The Spirit of Cecilia dialogues continue; this one is focused on the Phil Collins-era of the massively popular music group, Genesis. Editor-In-Chief Brad Birzer and Arts Editor Tad Wert exchange thoughts and memories that were inspired by Birzer’s recent appearance on Political Beats.
Brad: Tad, I find it hard to believe that the last Phil Collins-Genesis album came out 29 years ago. Thanks, by the way, for your comments regarding the show, Political Beats, that I did with Jeff and Scot. I had an absolute blast talking with those guys about the Phil Collins-era of Genesis, 1976-1991. I’m curious–in 2020–what you think of Genesis? That is, what role do they play in the history of music, and, especially, in the history of progressive rock?
I just–as I was working on sociologist Robert Nisbet–watched and listened to Genesis, live in 1976, for the Trick of the Tail tour, with Bill Bruford on drums, and I was struck, yet again, by the beauty of the music and the vitality of the band. In some ways, they might’ve defined progressive rock. That is, they might’ve been the quintessential prog band.
I also listened to Duke, which (aside from “Misunderstanding,” a song I despise) might also be one of those perfect (well, nearly) albums. Thoughts?
Tad: I LOVE Genesis, in all of its incarnations. I consider their career to encompass three distinct groups or eras: the Gabriel years, the Hackett years, and the Collins years. If I consider each era on its own merits, there are many wonderful moments to enjoy in each one.
A small Genesis-related vignette: when I was 13 years old, my family spent a semester in Cambridge, England. My father had taken a sabbatical to do engineering research at the University there. I remember listening to Radio Caroline on a small transistor radio as I worked on my homework in the evening, and Selling England By The Pound was on heavy rotation on that pirate station. Even coming through the small, tinny speaker, I was struck by the exceptional music that flowed forth, and I was hooked.
When I was old enough to afford buying my own lps, A Trick of the Tail was one of the first I bought with my own money. I didn’t realize at the time that the vocalist on ATOTT was not the same as the one on SEBTP! “Dance On A Volcano” was one of the most challenging pieces of music my 14-year-old self ever encountered, but I loved it.
When Wind and Wuthering was released, I confess I wasn’t interested, because I was in my punk/New Wave phase (Ramones, Wire, and Elvis Costello!), and I had no time for prog rock “dinosaurs”. But then I heard “Turn It On Again” from Duke, and I thought, “This is something I can get into.” I bought the album and fell in love with the Phil Collins pop/rock juggernaut version of Genesis.
So, to answer your question, yes, I think Genesis, unlike some other “big” groups of the ‘70s and ‘80s, will only grow in stature over time. Their curse in the ‘80s was to get so popular that they oversaturated the airwaves. Now that 29(!) years have elapsed, we have some space to objectively assess the quality of their music, and there are very few groups who consistently produced such challenging yet entertaining music.
What I found fascinating in your podcast conversation was the acknowledgement that the so-called “pop” releases in the ‘80s still contained some very sophisticated music.
Brad: Tad, I think our age difference is slight. Abacab is the first album I bought from Genesis at the time of its initial release. Then, I went back through the Phil Collins era, falling in love with And Then There Were Three especially. I can still remember listening to the tape I bought from Peaches in Kansas City and watching Bill Buckley (I’d never seen him before) on TV—Genesis and Buckley all in the same evening.
But, for me, 1981 was the year of Abacab and Moving Pictures. They almost seemed to be two parts of a whole to my then young mind. In 1982, I purchased Three Sides Live and, then, Duke. I really liked Phil Collin’s first solo album as well. Indeed, I became as obsessed with Genesis as I was with Rush that year—beginning a life-long obsession with both. Soon, I had Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering as well. My debate colleague and one of my closest friends, Ron Strayer, and I used to listen to Genesis, over and over again, analyzing the lyrics and trying to figure out the song structures. We had every part of Genesis (1983) memorized, and we would shout out the lyrics as we drove around town in his yellow Toyota truck.
