By Mark Guarino
When classic rock bands decide to reunite decades after their glory years, the first thing a fan wants to know is: Who’s on board?
For Genesis, the British prog-rock band from the 1970’s that ruled radio playlists in the 1980’s, the question is a valid one, but not so easy to answer. That’s because, since its inception in 1967, Genesis has endured a total of seven line-ups until finally disbanding 30 years later, in 1997.
Genesis returned to the U.S. earlier this month to launch one of the most successful concert tours of recent memory. Not only is the band scheduled to play sold-out arenas and stadiums in 17 cities; in Philadelphia and Chicago alone, the band is camped out for a total of three days in a row. The tour arrives at the United Center Tuesday.
Ticket sales like that are hard to come by, so it’s a safe bet the masses didn’t trample to the box office to hear “The Knife,” a nine-minute operatic tome exploring violence in society, “Supper’s Ready,” a 23-minute suite or “Watcher of the Skies,” which was inspired by Sci-Fi writer Arthur C. Clarke. Those songs, like most of the headier, more theatrical material from the band’s earliest days, is largely unknown to most Genesis fans who largely came to the band starting in 1977, about 1/3 of the way through its history, when drummer and singer Phil Collins took charge from founding member Peter Gabriel and turned it into a pop powerhouse accompanied by guitarist Mike Rutherford and keyboardist Tony Banks.
“It’s the post-prog stuff that really reached the masses, first with (the hit single) ‘Follow You Follow Me’ in 1978. So it’s the hits that drove the ticket sales,” said Chicago radio veteran Bobby Skafish, now hosting afternoons on WDRV 97.1-FM.
Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, the leading trade journal for the concert industry, said that there was a “pent-up demand” for this tour considering the band has had a 15-year absence from the road. Including Gabriel to the line-up “might have added a whole new dimension,” said Bongiovanni. “But in many ways, the commercial success in America is largely the line-up that is touring now, the post-Peter Gabriel line-up.”
Tour setlists will please the casual fan and aggravate diehards as they are heavy with familiar hits and light with the more esoteric fare, although moments are taken to represent the Gabriel era. According to interviews, the tour was originally designed to encompass the band’s entire timeline. One plan was to stage special concerts to recreate “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” the band’s seminal 1974 double album considered the high point of the Gabriel-Collins collaboration, but Gabriel and former guitarist Steve Hackett opted not to participate.
“Peter’s the guy you’ve got to ask,” Banks told Billboard earlier this month. “I think we’re all quite up for it, and I think Peter’s quite up for it, in a way. But he can’t make a decision. He’s always been a bit like that.”
Instead, this current tour will run about two-and-a-half hours, feature prepared video montages of the band’s history and include long-time Genesis sidemen Chester Thompson on drums (when Collins steps away from his own drumkit) and Milwaukee native Daryl Stuermer on guitar.
Genesis came together at the very tail end of the British Invasion, when bands were beginning to depart the blues-influenced psychedelic rock of the era and took it to the next level by incorporating classical instrumentation and elaborate song structures. Progressive rock was largely a British phenomenon, with leading bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer and others presaging American bands like Kansas and Rush. Because it was created by a generation born on the heels of World War II who grew up on the streets and in the countryside previously devastated by bombing raids and combat, prog rock took root mostly in Europe and dealt with dark themes like war, the apocalypse, violence and the destruction of innocence.
Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks formed Genesis while high school students, inviting Rutherford to join them along with guitarist Anthony Phillips and drummer Chris Stewart. Given the name Genesis by their first producer, the band rotated through members until 1970 when Hackett and Collins joined the group through audition. The new members helped toughen the band’s sound, allowing Gabriel to indulge his theatrical side, dressing in costumes onstage, including, most famously, as a flower.
At the same time those concerts became multimedia events, the band’s albums gained notoriety for their succinct lyrics and strong rock backbone. Unlike most of their prog rock peers, Genesis did not indulge as much in English folk mythology, instead their songs were written through Gabriel’s wry lens, providing commentary on modern British life, culminating in “Lamb,” a concept album about a would-be hustler surviving the mean streets of New York City. Gabriel’s knack for storytelling, interest in rock grandeur and gripping vocals, perfectly suited to portray the horror of modern life, made Genesis and art rock
From that point forward, Collins — who shared some lead vocals with Gabriel — took over, successfully turned the band in a more commercial direction. Collins, a mighty drummer but also an appealing singer, helped push the band into the U.S. Top Ten charts almost immediately, starting in 1978 with the single “Follow You Follow Me” and later, in 1980, with the band’s first Top Ten album, “Duke.” Of the band’s MTV-era output, the 1983 album “Genesis” struck the best medium between pop accessibility and art-minded drama, with songs ranging from the toe-tapper “Just a Job to Do,” the ballad “Taking It All Too Hard,” the novelty hit “Illegal Alien” and darker fare like “Mama” and the lengthier “Home By the Sea.”
Genesis enjoyed larger commercial success from there, but the songs (“Invisible Touch,” “Hold On My Heart,” “I Can’t Dance”) sounded cloy and simplistic for a band once considered anything but. And, considering that this was the kind of material Collins, Banks and Rutherford chose to close their recording career with; the band’s last two albums probably did more long-term damage to the Genesis brand name than good. In 1996, even Collins knew it was time to quit but, in an unexpected move, Banks and Rutherford replaced him with Ray Wilson, an unknown who recorded a new album under the Genesis name in 1997. U.S. sales were dismal and a subsequent tour (in Chicago, scheduled at the Rosemont Theatre) was canceled.
Collins’ willingness to record family fare for Disney, act in films and embrace soft rock has earned him scorn among a new generation of music fans unfamiliar with his history. But in recent years, an unlikely support group has endorsed the singer: rappers, R&B singers and hip-hop producers.
In the years following the end of the Collins-led Genesis, their songs — particularly Collins’ massive solo hit “In the Air Tonight” — regularly turn up as sampled bits in mainstream hip-hop fare including songs by DMX and Beenie Siegel. In Europe, an entire tribute album to Collins featuring hip-hop and R&B singers — Lil’ Kim, Joe, ODB, Kelis among others — was released in 2001. Even Eminem namechecked Collins in his 2000 hit single “Stan.”
As hipsters tend to mock Collins’ mainstream appeal, he’s improbably considered a touchstone for mainstream success.
“I love Phil Collins,” singer Akon told Rolling Stone last year. “‘In the Air Tonight’ is an incredible song. I hope to work with Phil … His vocal tone makes me cry.”
“It has such commercial appeal,” said Erik Parker, director of content of sohh.com, a leading Internet news site covering hip-hop. “Back when it was hard to classify music and there were no rap stations, you found rap kids listening to what was considered pop. When you listened to a group like Genesis it was acceptable, it wasn’t as off-putting as hard rock, which was the antithesis of what kids listened to. It was middle ground.”
Parker said the main appeal of Genesis songs during the Collins era was they were catchy. “And when you add something somewhat smooth and connect it to something like hip-hop that is about hard beats … it tickles people’s ears,” he said.
Another group that continues to hold the torch high for Collins is Midwesterners. Unlike this summer’s Police tour and the upcoming Van Halen reunion, the regrouping of Genesis has quietly moved tickets at the box office without the buzz of a new album or much media attention. The reason, according to Skafish, is that Chicagoans are traditionally loyal, no matter how much time has passed.
“The press of the day didn’t give the band any respect, but the fanbase has always been huge,” he said. “I think in the Midwest, where people are less conscious of being hip, people responded to the music. And good music is going to hold up.”