Favorite Bands: Genesis

I caught Genesis at just the right time. Back in 1981, I was in high school. A few friends of mine were into this new guy named Phil Collins, a short white guy with thinning hair who sounded kind of black. He had this album out called Face Value. But he was in this other band called Genesis. What had they done?

Oh, friends and neighbors, the stuff then getting radio airplay was just the tip of the iceberg. There were only three guys in Genesis, though the live band had five members. Phil Collins, the drummer and vocalist, was the best known. Soon enough, though, guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford would become well known for his other band, Mike and the Mechanics. You never heard much out of the keyboardist, this short, timid-looking guy named Tony Banks. But hey, did you hear? That guy that sang “Shock the Monkey” used to be in Genesis. And about five years before I discovered them, they had this really good guitarist named Steve Hackett, back when they did a song called “Squonk.”

Like I said, at the right time. I caught the Genesis many people remember, sometimes unfairly as Phil Collins’ backing band, right when they became famous. I only had vague notions of “Squonk” and “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” which WMMS would play on weekends when all the stoners listened in their natural state. (They also played Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” at 3 AM in all its creepy goodness, but that’s another tale. Perhaps my best friend Rob from high school will regale us with it some time.)

It was after high school, when most of us get to know more about sex, drugs, booze, and rock and roll, that I learned who Genesis really was. I scraped the bottoms of budget bins for the pre-Phil Collins/Steve Hackett era albums And the Word Was Genesis (a truncated repackage of their debut From Genesis to Revelations) and Trespass. The music was not quite psychedelic, but not quite progressive, either. What you had were four Cambridge schoolboys in search of a drummer and of a sound making some interesting, ethereal noise. The hook was this strange guy singing lead named Peter Gabriel who had a penchant for costumes in their live shows and a flair for the dramatic as he sang.

They found their drummer, but lost guitarist Anthony Phillips to stage fright. (I’m not making that up. It’s on the band’s web site.) Phil Collins, a former child actor, won the drummer’s seat after listening to two other drummers flub their audition while taking a dip in Gabriel’s pool. To replace Phillips, they summoned Steve Hackett after reading his ad in Melody Maker. To say the band finally formed is an understatement. The only similarity I can think of is Marillion, which finally solidified after they peaked in popularity.

And so out came Nursery Cryme, Selling England By the Pound, and their 1972 masterpiece, Supper’s Ready, which is the only twenty-minute progressive rock epic to ever move me to tears. (The way the final segment of the title track ties the whole suite up in a bow is amazing. It still gives me chills in ways that Yes, King Crimson, and especially ELP have failed to do over the years.)

But by 1974, Gabriel was bored and wanted to do something else. The line-up put out its final effort, the double album and rock operaish The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Here, the music was more aggressive and the theme incredibly bizarre. Street punk Rael is sucked into another dimension, loses his penis, and has to find it to get back to New York City. Don’t laugh. It was Gabriel’s idea, and really, the music is some of the best prog ever recorded.

But it was Gabriel’s last with Genesis.

Unable to find a vocalist to fill Gabriel’s shoes, they pressed Collins into service as his voice sounded similar to Gabriel’s. They proceeded to do two more albums somewhat in the vein of the earlier Genesis, but with shorter tunes and more radio-friendly sounds. “Squonk,” about a creature so ugly that it weeps itself to death, dissolving into its own tears, is the earliest song I remember hearing when it came out. There’s also the title track to the album A Trick of the Tail, the only non-concert video to feature both Steve Hackett and Phil Collins’ original hairline. It’s also the video Collins is most embarrassed by as he’s only six inches tall singing to the rest of the band.

(OK, I lied. Phil’s wearing a stocking cap in that one. Sorry, Phil’s original hair.)

But Hackett, too, had had enough, and he left in 1979. And Then There Were Three, the album describing the band’s predicament in the title, emerged, giving us the sound they became famous for in the 1980’s. Between 1979 and 1983, they proved they still had the chops they displayed with their longer, more complex songs from the early 70’s while performing more aggressive music, much of which ended up on Miami Vice and Magnum PI. (There’s a really dramatic Magnum scene where Magnum looks for a missing woman while the industrial rock “Mama” pounds in the background, Phil wailing desperately over it all.)

And then they went and did Invisible Touch. I remember waiting impatiently for that album to come out. It had been three years, dammit. At midnight on the day the album debuted, Akron’s WONE played the whole album. I was driving home from a late shift and damn near wrecked the car screaming (because, you know, you want to share this with an entire Cleveland suburb at 12:30 in the morning) “I waited three years for this steaming pile of crap?!?!?!?!”

It grew on me, but then so have a lot of albums I didn’t initially like. I don’t think I learned to appreciate it so much as tolerate it for the nuggets of gold it contained: “Tonight, Tonight Tonight,” “Land of Confusion,” “Domino,” and “Le Brazilian”. There was way too much filler on that album. They redeemed themselves six years later with We Can’t Dance, which was pretty solid. However, I couldn’t help thinking, “OK, you guys can stop now.” Phil went from this really cool guy we’d never heard of in high school to insufferably lame. He left Genesis.

Unfortunately, Tony and Mike carried on, recruiting a couple of well-regarded session drummers after dissing live drummer Chester Thompson, alienating live guitarist/bassist Daryl Stuermer, and turning down ex-Marillion vocalist (and Gabriel/Collins soundalike) Fish. Instead, they found the most un-Gabriel, un-Collins-like vocalist they could find. Usually, this works. Marillion has had Steve Hogarth for 23 years with no sign of stopping, and Deep Purple had great success with David Coverdale taking over for Ian Gillan. Speaking of Gillan, neither he nor Ronnie James Dio sounded like Ozzy Osbourne, but they both had successful runs with Black Sabbath. But Genesis…?

Even now I listen to their final effort, Calling All Stations, and wonder what that was all about. The music sounded unfinished, with only the title track of any interest. It’s as though Mike and Tony didn’t notice the party had broken up and Phil had been the last to pay his bar tab. Oops.

Still, like a lot of other long-lived bands, they benefited from multiple personnel changes. The partings were amicable. Hackett was so upset about leaving his pals in a lurch that he had his lawyer break the bad news for fear they’d talk him back into returning. And if you look at the members’ solo or side work, including founder Anthony Phillips’, you’ll see a lot of former Genesis members in the liner notes.

They’re not the rockingest band out there, but I was glad they were around for most of their run. (I could do with 1996, but then they admit they could, too.)