This is neither the time nor the place to mount a serious defense of progressive rock, or as it is most commonly known (and shall be referred to heretofore) “prog rock”. I am definitely not the person to make such an argument: as a rule, I generally can’t stand the stuff. Get away from me with your Emerson, Lake and Palmer; forget your Yes; don’t even start with the Rush. I ain’t about to hear it, no sir.
Prog rock is perhaps the least well-regarded subgenre of rock & roll in the music’s history. You’d have to work pretty hard to get any further from the music’s origins in the sweltering Memphis recording studios of Sun Records. Rock and roll — and hip-hop and house and outlaw country and any other derivate you can bother to mention — always works best when it keeps at least a jaundiced eye on the primal grime and gristle of its forerunners. Prog rock is what happened when a bunch of English college students got it into their heads to amputate rock music from its proletarian roots and tart it up with the ambitions of “fine” art.
All of this is of course quite ironic, because the critical and artistic establishments never cared for the enervated excess of prog rock to begin with: the music’s heyday was brief, and unlike almost every other genre to be created in the cyclical history of pop music, it has never really come back into favor. There are, of course, always some exceptions — but even the neo-proggy likes of Coheed & Cambria and the Mars Volta carry themselves with a punk-infused rock-star swagger that remains diametrically opposed to the deracinated psuedo-intellectual twaddle of, say, Tarkus or Tales from Topographic Oceans. As no less an eminence than Robert Christgau once said in reference to Yes, “what flatulent quasisymphonies!”
So, what are we doing here with a giant box of “classic” Genesis on our desks? Haven’t we just spent the previous 300 words or so delivering as boisterous a dismissal of 1970s prog as possible? Well, yes — and I know you can hear the “but” coming — but… Genesis is slightly different. Yes, they had the 20-minute song “cycles” and the classical allusions all up in their lyrics, but they also had a few other things that their proggy peers did not: specifically, they had Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins.
Genesis formed in 1967, when the four founding members were still schoolboys. Originally consisting of Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, and Anthony Phillips (and the drummer Chris Stewart, who quit in the first year), the band went through three different drummers in as many years (and once offered the revolving slot to Queen’s Roger Taylor) before settling on Collins in 1970. About that time Anthony Philips left the group, to be replaced by Steve Hackett on guitars. This was the band’s lineup for the five year span between 1970 and 1975, the fertile early period that included the release of 1972’s Foxtrot and 1974’s ambitious The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Lamb would be Gabriel’s final album with the group before embarking on his successful solo career, leaving Hackett, Rutherford, Banks and Collins on their own.
Which is where our story begins, with the release of 1976’s A Trick of the Tail. In Gabriel’s absence Collins assumes lead vocal duties for the first time. Another major, albeit much subtler change can be heard in the production of David Hentschel. Whereas previous Genesis albums had sounded uniformly murky and dour, Henschel, who had served as engineer on 1971’s Nursery Cryme, brought a much brighter, more polished sound to the group’s album’s. This played to their new strengths: Gabriel’s lyrical and musical preoccupations had been murky, complex and distraught, so the soggy production could be justified on those terms. But as soon as Gabriel left the tone of the music changed as well. Gabriel had been that rare prog rocker whose erudition seemed earned and passionate, not awkward and silly: the remaining members would be best served as they steered further and further away from attempting to replicate Gabriel’s distinctive songwriting voice. The newfound sonic clarity reflected the tentative new directions found in the group’s songwriting.
Genesis – Dance on a Volcano
It’s hard to overestimate how heavy Gabriel’s shadow looms over the proceedings, on A Trick of the Tail and especially 1977’s Wind & Wuthering. Gabriel’s songwriting, while definitely much more literate than it had any need to be, appropriated with confidence from both classical and contemporary sources — he could go from the Bible to William Blake to T.S. Eliot without missing a beat, and the imagery of his lyrics was well-grounded in English history from the medieval period through the Victorian era. Whether or not this kind of excessive erudition was necessary is besides the point — the fact was that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could write those kind of songs and sound anywhere near as good as Gabriel. (For an example, see just about every other prog rock album ever recorded.) To his credit, Gabriel eventually grew out of writing those kinds of songs as well. But hearing Collins and Co. aping Gabriel’s antiquarian preoccupations on songs like Tail’s title number (something about a circus freak with a lion’s tail), and the entirety of Wind & Wuthering (based on thematic selections from Wuthering Heights, for goodness’ sake) seems more than a little sad, like a man wearing a hand-me-down suit three sizes too big. It’s too baggy, it doesn’t fit right, and he keeps tripping over his own cuffs.
