A Curious Feeling: Tony Banks Talks

❉ Genesis’ keyboard wizard discusses his solo work.

Genesis. You loved them or hated them. Give the scope, selection, size and sonics of their work, it was even easy for their most hardened fanbases to assign such devotion/derision to Foxtrot, Duke and We Can’t Dance. And yet the band’s bucolic, willowy, gargantuan indolence kept them in the minds and hearts of the music buying public, awarding them a position as Prog’s second entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

It was Tony Banks, keyboard wizard and chief songwriter, who ensured that their records, singles and live performances whizzed with the paraded timbre tumbling through the band’s thirty-year trajectory. Banks wrote with characteristic competence, painting pictures of blissful pop poetry (Setting Sun, Afterglow), before charging the band through mellifluous herculean epics (Firth of Fifth, Domino). Through it all, Banks sat as one of two constant members, facing a keyboard, mirthful in melody and smile, ably leaving the performance theatrics to the other members of the band.

His veneer, vigour and vitality ensured that his shadowy presence would never go unnoticed. Presented with the Prog God of the year at the 2015 Progressive Music Awards, the traditionally silent keyboardist was met with whoops and cheers from fellow prog pianists Anthony Phillips and Rick Wakeman, before entering into a wonderfully droll speech.

Busying himself between Genesis projects, Banks completed a collection of solo works, which Cherry Red have curated. Banks’ dedicated fans were always one of quality than quantity, much of his work overlooked by the public at the time of their release.  That Genesis vocalists Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins enjoyed their greatest commercial successes outside of the band can’t have helped the matter, especially at a time when Genesis weren’t the critical darlings of present.

And yet, there’s a sterling sense of innovation and invention interweaving in the albums. Where lead guitarist Steve Hackett revisited the Genesis catalogue with an orchestra, Banks used an orchestra to wash his soundtrack listeners over The Wicked Lady. Where bass guitarist Mike Rutherford questioned the values of life in the sickly The Living Years, Banks questioned the values of life on his underappreciated pastoral cyclical debut. And unlike Hackett and Rutherford, Banks has a very good singing voice, The Fugitive demonstrating a style sweetly reminiscent of the sing/shout style Neil Tennant mastered. We Are Cult writer and lifelong Genesis fan Eoghan Lyng caught up with Banks to discuss the inventions and innovations of his solo works.

Dividing himself between band work and solo work:

I think I’d had the idea for a solo album back in the seventies. I had one around the time Steve wrote his album. That was about 1976 and then in 1978, Phil needed a hiatus from the band. He wanted to work on his first marriage, so this gave Mike and I the chances to record our solo albums. There’s a lot of material here, I’ve never really thought what’s a Tony Banks song or a Genesis song. I like all of it and it happens to be what I’m writing and what I’ll be writing next. I’m not one of those people who can’t listen to something, it’s too far in the past. There’s a lot of good stuff. On my solo albums, Genesis fans would probably be more interested in the longer, more elaborate stuff, but I have written quite a lot of good pop songs for people to enjoy.

Writing with Nik Kershaw:

I’ve always like Nik’s stuff, I think he’s a very good songwriter. I especially like his fourth album, The Works I think it’s called. I was recording Still at the time and asked if he’d like to write some stuff together. He agreed, he came along with his drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who also played on The Works and whose stuff I really liked, and I think the tracks turned out quite well.

Playing guitars:

I’d played a certain amount of rhythm guitar with Genesis. I wrote some of the stuff on guitar, notably the beginning of Suppers’ Ready. When it came to A Curious Feeling, my first album, I thought I’d play the guitars, rather than get Mike and Steve to do it. Playing lead guitar was hard work, playing one note without protracting the other strings. The same with the bass guitar. And in the end the guitar solos sounded like synthesisers anyway, so I don’t know why I bothered. But I did write a lot of the stuff on the guitar and wanted to do it all myself.

Singing his own songs:

I don’t think the lyrics to This Is Love are that particularly personal. They’re about down in love and that definitely wasn’t me then. I think my life is probably too dull to go into hit songs. I was just trying to write a hit and thought it might be fun to sing one album by myself. So, I did. I don’t have a fantastic voice, but there is something nice to singing your own stuff that I quite like. And it’s as good as a Bob Geldof! I contained the melodies, which was a good lesson, knowing what I could sing. Throughout the years, I’d give anything to Peter and Phil to handle. Phil can sing anything, Peter is a little more specific, but both can manage. But I have sung a couple of other tracks throughout and a lot of people like The Fugitive because it’s me singing.

Working with other singers:

Bankstatement was a bit more Mike and The Mechanics than Paul McCartney and Wings. I saw what Mike Rutherford was doing. He and I both had identity problems with our first albums. People told me they loved the singing on A Curious Feeling, which, of course, was Kim Beacon. Then I’d sing my own stuff, get other people in and then I figured why not get the best singer for the song? I guess I had fronting issues, which would have been ok with singers if we’d played gigs. Which, of course, we never did. But there’s a lot of good work there. Steve Hillage worked on that album. We had two great singers, Alistair Gordon, who has a very pure voice, and Jayney Klimek. Working with female singers is very different to working with men, so that’s a great experience.

