Ten of The Best: Genesis

Whether channelling Keats, Joyce and Python with Peter Gabriel or blasting out stadium rock favourites with Phil Collins, Genesis had something for everyone. Here’s ten of the best.

“They survived punk, they survived disco, they even survived a singer and two lead guitarists leaving the band, not to mention the cycle of drummers who clocked in and out before they settled on Phil Collins in 1970. Against all odds (yes, yes) Genesis grew bigger and bigger crowds.”

In 2015, Peter Gabriel took to a stage to present Tony Banks with the “Prog God Award”. Here, reunited with an embrace, two school chums found themselves sharing a private smile brought from personality, a personality that brought them six albums (three of them classic) and a band by which Banks could steer once Gabriel left in 1975. It all started in Charterhouse School, where Banks and Gabriel (two blossoming songwriters) met two fellow boarders fine tuning guitar chords (Anthony Philips and Mike Rutherford, before he knew any mechanics). The four had aspirations of stardom, and an encounter with mogul Jonathan King secured them an album, From Genesis To Revelation (1969). What followed was a story of Biblical proportions.

Starting in Charterhouse as song-writing buddies, the saga of Genesis included the original line up (Banks, Gabriel, Phillips and Rutherford), the classic line up (Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett and Rutherford), the transitional line up (Banks, Collins, Hackett and Rutherford) and the popular line-up (Banks, Collins and Rutherford) (there was also the fifth, the “reinvented line up”- but even Ray Wilson would rather you forgot that one!) They survived punk, they survived disco, they even survived a singer and two lead guitarists leaving the band, not to mention the cycle of drummers who clocked in and out before they settled on Phil Collins in 1970. Against all odds (yes, yes) Genesis grew bigger and bigger crowds.

Whether flowing with Peter Gabriel’s literary progressive pieces or blasting out stadium rock favourites with Phil Collins, Genesis had something for everyone. Here’s ten of the best.

A flower?

10: The Knife (Trespass, 1970)

Following their decision in September 1969 to ditch university and become a touring band, sophomore album Trespass saw John Mayhew take to the drum kit. A stint at Soho’s Ronnie Scott’s caught the attentive ear of Tony-Stratton Smith, who signed them to his record label, Charisma Records. Trespass proved the first album the band had carte blanche over, and one which featured a fine-furrowed sfumato of folk songs – devoid of the obtrusive string sections overdubbed on their Jonathon King-produced debut (an action that greatly upset their morale).

The Knife looked to the emblems of the last of the psychedelic sixties, with a racing churning organ riff and Gabriel’s penchant for pseudo-esotericism coming through. A marching song, its bridge brought to greater life through a stinging guitar solo courtesy of Anthony Phillips, bluesy in feel, medieval in context. Phillips was the member who convinced the other three to become a performing band, but personal duress and stage fright put him in the unenviable band of leaving it. Despite his short stint (two albums) Phillips’ influence cannot be overstated; his successor Steve Hackett continued that pastoral/metallic flavours in his playing and Phillips later worked with Gabriel and Rutherford on solo projects as a studio musician. As for The Knife, it remained an audience favourite in his absence, as evident from a blistering version played during the 1982 Six Of The Best reunion with Gabriel.

9: Watcher of The Skies (Foxtrot, 1972)

There are openers and then there are openers. Cerebral, vivacious, orchestral, magnetic – all pushed through a mellotron. Keyboardist Tony Banks was experimenting with different keys, discovering that it “was intentionally melodramatic to conjure up an impression of incredible size. It was an extraordinary sound. On the old Mellotron Mark 2 there were these two chords that sounded really good on that instrument. There are some chords you can’t play on that instrument because they’d be so out of tune. These chords created an incredible atmosphere”.

