This is the second part of my exploration of the band Genesis. The first part dealt with how I came to discover the band, and my ensuing efforts to dig into the band’s catalogue, as well as the careers of individual members. You can read that here: https://dimetrealexiou.com/2020/04/29/genesis-i-part-1-discovery-and-exploration/
Having made my initial forays into Peter Gabriel-era Genesis after listening to a sampling of 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and picking up a cassette copy of 1971’s Trespass, I was getting a better sense of the full breadth of Genesis’ sound. With the advent of the World Wide Web and sites like allmusic.com, I came to learn so much more about Genesis’ fascinating history. I learned that Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips met at Charterhouse School, one of the most revered boarding schools in the United Kingdom. The four of them found music as an outlet for their rebellious tendencies, but were in two different groups. Eventually they fused the two bands into one called Anon, and recorded a cassette to give to a Charterhouse alumnus named Jonathan King, who had found considerable success in the music industry through hit songs like “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” and “It’s Good News Week”. He was intrigued by what he heard, Peter’s voice in particular, and in 1967, gave them a deal through his publishing company. He renamed them Genesis to reflect the beginning of his own career as a producer.
A debut album, From Genesis to Revelation, was released in 1969, and is a surprisingly credible collection of 60s pop rock performed by five teenage boys. (They burned through their fair share of drummers before finding Phil Collins in 1970. When King gave them their deal, Chris Stewart was the drummer. The drummer on the first album is John Silver, and the drummer on Trespass is John Mayhew.) Nevertheless, From Genesis to Revelation only sold a total of 649 copies, and according to Tony, “We knew all of those people personally.” Following this lack of success, King’s interest in Genesis waned, and Peter, Tony, Mike and Ant (as the others call Phillips) regrouped to focus on a new musical direction. They came up with the songs that would make up Trespass, played shows wherever they could and landed a new record deal with Charisma Records.
Apparently, before recording Trespass, Ant suffered from bronchial pneumonia and his doctor advised him to leave the band. Nevertheless, he joined his bandmates in the studio and enjoyed the experience. He did not get far, however, in the tour to promote the album. Even before Trespass, Ant was suffering from serious stage fright which he hoped would pass. Instead it got worse, and only weeks after the completion of recording, he told the rest of Genesis that he was quitting.
What never occurred to me as a fan who only now was finding out more about the band, was how much of a crisis Ant’s resignation was for his bandmates. In interviews Tony credits Ant with being both the leader of the band and the “rock star.” Mike was particularly close to Ant, and now that he was out, both he and Tony have said serious consideration was given to ending Genesis right then and there. Decades later Mike would attest, “Of all the changes we’ve been through, surviving Ant leaving was hardest.” This is the same band that lost Peter in 1974 and Steve Hackett in 1978, so you can’t downplay the impact of Ant’s departure. Their roadie and friend from their Charterhouse days Richard Mcphail told them there was no way they should quit, and that they had something special. Peter and Mike decided they wanted to move forward with Genesis, and Tony agreed on the condition that they find a new drummer who could bring more creativity to the rhythmic side of the band.
Ant’s departure closed the first era of Genesis. With the placement of an ad in Melody Maker looking for a drummer and a guitarist, we now enter the age of what many refer to as “the classic lineup,” but, for my purposes, I’ll call them “the quintet.”
Phil turned out to be just the drummer they were looking for – versatile in a way none of their previous percussionists were. He was well-versed in jazz, yet he would also go see Yes perform at the Marquee every week. With their new drummer, yet still without a lead guitarist, Genesis headed out as a four-piece, both to promote Trespass and try out some new material. One of the new songs they tried out was called “The Musical Box,” based on a 12-string riff Ant had devised. With Phil behind the skins, Peter, Tony and Mike were confident to attack their songs with renewed energy since their drummer was able to handle any tempo change the band could throw at him. “The Musical Box” showed Genesis off and running like never before.
Steve Hackett came on board as lead guitarist, and “the classic lineup” was in place. He was willing to go places unventured and weird with his guitar, and was technically proficient in every way. This lineup’s first album, 1971’s Nursery Cryme, is proof positive. His solo on “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” feels like it’s been ever-present my entire life (which it has, since I’m one month younger than Nursery Cryme). Steve calls the technique “tapping,” and it consists of a steady stream of staccato notes. It’s a solo you’d never hear from any other rock band. Steve isn’t a flashy guitarist. He’s more focused on making a song everything it can be than making himself the show, and that made him the perfect guitarist for Genesis.
With Nursery Cryme, the band had a new swagger and confidence, but, except for in France and Belgium, had not found a mass audience. The quintet appeared on Belgian TV performing “The Musical Box,” “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and “The Fountain of Salmacis”, which featured Tony’s new mellotron to gorgeous effect. Watching these performances, you can’t help but respect the virtuosity of every member of the band and feel like they were on the verge of great things.
Foxtrot, from 1972, proved to be Genesis’ breakthrough in the United Kingdom, and listening to it in 2020, it’s easy to hear the quintet coming together as a truly cohesive unit. They were making their boldest musical statements yet. Foxtrot opens with some majestic mellotron swells from Tony, which get punctuated with some syncopated rhythms from Phil, and the intro builds into a grand sonic spectacle setting the stage for Peter to sing “Watcher of the Skies.” The sound feels more substantive than anything on their previous works. But the pièce de résistance is the album’s second side. After Steve’s lovely acoustic guitar piece “Horizons” the remainder of the side consists of a massive 23 minute opus called “Supper’s Ready,” one of the most ambitious pieces of music any rock band has ever produced. It’s Genesis’ ultimate “journey” song, winding its way through seven different movements, from romance to comedy to apocalypse to salvation. “Supper’s Ready” brings up another way Genesis took a step forward with Foxtrot: the emergence of Peter’s theatrical performance style.
