At the height of his celebrity in the 1980s, Phil Collins developed a habit of writing letters to his many, many critics. You can expect this type of backlash whenever someone reaches his level of popularity, both as the drummer-turned-vocalist of Genesis and through his run of blockbuster solo albums. All of their titles sound like tell-all memoirs by disgraced comedians—Hello I Must Be Going, …But Seriously, Both Sides—and all of their covers feature close-up photographs of his face, because this was his product: eyes you can look into, a single emotion to bathe in, a world where nothing and nobody exists besides you and Phil Collins.
Because of his public persona, there is a misconception that he single-handedly transformed this artful, bookish progressive rock band into the Phil Collins Show as soon as he took over vocal duties from Peter Gabriel in 1976. And in retrospect, the band’s increasingly popular, slow-danceable ballads closing out the decade—“Ripples…” and “Your Own Special Way” from 1976, “Follow You Follow Me” in 1978—do emerge from their discography like exit signs toward the oncoming highway to fame, just up the road.
As natural as it feels to equate Genesis’ turn from progressive rock to pop with Collins’ rise as a solo star, the truth is that Genesis was always a band, and Collins was always just one voice. At some point in the ’80s, Collins and his bandmates—keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford—established a rule that no individual member could enter the studio with pre-written musical ideas. In other words, anything and everything on a Genesis album had to be created within the presence of the entire group: This way, no single person could be credited (or blamed) for the music that emerged.
This process led to songs that could sound like three minds interlocking like a jigsaw puzzle (“Turn It on Again”), or a pinhole view into a lightning-in-a-bottle experiment (“Mama”), or, occasionally, a bad joke that should have never left the room (“Illegal Alien”). But more than anything, the rule created a guiding principle for Genesis: to honor the spirit of collaboration, to push each other beyond what they could accomplish individually, and to invite their audience along as we all discovered something, together.
Even before the ’80s, this was their appeal. The curtains always open on something new in a Genesis song. In “it,” the band sounds like a futuristic piece of machinery restarting; in “Supper’s Ready,” they had an entire mythology to unfold. Or take 1980’s “Turn It on Again,” which blends a 13/8 time signature with lyrics about a guy watching television and an honest-to-god riff into something that sounds like a radio hit: It aims to keep you on the edge of your seat; no matter how many times you replay it, you feel like you are hearing it for the first time.
And so the criticism got to him. The way Collins tells it, the review that really pissed him off was when a San Francisco journalist panned a live show, calling him the “McDonald’s of pop.” As far as I can tell, there are no records of this article on the internet. Googling the phrase only brings up Collins himself repeating it to journalists.
The first iteration of Genesis was formed in 1967, and neither the name nor the sound belonged to them. A moody, introspective group of friends at England’s ritzy Charterhouse boarding school passed their demo tape along to one of the school’s more notable alumni, the musician and producer Jonathan King. Knowing he was a fan of the Bee Gees, teen frontman Peter Gabriel did his best Robin Gibb impression. King took the bait and offered to produce their debut album. He dubbed the band Genesis (another idea was Gabriel’s Angels) and he titled the album From Genesis to Revelation. It was released by Decca in March 1969 and sold 650 copies, total. “Oh well,” King thought and disappeared. Gabriel and his angels returned to school.
Around the same time, an unremarkable British band called Flaming Youth gathered in the studio to get a handle on their first album, also destined to be their last. They had been approached by two songwriters, Ken Howard and Alan Blaikely, searching for a band to record their concept album about media coverage of the moon landing. The title was Ark 2, which was confusing to people who thought they had to hear the first Ark first, and the plot had something to do with the apocalypse, the perils of modern media, and the healing power of love. The members of the band seemed to change their instruments from song to song, uncertain about the material and their own identity. The centerpiece was a 12-minute suite dedicated to the planets. It’s hilariously overambitious, and it left the unseasoned performers scratching their heads. Who wants to sing this one? “I’ll do it,” said the drummer.
A quick note on selling out: There are easier ways to do it than how Genesis did it. Their eventual pivot came so naturally, appealed so effortlessly, created such a definitive break between the first two decades of their career, that to acknowledge the act of selling out seems mostly tangential to the music they made. Yes, they dumbed things down. Yes, they had hits. Yes, one of them sounded very similar to Toto’s “Hold the Line.” But after the ’70s, nearly every major prog band tried their hand at writing simpler tunes for a hipper crowd, and there’s a reason why the protagonist of American Psycho goes nuts for Phil Collins, and not, you know, Under Wraps by Jethro Tull.
