Hello! My name is Jake and I’m going to be writing about Genesis this week.
When most people think of Genesis, they think of the multi-platinum arena-pop juggernaut of the 1980s led by Phil Collins.* That is not the Genesis I’ll be writing about—though I do have a fondness for that iteration. There is another, older, less-familiar Genesis that walked the earth between the years of 1971 and 1975, whose lead singer was an extremely weird public-school lad named Peter Gabriel. This incarnation of the group released four albums that are heralded by progressive-rock fans as some of the best in the genre. These are the albums I’ll be writing about this week.
Genesis is by no means an obscure band, and even its older, lesser-known work has been analyzed, appreciated, and repackaged exhaustively, especially after the turn-of-the-millennium explosion in reissues and remasters; an exponential increase in online music writing, especially about niches and subcultures; and a burgeoning respect, however guarded, within the critical establishment for the artistic merits of early-1970s progressive rock. I’m humbly adding my voice to the rabble and volunteering my efforts to make some sense of this particular corner of prog-rock arcana, hoping that it will be of some interest to the uninitiated and casual fan alike, and that even the die-hard Genesis heads, who might not see or hear anything this week that they haven’t before, will still come along for the ride.
Another reason I asked Hendrik if I could write about Genesis is that I want to bring the band’s early music into the twenty-first century in a way I haven’t quite seen anyone do yet: to connect a seemingly ancient, musically esoteric, and arguably extinct ensemble to some of today’s more adventurous pop and rock performers, unlikely or even unwitting beneficiaries of the Genesis lineage. I will be making the case this week that Genesis—at least, the early 70s version I’m writing about—is more musically relevant than ever.
The other reason I’m writing about Genesis is purely selfish: I want to try and reify, once and for all, what it is I like so damn much about the band, and why I’ve been returning to them in my listening habits, writing, and musical career for the past twenty years. I’ve discovered many bands since Genesis, of course; bands that are arguably more relevant and fashionable and downright important to me now. But you never fully graduate from the first band that changed your life, and for me—after the Beatles records that my parents played for me when I was still a toddler, as any good parents should—that band was Genesis.
My Genesis obsession began in Ann Arbor, Michigan when I was ten years old. My father, a college professor, was on a year’s sabbatical doing research at the University of Michigan, and the house we rented had MTV—something our home back in Iowa lacked. I’d seen snippets of MTV at the homes of friends whose parents were either kind or laissez-faire enough to subscribe to cable and let their children watch it. I’d seen larger doses of it at my grandmother’s house, which we visited every summer in Washington DC, and so I knew that some of my favorite music at the time was being created on synthesizers by men and women with brightly colored hair and a fondness for fog machines. This is probably how I first encountered Genesis, which, in its poppy 1980s configuration made some of the first and most ambitious music videos of the decade. When I caught glimpses of Phil Collins playing the drums in those videos, something about his whole aesthetic—his huge drum kits, his fluid style, his smug-bastard smirk—furthered my inevitable trajectory toward taking up the drums, probably catalyzed a few years earlier when I first heard the Beatles and zeroed in on Ringo’s simple but unflagging drum parts.
Our rental house also had a semi-furnished basement—another strange amenity we weren’t used to—which became a rec room for my brother and me. On a visit to Toys-R-Us, my mother caved and purchased a toy drum kit for me. It was made of something close to aluminum and its heads were little more than thick paper. I took it home and wailed away on it in the basement, playing with the radio or whatever tapes I had—which at that point were limited to the first two Tears For Fears albums. I played this twenty-five dollar toy drum kit as if it were real. This was a problem from a practical standpoint, since its paper drum heads couldn’t withstand such force, but promising from one of musical development, because even at age ten I played with a steady deliberation that was confident and unquestionably rhythmic. One of the most valuable traits of a good drummer, almost as much as an innate rhythmic sense, is confidence: It is very hard to draw sound out of drums by half-measures, or assemble a groove from tentative, simpering strokes. Good drummers always look and sound like they know what they’re doing, even when they don’t. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Phil Collins’ confident playing—and if anyone knew what he was doing, it was him.
That Christmas I got my first Walkman.** It weighed several pounds and cost fifty-five dollars. I also talked my mother into signing me up for Columbia House, the mail-order music clearinghouse that offered six whole tapes for only a penny and hoped you didn’t read the fine print. With that single cent I managed to increase my music collection by three hundred percent; two of my new tapes were Genesis’ self-titled 1983 album, and its follow-up, the ubiquitous Invisible Touch, whose five hit singles played seemingly nonstop on MTV. I started playing along with these albums too, down in the basement.
I needn’t dwell too long on the challenges of discovering and acquiring new music before the Internet. Anyone my age or older knows that you were pretty much at the mercy of the radio and MTV if you wanted even an inkling of an idea of the music out there, and even then it was a very small, mainstream, largely uninspired inkling. If you lived in a small rural Iowa town with no proper record store, no mall, and no cable television, you were pretty much screwed. It meant that every trip out of town, every sojourn in Ann Arbor or DC was another crucial opportunity to broaden your musical horizons and soak up what you then considered culture.
So how did I get from tapes of Invisible Touch and the video for “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” to the older, weirder, proggier version of Genesis? It took a few years, and sedulous combing through the record stores at malls in DC and Des Moines, but I eventually found a cassette of the band’s 1982 double live album Three Sides Live, whose third side contained, after an hour of their more popular eighties hits, that most backhanded sop to the die-hard fan: a medley of the band’s “old stuff.” Here was a towering amalgam of some of the band’s finer moments from Selling England By The Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and Wind & Wuthering. Here were songs that credited Peter Gabriel as a songwriter. Here were songs that sounded epic even as they were truncated and wedged into a medleyed hodgepodge, with loads of odd time signatures and thirty-second-note synth flourishes and two drummers going full-bore at once and long instrumental passages. Here, in other words, was the good stuff.
So let’s get to the good stuff.
* (whose widely loathed public reputation as a solo artist, Tarzan-soundtrack composer, and Alamo enthusiast I will neither comment upon nor attempt to defend, except to say that even his detractors tend to admit, when pressed, that he is one of the finest drummers ever to have lived, and that is the Phil Collins I will be discussing and honoring this week)
** I promise that eventually this blog is going to be more than merely an enumeration of the consumer indulgences I coaxed from my parents in 1986.