Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Oi! Collins! NO!!!! (Genesis Reunion - More Observations (Draft)
A great band that gradually lost its way risks irreversibly tarnishing an already damaged legacy to rock, says Paul Stump
The clocks go back on Sunday. Winter's on its way. Charlton are bottom of the Premiership. If I needed anything to make things worse, it's the news that Genesis are to reform.
Ah, but hold hard there - Genesis used to be good. They were. This was before I knew they existed, but despite Peter Gabriel poncing around with a paper petunia on his head and songs like Supper's Ready hitting the 23-minute mark there was something whimsical, audacious and almost cute about them. Firth of Fifth (1973) is prog rock at its absolute ultimate, the conceits of daft solos and neo-Romantic excess condensed into a taut and brilliantly melodic and melodramatically thrilling eight minutes. Even when Gabriel left in 1975, the band were still viable, given guitarist Steve Hackett's leftfield harmonies and a sound not unlike a planet-sized electric violin crashing into the sun. Hell, even Phil Collins' voice didn't want to make me disembowel the nearest living thing. But Hackett quitting in 1977 and the onset of a syrupy blandness that makes Coldplay sound like Napalm Death spelt the end for Genesis as a musical unit; as a vast, Borg-like, galaxy-consuming monster, an absorber of phenomenal amounts of cash for phenomenally dull music it was just the beginning. And it's that Genesis, Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, who have rediscovered their appetite for greenbacks this winter. One wants to weep. Does the world need this more or less than global warming?
Genesis were always seen as goody-goody, twee, musically informed by choir practise and parlour songs; the Carthusian background of Banks, Rutherford and Gabriel didn't help (Hackett remembers dressing-room rows degenerating into 'but you stole my pencil in the fourth year'). But as slightly eccentric middle-class young hippies they were infinitely preferable to the Vauxhall Vectra sound - reliable, teakalike, uninspired, devoid of novelty- they cultivated in the 1980s. The combination of garage-band guitar and orchestral mellotron strings with creepy paedophile undertones of Nursery Cryme(1971) and the proto-punk symphonic surrealism of the double-album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) may be stridently ambitious, but in retrospect doesn't this sound much more interesting than the likes of Tonight Tonight Tonight and We Can't Dance and Another Day In Paradise - the musical analogue of Top Shop. Come on, admit it - not even Dire Straits were that boring; that was the whole point of prog and Genesis at their best, who practically embodied the genre - God, at least they tried something different.
It's hard to convey the bitterness amongst Genesis fans; those who swore the band died with Gabriel vs those who swore it died with Hackett (both groups share a wary rapprochement) vs those who remain faithful even unto now. Being Genesis fans, they don't, as a rule, go at each other with lengths of 2 by 4, although given the self-righteous, often semi-literate web ramblings of representatives of all camps, one feels that a Droogish bloodbath might be a more edifying sight.
Churlish indeed is he or she that denies that any Genesis product from Duke onwards was immaculate in presentation and production. The bugbear was the monumental blandness of language. Tony Smith's flawless management having steered them ably towards the mainstream from 1973 on, the departure of Hackett, the last real free spirit in the band, enabled them to fully form an FM-friendly musical language whilst retaining the late-Romantic chordal sequences characteristic of their oeuvre (Banks's contributions to And Then There Were Three in particular, Burning Rope most of all). Compare and contrast that with the likes of 1971's Fountain of Salmacis on the 1978 tour and there is a clear lineage of harmonic development and choice of notes.
The post-Three gap year, despite being filled by solo product of Banks and Rutherford (the actually rather good Smallcreep's Day) meant a renewed hearts-and-minds campaign; to wit, a small-hall UK tour and more radio-friendly, 'relevant' material. Collins' voice was remiked to add what was fondly, and laughably vainly, imagined to be a 'soulful' edge. Instead, he sounded - coincidentally - like a little white guy trying to be Otis Redding and failing at a karaoke night in Ealing. Hence the presence of the truly hideous Misunderstanding on 1980's Duke album. There were concessions to the faithful, with the chord sequences in Duchess, Behind the Lines and Guide Vocal reassembled in the ten-minute Duke's Travels/Duke's End setpiece. But as this aped in the studio the band's tendency to hybridise and medleyise older pieces, it seemed a little too pat, too corny, too part of what was now a showbusiness brand rather than a band.
Of course the attempt at the 'contemporary' was a risible failure; there were cosmic gulfs between the likes of The Pop Group and Genesis, for example. But the album, and the early-1981 Face Value by Phil Collins (possibly the most influential Genesis album of them all) sold so well that one could merely mouth plaititudes about appearing 'with it' while hoovering up money from FM airplay.
One of the saddest aspects of the whole Genesis decline - which is too tedious to rerehearse here - is that on one occasion Banks, Rutherford and Collins hit the target, dead centre. The opening to the single Mama from the Genesis album of 1983 was a modest and easily-overlooked triumph of combining neoRomantic minor-key harmonic progressions with blatty electronic minimalism, worthy of Eno at his best. I heard, I marvelled, I bought the album, I felt let down. God, if they could do it for one track, even for a fraction of a track, why not... couldn't they be more like the Associates, for heaven's sake?
Talk to any old pro and he will tell you how much he admires the likes of Invisible Touch and We Can't Dance for their 'professionalism'. The eyes will never smile, though. He knows, as any music-lover knows, that these records are horribly calculated music-by-focus-group tripe.
In a way it's hard to blame the band; they had refined their audience and manipulated their expectations ever since the arrival of the expert Smith, and by 1981, with Abacab (and its oh-so-minimalist-oh-so-not-prog-at-all-guvnor sleeve art), happened to chance on a chimera of pretend art rock gestures and empty soul-pop bolstered by hard work and an eye for innovation in presentation.
It worked; and Genesis, in a way, became a genre by themselves; they always had been, but by now the discrete colours, contours,patterns, textures had all been bleached clean, yet still there was a market, shared between the martyrable faithful and the vast constituency raised on FM radio in the 1970s and 1980s who didn't really like music anyway. Rarely has music sounded so boilerplate as that of Genesis in the 1980s; Steely Dan may have spent longer on their albums, but at least preserved the illusion of emotional involvement, posing lyrical questions, playfulness, an extra note on that ninth chord, whatever.
Genesis at their biggest were the most anonymous band in the world. Gabriel is a filthy-rich rock star but has always been an individualist; Hackett too, a modest, thoughtful musician moving into classical music. Both have clearly decided they have as little in common now with the exponentially-expanding Genesis monster of latterday Princess Di-patronage as they did three decades ago. Bravo to them.
Few band reunions can have been as gruesome to behold, few more financially unnecessary, few less likely to produce good music, a syndrome seemingly only defied by the fabulopus if unlikely recent Van Der Graaf Generator get-together.
Nothing would give me more pleasure than to hear a retread of the jolly, satirical martial stomp of 1971's The Return of the Giant Hogweed on this tour, and what has this writer reaching for the pills is that the classic lineup could no doubt rock the hell out of it; but given that the corpse of Genesis was so thoroughly Stepfordised from 1980 onwards, this is about as likely as Osama Bin Laden doubling with Tony Banks on mellotron, I think I'll pass and go into hibernation until it's all over. It's going to be a long winter.