In order to do what Genesis did, you have to be self-aware, self-critical, and willing to adapt. In his memoir, Collins writes that, when he auditioned to join Genesis in 1970, he wasn’t crazy about their music: a bit fussy, a little gentle. Even after he joined the band, he made a habit of listening back to tapes of their live shows, obsessing over mistakes. For most of the decade, he saw his role like a goalie, holding things down in the backfield. It wasn’t until Duke, his eighth album as a member and fourth as lead vocalist, that he began presenting his own ideas confidently to the group. During the sessions, he was often the first one in and last one out of the studio. “We’ve always tried to write singles,” he would say after their commercial breakthrough, sounding a little bit defensive about it. “Now we’re just doing it better, I suppose.”
Reflections on Phil Collins’ auditions for Genesis:
“Anyway, Phil had arrived a bit early, so while the drummer before him was finishing, we sent him off for a swim in the pool.”
—Mike Rutherford, The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir
“If I’ve learnt anything over the last couple of years, it’s to grab any and every opportunity. Who knows if I’ll ever again get the offer of a dip in a private heated pool in the countryside.”
—Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet: The Memoir
“By the time it came to Phil’s turn, he’d already heard and memorized the part we were using for the audition and, when he sat down at the kit, you just knew.”
“He had a lightness as a personality, too. He could joke and everything. We were very intense.”
—Tony Banks, Sum of the Parts
“Just the way he sat down on a stool… I knew that he was gonna be good. Some people just have this confidence about what they do.”
—Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins: A Life Less Ordinary
In most accounts of the early days of Genesis, Peter Gabriel is described as a serious, shy figure. The legend goes that he started telling intricate fantasy stories on stage because it was taking his bandmates forever to tune their instruments and he had to fill the dead air. Eventually, he wore costumes because the crowds were getting bigger and he was insecure about his slender, shadowy appearance. When he came on stage wearing his wife’s red dress and a fox mask, he did it without telling his bandmates. He knew they would have vetoed the idea if they’d had the chance.
The Gabriel era proceeds this way: a whirlwind of big ideas and surprises that peaks with longform, conceptual pieces like the 23-minute song “Supper’s Ready” and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, their feature-length concept album with ambient assistance from Brian Eno. While on tour for that album in 1974—a multimedia event that featured the band playing the entire thing front to back with a then-unprecedented visual accompaniment—Gabriel decided it was time to go solo. One of his many costumes was so elaborate that he couldn’t actually sing while wearing it, which seems as good a metaphor as any for the dead-end he faced.
There are great bands who evolve by expansion, or by drastic reinvention, or by keen attention to the demands of their time. But I can think of no band besides Genesis who evolved so fluidly through subtraction. Without the guiding, commercial vision of producer Jonathan King, Genesis evolved into a pastoral folk group with a focus on Anthony Phillips’ 12-string guitar. When Phillips quit, they became a heavier prog band led by Gabriel’s theatrical vision. When Gabriel quit, they developed a more atmospheric sound, showcasing the inventive style of guitarist Steve Hackett. When Hackett quit, they were now a trio with Collins on vocals, left to focus on melody and songcraft. And with nothing left to lose, they became one of the biggest bands in the world.
“Within seconds the entire clean, green, smooth surface of the park was a mass of dirty brown writhing objects. Old Michael continued to rub his flesh into the ground. This time he looked even happier. And he whistled a little tune. It went like this…”
—Peter Gabriel introducing “Supper’s Ready” at a Genesis concert in 1973
“I remember being more worried about what I was going to say to the audience than anything else. Because what Peter did have was a communication. Although it was more of a mysterious traveler than a bloke next door or a mate, he did communicate with an audience. And I thought that was very important.”
—Phil Collins on his first show replacing Peter Gabriel as the frontman of Genesis, Genesis: A History
The origins of Duke can be traced to Phil Collins’ bedroom. It is here that Collins, Rutherford, and Banks gathered to demo new material after a brief hiatus. The latter two had worked on solo albums while Collins flew to Canada to address his failing marriage and make a last-ditch effort to save his family. It didn’t work, and, with his bandmates preoccupied, Collins found himself drinking and sulking, writing sad new songs with a drum machine he’d been gifted during a tour in Japan.
When they reunited, Collins shared some of the songs he had written. Banks and Rutherford liked two of them: a surefire hit called “Misunderstanding” and a tender ballad called “Please Don’t Ask.” The rest—like “In the Air Tonight,” with its basic chord progression and plodding, spacious arrangement—felt distinctly un-Genesis. Collins decided he would save them for his own solo album, the next item on the list.
