows about bouzoukis and dancing in a line, what a lot of people don’t realize is the profound effect the Ottoman Turks’ occupation from 1453 to 1821 had on Greek culture, from cuisine, to fashion, to music. A lot of the sounds I would hear on Sundays bore no resemblance to either classical music or pop. In North America, I feel we take for granted how much we view the world through a purely Western lens. When I heard Youssou’s African singing on “In Your Eyes,” it felt like a huge cultural shift. It showed me that Peter was an artist who was open to inspiration from anywhere.

What I likely didn’t realize at the time was how much the men in Genesis approached their music like classical composers. There are so many songs throughout Genesis’ long history where a musical phrase – a theme – is introduced, and the song progresses from there, exploring variations on that theme, eventually returning to the original theme. Classical compositions like Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz and The Moldau by Bedřich Smetena are notable examples of this. Genesis would often run that same concept over the course of an entire album – 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1976’s A Trick of the Tail and 1980’s Duke all do this. It probably surprised very few people when the band’s keyboardist, Tony, released a classical album entitled Seven in 2004 performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He has since release two more classical orchestral works, the most recent being 5 in 2018.

I suppose, since I spent my childhood weaned on classical music, I may have been predisposed to pop and rock musicians who approach their craft in a similar vein. None of the men in Genesis showed any reluctance to straying from typical rock and pop song structure. When they did adhere to that structure, they turned out some quality songs, but I appreciated that wasn’t all they did.

After So and Invisible Touch ran their respective courses with their tours and singles, it took a while for me to dive further into the catalogue of the band and its members. Phil’s was the easiest to follow since he was a bonafide superstar. He starred in a 1988 movie called Buster, and the soundtrack kept him in the public ear with a pair of chart-topping hits – “Groovy Kind of Love” and “Two Hearts”. The following year he released his fourth solo album, …But Seriously. The first single, “Another Day in Paradise” was an enormous success, and like everyone else, I bought the album, but beyond that first single, there was wasn’t much more for me about which to get excited. I think, by this point, when left to his own devices, Phil was too eager to embrace pop. There is too much of a straight-forwardness to all of the music on …But Seriously, leaving me yearning for the adventurousness that was in his previous music, with or without the other members of Genesis. That album was the last solo project of Phil’s I ever purchased.

It took Peter three years to follow up So, and when he did it was with the soundtrack of a controversial film called The Last Temptation of Christ. The film’s director, Martin Scorsese, came under considerable fire for bringing this story to the big screen. It depicted Jesus Christ questioning his own divinity and facing continuous challenges from Satan, and is an adaptation of a 1955 book by novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, who endured campaigns to have him excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church based on what many saw as blasphemy. As scandalous as the story may have been, Peter’s soundtrack, entitled Passion, won critical acclaim. One of my favourite television shows at the time, The New Music, declared the video for one of the album’s songs entitled “Zaar” as one of the greatest of the year. As I listened to the song, I noticed it bore some trademarks of Peter’s sound as I discovered it on So, but it was deeply steeped in the musical traditions of the Middle East. With Passion, Peter was chasing his fascination with non-Western sounds from the region in which Jesus’ story took place. It’s an exploratory album, and not commercial in any way. “Zaar” was featured in Peter’s 1990 collection Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats, which gave me a concise overview of his entire solo career. By this time he had become an artist whom I held in the utmost regard, and I still do.

