(This is the February 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. Here is the list of the other contributors.)
For any classic rock band, there is always one controversial question: how many members can the band loose before the remaining members don’t really sound or act like the band the general public came to know and love. In some cases, Chicago, for example, the number of original band members outnumber the new guys so you could make the case for keeping the band name. For others (Foreigner), the originals are outnumbered by hired guns with the end result being something akin to karaoke. Foreigner is a bittersweet example since the founder is Mick Jones, the guitarist, who hired the man (Lou Gramm) who eventually became the Voice of Foreigner.
For all the brilliance of original singer, Peter Gabriel, or the musical prowess of Tony Banks (keyboards), Steve Hackett (guitars), and Mike Rutherford (guitars), Genesis is known as Phil Collins’s band. His voice came to define the band in the late 70s after Gabriel left for a solo career. Later, after Hackett departed, the remaining trio gradually dropped their prog-rock sound in favor of an adult contemporary sound with an edge. Distilled down to Banks, Collins, and Rutherford (with Chester Thompson (drums) and Daryl Stuermer (guitars) for the tours), Genesis became one of the biggest hit-making juggernauts in the 1980s. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a year in that decade that didn’t have a Phil Collins song (solo or with Genesis) atop the charts.
But all things come to an end. In 1996, Collins left the band. Banks and Rutherford decided to continue with the Genesis moniker and hired Ray Wilson, former lead singer of the UK band, Stiltskin, to lead them. I can distinctly remember Banks speaking of their return to Genesis’s darker sound. As a advocate of the Gabriel-era version of the band, I remember being very excited. The New Trio entered the studio and the band’s fifteenth studio album, Calling All Stations, emerged.
As I pondered what album to focus on first with this Forgotten Music Project, I decided to pull out Calling All Stations (CAS) and give it a spin on the iPod and see how it held up, twelve years on. The title track leads off the album. I place a high level of importance on lead-off tracks. Some opening tracks (Chicago’s “Introduction” off their first album) serve as a mission statement. Others, like Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” (Graceland) immediately alert the listener that something is different. For a band with numerous transitions and phases, lead-off tracks are important. “Dance on a Volcano” (1976) was Collins’s first lead vocal. It told the world not to worry, Genesis is still alive and sounded mostly the same. “Behind the Lines” (1980) proved to be the song that prog-rock enthusiasts dreaded but mainstream audiences found a sound they soon embraced whole-heartedly. The Genesis sound had changed and they didn’t look back.
But they gave their past a sidelong glance with “Calling All Stations.” A heavy tune in a minor key, ripe with Rutherford’s dark distorted guitar, this is a song custom-made for new lead singer Ray Wilson’s gravelly voice. In some ways, Wilson is equal parts Gabriel and Collins. Wilson has the earthy, breathy tonality of Gabriel in some places in the title track (think acoustic guitar). At other times in this song and throughout the album, his tone takes on the clearness of Collins (think synth keyboard). The subject matter for the title track is focused on relationships but the intensity Wilson gives to the vocals is striking. “Calling All Stations” is the mission statement song for the album of the same name. There are times, especially toward the end of the song, where you can forget Collins and Gabriel. I can’t help but wonder what the public’s reaction to the “new” Genesis would have been had they released this tune as a single rather than “Congo.”
The muddle and true schizophrenia of the album starts with the second track and released single, “Congo.” A strange and misplaced African chant starts the song until it segues into more dark and distorted guitar. The chorus is somewhat catchy and I could certainly see an audience raising its arms and singing in solidarity but it’s ultimately fruitless. It’s a relationship song (again), specifically a break-up one. I’ll admit that some of my favorite Genesis songs are break-up tunes (“Follow You Follow Me,” “Please Don’t Ask,” “Invisible Touch,” “In Too Deep,” and the gorgeous “Hold on my heart”) and these men, all divorcees, can write a damn good sad song. But there are other topics to discuss. It was those wider topics that made Collins’ last studio effort, “We Can’t Dance,” (1991) so good and interesting.
Not so with “Calling All Stations.” It’s too much about broken relationships. “Shipwrecked,” the album’s third cut, is a much better song than “Congo.” True, it’s basically “Hold on my heart, Part 2,” but it at least sounds more Genesis-y than “Congo.” Wilson’s cracked vocals work quite well here. This song was the second single but, by then, the damage had been done.
Progressive rock fans love their long songs and mystical, magical narratives. Latter day prog-rock gods, Dream Theater, create entire story lines for their double-CD opuses. Gabriel-led Genesis had their share, too. The twenty-four minute “Supper’s Ready” is, to me, the epitome of Gabriel’s time as leader (not necessarily “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”). Collins-led Genesis threw out some spectacular numbers as well (“Ripples,” “Home by the Sea”, “Domino”, and “Driving the Last Spike”). The thing is most of those longer songs needed the additional minutes to say what needed to be said or played. They were as long as they needed to be. “Alien Afternoon,” the first long song on CAS, is needlessly long and haphazardly written. It’s spooky for spooky’s sake and it’s images are weird for no other reason than to be weird.
The album is not without its stand-out compositions. “The Dividing Line” starts with a nice driving beat that morphs into a catchy keyboard riff from Banks that has echoes of “Duke’s Travels” from 1980. “Uncertain Weather,” with its 12-string guitar in the background, definitely calls to mind Hackett’s work from “A Trick of the Tale.” Here, the lyrics work well, evoking sepia memories as seen in old photographs, the narrator contemplating the people in the pictures. “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here” has a fantastic keyboard segment that changes from prog-rock to light pop and back again in the span of two minutes.
To coincide with the release of the album, Genesis hit the road in Europe. By 1997, they pretty much had to play most of the Collins-era hits but Banks, Rutherford, and Wilson dusted off some Gabriel-sung tunes as well. You put these songs all together with the main songs from the new album, a fairly balanced set list emerged. On the recordings I’ve heard, something interesting emerges. Wilson didn’t try to sound like Gabriel or Collins. He sounded like himself. Naturally, he sounds closer to Gabriel but, to his credit, he doesn’t try to sing like Collins. Now, if you listen to the Collins-era material as sung by Wilson, you can find faults here and there. But, given time, he would have made many of those songs his own.
Ultimately, “Calling All Stations” is a hit and miss album. A good half of the album contains some strong material that stands up well alongside Genesis’s wide-ranging catalogue. The filler material clogs up the works. There’s a slickness to the production that actually found it’s way to the reunion tour of 2007 (with Collins). These musicians are so good and so professional that all traces of spontaneity is gone. It’s like writing songs by the number from the Genesis playbook. When the number is good, you get a great song. When they’re off, you can feel it.
When Peter Gabriel left the band, it took the remaining members three albums (arguably four) before they completely figured out what kind of sound worked without their distinctive lead singer. It’s too bad Banks and Rutherford didn’t continue the Ray Wilson experiment. I think they--and the rest of us--would have been satisfied with the result.
Here’s the link to a series of videos from 1998. Have a listen to the then-new material and the other-era Genesis songs and see what you think.