Genesis: The jury's out

September 30, 2007


  A more radio-friendly, hook-happy and dumbed-down Genesis surfaced on its self-titled 1983 album, which yielded the hits "Mama" and "That's All," and things only got worse from there with "Invisible Touch" (1986) and "We Can't Dance."

Which incarnation of veteran British rockers will we see and hear?

Part of the problem is that the long-running British rockers were never sexy or cool; these are the men who early on wrote songs such as "The Return of the Giant Hogweed" and who more recently bragged about being unable to dance. But an even bigger source of confusion for both casual listeners and dedicated fans is the question of which Genesis they're paying to see.

Over its long and storied career, Genesis has been several very different bands: the wildly inventive progressive-rock group led by Peter Gabriel in the early '70s; the more streamlined prog band fronted by Phil Collins in the late '70s and early '80s, and the unexpected bubblegum pop group that emerged in the late '80s and continued through "We Can't Dance" in 1991. (At that point, Collins departed, and keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford released 1997's "Calling All Stations" without him. It flopped, and the group went on hiatus.)

Though this places me in the vast minority of prog-phobic rock critics, I'll never hesitate to defend the first two incarnations of Genesis, which made some of the most enduringly creative, trippy, weird and wonderful albums in rock history, as well as stretching the boundaries of how the music could be presented onstage.

Theatrical vocals
Banks, Rutherford and Gabriel met as teens attending a tony English boarding school, jamming on Beatles and Otis Redding songs in the music room, and eventually forming a loose-knit group that released its first album, "From Genesis to Revelation," in March 1969. It sold only 600 copies, and the band was dropped by Decca Records. But the 18-year-old musicians weren't easily discouraged.

Woodshedding in a rural cottage, they honed their mix of pastoral 12-string acoustic guitars, symphonic keyboards and Gabriel's theatrical vocals, which unfurled complicated tales blending science fiction and ancient folklore. When guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Collins came on board a few years later, the sound became even richer -- Hackett is one of the most under-rated guitarists in rock, with an arsenal of sounds uniquely his own, while Collins' later pop success has obscured the fact that he was a virtuosic percussionist -- and this quintet produced three timeless masterpieces: "Foxtrot" (1972), "Selling England by the Pound" (1973) and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" (1975).

Genesis Mach I ended shortly thereafter, as Gabriel left to pursue a solo career and Collins surprised everyone by emerging from behind the drums and backing vocal mike to lead the group. Modernizing its sound, Genesis Mach II easily matched the accomplishments of prog peers such as Yes and Jethro Tull with the albums "A Trick of the Tail" (1976), "Wind & Wuthering" (1977) and "... And Then There Were Three ..." (1978), by which point Hackett left, as well. Although subsequent releases such as "Duke" (1980) and "Abacab" (1981) were hit and miss, the band remained a vibrant force in concert, thanks to two enormously talented hired hands: Daryl Stuermer, alternating with Rutherford on guitar and bass, and Chester Thompson, augmenting Collins on drums.

But something happened after that.

Lazy and greedy
A more radio-friendly, hook-happy and dumbed-down Genesis surfaced on its self-titled 1983 album, which yielded the hits "Mama" and "That's All," and things only got worse from there with "Invisible Touch" (1986) and "We Can't Dance." Genesis Mach III was ubiquitous on MTV and '80s hits radio -- and more or less interchangeable with the likes of Culture Club and A Flock of Seagulls. Old-school fans groaned and wondered how and why this happened.

We can speculate: The crowd-pleasing Collins' irrepressible hamminess wore down and overpowered the bands' founders; they envied their old mate Gabriel's ability to craft music that was both massively popular and amazingly innovative (though they only managed the former), and/or they got lazy and greedy, with hefty mortgages on those palatial country estates.

I probed this issue when I interviewed Banks, Collins and Rutherford circa "We Can't Dance."

Did they ever wish they could lock themselves in their studio, get really stoned and cut loose to make another album as bizarrely brilliant as "The Lamb," I asked? Maybe under another name, so there were none of the expectations that came with being "pop hitmakers Genesis"?

"I suppose if one was doing that, one would probably try to be more off the wall," Banks said, transformed for a moment into the teenage musician jamming in that cottage. "I think the sheer reason for doing it would surely be to try to do a few things that might be disastrous."

"At the same time," Collins petulantly added, "it might be nice to do something like we've just done and call it a different name and see how it's received. By saying that, you're playing into -- what's your name? -- Jim's hands, because you're admitting that, because we're going in and calling it a different band, we actually have confines within Genesis that we want to stick to."

"Well, that's a fair enough comment to make," Banks said, scowling at his partner. "Because there's probably some truth in it."

Something for everyone
Clearly, listeners aren't the only ones conflicted by the band's schizophrenic history. Longtime fans were initially overjoyed to hear that the group hoped to reunite as the quintet that made "The Lamb" in order to play that album in its entirety. But Banks explained what happened when the group announced its reunion at a press conference in London last year.

"We finally had a meeting which I thought was gonna be the day where we say, 'Yes, let's do it today.' But Peter [Gabriel] said, 'This is a meeting of thinking about talking about things in the future.' And we thought at that point, 'This is gonna be quite a long way away -- two, three, four, five, 10 years ... So we thought at that time, we were still in the same room, why not do this tour, the three of us with Chester and Daryl on drums and guitar?" (Hackett was still eager to rejoin, but the other three told him he'd have to wait until Gabriel came back.)

So, by default, it is Genesis Mach III that's coming to the United Center this week, though the group is still trying to offer something for everyone. The set list, which did not change throughout the European tour, contained all of the expected hits: "Land of Confusion," "Hold on My Heart," etc. But it also boasted a medley of "Firth of Fifth" and "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" from "Selling England"; "The Carpet Crawlers" from "The Lamb" and "Los Endos" from "A Trick of the Tail" -- the better to draw both grizzled prog fans and aging '80s MTV hair-hoppers, as unlikely a mixed audience as rock has ever witnessed.

Will either camp be entirely satisfied? I'll withhold my critical judgment until after I see the show. But I will confess that I'm just as excited about the upcoming tour by The Musical Box, the vintage-Genesis cover band from Montreal. At the Vic Theatre on Dec. 5 and 6, it will devote the first night to playing all of "Selling England" -- as promising a prospect as its rendition of "The Lamb" a few years ago -- and the next evening to the so-called "Black Show," a representative set list from the Genesis tour in 1974.

If Genesis can't or won't give us the Genesis many of us want most, it's good to know that someone can and will.