The cover art for Foxtrot features a figure wearing a red dress but possessing a fox’s head. Peter got an idea in his head that he wanted to try out during a show, but he didn’t clear it with his bandmates beforehand because he knew they would quash it. On a night when the band were performing in a boxing arena in Dublin, during a long instrumental passage in “The Musical Box” Pete ran off, only to re-emerge in time for his next vocal section wearing one of his wife’s red dresses with his head covered in a full fox’s mask. Apparently, the shockwave that shot through the audience was palpable, but the band finished playing the song. There were arguments following the show, but Peter’s dissenters quieted down when Genesis ended up on the cover of Melody Maker the following week. Vindicated, Peter added more costumes to the band’s live show, wearing luminescent make-up and batwings for “Watcher of the Skies” and a wide assortment for “Supper’s Ready” including a full flower costume for the “Willow Farm” section, and then a black robe and triangular mask for the malevolent “Apocalypse in 9/8.”
Something that I think gets overlooked about this period of the band is Peter’s role in introducing theatre in rock n roll. Popularly, the two figures that win credit for incorporating more theatrical elements into rock music are David Bowie in the United Kingdom and Alice Cooper in North America. Both Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Cooper’s School’s Out are from 1972, the same year as Foxtrot. Bowie’s show was more alien and sexual, while Cooper’s followed more of a Grand Guignol horror tradition. Yet Foxtrot got all the way up to number twelve in the UK charts and that year’s tour was a grand success. Peter’s performance worked in elements of science fiction and fantasy, which may have made Genesis a less hip band than Bowie’s or Cooper’s at the time, but I don’t think Peter’s contributions should be overlooked.
Foxtrot brought Genesis their first taste of mass success, and they went into production on their next album committed to taking another step forward. Tony added his first synthesizer to his keyboard arsenal, and Peter wanted to write about the commercialization of English culture. Phil, who was listening to a lot of jazz fusion pioneers the Mahavishnu Orchestra, pushed the addition of weird time signatures. The result was Selling England by the Pound, their biggest hit yet, marching all the way to number three on the UK charts. Not only was the album a success, but it produced their first hit single, “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” a Beatlesque number built around a rhythm Phil and Steve goofed around with during rehearsals. Easily one of their more conventional songs since their teenage years with Jonathan King, it reached the dizzying heights of number 21, but only in the United Kingdom.
I picked up a turntable about fifteen years ago, and I took to scouring second-hand vinyl stores. Genesis albums weren’t hard to come by, so I was able to pick up all these Peter-era albums at bargain prices. Of all of them, I have connected the most with Selling England by the Pound. Listening to interviews, it seems like the sessions held minimal tension, and the resulting music shows the quintet operating as a perfect working unit. Everyone gets time to shine on this album, and the results are glorious. The opening track, “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” begins with an a cappella lament from Peter, asking “Can you tell me where my country lies?” but as the band joins in, the song takes several turns, using a guitar phrase from Steve as a signpost, transforming it each time. Peter goes on to describe a society living far beyond its means and needs, going so far as to sing about a “fat old lady outside the saloon” playing games with her deck of credit cards. Genesis are as tight as can be on this track, hitting time signature changes at the drop of a hat, and incorporating jazz elements into their instrumental passages, making “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” one of their best journey songs ever. As strong as the album opens, it ends equally brilliantly. “The Cinema Show” starts with some pretty 12-string guitar arpeggios, as Peter describes a working woman getting ready to go out for the night, then a young man heading out to impress her. From there the music picks up tempo as Peter’s lyrics grow more oblique until finally Tony takes control with one of his most dazzling keyboard solos and the band heads into a full gallop. Eventually, the music slows, and we slide into the album’s closing number, “Aisle of Plenty” which brings back the melody from “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” and Peter sings of an old woman heading home at the end of the night, alone, as some deadly nightshade grows. It brings the album full circle as Steve plays his guitar phrase from “Moonlit Knight” as the record fades to a close.
But, for me, the true highlight of Selling England by the Pound is “Firth of Fifth.” It’s probably Tony’s foremost tour de force, kicking off with a dazzling piano melody which eventually gives way to Peter pontificating about people failing to see the paths laid out before them. The imagery in his lyric is powerful, but, admittedly, this song isn’t Peter’s. Sure enough we head back into a long instrumental passage led by Tony, reprising his keyboard melody from the beginning, but this time giving his synthesizer a workout. The band brings the song to a feverish height, with Phil laying down some amazing drum fills to build the tension, until Steve takes over, letting “Firth of Fifth” set into a glide as he plays what is arguably his most famous guitar solo. It’s a truly gorgeous moment showing the band in perfect comfort with one another. I would probably hold “Firth of Fifth” as the quintet’s finest moment, with “Carpet Crawlers” coming in a close second.
Steve has said in interviews that the tour for Selling England by the Pound was the first to visit North America, and it was during a week-long engagement in Los Angeles that he arrived at the feeling that he was playing guitar in the greatest band on the planet. Certainly, in 1973, Genesis had few peers. They had matured into one of the leaders in progressive rock. Their live show was one of the most dazzling of the period. Unfortunately, there were forces threatening to tear them apart.
