Hey, wanna know what made me feel super old today? The realization that I got the Genesis album Invisible Touch for Christmas… 25 freaking years ago. That is a quarter of a danged century. How is that even possible?
I still remember receiving Invisible Touch quite clearly. It was more or less the first album I’d ever received as my very own; previously, I’d shared the vinyl copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that the U.S. government required all households to own with my brother, and I’d almost received “Weird Al” Yankovic’s In 3D for Christmas the previous year. I say “almost” because my parents bought me a copy of In 3D, but when I went to listen to it I discovered there had been some sort of tragic manufacturing error at the Columbia Records plant and the In 3D cassette shell enclosed the tape of some lugubrious country-western album. I’d say it was the worst Christmas disappointment ever, but I guess I wasn’t too broken up about it since I returned the defective tape and swapped it out for, I think, some G.I. Joe figures rather than a replacement tape.
I was disappointed to have received Invisible Touch, too, because I’d asked for Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required instead. I suppose my parents assumed one Phil Collins album was as good as the next. This isn’t true at all, and I assumed that fact even back then, but for incorrect reasons. Phil Collins, it turned out, was much better in Genesis than on his own. Invisible Touch set me down the path of listening to pretentious, overwrought music that I still travel to this day.
I find it difficult to measure the true shape of this album as an adult. It looms so large in my perception that it defies all sense of perspective. Not only did it mark the beginning of my true interest in music, it also remains one of the single most successful albums of all time. Of the eight tracks on the album, only two never enjoyed heavy pop radio rotation and a trip to the top of the Billboard charts. And that’s probably only because one of those was an instrumental while the other was more than 10 minutes long. Between Invisible Touch and No Jacket Required, Phil Collins’ voice was the most common sound on the radio in the middle of the ’80s. Imagine if Lady Gaga were the name of Katy Perry’s side project; that should give you a pretty good idea of how pervasive the man was. A short, pudgy, bald British man with a nasal voice and a musical personality split between Motown and British prog rock ruled the airwaves. The ’80s were kind of weird.
Invisible Touch is an amazing album. It balances precariously between pop confection and genuine musicianship, though neither in a pure form; the poppiness is mitigated by moments of smart artistry (probably due to the contributions of keyboardist and dominant writer Anthony Banks), while the later is muted by the album’s extremely ’80s production values. I’m pretty sure it was recorded on real instruments, but you’d never know it to hear it: Invisible Touch is all synthesizers and drum machines, plus guitars and live drums that have been so heavily processed (thanks to Collins’ and producer Hugh Padgham’s shared love of gated reverb techniques) that the whole thing sounds like British robots marching to conquer the world through pop tunes. Envision a Dalek on Top of the Pops. That’s Invisible Touch.
And yet, it’s great. The pop songs do their trick by being infectious and memorable: The title track has a simple, memorable hook; “Land of Confusion” hints at the darkness of Collins’ breakout hit “In the Air Tonight” but is far denser and more danceable (and it had an amazing, not to mention amazingly dated, video); and ballads “In Too Deep” and “Throwing It All Away” are slow without being entirely torpid. Meanwhile, the album’s centerpiece, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” is a masterpiece of atmosphere and isolation that demonstrates the moody potential of the ’80s’ cold, mechanical production values… and also of ’80s crassness, since it was quickly cheapened by being licensed to peddle bad beer on TV. Basically, this album is the ’80s, and anyone who says otherwise needs to shut up and watch the video for “Land of Confusion” again.
The real revelation of this album, though, wasn’t just the fact that “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” secretly ran eight minutes long when it wasn’t chopped down to fit radio slots. No, it was that eight minutes was nothin’… not when the B-side played host to a song, “Domino,” that was even longer. Sure, they labelled it as two tracks, but the truth was pretty obvious. I had no idea that people could write songs so lengthy! Songs about nightmares where people drown in blood while police sirens blare outside the window in real life. “Domino” fascinated me, and when I slowly began to realize that it wasn’t the only epic-length song ever recorded (nor by any means the best or most interesting), my obsession with artsy-fartsy rock music was forever cemented. This album more or less defined the things that would obsess me five years later in high school. For better or for worse, my receiving this instead of No Jacket Required had quite an impact on me.
But good lord, 25 years ago? I demand a recount.