My memories of Genesis fans – the real, hardcore Genesis fans, circa Nursery Cryme, Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – are that they were more likely to be found in a dank basement playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading books about elves and dwarves than pursuing normal adolescent activities. This was Peter Gabriel’s Genesis – he of the winged Flying Nun headgear and the crazed, theatrical vocals – and his band followed suit, playing bizarre 20-minute prog rock suites about the apocalypse, spinning out impossibly knotty music even as the lyrics hearkened back to the glory days of Arthurian legends or made oblique references to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” The people who ate this stuff up were not likely to play air guitar and pump their fists and jump off the couch.
I remember those fans. Okay, I was one of those fans. And I also remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I read that Peter Gabriel had left the band to pursue a solo career. I wondered what would happen, and I had an ominous feeling that it wouldn’t be good. What happened is summed up in a nifty little package the mailman dropped off yesterday, the new 6 CD/6 DVD box set Genesis 1976 – 1982. And you know what? It turned out just fine.
What happened was a paunchy, balding little dude named Phil Collins, who stepped out from behind the drum kit and took over some of the songwriting and all of the vocal duties from Gabriel. There are five albums here – A Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering, … And Then There Were Three, Duke, and Abacab. A sixth disc contains B-sides and previously unreleased tracks that span that six-year period. And that arc traces the progression (or regression, as some would have it) from the geekyest of prog rock bands to one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. For the completists, I’ll note that the albums have been remastered, that they sound wonderful, that the 48-page booklet and the unreleased tracks are a nice bonus, and that the wealth of video/concert material on the DVDs is mind-bogglingly great. For the rest of you, I’ll simply note that this was a great band in a transitional period, and that they simply moved from strength to strength. Genesis was a very different band in 1982 than they were when Peter Gabriel left in 1975. But you’ll never convince this elf/dwarf fan that those four-minute hit singles were worse than the 20-minute suites. Those four-minute singles make me want to play air guitar and jump off the couch.
A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering, from 1976 and 1977 respectively, represent the last of the prog rock albums. Collins sounds so much like Peter Gabriel here that it is frightening. And if he hadn’t found his true voice yet, he was certainly channeling a great old voice, and the tricky time signatures and synth/mellotron workouts were every bit as bracing as they were on the early albums. … And Then There Were Three is the true transitional album, and the weakest of the bunch, as the band can’t quite decide whether to hold on to the old formula or branch out in a new direction. Duke and Abacab feature the monster hits – “Misunderstanding,” “Turn It On Again,” “Abacab,” “No Reply At All” -- that were both Top 40 blockbusters and FM rock radio staples. It all sounds marvellous – the prog rock material dense but accessible, the hits surprisingly complex and multi-layered.
And that’s the wonder of Genesis, circa 1976 – 1982. Let’s hear it for the paunchy, balding little dudes. They’re fabulous. The geeks became rock stars, and made certified hits featuring 13/8 time signatures. There is hope for all of us, and, while we’re waiting, plenty of great music.