I wasn’t aware of all the forces that made the recording of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway such an unpleasant experience for the band. Some tension was sown by the media, who treated Peter as the star and the rest of the band as simply his backing band. Filmmaker William Friedkin, the toast of Hollywood after directing The Exorcist, was interested in forming a community of creative artists to brainstorm together and generate ideas, and he invited Peter to join. Peter was very interested, but the rest of Genesis reacted negatively, saying he had to choose between Friedkin or the band. According to Phil, Peter actually left the band, but Friedkin rescinded his invitation because he didn’t want to break up Genesis. So Peter came back to work on the new album, but he wanted complete control over the album’s narrative and lyrics. He had a story to tell about a Puerto Rican youth named Rael living in New York City and embarking on a journey of self-discovery. This changed the writing process that had previously existed within Genesis. While all five members would bring their musical ideas to be fleshed out with each other, the lyrics would be divided between Peter, Tony or Mike, depending on who brought the main musical idea forward in the first place. As the material for The Lamb was being developed, it seemed like Peter was becoming more separated from the band but, tragically, it wasn’t for purely creative reasons.
The writing sessions took place at Headley Grange in Hampshire, England, but Peter’s wife was far away in London and went into labour with their first child. The birth couldn’t have gone worse, with both the mother and the baby’s lives in jeopardy. The situation had Peter going back and forth between London and Hampshire, and his other youthful bandmates will now freely admit that they weren’t the least bit understanding. They were all about getting the album made, while he clearly saw that the lives of wife and baby were more important. That conflict surely had Peter looking for an exit, but he dutifully managed to finish his work on the album.
The Lamb took Genesis on an extensive tour around the world, and brought them to a wide audience in North America. (The double-disc set got up to number 15 in Canada and number 41 in the States.) A lot of that had to do with the stage show which had gotten more elaborate than ever before. Throughout the concert there was a series of slide projections, but because they were working with mid ‘70s technology the slideshow rarely proceeded like it was supposed to. Peter’s costumes were another matter altogether. For the song “The Colony of Slippermen” he emerged from a giant phallus wearing a grotesque rubber outfit covered in lumps and boils. For some in the band he had taken the costumes far past reasonable lengths. As Phil said decades later, “The worst was ‘The Slipperman’ where he came through this inflatable dick dressed in this horrible outfit which sometimes got a little bit stuck on the way out, and on the times that he did make it out the microphone could barely get near his throat. And then he was out of breath. There are a lot of words in that song…. He hadn’t really thought it through.”
Nevertheless, and regardless of the feelings of anyone inside Genesis, the fans were loving it. The Lamb had brought Genesis to a new peak of success, bringing them to the forefront of ‘70s prog rock alongside Pink Floyd and Yes. Those fans were not ready for what came next.
In November of 1974 during a concert date in Cleveland, Peter told his bandmates he was leaving Genesis at the conclusion of the tour, which came in May 1975. In August Peter sent a statement to the British press claiming that he had become disillusioned with the music industry and that he wanted to spend extended time with his family. In response, the music press openly wondered if Genesis had a future without their charismatic frontman. As collaborative as the creative process had been behind the scenes, the media and the public viewed Peter as the star of the show. Everybody may have been dazzled by Tony’s keyboard runs, Steve’s guitar solos and Phil’s drum fills, but with all of his costumes, storytelling and presentation, Peter was viewed as the singular element that set Genesis apart from their peers.
After he left the group, Peter undertook a “learning period,” during which time he studied piano and took music lessons. By the end of 1975 he recorded demos and wrote twenty songs. He was taking some tentative steps towards beginning his solo career, but his departure put a definite end to Genesis’ era as a quintet. It was time to see what a quartet could do.
As unsure as Peter’s footing might have been after leaving Genesis, his bandmates were on equally unsteady ground. Steve, uncertain of Genesis’ ability to continue, headed into the studio by himself, and with the release of Voyage of the Acolyte in 1975 became the first Genesis member to put out a solo album (even though Phil and Mike contributed their talents). Phil formed a jazz fusion band called Brand X with some musicians he met while drumming on a Brian Eno album. But the remaining quartet reconvened in London in 1975, and it was decided that the least they could do was try to jam and get some writing done, and after three days they were pleasantly surprised with the results, with the basis of “Dance on a Volcano” and “Squonk” providing evidence that they could still produce the goods. They went into a studio and laid down all the instrumental tracks, and set about auditioning a new singer. Over 400 candidates submitted for the position. Rumour has it that Nick Lowe sent in a tape. Supposedly another singer named Noel McCalla was shortlisted, but didn’t get it; he would later sing on Mike’s first solo album, Smallcreep’s Day, in 1979. Apparently Mick Strickland of a band called Witches Brew actually was called in to sing “Squonk” but wasn’t comfortable with the key. Seeming to have exhausted all the candidates, Phil proposed that he have a crack at “Squonk.”
Everyone in the band knew that Phil could sing. He sang lead on the Nursery Cryme track “For Absent Friends” and again on the Foxtrot song “More Fool Me.” He was depended upon to provide backing vocals for Peter. It was already planned that Phil would sing the main vocals for the gentler songs like “Ripples” and “Mad Man Moon” on the new album, but he hadn’t been seriously considered for the more strenuous numbers. Besides, they needed him behind the drumkit, and that was honestly where Phil was happiest. But if they hadn’t yet found a singer, Phil was game to try, if only to get “Squonk” recorded.