A theme of failure and extinction courses through Duke: “You know you’re on the way out,” goes the paranoid chorus of Banks’ “Cul-de-sac.” “It’s just a matter of time.” Another song called “Duchess” seems to be about a musician whose immense popularity creates a rift within her own identity. And if these lyrics feel like insights into the underlying emotion of Duke, Genesis never let it show: Duke is a brazenly confident album, written in block letters with exclamation points. The message is not in the lyrics but in the music itself: Collins’ syncopated rhythm and newly expressive vocals, Rutherford and Banks’ guitar-synths and keyboard-trumpets—instruments invented to sound like the future versions of themselves. You don’t listen and think of a band fearing their waning relevance, or Collins and his failing marriage. If they treated the span of their career as a long, epic song, this was the part when the toms start rolling and the action begins again.
Watching footage from Genesis’ tour for Duke is like watching the superhero first become aware of his powers, staring awestruck at the hands that have just done something incredible. With his drumming duties transferred to touring member Chester Thompson—previously of Weather Report and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention—Collins stands before the microphone, 29 and bearded, noticing the audience in the palm of his hand. Through Europe and America, he sees sold-out concert halls getting more engaged with the music. They seem more diverse, younger. He sees people who might not even remember a time when Phil Collins wasn’t the frontman of Genesis.
Introducing the part of the set that includes the new songs, Collins recites a monologue harkening back to the old days. He tells of a sad sack deadbeat called Albert who falls in love with a television set. Then, with the kind of comic timing that gets you cast as the lead in a romantic comedy and lands you a guest role on Miami Vice, he reveals that he means this quite literally: “In two days, he was in hospital having the glass removed from his private parts.” Is the audience laughing with him or at the old version of Genesis, the one who once took these preambles so seriously? Does this story actually have anything to do with Duke? In the end, these are questions for journalists. The audience roars; the band is about to play the new stuff.
A few moments on Duke offer a glimpse into the future of prog rock in the ’80s. You hear it at the very beginning of the record—an instrumental motif that Tony Banks composed. Played on an expensive-sounding synth, the notes are sudden and decisive as the signs on a slot machine. When the trio lineup of Genesis reunited for a comeback tour in 2007, they opened every show with just this part of the song, letting the rest play in the audience’s imagination.
As for the rest of the song: It’s called “Behind the Lines,” and it kickstarts a suite of interlinked compositions forming the core of the record. There are rumors that the band considered presenting them as an uninterrupted, side-long suite, which offered perfect fodder for betrayed fans who wanted to believe the poppier direction was a result of Genesis compromising their vision for record label suits, or a radio-crazed Phil Collins demanding they preserve the singles. But the truth is that Genesis decided among themselves to separate the music, finding the prog rock gesture to be old-fashioned, uninspiring.
One day in the studio, Collins played a tape of “Behind the Lines” at the wrong speed and realized it sounded a little like Michael Jackson. Funny! But he was taking notes. A few months later, he brought in Earth, Wind, and Fire’s horn section and recorded the sped-up version for his debut solo album, which he called Face Value, and which would go multiple-times platinum around the world.
These alternate versions of the song—one, a utopian vision of prog rock; the other, a jumpy imitation of the most famous artist in the world—mark the first time that Collins’ solo music and the band’s felt in clear competition. On the cover of Duke, a figure stands before a window to who-knows-what: Those eyes on the cover of Face Value show you what awaits him. There is a real person standing there, and his future is the only one.
The critical wisdom is that prog rock was living and breathing and thriving, and then punk rock came and killed it. The story always made me envision a gang of pissed-off kids in leather jackets bum-rushing the stage, ripping capes off old British guys; the sound of Mellotrons coming unplugged as the audience gasps.
There is a kernel of truth to it. The things that punk represented—anger, politics, a new generation fed up with the old one, shorter bursts—did seem antithetical to one vision of prog rock. But prog was already in motion by the time anything resembling punk came to the forefront, and Genesis had been in a steady evolution their whole career. What would have been an actual death sentence, a real sell-out move, would have been if they carried on like nothing happened, repeating themselves, pandering to the people who were already on board—coasting.
Duke takes the opposite approach. It is a divider: If you are a fan of Genesis, their tenth album is either where you get off the ride, or when you buckle up and start paying attention. They had made better albums (nearly everything from the ’70s) and they would make more commercially successful ones (everything else in the ’80s). But they never made one so important to their survival. In his memoir, Rutherford notes that the band considered changing their name after the album’s success. Nothing ever came of the conversations—they didn’t even start brainstorming an alternative—which was fine, because the message had already been sent: If you think you know Genesis, you are wrong. They are united, inspired, and just getting started.
Buy: Rough Trade
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