A song that pinpoints to John Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer for lyrical muse needed atmosphere for its backdrop. Kicking into a grandiloquent tale of demons and angels (the words were Banks and Rutherford, not Gabriel’s!), Gabriel is ably supported by Phil Collins, both vocally and with a clatter of the magnetic cymbals. In performance, Gabriel adorned his body with bat wings on the side of his head, glowing UV make-up around his eyes, and a multicoloured cape performing this live. Psychedelic and corrective, this was a performance that opens Genesis’ first masterpiece with aplomb.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, the writers (sans Gabriel) were welcomed with a tasteful cover of this track from Phish, which moved Mike Rutherford in particular.

8: Supper’s Ready (1972, Foxtrot)

When did Genesis reach their zenith?  The logical answer is Selling England, given how well it is liked. Then again, so is The Lamb, one of the greatest rock operas out there and Wind and Wuthering proved Genesis could deliver killer material with or without Peter Gabriel. No, Genesis’ highpoint came not in an album, but an opus of leitmotifs, textures, time changes, theme changes, Biblical Lizstian stories that operated the mindsets between the good, the humble, the evil, the dark and the twisted, an extraordinary task that the band conveyed in merely twenty three minutes!

The track proved so expansive it took the majority of Foxtrot’s side two, mass measurements of music made merry through an opening arppegiated acoustic opening, coined by Banks and ably mimicked by Hackett and Rutherford, a cacophony of twelve strings chiming away. By the fifth moment, a terrifying electric guitar is heard, brining heavy metal into the metal of the lyrical content. Then, all logic is lost, where Gabriel quotes the words of cerebral surreality, “there’s Winston Churchill, dressed in drag, he used to be a British flag, plastic bag, what a drag!” – a stanza both Joycean and Pythonesque (Genesis shared the same record label as Monty Python).

Darker terrains enter into Apocalypse in 9/8 (larger written by Rutherford), as an exasperated Gabriel sings for all but his life. He admitted in later years the song took root in his wife’s Jill’s nightmares, a near exorcism of unpleasantness depicted from a purple room. But hope is not lost, as the band marches through winds as Gabriel winds out of a New Jerusalem – then there is peace!

Whole dissertations, whole books even, have been written about this track. It is the song of Genesis.

7: Firth of Fifth (Selling England By The Pound, 1973)

Never afraid to damn his own work, Tony Banks remembered these lyrics as one of the worst he was ever involved with. With clunky liners as “and so with gods and men/The sheep remain inside their pen”, he’s not far wrong. But it’s the music that makes this track worth mentioning, whether the cerebral flute spot, the opening classical piano riff, Mike Rutherford’s funky bass work, and Steve Hackett’s magnetic guitar part, all delivered with cohesion not often heard in a near ten minute track. Best of all, a middle eighth synth solo (take a bow, Banks) proves how effective the instrument could be used before the eighties (of which Genesis were indelibly associated with) turned the keyboard component into an aural faux pas. Exciting, lilting, energetic, futuristic- it’s prog rock gone mad.

Selling England By The Pound is Genesis’ most complete album, a fusion of differing styles and textures, an album of similar worth to the equally esoteric albums of 1973 Tubular Bells, Dark Side of The Moon and Band On The Run. And Firth of Fifth is a piece that clouds all these musical influences in one neat track. The title is still an eye-roller, however!

6: The Carpet Crawlers (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, 1974)

Dog Man Star. Sweetheart of The Rodeo. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Three albums that baffled audiences at the time, but whose gravitas and lyrical maturity has risen their cache over the decades. Attempting a double album, Gabriel conceived of a plot line which brought sheep metaphors, New York sirens and spiritual symbiosis together in a manner that baffled the band (and, perhaps, even Gabriel). But there was a purity and sincerity to the work that was undeniably attractive, not least on this sexual ode of candlelit desire. A lifelong Percy Sledge fan, Gabriel brings soul to a piano led ballad that himself wrote. It’s an incredibly sincere and alluring vocal performance, and though some of the bandmembers felt it relegated them to sidemen, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice on such a pure and beautiful song.

