Get to Know… Genesis – Pt. 1

With the recent news of Phil Collins’ retirement from music, I thought it would be a good time to run this two-part Genesis overview again (originally published on March 10, 2008). I think a proper assessment of Phil’s whole career will reveal that he was an important figure in 20th century popular music, and all the cheesy Disney soundtracks in the world can’t take away the great work he did.

Since one of my favorite things in the whole world is telling people about music I love, I’m starting a series of overview articles dedicated to some of my favorite bands. Similar guides abound on the Internet, and two sites in particular that produce excellent ones are Popdose and the AV Club. The first entry in the series I’ve dubbed “Get to Know…” is for Genesis.

Depending on your age, you either remember them as the band with the bald lead singer and goofy ’80s videos or the really weird lead singer with all the costumes. Of course both of these are gross oversimplifications, as over the course of forty years and fifteen studio albums Genesis staked out an impressive claim — first as one of the giants of progressive rock in the ’70s (along with Yes, King Crimson, ELP and others) and then as one of the most commercially successful acts of the ’80s and early ’90s.

A recent reunion tour featuring the longest-lived incarnation of the band (Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford) wrapped up late last year, so I figure now is as good a time as any to take a long view of Genesis, for those both familiar with and new to the group.

From Genesis to Revelation album cover

From Genesis to Revelation, 1969 (buy)

The debut effort from Genesis was released just two years after the group’s formation at an English boarding school. The album features the lineup of Peter Gabriel (vocals), Tony Banks (keyboard/piano), Anthony Phillips (guitar), Mike Rutherford (bass and guitar), and John Silver (replacing original drummer Chris Stewart, who appeared on one song).

From Genesis to Revelation is certainly enjoyable, if not very original or daring. It is full of compositions clearly indebted to early Bee Gees (such as “The Silent Sun”), and also lacks the panache and musical dexterity of later albums. Still, not bad for a debut from a bunch of teenagers with no professional experience. Note: this album has been repackaged numerous times with different covers and track listings, largely because the rights are still owned by original producer/manager Jonathan King.

Trespass (1970) album cover
Trespass, 1970 (buy)

This is where the Genesis sound really begins to take shape, although it’s not quite there yet. The song structures are much more fleshed out, and the somewhat poppy sensibilities of the debut are mostly discarded in favor of grander musical statements. This new formula works to great effect on some songs (the gorgeous “Dusk” and the bold “Visions of Angels”), but viewed in comparison to what was just around the corner, Trespass lacks quite a bit. The standout here is the closing number, “The Knife”, a scorcher that became a staple of the band’s live shows.

Just as Trespass‘s songs marked the musical transition of the band, so to did the credits. John Silver was replaced on drums for this album by the overmatched John Mayhew, who himself wouldn’t last long. Following the album’s release co-founder Anthony Phillips also departed, a blow that almost put an end to Genesis before things had really gotten started.

Nursery Cryme (1971) album cover
Nursery Cryme, 1971 (buy)

With the additions of guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer/vocalist Phil Collins in 1970, Genesis at last boasted a lineup of musicians fully capable of executing their ambitious musical vision. They wasted no time in proving it, as album opener “The Musical Box” fused offbeat humor, delicacy, and power in a ten-minute-plus prog rock classic.

The end result is a more consistent and satisfying record than either of the first two. This is also due in part to Gabriel’s increasingly assured vocals and more cohesive — though no less fanciful — lyrics. The group also benefits from the skills of Collins — one of the finest drummers of the decade — and Hackett, whose meek onstage persona did not match the fire of his recorded performances. Check out “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” another fine example of the power of this lineup.

Foxtrot (1972) album cover
Foxtrot, 1972 (buy)

With their lineup finally solidified (for the time being at least), Genesis expanded on the sounds explored on Nursery Cryme and did so to astonishing effect. The opener, “Watcher of the Skies,” announces itself with Banks’ booming Mellotron and develops into a captivating sci-fi story in 6/4 time. It is still a fan favorite.

Foxtrot not only showcases the band’s musical growth, but Gabriel’s increasingly cohesive and enjoyable lyrics. The highlight for me is “Get ‘Em Out by Friday”, a humorous sci-fi tale about greedy property owners of the future who force people into smaller and smaller apartments (“flats” if you will), with the ultimate goal of reducing human height in order to fit more rent-paying customers into their buildings. Elsewhere, the band does their best Yes impression on the grand “Can-Utility and the Coastliners”.

All of this sets the stage for “Supper’s Ready”, one of the crown jewels of progressive rock. Composed of seven sections and clocking in at just under 23 minutes, this is not a song for the faint of heart (nor the short of attention span). Of course, any song featuring sections entitled “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men” and “Apocalypse in 9/8 (Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet)” is likely to be a bit on the complex side. Had the group attempted a suite of this magnitude just a year or two earlier it would likely have been crushed by its own ambition. But coming when it did, it is a perfect summation of just how much the band had grown in terms of both their compositional and performing acumen.

Selling England By the Pound (1973) album cover
Selling England by the Pound, 1973 (buy)

Genesis returned in October 1973 (after the release of a record label-mandated stopgap live album earlier in the year) with Selling England by the Pound, the most resolutely British entry in the band’s catalog. While the album lacks the tension and visceral power of Foxtrot (save for the dynamic “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”, which features an early example of guitar tapping from Hackett), its more moody and reserved nature works to its benefit.

The only real surprise (and a very good one at that) on the album is “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” the closest Genesis came to pop songwriting during the Gabriel years (the first album notwithstanding). It’s a rare lighthearted moment on a record that is pretty serious on the whole. Another minor gem is “More Fool Me,” a pretty acoustic number that showcased Phil Collins on lead vocals for just the second time during the Gabriel era.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Firth of Fifth”, which provides a showcase for Tony Banks’ impressive playing and is a prime example of Genesis at the peak of their powers.

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) album cover
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1974 (buy)

Every concept album I’ve heard that actually attempts to communicate a narrative falls short in that regard, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is no exception. Luckily it doesn’t matter, because the music is just so damn good. The credit for that goes mostly to Banks, Rutherford, and Collins, who apparently wrote the lion’s share of Lamb‘s music as Peter Gabriel was consumed with tending to his ill wife and working with filmmaker William Friedkin on a film project that never took off.

Despite the fragmented songwriting approach and friction within the band, Lamb is a winner. Musically it consists of one half relatively straightforward (for Genesis) rock songs and one half dark and atmospheric numbers. Which half I prefer depends on my mood, as they are both excellent in their own right. The first-disc hooks are undeniable in songs such as the opening title cut, “Counting Out Time,” and “Carpet Crawlers,” while second-disc numbers like the menacing free-form of “The Waiting Room” and the jittery prog of “The Colony of Slippermen” are some of the band’s most bizarre entries.

With The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Genesis had covered just about every musical area they were capable of under the umbrella of progressive rock, and they did so with style. But given the rising creative tensions within the band, as well as their own volatile lineup history, it was probably only a matter of time before another big change came. And it did come in August 1975 when Gabriel published a letter called “Out, Angels Out”, in which he announced his departure from Genesis.

The rest of this story picks up in Part 2, but first I thought I’d leave you with a video of the group performing “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” in 1973. As this clip demonstrates, a crucial part of the Gabriel-era band’s live show (other than the music) was the theatrics, which they brought in spades.