In 1991 I turned seventeen. I look back on that year as when I really found my feet as a music fan, largely influenced by MTV Europe and the Sixth Form common room stereo. Albums such as Nevermind by Nirvana, Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, Ten by Pearl Jam, Trompe le Monde by The Pixies, Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and 30 Something by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine came out that year. Most of the money I earned in my Saturday job went on CDs, posters, VHS videos and merchandise related to bands and I pretty much lived in my Badmotorfinger and Sheriff Fatman t-shirts. I also went to see Living Colour on the Time’s Up tour that year too. The musical left turn that began with Faith No More’s The Real Thing and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine was starting to take hold.
Another album came out in 1991, one I didn’t buy, one I wouldn’t have been seen dead buying at the time – We Can’t Dance by Genesis. It was accompanied by two singles that year, No Son of Mine and I can’t dance, with more to follow the next year. I could take or leave the first single, but the second one really got under my skin in the worst way possible. I actively despised it. The fact that MTV seemed to play it every hour probably played a part in how I felt too.
In my mind Genesis were the epitome of uncool, reminiscent of three geography teachers performing at the school Christmas concert, lead by Mr 80s himself Phil Collins. As much as I liked In the Air Tonight and to a lesser extent duet Easy Lover, most of Phil’s solo work was on the cusp of joining a special list of songs to torture me with, alongside other insipid work over the coming years by The Lighthouse Family, Texas, Savage Garden and a certain cover by Toploader. So my opinion of Phil Collins definitely had a big influence on how I felt about the band as a whole.
If you’d told seventeen year old me that in twenty six years time I’d be a rabid Genesis fan, I’d have laughed in your face, or at least muttered something passive aggressive under my breath. It’s like someone telling me now that I’ll one day warm to Bear Grylls. So, how did I go from thinking that Buster, Mike from Mike + the Mechanics and that guy on keyboards I thought might be called Tony were the least cool people on the planet, to one of the most important bands of all time?
Because that’s exactly what has happened, over the past three years or so I’ve become a big, big fan of some of their work. I have two vinyl Genesis albums waiting to be framed to go on my home office wall, I have an A Trick of the Tail keepsake box, I’ve read The Book of Genesis, watched the Genesis: Together and Apart documentary two and a half times, seen three of the band interviewed individually on Vintage TV’s Needletime, been to see their former guitarist Steve Hackett live where half the set was Genesis numbers, bought tickets to see tribute band The Musical Box later this year, subscribed to the Genesis Tabletop podcast, bought most of Peter Gabriel’s solo albums and even listened to the Phil Collins’ Not Dead Yet autobiography audiobook. That’s quite a u-turn by anyone’s standards.
Two things in particular lead me to listen to Genesis’s back catalogue and change my view of them forever. The first revelation came from discovering current British progressive rock band Big Big Train through a friend. Their fanbase, The Passengers, well the ones I met on the band’s Facebook page at least, seemed to include a lot of long-time Genesis fans. The music press also seemed to regularly make comparisons between the two bands, possibly in part due to their vocalist David Longdon being considered to replace Phil Collins in the nineties and their drummer Nick D’Virgilio appearing on said post Collins album Calling all Stations. This made me dip into some of Genesis’s early albums and my interest started to pique, but it still wasn’t quite taking hold.
The second reason was something I’ve been doing on twitter called #chronologicallisten where I take a band and listen to all their studio albums in order, tweeting my opinion as I go. I’ve been doing that for a few years and I’ve covered bands ranging from Black Sabbath to XTC, Radiohead to Dillinger Escape Plan. Through the Big Big Train connection Genesis were one of the first bands I tried this with, but the early work wasn’t resonating and I couldn’t make it past the move towards pop in the 80s. It took me another year or so before I tried it again and having immersed myself much further into the world of prog in general, it all started falling into place.
