Thursday, February 25, 2010

Forgotten Music: Genesis - Calling all Stations

(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.


George said...

Love Genesis and own plenty of their music. CALLING ALL STATIONS is one of their best albums. Excellent choice!

Perplexio said...

I've been kind of sitting on the fence about this one. My favorite era of Genesis is the Steve Hackett era (Nursery Cryme through to Wind & Wuthering) and to some extent I even consider Hackett's solo debut, Voyage of the Acolyte to be a "lost" Genesis album of sorts given the participation of Collins, Rutherford and Banks on various songs on that album.

While I appreciate the high quality of the pop songs the 80s pop juggernaut version of Genesis released, I honestly don't own any material from that era. I may just have to give Calling All Stations a shot based on your review.

Incidentally, the late Kevin Gilbert was scheduled to fly to England to audition for the gig that eventually went to Wilson. Unfortunately Kevin Gilbert was found dead the week before that flight was scheduled to leave. I have audio and video of him performing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in its entirety with his band Giraffe live at Progfest back in the 90s.

I do sometimes wonder what Genesis would have sounded like had Kevin Gilbert lived and gotten that gig instead of Wilson.

Are you at all a fan of Marillion? To me their 80s material sounds like what Genesis would have sounded like in the 80s had Peter Gabriel never left.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like I should listen to this album. I never associated Genesis with any kind of darkness or distortion. They were quintessential pop to me. But I really haven't listened to much of their stuff.

Ray said...

That's an interesting thought. Fish had quite a distinctive voice like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.

The thing that I didn't like about CAS was that I didn't like Stiltskin (apart from one track).
And while I think that all bands should move forward then the 'voice' of that band should move forward with it. The songs are good but it does not carry the Genesis 'voice' while it was the name that sold the album.
Look at Iron Maiden - Bruce Dickinson was the 'voice' but when he left Iron Maiden had two disasters before Bruce came back.

Evan Lewis said...

Great piece, Scott. Another band I've heard of, but not from. Thanks for hosting this thing. I feel my horizons broadening.

Todd Mason said...

Interesting contrast, the evolution of Genesis to, say, King Crimson, whom I've tended to prefer, even with the Awful lyrics on the early albums...but there isn't a version of Genesis I can't enjoy.

Scott Parker said...

George - glad I'm not the only one to see CAS's virtues.

Perplexio - One of the things I didn't include in my review was the lack of lead guitar. Rhythm's there and minor solos but no flat-out cool guitar licks a la Hackett or Stuermer. I need to find this "Voyage of the Acolyte." Oh, and I know *of* Marillion but not their stuff. Recommendation?

Charles - Head back in time and pick up Foxtrot, Nursery Cryme, Trespass, or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (last). Therein the darkness dwells. Personal favorite Gabriel album is Foxtrot.

Ray - I guess it's good then that I never have heard a Stiltskin song. However, searching online for live Wilson-era Genesis has led me to some Stiltskin tunes. Any recommendations?

Evan - Thanks for playing. I'm looking forward to future editions, too. As for Genesis, Foxtrot is my fav Gabriel-era album, Duke and We Can't Dance my favorite Collins-era (even though you can't help but know just about all the songs off Invisible Touch).

Todd - King Crimson. Another band to which I need a proper introduction. Frankly, I rarely listen to Genesis (83) or Invisible Touch (86), preferring the Gabriel stuff, early Phil, and We Can't Dance. That middle period, for as good as it is, got played A LOT. Still, I purchased both Archive sets and the 1999 re-recording of "Carpet Crawlers" and a bootleg here or there. I've got a great show from 1978. I love it all.

Perplexio said...

Scott - Musically, Marillion sound a lot like Peter Gabriel Genesis. However I'd argue that lyrically they were superior to PG era Genesis. I recommend their Misplaced Childhood album. Although just about anything up to and including their Clutching at Straws album (their final album with original lead singer, Fish). Their later material featuring Steve Hogarth on vocals is also enjoyable and arguably better as they started sounding like their own band and not derivative of Gabriel-era Genesis.

As for Steve Hackett. I recommend checking out some of his solo stuff. I've not yet reviewed Voyage of the Acolyte but it's certainly on my list of albums to review in the future.

Ray said...

Scott - 'Inside' from Stiltskin's 1994 album 'The Mind's Eye'. It made number 1 in the UK charts.
It is a good track but the rest of the tracks were on a downhill slide - well, my opinion.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember my son listening to Genesis in the early eighties. I think it was his first rock love. And he's been a fanatic about music ever since.

Scott said...

Scott: enjoyed your writing. At breakfast this morning.. heard some distant tunes from the lobby.. which triggered memories of "CAS" ~ after a brief period fumbling around the hard drive, was able to get the WMP fired up. An excellent piece to be sure. Still trying to find out who wrote it.. Cheers.

Mark said...

Love Genesis and own plenty of their music. I recently heard some songs of theirs, and I really liked them. I was wondering what are the best albums with Peter Gabriel as lead singer.


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Marshalsify said...

Calling All Stations is like calling it a day, the 15th and last ever Genesis album could have been something REALLY special. It did do well in Europe but the poor response caused Banks and Rutherford to fold the band. I think if they did another album, it would have been better and stronger but the US and Canadian fans weren't fond of this new Genesis without Phil Collins at the time so the band folded in 1998 apart from the one-off 2007 farewell tour. I think they should have continued if they invite Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips back into the band and made beautiful Genesis music again.