He sang the song, and it sounded good, so he recorded a vocal for another song, and then another, and before anyone knew it, he had sung the entire album. The quartet then went through a half-hearted process of looking for a singer to take the album on the road. Phil’s then-wife asked him why he wouldn’t do it, and it was then that he figured he may as well give it a shot.
The quartet’s first album, A Trick of the Tail, debuted to enthusiastic reviews and sales in 1976, and became the first Genesis album to crack the top 40 in the United States. The Phil-fronted quartet debuted in concert in London, Ontario in March 1976 (with Bill Bruford from Yes and King Crimson sitting behind the drumkit), and was enthusiastically received. Looking back, it’s amazing that the transition went as smoothly as it did. Phil attributes it to the fans rooting for him to do well since he came from within the band, and his new role allowed Genesis to survive. Tony thinks that Phil’s reluctance to perpetuate Peter’s eccentricities may have made the band suddenly more palatable to a wider audience.
I like A Trick of the Tail. I can do without “Robbery, Assault and Battery”, but “Ripples”, “Dance on a Volcano”, “Squonk” and “Los Endos” are all good songs. Still, I can’t help but want more out of Phil vocally when I listen to his ‘70s-era Genesis work. Yes, he’s hitting the notes, but he’s not really emoting. To me, he’s doing his best to fill a big Peter-shaped hole in a dam. A few years would have to pass before he would take that next step with his singing.
The next year the quartet released Wind & Wuthering, an album I prefer to A Trick of the Tail, even if it’s less-fondly remembered. It’s a bit unusual in that most of the songs were written by Tony, Mike and Steve before work on the album started, and jam sessions were used only to firm up some instrumental passages. Mike’s sweet love ballad “Your Own Special Way,” made some movement on the charts in Britain, but, for me, the album highlight is “Blood on the Rooftops” written by Steve, but with a co-writing credit for Phil. It has a very romantic melody, and a clever juxtaposition of light and dark imagery – “Blood on the rooftops… Venice in spring.” The lyrics deal with the sense of helplessness and confusion that comes with the consumption of news media, something that makes the song more pertinent today than it was in 1976. Quirkier numbers like “Eleventh Earl of Mar” and “Wot Gorilla?” lift this up as one of their strongest efforts from the late ‘70s. Not only is it one of Tony’s favourite Genesis albums, it’s also one of Steve’s. It’s also the last one on which he worked.
Steve came into sessions for A Trick of the Tail bereft of written songs, having used them up on his solo album. He arrived at sessions for Wind & Wuthering overflowing with songs. Of the album’s nine songs, he has a co-writing credit on four of them, which ties him with Mike. Phil has two (he’ll admit that he wasn’t really a songwriter at this point), but Tony has six. Hackett was particularly proud of a song he’d written entitled “Please Don’t Touch,” which Genesis rehearsed but ended up leaving off the album. This really stung Steve, particularly since so many of Tony’s ended up making the cut.
Now, I don’t know if you can tell by my name, but I’ve never been British. English society has a nasty reputation of being class-based. I don’t know if it’s become less so since 1976, but I imagine that there were remnants of it around back then. Tony and Mike came from a posh boarding school, while Phil and Steve were from more working-class backgrounds, and there seemed to be an attitude in the group that Phil and Steve were “junior members,” even years after they had joined the group, as if Genesis were still some sort of Charterhouse School project. Perhaps Tony and Mike felt that being founding members gave them ownership, or perhaps they weren’t aware that they set up a class structure within the group. I’m not accusing anyone of being a bad person; Peter went to Charterhouse, and he’s one of the people on the planet I respect the most. It just seems to me that at this point in the group, Steve was trying to rise above being a junior member and be seen as an equal with Tony and Mike, while Phil, even though he was now singing, was comfortable doing whatever was needed to make Genesis function while Tony and Mike called the shots. If Phil had frustrations, he now had Brand X to vent his jazz-fusion steam. But, for Steve, the rejection of “Please Don’t Touch” had left a scar. He had dared to rise above his station, and had been slapped back down.
The tour for Wind & Wuthering was very successful, leading to their first television appearances in North America along with getting booked at Madison Square Garden. Their dates in Brazil were attended by over 150,000 people, and another with a proposed 100,000-person audience had to be cancelled due to fears of rioting. They were such a sought-after concert act that a double-live album was cobbled together from their tours for both A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering, selling under the title Seconds Out.
That set was getting mixed in the studio, and Phil was in the process of hailing a taxi to head over when he saw Steve. He waved at him and invited him to hop in, but Steve refused saying, instead, that he’d call him later. When Phil got to the studio, Mike and Tony informed him that Steve had quit Genesis, bringing an end to the age of the quartet.
As surprised as Tony, Mike and Phil were at Steve’s departure, they lost no time in heading back into the studio. As before Wind & Wuthering, Mike and Tony entered the session with a wealth of material already written. Of the eleven songs that ended up on 1977’s …And Then There Were Three…, four of them were written by Tony alone, three were by Mike, and the other four were collaborations between two or all three of them. The album closes with another love ballad from Mike. (He was certainly in an amorous mood in the late ‘70s.) “Follow You Follow Me” is a very understated number, with a very simple melody, straight-forward lyrics, and is underscored with a punchy rhythm track. None of the three expected the song to be a hit, but it was their most successful single yet, reaching number 7 in the United Kingdom, 16 in Australia, 19 in Canada, and 23 in the States. The album came on the verge of cracking the top ten in Canada, peaking at number 11.
