One evening during the summer of 1998, a group of friends met for dinner in the discreet private dining room of a fashionable London restaurant.
The mood was warm and convivial and, by all accounts, the meal went on late into the night. Casually dressed, all in their fifties, you might suppose this to be a meeting of senior partners in a business practice celebrating the completion of a successful venture; or, perhaps, former school friends enjoying an old boys reunion.
As it transpires, both of these assumptions are, in their own ways, largely accurate. Over a meal of Japanese food at Nobu, on London’s prestigious Berkeley Square, all former and present members of Genesis convened for the only time in their unusual, labyrinthine history. Ostensibly, it was an opportunity to mark the release of the band’s Archive 1967 – 75 box set; but it also afforded the assembled musicians the chance, in some cases, too meet one another for the first time. Anthony Phillips, the band’s founding guitarist, remembers sitting next to Peter Gabriel for much of the evening hearing all about the academic progress of the singer’s daughters; meanwhile Phillips’ successor, Steve Hackett, recalls swapping right-handed Flamenco guitar techniques with Chris Stewart, the band’s original drummer. Keyboard player Tony Banks, for his part, recalls his wife – a vegetarian – struggling with a menu that consisted principally of meat and raw fish. "At the end of the evening, Tony raised his glass," Steve Hackett tells Uncut. "I thought he was going to make a toast. Instead, he said, ‘Well, we managed to sack the lot of you!’ It could have been a line from Ripping Yarns. That’s Tony, true to form. I had to laugh…"
Anyone looking for evidence of Genesis’ rather eccentric principles will find plenty in the revelations that emerged from that dinner. On one hand, the gathering of the extended Genesis family served to draw attention to the unusual dichotomy at the heart of their music. After all, to many, Genesis are two distinct bands, defined by the differences between successive front men: Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. "I think people loved the mystery of those days with Peter," admits Collins now. "I always think of him as the mysterious traveller in the band, and it all became a lot more normal when I became singer. I was the guy next door and I didn’t cultivate that Mister Mystery, with the masks, the costumes." But, critically, that night at Nobu also illuminates the cordiality that exists between band members from across all line-ups; a rarity among most rock groups. Essentially, no one has ever been sacked from Genesis; they have simply become consultants. It’s possible this politesse can be traced back to the public school education experienced by all of the band’s founding members; a highly competitive, stiff-upper lip quality, whereby personal matters are not openly talked about and resentment often festers under the surface. "They were the last generation that were bred to be officers and gentlemen," notes Collins. "All those guys were left like a bit of a loose sail, not knowing quite what to do because that vision for them was already out-dated. They were left all puffed up, but with nowhere to go."
"They were designed to be builders of empire, which is what happened in rock, in a sense," observes Steve Hackett. "There was a single-mindedness, a steely-determination from everybody. They were all educated to be able to lead a charge in the Crimea without flinching."
It’s a warm September afternoon in 2014, and Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford are sitting in the rooftop suite of an up-market New York hotel. Looking out of the window at the traffic cruising along the city’s Midtown district, Rutherford – dressed in regulation off-duty rock star casual wear of a white t-shirt and dark trousers – is reminiscing about Genesis earliest shows in America, in December, 1972.
"It was a lunchtime concert at Brandeis University, which was a disaster," he confides with a theatrical moan.
"We had a manager, Ed Goodgold, who managed Sha Na Na," continues Collins. "He was great, gift of the gab. He said ‘We’re gonna do a warm up show, so we’re playing Boston.’ It was a lunchtime gig. People were studying and eating and we were doing our show. That probably involved a flower mask in some shape or form. It must have been in broad sunshine. We thought when we left, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure this Boston? Because they’re supposed to like English bands.’"
"We came here, then, to New York for a Christmas show, one performance at the Philharmonic, WNEW," adds Rutherford. "We’d all seen New York in films. It was so exciting. We must have been… what age were we? 21, 22? Mind-blowing really. I remember staying at The Gorham Hotel not far from here and within five minutes of checking into our rooms, the phone rang and the receptionist said ‘There’s a guy in the building with a gun, keep your doors locked.’ I was straight out the corridor going ‘This is great! This is exciting!’ There was danger in the city, it was great."
Collins and Rutherford are here ostensibly to talk about R-Kive, the band’s eighth box set compilation. The material presented here chronologically spans the band’s career; although it omits material from their 1969 debut album, From Genesis To Revelation, it nevertheless gives equal weight to songs from the principal members solo careers. In tandem with a new BBC documentary, Genesis – Sum Of The Parts, R-Kive attempts to present the band’s often-convoluted history as a coherent, linear narrative.