Things were less than beautiful behind the scenes, Gabriel having upset some of the other members (especially Banks) by taking the lion’s share of the album’s lyrics; and, while beautifully designed, his Slipperman costume seriously affected Gabriel’s vocals onstage. Upset at the onset of acrimony, Gabriel none the less honoured the Lamb’s tour, knowing it would be his last for Genesis. It was a departure that proved traumatic and exciting for him, emotions he’d display on the magnetic Solsbury Hill.

Gabriel profited better without Genesis and, amazingly, they did without him. Posterity has been, rightfully, kind to the Gabriel era, the trilogy of Foxtrot, England and Lamb now the critical highpoints of Genesis’ creative stock. He’d re-record Carpet Crawlers in 1999, sharing vocals with Phil Collins, who had become Genesis’ de facto frontman in his absence.

5: Los Endos (A Trick of The Tail, 1976)

Followers of The Lamb came far and wide, but Tony Banks was not among the converted. Gabriel was his closest friend, but differences in visual representations and lyrical writing had left them estranged; Banks especially resentful of the idea that the media perceived a frontman and backing band (he felt deja vú in the late eighties with the rise of Collins’ solo career, but at least Genesis benefitted from Collins’ fame financially), and saw Gabriel’s departure as a means to return to what Genesis were; a band. What better way to prove it than an anarchic instrumental?

Closing the album on a free style note, the song starts slowly with a called motif, before Collins’ jungular drums come in, faster than beats can follow, Banks and Rutherford joining together to create a frisson of keyboard and bass effect. It’s a startling piece of ascerbic time changes, erratic instruments, loud guitars, soft notes and scat vocals. Endos proved one of the few songs Collins would drum on their 1976 tour, as he opted to primarily focus on singing to build audience rapport, inviting Brand X bandmate Bill Buford (soon to be replaced by Chester Thompson) to play on a second kit (Collins, naturally, still played drums in the studio). American audiences grew to like Collins as the new frontman, while their old frontman (seeking to absolve himself of the guilt of leaving) was blown away in his seat by how fiery the band sounded on stage. Gabriel wasn’t wrong; Seconds Out (1977) shows a band at their live prowess.

4: Blood On The Rooftops (Wind and Wuthering, 1976)

Interviewing Steve Hackett for We Are Cult, Hackett informed me how highly he regards Selling England By The Pound and Wind and Wuthering. “[They] sit very nicely when played together, a lot of great song-writing”, before adding the telling “they were albums I had more than just a look in, shall we say.”

Much like George Harrison, Hackett felt his material was being side-lined for the senior songwriters (Banks and Rutherford). With one solo album (Voyage of The Acolyte) behind him, Hackett quit the band in 1978 to further explore his own musical ideas. While his departure isn’t as celebrated as Gabriel’s, it is as significant. Where Collins and Rutherford have shied in recent years from the prog term, Hackett has worn it with pride in his post Genesis work. Much like Gabriel, Hackett wrote of his departure on How Can I? (sung by Richie Havens). In their absence, session musicians Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson filled the live line-up, but Genesis were official a trio for the next eighteen years. Buoyed by the success of the (very good) hit single Follow You Follow Me, Genesis Mark IV ventured into more popular territories than any previous line-up (as a rule of thumb, Rutherford would handle guitar on the more recent songs, reverting to bass as the more technically adept Stuermer handled Hackett’s solos).

So, this is one of Hackett’s last contributions for the band – and what a contribution! Opening with nylon strumming, Genesis turn a folk song into a bona fide magnetic piece, complete with symbiotic guitars and keyboards. While Collins could never match Gabriel as conceptualist or lyricist, he has a much better singing voice, especially angelic on this track, delivering Hackett’s fantastic words. Aural poetry.

Which makes it all the shame it was one of the last of its kind. For all the criticisms Collins, Banks and Rutherford received hereon (it was deserved on the offensive Illegal Alien costumes and nauseating I Can’t Dance routine), they still had a capability to produce slick, seductive and (often) brilliant songs. It’s just a shame many of the proggy tricks left the band when Hackett did!