As successful as …And Then There Were Three… was, it’s not a favourite of mine. Phil’s singing is somewhat more expressive since A Trick of the Tail; he sounds pretty good on the opening track “Down and Out,” and I like the restraint he gives to “Follow You Follow Me”, but other songs like “Many Too Many” and “Ballad of Big” call for more vocal grit than he was willing to give at the time. Also, I think the album suffers from the lack of a longer “journey” song. Mike has said that by this time the three of them were eager to relax a bit and simplify their songwriting, which I don’t mind at all. I don’t mind Genesis’ poppier side, but I like that they never left their more exploratory sensibilities behind, and we don’t get much of that on …And Then There Were Three… “Burning Rope”, with it’s over 7-minute running time may have been their attempt at a journey song. While it doesn’t challenge previous Genesis songs for adventurousness, it does feature an impressive guitar solo from Mike, who assumed more string duties following Steve’s exit. From …And Then There Were Three… forward, Mike would play all guitars – acoustic, electric, bass, whatever – in the studio, and when it came to touring, he would receive help on guitars from Daryl Stuermer, while Chester Thompson would take the drum position that was vacated by Bruford.
Regardless of my opinion, the great success of “Follow You Follow Me” had made Genesis more popular than ever, which honestly was a bit strange. By this point punk rock was all the rage, especially in Britain, and artists like Johnny Rotten from The Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer from The Clash weren’t shy about throwing shade on bands they thought had robbed rock and roll of its fury, danger and sense of rebellion. They hated groups that emphasized virtuosity over attitude, taking the music into elite territory and away from regular people. Public enemy number one in punk rock circles was Genesis. The animosity directed their way caught everyone inside the band by surprise.
“I did think… ‘They’re not talking about us. They’re talking about those other bands that I don’t like either,” Phil remembers. “‘Let’s get rid of them other lot. They can’t be talking about us.’ Of course they were talking about us. I actually agreed. I loved all of that stuff.”
“I think it was a good time for music,” adds Mike. “I think A lot of bands got on stage who couldn’t make an album without spending a fortune and having all the big mixers and all the gear. Punk came in like, ‘I have a couple of amps, and just do it.’ I think it was very healthy. I think it was like shaking the apple tree – the good ones stayed and the bad ones came down.”
Their reaction to an entire musical community that relentlessly derided them shows their maturity, and just makes me admire Genesis all the more. They were also surprised to not only be finding success, but to simply be surviving, since so many of their prog rock peers, like Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were in decline. However, as per usual, just when Genesis had taken a step forward, something had to move them a step backward.
Phil’s marriage was on the rocks, and in December 1978 he decided to move to Vancouver to try and save it. Judging from his work schedule since Peter’s departure, it seems a wonder the marriage survived as long as it did. He had recorded three albums with Genesis, another three with Brand X, done three Genesis world tours, hit the road with Brand X, and done session work for artists like Eno. Obviously, music is what Phil loves, and his work ethic is to be commended, but a marriage requires presence. And Phil’s first marriage proved beyond saving.
Tony and Mike responded to Phil’s relocation to Vancouver by diving into solo work. Both Tony’s A Curious Feeling and Mike’s Smallcreep’s Day were released in 1979. Neither was a commercial or critical success, although both have grown in renown as time wore on. Smallcreep’s Day gave Mike the chance to record with Ant, this time on keyboards, for the first time in eight years.
Phil wasn’t in Vancouver long. By April 1979 he was back in Britain, and his bandmates were in the thick of their solo work. Playing on Peter’s third album and working with Brand X kept him busy, but he found he needed more of an outlet. So, he tried to write songs, and, naturally, they were inspired by his divorce. Once Tony and Mike were free from their solo work, they showed up at Phil’s house, and he showed them what he had been writing. Soon the trio were living under the same roof and working on a new Genesis album.
Because they had just completed their solo albums, Tony and Mike entered Phil’s house devoid of new material, making it a much different writing experience than either …And Then There Were Three… and Wind & Wuthering. Instead many of the songs on the next album, 1980’s Duke, rose out of improvisational jam sessions, much like they did on Foxtrot and Selling England By the Pound. Also, two brokenhearted songs written by Phil by himself ended up getting recorded – “Please Don’t Ask” and “Misunderstanding”. Becoming a songwriter had changed Phil in an obvious and unexpected way.
“I’d written all the (debut solo album) Face Value stuff by the time we wrote Duke, so I’d changed,” recalls Phil. “I’d become a songwriter, and I’d become more of a singer because I was singing songs I had written, and emoting – putting things out there.”
The leap forward in Phil’s vocals from … And Then There Were Three… to Duke is astounding. From the opening track, “Behind the Lines”, you can hear that he’s invested in what he’s singing. The way he bellows “Ah you let me dooowwwn!” in the song’s bridge is something you’d never expect from him before, and Mike and Tony’s playing rises up to match his energy.
Duke became the band’s biggest hit to date, hitting the top of the UK album charts, an unprecedented feat for Genesis. The disc also made it up to number two in Canada and number 11 in the United States. “Turn It on Again” hit the top ten in Britain and became an eternal staple of Genesis’ stage shows, while “Misunderstanding” hit the top twenty in Canada and the States.