I listened to all the albums again in chronological order and then started to focus in on the ones that I really liked and wanted to listen to regularly. I realised that my growing love of the band, rather predictably, all came down to 70s Genesis. Most people consider the band to have had two lives, one in progressive rock and another in pop, one with Peter Gabriel fronting the band, the other with Phil Collins at the mic. That’s almost true, but it does oversimplify things by making the demarcation line the change of singer. Post Gabriel albums A Trick of the Tail and Wind & The Wuthering both feel like the expansive, experimental band that had come before. As many people have told me since, this was largely due to a member of the band I was completely unaware of before delving into the early work, someone who played guitar in the band during both Gabriel and Collins’ tenure on lead vocals, Steve Hackett. It seems bizarre that a guitarist who influenced the likes of Brian May and Eddie Van Halen wasn’t someone that I was already aware of. The way Hackett seemed to be sidelined and almost written out of history in the Genesis: Together and Apart documentary could go some way to explaining why.
Listening to the Genesis albums with fresh ears and a new outlook, removing the baggage of my early nineties prejudices was a complete revelation. Discovering that I didn’t automatically dislike songs that Phil Collins was the lead vocalist on (including album tracks from before Gabriel left) was even more surprising. The music that this band created during the decade in which I was born was hitting me like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath or Jimi Hendrix had when I first listened to them properly, but unlike those bands none of my school or Uni friends had pushed me in Genesis’s direction. This band were something else, groundbreaking musical pioneers, fearless innovators, creating complex, multi faceted tracks, with thought provoking lyrics, ambitiously written, arranged and performed. Five supremely talented musicians who together created music that transcended the sum of their parts. This was not what I was expecting from the geography department plus the guy who did Sledgehammer and some guitarist bloke I’d never heard of. Once the music took hold of me I started to delve into articles, books and the band’s history, as the process junkie and mild obsessive I am.
The more I looked at old photos and video footage, the more I felt their cultural influence should have been bigger. In music, fashion and movies, for me at least, the Seventies was the best era of all, taking the freedom of expression of the sixties and pushing it even further. And for a few brief years I’d argue that during the more interesting time in pop culture Genesis were the five coolest people on the planet and yes I’m including Tony Banks (that’s the keyboard player and key songwriter) in that statement.
You don’t even need to turn your attention to Peter Gabriel’s theatrical stage garb to find a fashion icon within Genesis either. No matter how cheesy eighties and nineties Phil Collins would become (there’s no way to redeem a balding mullet unless you’re Danny DeVito), bearded Phil was the proto hipster long before the hipster was invented. And, of course, one of the best drummers of all time (43rd best according to Rolling Stone and Mastodon’s Brann Dailor’s personal favourite).
They became much more popular and from a sales perspective, successful in the eighties, but that robbed them of an even more potent legacy in my opinion. Walk into an HMV store, one of the few that still exist, or pop into a holiday gift shop and have a look at the key-rings, t-shirts and posters. Much like The Beatles, Bob Marley, The Ramones, The Who and Nirvana you’ll usually find Pink Floyd garb (my own Pink Floyd key-ring actually came from HMV) but you won’t see anything relating to Genesis, a band whose music is just as important.
That’s the biggest downside of being ahead of your time, the world just isn’t ready for you, apart from a discerning few. It could be that they were victims of their own later success and a generation of merchandise creators and music fans wrote them off as an overplayed pop group rather than true rock visionaries, much like I did. Is my sudden love of Hackett era Genesis such a shock though, not really when I start to piece together where they fit alongside other artists in my own music collection, even if I ignore my growing interest in prog. There’s the undeniable Englishness, that evokes memories of The Kinks or The Who, infectious humour and quirkiness reminiscent of Yello or They might be giants, the strange time signatures of Soundgarden, the skilled musicianship of Jimi Hendrix or Black Sabbath, the evocative world building of John Williams or something by Holst.
Regardless of the modern day take on Genesis, I’d implore any self respecting music fan to give the seventies albums multiple spins to see what I mean. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be extremely pleased you did.
In Part Two I’ll be focussing on the key albums and giving you my personal take on them. in the meantime if you can’t wait to see what I mean then watch what I feel is one of the most perfect sets ever played by a band on TV. Genesis live on Belgian TV show Pop Shop in 1972, drawing heavily from their third album Nursery Cryme. You also get to hear Twilight Alehouse, an excellent song that never found its way onto any of their album releases. Enjoy.