3: Cul de Sac (Duke, 1980)

Not every prog trick! Although Duke is regarded as the point Genesis became a pop rock band (their first UK no.1 album), it featured a cycle of motifs and songs that brought Behind The Lines, Duchess, Guide Vocal, Turn It On Again, Duke’s Travels, and Duke’s End together in one whole piece (not advertised at the time as Supper’s Ready was), which formed the story of Albert as demonstrated  by Collins in concert. Better still, stand alone song Cul De Sac was a symphony of keyboards, each flowing in different directions, backed by some colossal drumming, the symmetry between Banks and Collins as in sync as Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer were in the early seventies.

Banks was never inducted in the rock and roll hall of fame as a solo artist (see Gabriel), never sold five million US copies for his debut album (see Collins) or win an Ivor Novello for a song about parental dismay (see Rutherford). Banks made his mark through the textures of his instrument, the clever time changes and a purity for great musicianship, eventually recognised by the music presses as Genesis’ defining sound. Solely credited to Banks, its one of his more inventive pieces and proved a template for his later (excellent) orchestral work.

2: Turn It On Again (Duke, 1980)

Never a guitar God, the wave of punk rock facilitated that Mike Rutherford could get away with slicker, choppier rhythms (he wasn’t alone; Brian May and Tony Iommi similarly toned down their theatrics on The Game and Heaven and Hell respectively!) As riffs go, this is his best. It’s a stadium rock riff in 7/4 (most riffs are ¾ or 4/4), ballsy and loud, without being metallic. Describing the piece to Genesis News, Banks described it “We kind of put [Rutherford’s riff] –We made it much more rocky; both bits became much more rocky. My bit was a bit more epic, and Mike’s bit was a bit slower and a bit more heavy metal.” Banks infuses the piece with loud, semi-Oriental power chords, and the closing bridge is improbably charming.

Collins is terrific, he makes the transition from singing drummer to rock frontman on this track. The band produced a video for MTV, which showed Collins in full swing, both in front of the mike and behind the kit. It started the band’s relationship with the video format, a monster hit in the U.K., one the band honoured on their eponymous 2007 tour.

1: Mama (Genesis, 1983)

Despite featuring one of the finest drummers of his generation, Genesis developed an interest in electronic drums, which when over used on Invisible Touch, made the material virtually un-listeneable, but used cleverly and sparingly, a haunting single that rivalled the best of Genesis. The mechanical drum opens in haunting measure, before a seasoned keyboard part comes in morse code freneticism (Banks aiming for atmosphere more than virtuosity), the first minute and half empty of guitars. And then they arrive, a reverb laden power chord visceral in raised effect; it’s a beauty.

Collins, a John Lennon fan, reverbs the mike in such a direct way, making that cackling “ha-ha” (cleverly nicked from Grandmaster Flash) that bit more ominous. The interchange between electronic and acoustic drums is cleverly done, but it’s the singing that’s Collins masterwork here. He goes from quivered whisper to whooping screams with the quickest of ease, Collins most assured vocal, the best vocal on any Genesis track and a vocal that matches the best of Daltrey and Plant. He’s brilliant.

If Supper’s Ready is Genesis’ undisputed masterpiece, then this is their best single!

❉ In case you missed it, check out We Are Cult’s interview with Genesis’ Steve Hackett HERE: https://wearecult.rocks/wuthering-nights-steve-hackett-talks

❉ In case you missed it, check out We Are Cult’s interview with Genesis’ Tony Banks HERE: https://wearecult.rocks/a-certain-feeling-tony-banks-talks

  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Eoghan Lyng’s writing has also appeared in New Sounds, Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine, DMovies, Phacemag and other titles. Follow him on TwitterVisit his homepage. 

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  1. Nice to read a (mostly) positive article on one of Britain’s greatest bands. A couple of musical points though: The opening to Blood on the Rooftops is finger picking not strumming and Turn it on Again is in 13/4 most of the time. (Or one bar of six and one bar of seven.)

  2. Thank you for your points. I’m not a musician, so took the information for Turn It On Again from a Tony Banks interview, but you’re completely right about Rooftops. My mistake entirely.

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