By request: Collins-era Genesis

By request of john.beyer

This past weekend, the topic of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video came up in a dinner conversation.

“It was pretty weird,” said a friend.

“Yeah, but that’s Peter Gabriel for you. Back when he was with Genesis, he used to go out on stage dressed as a flower, or as a fox wearing a red dress.”

She paused. “Peter Gabriel was in Genesis?” she asked.

And there we have the perfect basis for musical elitism. Peter Gabriel did indeed front Genesis for the first six years of the band’s existence, when it was fairly obscure and aggressively intellectual in tone, but most people know of Genesis as Phil Collins’ band. Under Collins, several albums went platinum or better, including Invisible Touch, a chunk of music that was essentially ubiquitous between 1986-87. I think every track from Invisible Touch charted in the U.S. save for the instrumental that wrapped the album. Under Gabriel, on the other hand, the band charted once, briefly, in the States. They muddled along in progressive rock inaccessibility throughout the ’70s; in the ’80s, they ruled the airwaves.

Obviously, then, Collins’ Genesis was creatively bankrupt, unlike the exquisite genius of Gabriel’s era. Or so a considerable portion of the band’s fan base says.

But no. That’s needlessly reductive, not to mention inaccurate. Genesis didn’t sell out because Phil Collins is a hack; they sold out because they started getting old and decided that maybe it would be awesome to become multi-millionaires after 15 years of constant touring and recording. After 15 years of publishing this site, I’d be happy to sell out for a few million bucks, too.

Phil Collins may have fronted the band, but he never led it. He was always an outsider — Genesis began as a group of upper-crust school friends who pooled their resources and formed a rock group. Collins hailed from a different social stratum and joined after the band’s second album, Trespass, in response to auditions for a drummer. He ended up taking over as lead singer not because everyone rallied around him once Gabriel left to spend more time with his family and explore different musical directions; he took over because he already performed a fair amount of vocal duties for the band and sang the parts better than any of the auditioners looking to replace Gabriel. And if the band’s music began to take on more of a Collins style once he scored a few solo radio hits, well, that’s because Collins’ bandmates knew where the money was.

Collins did change the tone of the band, though. He spun yarns rather than weaving mysteries. He went out onto stage as himself, not as costumed characters. He put a softer edge on the vocals. He played to the audience rather than orating at them.

Still, the primary writing duties for Genesis’ music originally fell predominantly to Gabriel and keyboardist Anthony Banks. When Gabriel left, Banks became the dominating force for the band — to the point that guitarist Steve Hackett left after two albums out of frustration; none of his compositions were being picked up. That had a far greater impact on the sound and style of the band than Collins’ taking the frontman slot. Hackett’s atmospheric style and extraordinary skill pushed Genesis away from mere pop music; when he left, bassist Mike Rutherford took on double duty as guitarist. But his strength was bass, and his guitar work was far less adept and adventurous than Hackett’s. The band’s sound simplified by necessity, because Rutherford couldn’t replicate Hackett’s style. In concert, backup guitarist Daryl Stuermer would perform Hackett’s guitar parts on archival songs but play bass on songs for which Rutherford had originally played guitar.

Not surprisingly, the best albums of the Collins’ era were the two created as a quartet in the immediate wake of Gabriel’s departure: 1976’s A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. (That is to say, both were released in 1976.) While they abandoned the overarching narrative that defined Gabriel’s final albums with the band (Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), Trick and Wuthering didn’t lack for substance. At the same time, though, they were far more approachable on a musical level, with strong production and a notable lack of the obscure or experimental instrumentation Gabriel preferred — his main musical contribution to the band’s was playing flute, and with him out of the picture Genesis took on a less ’70s sound, a more rock-style sound.

