“Same difference,” a friend in high school groused when I corrected him about who sang “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.” By spring 1987, after three straight years in which a Phil Collins or Genesis tune danced a little jig on the American top forty, it was impossible to tell them apart. Re-listening to Duke and Abacab having put aside memories of the persistence of these middle aged white men on MTV through the grunge era, it’s clear what did: the Genesis recordings had the musical complexity, “prog” for shorthand, as it often is, audibly on my favorite Genesis track. In a retrospective Marcello Carlin explains how well old met new:
Brilliantly balancing residual prog tendencies – the 13/4, 4/4, 9/4 tempo leaps – with a genuine sense of The Modern (Collins’ midsong count-in suggesting at least some awareness of “Being Boiled”), “Turn It On Again,” though a group composition with lyrics by Mike Rutherford, demonstrates why Collins had been so keen to play (though didn’t actually play) on Bowie’s Low; it is the group’s “Sound And Vision,” bending the rules of AoR to present a strikingly similar picture of alienation.
Genesis must be proud of one statistic: until 1997’s Collins-free debacle Calling All Stations, every album outsold its predecessor in the United Kingdom. Every album. If I were Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, or Collins, I’d be even more proud that American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman considers Invisible Touch masterpiece enough to write several pages of what’s either excellent criticism or a parody of excellent criticism. Hep cats buying Meat Puppets records in 1986 hated Invisible Touch, and, watching the video for the title track, where the most punchable trio since the Big Three at Yalta act adorable with horrifying results, I can’t disagree. I omitted “Land of Confusion” because, crunchy electrogroove notwithstanding, Mike Rutherford’s lyrics can’t conceal their cynicism (“My generation will get it right/We’re not just makin’ promises” — how’s that going?) and Collins can’t stop shouting as if he were standing on the Statue of Liberty torch praising Reagan. Fortunately, the rest of Invisible Touch applies restraint: a song about heroin addiction made into a beer commercial (who needs methadone?), two ballads with snazzy chord changes (prog roots!), and a throwback to their epics about elves in Merrie Olde England, this one about Phil Collins’ terror at being outfoxed by Cuban domino players. “The bald Thriller,” Al Shipley once wrote on ILM, admiringly.
They almost repeated the feat on 1991’s We Can’t Dance, whose title proved prophetic. As much as the myth that grunge liberated American youth from radio doldrums causes me stomach cramps, there’s something to be said about a system of government that doesn’t arrest and indict men like Collins, Banks, and Rutherford for filming a video for the felonious “I Can’t Dance.” Convinced, rightly, that INTERPOL wouldn’t pursue them around the world, the band released “Hold On My Heart,” which hung around the charts long enough to enter the Muzak system of Miami Subs, my first summer job; if “Hold On My Heart” had existed in liquid form, it would’ve been the solution, similar to cod liver oil in consistency, we used to clean the stove at the end of a shift. In liquid form, Kathy Troccoli’s “Everything Changes,” with which “Hold On My Heart” competed, would have been fry grease.
A couple of items you won’t see on this list, First, their American breakthrough “Follow You Follow Me.” I like the bubbling guitars and rich rhythmic undercurrent — Collins is always doing something with his drums — but it suffers from a flossy production and Tony Banks’ talent for coaxing the wrong sound out of his synths. Even in 1986 Banks’ keyboards evoked flares and spring festivals and bad weed — strange images considering the insurance executive lookalike behind the keys; I acknowledge this works on “In the Glow of the Night,” whose tension depends on the interaction between drum machine (Linn! Collins can’t shake his admiration for Prince) and the Mellotron flutes.
More crucially, you won’t see much of the Peter Gabriel era. By the time he released his eponymous solo debut in 1977, their former lead singer had learned how to write about the sundry characters he envisioned doing terrible things. This wasn’t the case on the dreadfully named Nursery Cryme or even Selling England by the Pound, often considered their period best. I find this material windy and amateurish; they were players, not songwriters, embellishing where no embellishment was required. The transitional albums between The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and “Follow You, Follow Me” show a Collins holding his nose through the enterprise; he’s thinking about hiring the Earth, Wind & Fire horns, the other three about how to arrange a song called “Squonk.”
1. Turn It On Again
3. No Reply at All
4. I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)
5. Throwing It All Away
6. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
7. Dance on a Volcano
8. In the Glow of the Night/Domino
9. The Battle of Epping Forest
11. Invisible Touch
12. Keep It Dark
13. No Son of Mine
14. Carpet Crawlers
15. Many Too Much
16. Tonight, Tonight, Tonight
18. Get’Em Out by Friday
19. In Too Deep
20. That’s All