Without discounting its commercial success, Duke is simply a fantastic album. I think it’s the first truly great Genesis album to come out since Peter’s exit. There is a cohesion within it that makes it feel like a complete work in a way the past few albums didn’t. “Behind the Lines” drifts into the gorgeous “Duchess” which transitions into the plaintive “Guide Vocal.” Themes established early on the album return to close it with “Duke’s Travels and “Duke’s End.” Phil’s singing is particularly powerful on “Man of Our Times” and “Duke’s Travels.” Tony is on record naming Duke as his favourite Genesis album of all time.
Duke’s massive success allowed the trio to buy Fisher Lane Farm, a farmhouse with an adjoining cowshed in Surrey, England, where they set up a rehearsal space and studio. This arrangement favoured the improvisational approach that had produced past gems as “Supper’s Ready”, “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” and “Turn It on Again.” From now on the trio would make it a habit to show up for Genesis sessions with as little pre-written material as possible. From now on, they would jam in the rehearsal space, and if they stumbled upon something that was working, they would record it in the studio. It was a perfect arrangement.
Phil’s first solo album, Face Value, hit the record stores in February of 1981, and, unlike Tony and Mike’s solo efforts, was an immediate hit, topping the charts in the United Kingdom, Canada and much of Europe, while getting into the top ten in the United States. Phil’s solo music emphasized rhythm and blues more than Genesis’ did, as seen on the album’s first single “I Missed Again”, but other material like “In the Air Tonight” showed that, when left on his own, he was still willing to go into experimental territory. Face Value’s success brought Phil to a wider audience, but he rejoined with Tony and Mike at Fisher Lane Farm only one month after that album’s release to work on a new Genesis project.
This, to me, speaks volumes about Phil’s character. Most artists, if they had achieved the solo success like Phil did with his first album, would probably have told their bandmates to take a hike, and gone the rest of the way on their own. It doesn’t seem like that ever occurred to Phil even once. He wrote the songs on Face Value as therapy for his crumbling marriage, and completed the project as a creative venture. His quick return to Tony and Mike showed that he didn’t take for granted the creative chemistry they had with each other. It just shows me that he’s a very grounded person.
As much success as Duke had brought them, everyone in the trio was feeling restless, and it’s unclear why. Phil has spoken about the residual effects of another music scene.
“We were trying to reinvent ourselves,” he says, “because punk had left some mark, and we didn’t want to be thought of as being stuck in that thing,” meaning whatever hoity-toity scene punks thought Genesis belonged to.
The release of Peter’s third album is likely to have sparked a yearning for reinvention. Phil was involved with those sessions which saw Peter completely strip back his sound and add in elements of world music and new wave. That had to be inspiring for Peter’s former bandmates to witness. Peter had grown, and it made the trio want to undergo a similar evolution.
But maybe the trio also wanted to rebel against the image their hardcore fans had of them. A switch in singer wasn’t the only change that occurred following The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The trio had grown more interested in crafting more concise songs, and had been eager to shed themselves of some of the trappings like extended keyboard solos and head-scratching lyrics that had come to be expected of them.
“It was a very conscious decision to break with some of the Genesis traditions,” Tony recalls. “Get rid of the reprises, the extended solos, the big choruses and the tambourines. Get a different approach.”
The resulting album, given the abstract title Abacab, was the last one with writing credits given to individuals. Each member of the trio contributed one solo composition on the album; Phil had “Man on the Corner.” Tony had “Me and Sarah Jane” and Mike had “Like It or Not.” The other seven songs came out of improvisational jam sessions, making them truly group-written.
Deciding to cut with the past and embrace a new approach gave the trio license to try things they never did before, and some of the jam sessions produced songs completely different than what Genesis was previously associated. The peppy yet lovelorn “No Reply At All” is a perfect example.
“I had been working with the Earth, Wind and Fire horns,” says Phil, referring to his Face Value recording sessions, “and I thought ‘If we’re going to reinvent ourselves, why not have some horns? There’s a song here that we’ve written that sounds like a kind of funky thing. Why not have horns on it? Who says we can’t have horns on it? It’s our fucking record!’ So we did it, and people hated it.”
A lot of the old fans really did hate Abacab. At one concert in the Netherlands the crowd booed every time Genesis played a song from the new album. Abacab has detractors to this very day. There is a YouTube channel entitled Notes Reviews which has produced not only a “Genesis: Worst to Best Albums” video declaring Abacab to be the bottom of the heap, but also a separate video singling out Abacab and exploring every fault the album supposedly possesses.
I personally love Abacab. I put it right up there with Duke as among the best work the trio produced. If I were to try to understand where the people who hate this album are coming from, I would have to assume they are holding on to preconceived notions of not only what Genesis are, but what progressive rock is supposed to be. These fans would not only bristle at the Earth, Wind and Fire horns, but the trio’s sudden affinity for drum machines. These things don’t bother me at all, probably because I initially became a fan of Genesis through more of a pop angle. However, now that I know more, the addition of horns and drum machines is consistent with their habit of seeking out new sounds and technology since way back when Tony introduced his first mellotron on Nursery Cryme. If you listen to interviews with members of Genesis, they were never really interested in adhering to the standards of any one particular genre of rock. There were always songs on every album that could have been considered more pop than rock. I think Abacab is the sound of the trio fearlessly being themselves. Sure, the hardcore fans should be appreciated for providing Genesis with a living all these years, but they can also box the band in with their expectations. With Abacab, Genesis took a very bold step which allowed them to further evolve and make the music they wanted to make.