Returning to longer form song-writing:

I tried to keep the songs on Still a bit more precious. We still didn’t get anything on the airplay, which is how it worked in those days, so it didn’t really help. So, for Strictly Inc. I thought “I’ll do what I want”. I wanted to write a longer piece, this was seventeen minutes, at a time when the other two probably wouldn’t have allowed a song that long on Genesis. We changed a bit after …And Then There Were Three…, we probably felt we’d done it, but we hinted at long pieces during the Duke album and concerts. We considered writing long pieces again during the Calling All Stations period. Between two or three of us, we decided not to do that. It wasn’t to be. An Island in the Darkness could have worked with Genesis live, with the lights and backgrounds. This was a piece I wanted to throw in lots of different chords, it climaxes two, three, four times. It has a thematic quality running through it and one I think Genesis fans will really appreciate. I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve written. Daryl Stuermer is on it, I work with him a lot. Plays great guitar. I like Mike Oldfield a lot, but I don’t think he’s as adventurous as me with my chords. That’s why the last album was called A Chord Too Far, the story of my life!

Working with Nick Davis:

I worked with Nick on the last two Genesis albums and he worked with me as co-producer and engineer on Still and Strictly Inc. It helps that he likes what I write and he’s very good at getting it out. He’s somewhat of an underappreciated producer. He’s very proud of his work with Andy Partridge and XTC and he recently worked with Sophie Ellis Bextor. He’s done some great work with the remixes, giving it a kick.

Sound tracking Kevin Bacon:

I worked on Quicksilver. If you haven’t seen it, I wouldn’t rush out to! They didn’t even use Shortcut To Somewhere in the film. The director used a Giorgio song sung by Roger Daltrey, which I wasn’t too keen on. But the music video was fun to make with Fish. Great day. Fish has a very similar tone to Peter Gabriel. They work differently, Peter has a very clever way of making musical decisions, Fish is more intuitive. We had to work on that and work through for that track. He works very differently to Nik Kershaw. I did the Toyah Willcox tracks on the same album. I wanted to test her register, to get her to sing that bit more. Very glad that I did.

Playing with Chester Thompson:

I guess A Curious Feeling was a chance to work with Chester. I always liked his playing and we got on very well with each other. He always liked some of my stuff, things like One For The Vine, which I always thought was very English. Chester and I could work on those kinds of songs on A Curious Feeling. I’m only sorry that we didn’t get the drum sound that I wanted. We recorded in the Led Zeppelin room to try and get that live kick, but it just wasn’t loud enough. On the remix, we’ve brought it up, although it’s not quite there. It was never quite there.

Writing for Michael Winner:

I had a couple of quirky instrumentals on The Fugitive anyway, so I put this theme that I was working on aside. When Michael Winner was looking for someone cheaply, I played him this thing I had written. He loved it and we used it as the theme for The Wicked Lady. We had an amazing arranger called Christopher Palmer who came up with all these variations of the themes. Incredible. It was great to hear what I’d written being played by an orchestra. Since Strictly Inc., I’ve released three classical albums. The newest, Five, we made with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and I think it’s my favourite of the three. We keep learning through the albums, though I’m not supposed to be talking about those albums, am I? [chuckles]

Writing a rock opera:

The original idea for A Curious Feeling came from a book I’d read called Flowers For Algernon. I really liked the story, but was advised to change it because there was a musical starring Michael Crawford opening with the same name. I was never very happy with the story to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. I thought it was like a Vonnegut tale that didn’t really work. It did have moments of lyrical beauty, but we had to work to the story. The Lamia could have been a much more romantic piece than it was. It also doesn’t have that strong ending that’s there on Supper’s Ready. It starts well, but loses it. It was a pity that I had to change the lyrics to A Curious Feeling, but a lot of it was similar. The Lie was the song that I really had to change. I had to change the plot a bit. It changed from experiments to something inside of him. But a lot of it stayed the same from the original idea.

Writing a future rock record:

I don’t know, Eoghan. I don’t know in this climate. A lot of my favourite songs are on Still and Strictly Inc. and the interest wasn’t there. There was some interest for A Curious Feeling, not much after. I thought about writing stuff just before we did the Genesis reunion concerts. Working with the two drummers possibly satisfied that side of me for a while! People seem to like my classical stuff more and more. I just write and divide what I can. But I hope people find stuff that they like on this set. There are songs like An Island In The Darkness which could have been Genesis songs and that I think are very, very good.

Tony Banks – ‘Banks Vaults: The Complete Albums 1979-1995’ (ECLEC82680) is released by Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records, 19 July 2019, RRP £44.99.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine, DMovies, Phacemag and other titles.

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