Phil returned to Mike and Tony in 1991 to release We Can’t Dance, Genesis’ long-awaited follow-up to Invisible Touch. Predictably it was a huge hit. “No Son of Mine” was the first single, and I appreciated its use of a repeated groan which contributed to the song’s moodiness. It turns out that it’s from a recording of Mike playing the guitar, but Tony sampled it, slowed it down and manipulated it to make that groan. Unconventional techniques like that will always win my respect. Further singles like “I Can’t Dance” and “Jesus He Knows Me” are fun, but the album is just too long and bloated. Running an hour and 11 minutes, the only Genesis album that’s longer is 1974’s double disc offering The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It doesn’t take too much deliberating to figure out which songs could have been trimmed. Still, a deeper dive reveals some more gems. “Dreaming While You Sleep” has a menacing groove, while “Driving the Last Spike” and “Living Forever” carry on the band’s tradition of “journey songs” which guide the listener through different landscapes and themes. We Can’t Dance still stands as the last album Tony and Mike made with Phil.

In 1992 Peter finally released what was hailed as his true follow-up to SoUs. I immediately adored this album. I honestly believe “Come Talk to Me” is one of the greatest album openers ever. Songs like “Digging in the Dirt,” “Blood of Eden” (a duet with Sinead O’Connor) “Love To Be Loved” and “Secret World” reveal that Peter was writing about an unravelling relationship. These are achingly personal songs, laying his soul bare. Us became one of the defining albums from my time in university, and I made sure to grab tickets when Peter announced a tour. Before his Toronto date, he stopped by Saturday Night Live to perform “Steam” and “In Your Eyes,” ratcheting up my excitement for the concert even more. The June 24, 1993 show at the Dome is still among the top three shows I’ve ever experienced. He rose out of the ground in a telephone booth singing “Come Talk to Me,” pulling the phone receiver further and further out of the booth as the song progressed. For “Digging in the Dirt” he wore a helmet with a surgical camera mounted to it, projecting an odd close-up of his face as he prowled the two stages joined by thin catwalk. The second encore was his anti-apartheid classic “Biko,” the foundation of which is a propulsive drum beat, and by the end Peter had the entire audience raising a fist in the air and singing along to its primal wordless refrain. Then, one by one, the performers would leave the stage, their fists still raised. Finally, Peter left, leaving only drummer Manu Katché pounding away, until the lights finally dropped. The Toronto audience cheered so loud and so long, Peter came back on stage all by himself to do a third encore at the keyboard. It was “Here Comes the Flood” from his first solo album in 1977. I don’t think many other cities were treated to a third encore.

By this point, I had become so fascinated with Peter’s career that I picked up his third and fourth solo albums. Phil played drums on the third, which came out in 1980, and the song “Intruder” is seen as the moment when Peter, Phil, producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham created the “gated reverb” drum sound, one of the defining sounds from 1980s rock and pop. When Phil released his first solo album, Face Value, the following year, it was with Padgham in a producing role, and the song “In the Air Tonight” launched the gated reverb drum sound to global prominence.

Personally, I think Phil’s second solo album, 1982’s Hello, I Must Be Going!, is his best. The opening track, “I Don’t Care Anymore” has the gated drum sound in full effect, but I also love the anger and menace with which Phil sings it. (I refer to this era as “Angry Phil.”) “Thru These Walls” also features gated drum, however it throws in a very unusual keyboard line, and I hold it up as one of Phil’s most unconventional and best solo moments. “Like China” has a strong guitar riff, and Phil affects a snotty teenage personality as he tries to woo a girl clearly out of his league. It’s songs like these that leave me bewildered as to why his straight-forward cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the only thing the public remembers from this album anymore.

But, no matter how much I enjoyed Hello, I Must Be Going!, I didn’t connect with it nearly as much as I did with Peter’s third and fourth solo albums. Peter’s sense of adventure and need to explore are on full display on both of those albums, particularly on songs like “Intruder,” “The Rhythm of the Heat,” “Family Snapshot,” “Wallflower,” “Lay Your Hands on Me” and “Biko.” Peter is a master at building a sonic atmosphere with just a spare piano chord, a drum beat or the warble of a shakuhachi flute. Yet, when he was compelled to, he could deliver tight and punchy pop songs like “Games Without Frontiers,” “Shock the Monkey,” “Kiss of Life” and “I Have the Touch.”