I have other odd memories as well—such as a video recording of Genesis in Concert, 1976, with Bill Buford as the drummer (mentioned above). It appeared on USA network’s Nightflight, and I watched that so many times, the VHS tape began to fade. I also had audio recordings of a few concerts that our local AOR station, Wichita’s KICT-95, often aired. One of my prized possessions (which, stupidly, I sold) was the last release with Steve Hackett, an EP called Spot the Pidgeon.
Funny what things stick in the mind.
I also remember the day Invisible Touch came out. I had just received my college entrance letter (a huge thrill), and, for some reason, my high school girlfriend was put out with me because I wanted our date that night to be a serious listen of the new album! She didn’t think that the highest form of a date, but I wanted to share that first listen with her. Needless to write, she went home in a huff, somewhat disgusted by my priorities.
But, Tad, I’m not being very helpful in our discussion, just nostalgic. So, let me state—there was a reason Genesis meant so much to me. I loved both the seriousness and the playfulness of the band, and I often read things into the lyrics that might or might not have been there. As a kid, I especially thought Abacab was full of hidden meanings, such as the title track being about someone committing adultery, or that the “Man on the Corner” was some kind of unrecognized prophet, or that Sarah Jane must be the kindest woman in the world.
Ok, I’m still being nostalgic. . .
As to your question and comment regarding Genesis and pop. I do think that once Steve Hackett left the band, the band became much more art rock rather than progressive rock. After all, songs like “Lurker” and “Dodo” and, especially, “Mama,” should never have been hits! They’re not pop, but they’re not prog, either.
Tad: Abacab is a very special album to me as well. I think the title track is one of the top songs they ever recorded. I also love “Man On The Corner”; it’s one of Collins’ finest vocal performances. When it was released, one of my college suitemates bought it in great anticipation. He was a big prog fan – listened to King Crimson, UK, Yes, and other British prog groups. When the Earth, Wind, and Fire horns came blasting out of his stereo on “No Reply At All”, he jumped up and yelled, “WTF is this?” and wouldn’t listen to another song. That’s how I acquired my copy of Abacab!
I also liked the tracks on the fourth side of American version of Three Sides Live. When I replaced my vinyl of that album with the CD, I was disappointed that they weren’t included. I loved “Paperlate”, “Evidence of Autumn”, and “Me and Virgil”. As a matter of fact, the only reason I bought the three-disc Platinum compilation was to have “Paperlate” on CD. I gave up ever finding a CD edition of the American album, when, lo and behold, a couple of months ago I found it in my favorite used record store!
It’s almost impossible for me to choose which album I think is better: Genesis or Invisible Touch. It depends on what mood I’m in, but I would probably give the nod to Invisible Touch. I think it more consistently excellent, even if songs like “Tonight, Tonight” are extremely dark. Genesis’ “Mama” has to be the most unlikely #1 hit ever released!
Here’s how I would rank the post-Gabriel era:
- And Then There Were Three
The live albums I put in this order:
I also think the box set, Archives Volume 2 is essential.
I imagine you are outraged at my low ranking of And Then There Were Three, but I have had a hard time getting past the muddy production, and I’ve never been able to maintain interest through the whole set.
Brad: Tad, I’m not outraged in the least! And, I’m in agreement with you about the rankings of the live albums, though I might switch one and two, depending on what day it is.
As to the studio albums, I would put them in this order:
- And Then There Were Three
We can definitely agree, Tad, that there’s a lot of aural excellence to be enjoyed!!
Tad: I could definitely move Duke up a few spots. Like you said, it depends on what day it is!
Regardless of how we rank these albums internally, I think it’s fair to say almost no other artist in rock has produced such consistently excellent music. I put And Then There Were Three relatively low among Genesis albums, but compared to other albums released in 1978, it is near the top. To my mind, only the Beatles show the same extraordinary quality control that Genesis had, and they were active for less than a decade. Genesis stuck together for more than 28 years!
For our next dialogue, I think we owe it to Peter Gabriel to cover his solo career. Are you up for that, my friend?