For his part, Collins seemed perfectly content to double duties on drums and vocals while not playing a key role in the band’s creative direction. He was the last member of Genesis to go solo — everyone else in the group’s history had recorded at least one solo album by the time Face Value rolled around in 1981 — instead spending his free time drumming for fusion jazz group Brand X. Of course, when he did finally go solo, he scored several massive hits right out of the gate: “In the Air Tonight” and “I Missed Again” remain standards in contemporary radio rotation, which is more than you can say for anything from, say, Smallcreep’s Day or A Curious Feeling.

Before long, Genesis began to adopt more of Collins’ trademark sound: Not just the drum machines and the percussive production style courtesy of Hugh Padgham, but more nods to American musical roots. Genesis wasn’t the most British of the prog rock bands — I’d give that distinction to either Gentle Giant or Caravan — but its English roots always showed through in its crisp, prim, sometimes aloof sound. The cultural clash between Collins’ tastes and his Genesis bandmates’ came through in the two very different versions of “Behind the Lines” recorded for Genesis’ Duke and Collins’ Face Value: The former is a big, synthesizer-heavy arena rock anthem that segues into two further songs as denouement, while the latter turns it into an upbeat, disco-influenced bit of fluff backed by a brass section. Collins loves Motown, and it wasn’t until he scored a few hits that his influences finally crept into Genesis.

But it’s not as though he had constantly been lurking in the wings, waiting to water down the band’s sound into accessible pop. Genesis’ first two minor ballad hits — “Your Own Special Way” and “Follow You Follow Me” — were both credited to Rutherford, not Collins. Genesis as a whole wanted to rule the airwaves, yet it was only Collins who understood the mechanics of making that ambition real. (Though in fairness, Rutherford did eventually crack the code, creating a few radio standards under the auspices of Mike + the Mechanics right around the time something from Invisible Touch and Collins’ Face Value was in rotation on an hourly basis, absolutely cementing the Genesis hammerlock on the mid-’80s.)

And it’s not as though Collins’ stint as lead singer immediately sank the band into the depths of artistic vacuity. 1980’s Duke is a masterpiece. Abacab from the following year has a few rough patches but bristles with innovation and imagination. 1983’s Genesis had its missteps (most notably the unthinkably racist “Illegal Alien”) but also sees the band rocking its hardest ever with “Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea” while at the same time embracing Collins’ affection for R&B with the ubiquitous FM standard “That’s All.” And Invisible Touch is a masterpiece of pop craftsmanship, a tour de force of ’80s sound — and sight, thanks to the spectacular musical videos the band created for it (including “Land of Confusion,” which consists entirely of puppets satirizing key ’80s celebrities and politicians).

The weirdest thing that happened under Collins’ stewardship, as it were, was the prevalence of videos about the making of that video — a gimmick Collin seems inexplicably drawn to for some reason.

I know Phil Collins is an easy punchline — ha! ha! Fat short bald guy who writes schmaltzy love songs easily digestible by suburban white people! But the 15 years he spent as the lead singer of Genesis made him very rich while at the same time producing a lot of truly excellent music. Generally speaking, the music that made him very rich wasn’t the same as the truly excellent stuff. But the band had room for both crowd-pleasers and  in its lineup; even in their final tour, with three radio-ruling albums to include, they still squeezed some of the obscure material. And one of the band’s final radio successes was “I Can’t Dance,” an uncharacteristically minimalist ditty making fun of commercial consumerism… and an awfully hypocritical one, given the way they sold out “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” for a beer commercial.

Not a flawless band, but a more artistic and ambitious one than many are willing to give credit for.

5 thoughts on “By request: Collins-era Genesis

  1. Haven;t thought about any of these musicians in ages and now all I want to do is watch their videos and unbury my old tapes and CDs (or finally grab their stuff on mp3).

    Thanks for the great read and walk back into old memories, Jeremy!

  2. Aw, I expected this to be an article about a particularly poorly-planned sponsorship deal for the console.

  3. man, that genesis version of Behind the Lines is excellent. i need to hear that whole album, i think.

  4. As much as I come here for the smart video game analysis, I stay for the pieces about the prog rock bands.

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