I needed to explore further, and radio made some exploration easier than other. The back catalogue of the Phil-fronted Genesis, including such songs like “Follow You Follow Me, “That’s All” and “Misunderstanding” were on the radio all the time. It’s fair to point out that the hit singles don’t represent all the sonic territory the trio covered, but I was more interested in hearing what Genesis sounded like when Peter was the singer.

Around this time I came to own a book called Rock n Roll on Compact Disc by David Prakel, which gave a track listing for some of the most important albums by some of the top artists in the rock genre. Because the book was released in 1987, it focused on the audio quality of the then new technology of compact discs, but I was more interested in the information about the artists and their works. Prakel is from England, so the book’s perspective is uniquely British. (There is an entire section devoted to Status Quo.) It was interesting for me as a Canadian who came to rock and pop relatively late to find so much more weight given to the Peter-led years than the Phil-led years. Prakel doesn’t bother reviewing any of the band’s albums following 1980’s Duke, simply stating that they became dominated by Phil’s drum sound. This sense of dismissiveness towards Genesis’ modern-era was somewhat new to me, but Prakel’s reverence for the band’s 70s output, along with his detailed notes gave me suggestions where to look next. He wrote particularly highly of their 1974 concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, an album that failed to break the top 40 in North America (a fact that clearly didn’t matter to Prakel).

I got my first chance to sample that album in the early 90s. CHUM FM, one of Toronto’s most popular radio stations, had a show on Sundays from 9 to 10pm, during which they would devote a half an hour each to two different classic rock albums, and on this one occasion they featured Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Peter’s final turn with the band. I was confused by what I heard. It sounded light years away from what any member of Genesis, former or present, were doing in the 80s and 90s. The modern-age Peter could tackle weighty matters like apartheid and sing from the point of view of an assassin, but on Lamb he describes “vermillion snakes” and a colony of pustule-covered beings called Slippermen. I found it all a little much, however there were some songs that shone out. The title track has this bigness and flashiness about it, suggesting the gaudiness of Broadway. It doesn’t really resemble any Genesis song before or since. At the other extreme is “Cuckoo Cocoon” whose arrangement is so spare, it possesses such an intimacy that it feels as though it was recorded in a closet. However, “Carpet Crawlers” stands head-and-shoulders above anything else on this double-disc offering. As bewildered as I was on that Sunday night, I had to recognize the majesty of that song, and the passion with which Peter sang it, along with the drama of Mike and Steve’s constantly cascading 12-string guitars. Since that night, I’ve grown to appreciate the entirety of The Lamb more, but I still think “Carpet Crawlers” stands out as one of the band’s finest and most unique moments.

After that half-hour sample of The Lamb was over, I had no luck hearing Peter-era Genesis on the radio, so I went inside the big HMV on Yonge Street in Toronto, and looked to see what early Genesis they had. All I found was one cassette of their 1970 album Trespass, so I picked it up. When I unwrapped it, I noticed that neither Phil or Steve were on this album. It also predates Tony’s acquisition of a mellotron – most of his keyboards resemble a church organ on Trespass, giving all the songs a very dated feel. There are still some very good songs on the album. “Looking for Someone” begins the album very powerfully, shoving Peter’s awesome voice to the forefront. “Stagnation” is universally credited by the group members as being their first true journey song, and “The Knife” became their first concert staple, even getting performed to cheers a dozen years later when Peter reunited with Genesis one last time to cover some enormous debts incurred by the World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival. Trespass is an album I respect because of the development it began, but it’s not an album I love. It’s also the last one they made with founding member Anthony Phillips, about whom I knew absolutely nothing.

Around this time a little thing called the internet took the world by storm, and made excavations of a rock band’s history so much easier. Suddenly there was so much more information about the band available to me than ever before. In my next blog, I’ll go deeper into how Genesis came to be, and how their various evolutions and phases made them one of the most unique entities in the history of rock.