Tail gets the nod for being slightly more energetic than Wuthering: “Dance on a Volcano” and “Robbery, Assault and Battery” swing with a propulsive groove that belies their arty pedigree and seems just barely to hint at something less consciously daft in the impending future. “Squonk” is a fun proto-metal tune as well. Wuthering, however, simply doesn’t work at all: despite repeated listenings I have found the album simply impenetrable, filled with pretty instrumental filigrees but pretty gutless in execution. If anything, the album seems in retrospect to be the last hurrah of their overtly precious prog tendencies. It’s like they simply had to get the idea of writing about Wuthering Heights out of their system before they could go one step further.
Well, so be it. Steve Hackett left in 1977, upset over perceived inequalities in songwriting duties. This left only Rutherford, Banks and Collins, and the group’s first album as a trio would be 1978’s appropriately titled …And Then There Were Three… As might be expected considering the circumstances, the album is still something of a mess, definitely the product of a band that didn’t know where it was going, and was still uncomfortably adrift between what they had once been and what they wanted to be. “Down and Out” is fierce and uncharacteristically angry, with a dense sound that seems to nod to the then-nascent synthpop movement with its hard synthesizer sounds and assaultive drum patterns (musically, if not spiritually, it’s pretty close to the likes of Heaven 17). “Undertow” is an example of the continuing streamlining of the band’s songwriting style: whereas this kind of uplifting, emotional ballad would probably have been ten minutes long with numerous suites and tempo changes on a past album, here’s it clocks in at less than five minutes.
Genesis – Follow You, Follow Me
Brevity suited them, and so did simplification. Although the album suffers from a tendency towards repetitive songwriting (“Down and Out” and “Undertow” are very much the templates for almost everything else here), one song broke the mold, and in the process became their biggest single to date. “Follow You, Follow Me” was a Top 40 hit in the US (#23) and a Top 10 hit in the UK (#7), and pointed towards a new, much more successful direction. Gone forever were the band’s worst prog impulses, to be replaced by a much more egalitarian pop instinct and a streamlined sound. “Follow You, Follow Me” lay the groundwork for the band’s biggest successes in the 1980s, with much of 1983’s self-titled album and 1986’s monstrously popular Invisible Touch following in its direct footsteps.
And suddenly, with 1980’s Duke, the group found the right synthesis of their old-school prog impulses and their newfound pop savvy. The key to this success rests as much on Collins’s skill as a performer as anything else: despite a raftload of questionable creative choices made in his long and storied career, he’s still one of the best rock vocalists of his generation. I maintain that he probably would have been a lot more satisfied artistically if he’d never ended up fronting a prog rock group and had instead fronted some kind of pub-rock outfit like the Jam or Status Quo. You can see this on his much-maligned but actually rather credible solo cover of the Supremes’ “Can’t Hurry Love” (admittedly it was a bad choice for a cover song, but you might as well swing for the fences). Sure enough, whereas Gabriel’s vocals had been pinched and frenetic, Collins voice was strong and confident, well suited to a much more straight-forward kind of song. “Mad Man Moon”, off A Trick of the Tail, had featured this deathless verse:
I’m the sand man.
And boy have I news for you;
They’re gonna throw you in gaol
And you know they can’t fail
‘Cos sand is thicker than blood.
But a prison in sand
Is a haven in hell,
For a gaol can give you a goal
[And a] goal can find you a role.
Can you blame him for sounding like he had a headcold? Contrast that with this excerpt from “Duchess”:
But she dreamed of the times when she sang all her songs
And everybody cried for more,
When all she had to do was step into the light
For everyone to start to roar.
And all the people cried, you’re the one we’ve waited for.
Maybe Gabriel could have pulled off that bit of twaddle about “gaols” and “goals”, but Collins sounds much more comfortable singing about real people and real problems. Abstract thought and conceptual art are always tricky to pull off with rock and roll: the music allows for an infinite degree of subtlety in expression, but a great deal of the intellectual heft comes from subtext and context. Directly inserting highbrow themes and concepts usually undermines everything. Trying to carry around the weight of thousands of years of British literary history was a poor substitute, in this instance, for simpler and more direct writing (which is not necessarily to say simple-minded, that would come later with the damnable “Sussudio”).
Accordingly, Duke’s centerpiece is the Collins solo composition “Misunderstanding”, written in the wake of his divorce and held off of Collins’s first solo album, 1981’s Face Value. Not as strong, perhaps, as “Follow You, Follow Me”, it’s nonetheless another strong pop composition that hinges on a faux-classic Motown-esque hook. Despite it’s much less pop-friendly exterior, “Turn It on Again” also became a significant hit.