I also think Abacab has songs that hardcore fans should be able to embrace. No matter what the group says, the album still possesses aspects that fit in with the Genesis tradition. Side Two begins with “Dodo/Lurker,” which fits in with their classic journey songs in terms of length and ambition. The title track features a lengthy keyboard solo. “Me and Sarah Jane” is another song that begins with one mood, but then travels to a completely different place.
What raises Abacab up so high for me, though, is that Genesis were exploring new ground. There really is a sparseness to the title track, and the way Tony interjects his keyboards is a bit unusual, but I appreciate that. It’s a song I couldn’t expect from any other group. “Keep It Dark” is one of my favourite Genesis songs, with a constantly repeating guitar riff from Mike which doesn’t seem to exactly match up with Phil’s drum beat, but the group doesn’t stop, producing an unsettling effect. It could be argued that “Keep It Dark” sees Genesis treading into New Wave territory for the first time. It’s exciting seeing a band of this vintage being open to new sounds, and still producing vital music. Yes, it’s miles away from Foxtrot, but if you’re willing to see it you can connect the thread.
“I can’t imagine us playing the same kind of stuff and music and sound as we did in the early ‘70s” Mike adds “If we’d stayed in the same place, I’d have been bored stiff years ago. You’ve got to move all the time, I think.”
Abacab followed Duke to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom. It hit number three in Canada and number seven in the United States. The title track was a top ten hit in Britain and Canada. “No Reply At All” was also a Canadian top ten hit, while both it and the title track managed to creep into the top thirty south of the border. “Keep It Dark” hit number thirty-three in Britain. Genesis had managed to experiment with their sound without losing a step commercially.
Following Abacab’s ensuing world tour, each member of the trio reverted to solo work, as would be the pattern from now on. The strategy seemed to be that songs written by each member would be targeted for solo projects, allowing them to return to Genesis with nothing but the urge to improvise and jam.
During this break from the band, Phil recorded Hello, I Must Be Going!, which I already discussed in my previous Genesis blogpost. (Here’s that link again: https://dimetrealexiou.com/2020/04/29/genesis-i-part-1-discovery-and-exploration/) Like Face Value, it topped the charts in Canada, peaked at number two in Britain and number eight in the States. Mike released his second solo album, Acting Very Strange, in 1982, and this time he opted to sing. That may have been a bad idea. The album sold very poorly, although the lead single “Maxine” made it to number 39 on the Canadian charts. Tony worked on the soundtrack to a film called The Wicked Lady, and in 1983 released a full solo album called The Fugitive, which saw him following Mike’s lead in singing for the first time. (A Curious Feeling featured vocals by Kim Beacon.) The Fugitive received mixed reviews and peaked at number 50 in Britain.
When the trio reconvened at the Farm, it was without any pre-written material. They both rehearsed and recorded in the studio space, allowing them to record their jam sessions as they improvised. A perfect example of this is “Second Home by the Sea”, an instrumental track founded upon Phil’s pounding away on a Simmons electronic drum kit. Tony and Mike noodled on top of the explosive beat all while being recorded. Afterwards, they played everything back and simply pasted together the best bits, and that’s what we hear. If they hadn’t bought the Farm, they wouldn’t have had the freedom to do that.
The trio were also free to try things they wouldn’t have before. Mike fed a drum machine through a gated reverb and a Mesa Boogie amplifier, and turned up the volume. The result was the crushing and piercing beat that opens the album. Tony played spooky chords over it before applying a sequencer effect to them, and Phil laid down a breathy off-beat vocal inspired by John Lennon’s cover of “Be-Bop a Lula.” While working on this song, engineer Hugh Padgham introduced them to an early hip hop tune called “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Phil had fun imitating rapper Melle Mel’s laugh from the song, and he was convinced to throw it into the middle of this Genesis tune. Phil tried it, and everyone in the studio loved it. All of this came together to produce “Mama,” possibly the trio’s greatest single moment.
The song that closes the album, “It’s Gonna Get Better”, originated when Tony sampled a classical cello recording and fed it into his synthesizer, but it malfunctioned. He played four notes simultaneously and out came this collage of interweaving harmonies. The sound fascinated him and he came up with the intro for this song, which Mike and Phil underscore brilliantly with a propulsive funky rhythm. I honestly don’t understand how this song didn’t become a hit.
Their set-up at the Farm also helped them to not overcomplicate songs. “That’s All” originated from a simple piano pattern that Tony was playing, and it reminded the trio of the Beatles. Phil laid down a Ringo-esque drumbeat and they recorded it quickly. It became Genesis’ first-ever top ten hit in the United States.
They apparently entitled the album Genesis to reflect how they wrote the entire album as a group. That was news to me. In the eighties it somehow became fashionable to self-title your albums. Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Duran Duran, Robbie Robertson, Lionel Richie… they were all doing it, and I couldn’t understand why. I always thought it was because they were too lazy to think of a title. (I suppose Peter may have started it….)
Genesis was another big hit for the trio, taking them back to the top of the UK album charts. They hit number two in Canada and number nine in the States. An interesting thing about this album is only two songs cracked the Canadian top 40. “Mama” peaked at number 38 and “That’s All” hit number ten, yet it’s the chorus of “Illegal Alien” that I remember my classmates singing. That song was released as a single, complete with a goofy video, but it wasn’t a big hit anywhere, only getting up to number 46 in Britain. Weird….
