What Genesis Should Have Become
In 1997, while my wife and I tried to figure out how to take care of a pair of week-old infants, a little album by a big band was released: Calling All Stations by Genesis. Phil Collins had announced a year earlier that he was leaving the band, and upon hearing the news I was as excited as I was surprised. I was, and still am, an unabashed fan of the Collins-era Genesis – you’ll get no “there is no Genesis without Peter Gabriel” rant from me – but I also felt like Collins’s absence provided an opportunity for keyboardist Tony Banks to really shine again the way he had from the mid-70s to the early 80s. Banks was the glue that held the whole band together anyhow in my opinion, so it mattered little if a different singer joined the group, and I felt that Genesis had taken the pure pop element of its journey about as far as it could go. It was time to redirect, not only musically, but as a live act. Time to go back to mid-sized theaters and reinvent a set list that had become somewhat stale.
I had reason to be optimistic, as just five years earlier Banks had released a solo album that – predictably – went nowhere, but was so damn good that I couldn’t wait for him to release similar material under the Genesis moniker. His 1992 release, Still, is a gem, and I was practically giddy when I found a used vinyl copy for six dollars last summer.
(note: many websites state that Still was released in 1991, and the album itself is copyrighted that year, but I stand by Amazon’s April 14, 1992 release date as I distinctly remember listening to the album while working at Musicland in Brookfield, Wisconsin that spring. Then again, my memory has been known to fail me.)
Still may not be a perfect album – it has an unfortunate sax solo in the opening track – but for a project that recruited five different singers it’s unexpectedly consistent, all the while accommodating Banks’s flare for unpredictable harmonic changes within songs that are largely “pop” in essence. Take tracks like “Red Day on Blue Street” or “I Wanna Change the Score," both co-written by Nik Kershaw of “Wouldn’t It Be Good” fame. Both songs have a pop feel to them, but their chord changes are worlds away from simple I, IV, V progressions. Making the complex accessible is a gift that Banks had been cultivating for twenty years – ever try learning the song “Me and Sarah Jane”? How he came up with those changes boggles the mind – and Still is a great addition to that trend, as he combines pop elements, darker themes (“Angel Face”) complex ballads (“Still It Takes Me By Surprise”) and a touch of prog rock (“Another Murder of a Day”) into one surprisingly strong album.
Four years later, Banks and fellow Genesis alum Mike Rutherford were in need of a new singer, and since Kershaw had made such a great contribution both vocally and compositionally to Still, I wonder now if he was ever considered. It would have been an interesting call. Instead, they recruited Ray Wilson, who did a fine job with the material on Calling All Stations, but the material was unfortunately week. By the time Wilson joined the band, Rutherford and Banks had already co-written an entire album’s worth of music, and the songs are light-years away from what Banks had recorded just a half a decade earlier. It’s a dark, plodding, lifeless mess with embarrassing lyrics and nary a hook to be found. It’s also a whopping sixty-seven minutes long! Why Banks and Rutherford thought that after hiring a new singer their fans would enjoy being overwhelmed with over an hour’s worth of music is a question for the ages.
To make matters worse, Genesis planned a massive tour of large venues as if nothing had changed in the intervening years since the last tour. Banks later said in the book, Genesis: Chapter and Verse, “We started downsizing the venues. We were getting sales in places like Columbus, Ohio…of twenty tickets. We had to cancel the US leg of the tour.”
And the tour they did perform in Europe included the foolhardy decision to perform tracks that were inextricably linked to the band's former singer: songs like “Land of Confusion,” “Hold on my Heart,” “Mama” and “Follow You, Follow Me.” This was a missed opportunity, as a better call would have been to perform songs that hadn’t been performed before or hadn’t been in years. I believe that Wilson would have sounded great on tracks like “Blood on the Rooftops,” “Deep in the Motherlode” and “Man of Our Times.” Instead he had to sing “Invisible Touch.” What were they thinking?
Rutherford has admitted that the new lineup needed time to cultivate. In 2007 he said to Innerviews, "I'm aware of how we could have improved the next album. I would have brought in someone else to co-write with us. I think Calling All Stations was lacking in some areas, so I think the second album would have been much better."
That may be so, but the reality is that Genesis already had the tools needed to make a good album. They had Banks. And Banks should have been the driving force with the possible aid of a singer with a pop sensibility like Nik Kershaw. Unfortunately, the new lineup never got a chance for a sophomore effort. By the late 90s Rutherford and Banks weren’t so keen on releasing an album every other year and touring in between. They were well into their forties with families and it was time to pull the plug.
But Still is “still” in my regular rotation, and one can only wonder what might have been had Banks and Rutherford gone a different direction back in 1997.