Genesis – Turn It on Again
There was still a bit of prog left, however, and this can be seen on the songs directly relating to the title character, “Duke” (“Duchess”, “Duke’s Travels”, and “Duke’s End”). Longtime scuttlebutt has held that these songs were initially intended to be heard as a single suite, comparable to the 23-minute-long “Supper’s Ready” off Foxtrot, but were separated in order to avoid any such direct comparison with the group’s previous incarnation. As it is, the tracks, whether thematically unified or not, still manage to achieve a remarkable clarity of intent that is lacking from much of the earlier post-Gabriel prog material: there aren’t any “flatulent quasisymphonies” anywhere to be found here, just fairly straight-ahead instrumental rock with a definite synth pop influence. It all holds up surprisingly well.
1981’s Abacab was not so much a step forward for the group as a holding pattern. Without the final vestiges of prog that had animated Duke, the group was free to explore their much more accessible pop sound — and as a result Abacab became their first album to hit platinum in the United States. Darker tracks like “Abacab” and “Dodo / Lurker” hinted at their previous sound, but more importantly, upbeat pop numbers like “No Reply at All” (featuring the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section, no less!) proved irresistible to newfound fans and radio programmers the world over. The maudlin “Man on the Corner” (another Collins composition), looks ahead to much of Collins’s own soporific solo career — fine soul singing wedded to mediocre material. But there was still one final step necessary to take the group fully into the realm of world-dominating pop superstardom — a step which lay two years in the future, and unfortunately outside the province of this review.
Genesis – Abacab
If there is one thing 1976-1982 makes painfully clear, it is that Genesis’s songwriting had been the most painful Achilles heel of their long career. Without the strong personality of a Peter Gabriel to lead them, the group floundered for three albums before following its own better instincts into more fertile fields of straight-ahead pop songwriting. Although there is a great deal to like when spread out across five albums, the inconsistency and downright embarrassing badness of much of the material makes it hard to support the group, at their best, as more than a guilty pleasure. Phil Collins emerges, against all odds (heh), as one of the more interesting pop vocalists of the past 30 years, but the same songwriting instincts that successfully lead Genesis away from the most embarrassing excesses of the prog era would fail him as he embarked on a singularly successful but nevertheless rather insipid solo career. It’s hard to begrudge any lead singer who leaves his day job for solo success — after all, you make a lot more money when your name is the only one on the marquee — but the fact is that Collins’s best moments would come in tandem with Banks and Rutherford. Their commercial peak, 1986’s Invisible Touch, still holds up as a pretty good pop album, whereas just about everything Collins recorded on his own is either horribly dated (“Sussudio” what the fuck?) or simply overplayed beyond redemption. “Against All Odds” may have been a good song the first 10,000 times I heard it…
Still, as questionable as much of the music remains, the albums have been given as pristine a presentation as possible. Everything has been remastered (whether or not the mixes differ significantly from the previous remasters released in the mid-’90s, I cannot say). All the discs are offered with a bonus DVD (thankfully not DualDiscs), each of which contains a pile of extra material of certain interest to the Genesis fanatics in the audience: three distinct mixes — DTS 5.1-channel surround sound, Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound, and Dolby Digital stereo — in addition to music videos, performance clips from TV (the Mike Douglas Show!), contemporary interviews, promotional clips, the entirety of the 1977 performance film Genesis: In Concert, period documentaries… the list goes on. I have rarely seen such an exhaustive presentation of archival materials, and in that respect at least, this is one of the finest box sets I’ve ever seen. There’s even a bonus disc and DVD containing material which didn’t fit on the other CDs: odds and ends, including a few rare EPs and b-sides, as well as “Paperlate”, a non-album single from 1982 that found considerable success on both sides of the Atlantic (unfortunately, the groups’ appearance on Top of the Pops for this song is not included on the DVD — just about the only damn thing that isn’t).
So, yes, despite the general and deserved disdain with which prog rock is held, there is still much in Genesis’s long career that deserves reassessment. They were rarely brilliant and wildly inconsistent, but at their best they were still pretty good. 1976-1982 is as complete and definitive a document of the band’s awkward transitional period as I can conceivably imagine. (Many better bands have never received anything nearly as lavish.) For those with a prior interest in the group, the collection will undoubtedly represent a godsend — for the rest of, we might just be happier with a “Best Of”. There are a few of those floating around.
Oh, and Duke. Duke’s a keeper.