I don’t get as much from the self-titled album as I do from Duke and Abacab. I contend that “Mama” is a masterpiece. Any group would sell their souls to construct a song that powerful. “Second Home by the Sea” is a great instrumental jam, and “It’s Gonna Get Better” is one of the most criminally ignored songs of the ‘80s. But there are some songs here that seem beneath their capability. “Just a Job to Do” is easily one of the laziest songs I’ve ever heard from Genesis. Even if Phil’s vocal is on point, the rhythm Mike and Tony are laying down seems corny, and Tony’s synthesized horn blasts are a sin against nature. Similarly, “Home By the Sea” comes off, to me, as a lot of sturm and drang to sit through just to get to the instrumental climax of “Second Home by the Sea.” I still like Genesis, but I don’t love it.
The trio spent the rest of 1983 and the beginning of 1984 on the road touring and promoting the self-titled album. Following the tour, Phil recorded a song for a movie called Against All Odds, and, as I wrote in my previous blogpost, that was the first spark of awareness I ever had that a group called Genesis existed. You can check out that post to read about my reactions to 1986’s Invisible Touch and 1991’s We Can’t Dance: https://dimetrealexiou.com/2020/04/29/genesis-i-part-1-discovery-and-exploration/
Phil announced his departure from Genesis in 1996. The reasons why are unclear. The press release at the time simply said he felt a change was needed in his musical career. He’s also on record as describing the work on his 1993 solo album Both Sides as bringing him to “a place, musically speaking, that was the most fulfilling for me.” He also divorced his second wife in 1996, which likely had him in a mood to reassess matters. He actually made good on his commitment to change his music career, forming The Phil Collins Big Band soon after announcing his departure from Genesis.
Following this news, it would be completely reasonable for people to assume that was the end of Genesis. After all, Phil was one of the biggest names in all of music during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but on top of that the dynamic within the trio was very unique. Tony, prone to creating songs that wind through countless movements and go on for twenty minutes, pushed Phil, prone to creating punchy three-minute pop ditties, to expand, while Phil, in return, pushed Tony to contract. Mike represented the rock in the middle. If you take a part of that mix away, how could it work?
Tony and Mike agreed to go back to the Farm and see what the two of them could produce. They came out with the basis for some songs they were happy with and began the search for a singer, eventually settling on Ray Wilson of the recently defunct Stiltskin. They recruited a pair of drummers, Nir Zidkayu and Nick D’Virgilio, and in 1997 Calling All Stations was released to widespread apathy. Yes, it reached number two in Britain, but that made it the first Genesis album since 1978 to fail to reach the top spot in the United Kingdom. Stateside it was even worse. Calling All Stations was the first Genesis album since Selling England by the Pound to fail to crack the top 50 on the album chart.
Having listened to the whole album for the first time for the purposes of this blog, I don’t think it’s awful. Like many albums in the ‘90s, it’s way too long, running almost 68 minutes. I actually enjoy the contemplative “Not About Us,” and I think the title track, “Congo”, “There Must Be Some Other Way” and “One Man’s Fool” have their moments. But there is too much of a sense of sameness throughout the album, and while Wilson really pushes his voice for dramatic affect at times, he isn’t the most distinctive singer in the world. Seriously, he both looks and sounds like the lead singer of The Goo Goo Dolls, and when was the last time anybody thought about them?
A 27-date North American arena tour was booked, but when tickets failed to sell, it was cancelled. A tour of smaller venues was attempted, but then scuttled again due to poor ticket sales. This line-up of Genesis did manage a 47-date European tour which wrapped up on May 31, 1998, after which Tony and Mike gave Genesis a rest.
Phil reunited with Tony and Mike for a massive reunion tour in 2007, which I missed. Hopefully a particularly malevolent virus will be contained this year, leaving their current reunion plans for November intact, maybe allowing them to cross the Atlantic for some North American dates.
Having undergone all this exploration, I’ve noticed that most listeners are partial to just one phase of Genesis’ career. There are many who only like the early years with Peter because “that’s when they were really cutting-edge.” There are those that only like the trio because “that’s when they had all the hits.”
As for me, I find it all fascinating. I can’t think of another band from that time who evolved this much over their long career. The Rolling Stones? Sure, they evolved, but if you read Life by Keith Richards, you’ll see how much effort he exerted to maintain their roots in Chicago Blues, and the schism that erupted when Mick Jagger started bringing too many modern elements into their sound. AC/DC never really evolved, and that’s what their fans love about them. Pink Floyd mostly kept within their progressive rock boundaries. Queen evolved from their Zepplinesque roots, but I would argue that Genesis covered more musical territory throughout their lifespan.
Rush also evolved, incorporating jazz elements into their mix of prog rock. Rush also had a period in the 80s of which many hardcore fans complain when singer and bassist Geddy Lee spent a considerable amount of time behind a synthesizer. You could argue that Genesis never approached heavy metal as closely as they did, but Rush never dared to write pop songs. Of all the bands of which I can think, Rush may come closest to Genesis in terms of how much they evolved from the start of their career to the end.
What I admire most about every member who came and went from Genesis is that they allowed themselves to follow their musical muse wherever it took them, regardless of the expectations of their audience. I think that risk-taking attitude is something we can all strive to emulate, and why Genesis is a band that has my eternal respect.