"The comparison I have is Monty Python," explains Collins. "Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, Spamalot, Terry Gilliam’s films and Michael Palin’s travel programmes, they all came from the same place, this comedy group. It’s a similar idea with all the music that’s come out of the Genesis mother ship, the solo careers. You know people don’t know that Pete was in Genesis? A lot of people don’t know I play the drums. They join your career on ‘One More Night’ and the rest, whatever happened before, they’re not really too sure about."
But perhaps more than anything, R-Kive reinforces the notion that Genesis are essentially two different bands. On one hand, R-Kive contains a piece like 1973’s "Supper’s Ready" – a bravura 23 minute suite consisting of seven linked sections, one of which is called "Ikhanton And Itsacon And Their Band Of Merry Men" – while on the other, there’s "Illegal Alien". Both of these are, to some degree, emblematic of the two different sides to Genesis’ musical character. The music of early Genesis – as defined by the band’s classic 1971 – 1975 line-up of Gabriel, Rutherford, Collins, Banks and Hackett – is often quite extraordinary. Eccentric in spirit, it is full of macabre tales, baroque song cycles and shifting time signatures; a bestiary of beheaded schoolboys, alien watchers and fantastical creatures. "We almost put too much into our songs," laughs Rutherford. "Mythology, science fiction books, fantasy, it was all part of doing English at school, in a sense." Meanwhile, the music of later Genesis is perceived as slick pop hits, linen suits, knockabout videos; the worst excesses of the Eighties, in other words.
"When I joined the band in 1970, Genesis was a band of songwriters desperate to write hits as well as good songs," reveals Collins. "They weren’t going to sell out to do it. But there is a huge jump from ‘Supper’s Ready’ to ‘Illegal Alien’, yeah. But I always think of it in simple terms. Look at what you read when you were 20 – like The Hobbit or whatever – and then look at the books you’re reading 20 years later, or what kind of music are you listening to, or what kind of clothes you wear. Because there’s a change. You change and you grow up, that’s part of it."
"‘Supper’s Ready’, it wasn’t a plan," admits Rutherford. "We didn’t really hear it until it was chopped together. The first half joined some lovely bits together. Contrasts, colours, ‘Willow Farm’, acoustic stuff, moody atmospheres. That was all going fine. Then into ‘Apocalypse 9/8’. The way Pete sang the vocals on what I always call ‘the home straight’ made it a very strong little piece. ‘With the guards of Magog’. There were so many ideas there. We’d jam ten ideas into three or four minutes, rather than giving the space to develop. Because ‘Supper’s Ready’ was a half hour piece, we were able to give more time to things, like repeating the main theme at the end. The reason we ended up as a three piece was because we had too many ideas for a five piece."
Tony Banks remembers the first time he met Peter Gabriel, at the start of Michaelmas term in 1963. "We arrived at Charterhouse at the same time," he begins. "The new boys arrived an hour before everyone else. I took to him immediately. He seemed quiet, he didn’t seem threatening. I was quite a shy boy myself, and he obviously was as well. So we quickly became friends. There were a lot of shared interests – music was a big thing – but also a genuine rivalry in everything, really. We would play sports, normally fairly badly, but with great intensity and passion try and beat the other. That was the only thing that mattered."
"Tony was sent away to public school while his mother and father had exchange students in, which I think is very public school," reveals Collins. "I don’t know what the repercussions of that would have been. But certainly, I remember Tony semi-laughing about it in the old days."
Rutherford remembers Gabriel as "quite quiet at school, quite shy. He’s still quite a shy person. But fearless. He pretends he’s not sure what he wants, but he knows exactly what he wants and that’s his strength, too. School was slightly more two pairs. It was Peter and Tony. I didn’t really know Peter that well at school. And myself and Anthony Phillips. Bar our afternoon writing sessions in the classrooms – we’d smuggle the gear in, smuggle it in and play – it wasn’t till later on that we got closer."
The creative relationship between Banks and Gabriel at Charterhouse and later became central to the band’s early music. Indeed, Collins specifically cites Banks’ "quirkiness and Englishness" as critical to the records Genesis made in the first half of the 1970s. "We were part pantomime, part classical," explains Steve Hackett. "I think we were harmonically European and rhythmically Afro-American. The syncopation was all-important. The English hymnal, Vaughn Williams meets Buddy Rich. That sums it up, early Genesis at least. Later on, of course, it became other things."
The period where Genesis became "other things" essentialy began when Gabriel left the band; twice, as it turned out. On the first occasion, he decamped during sessions at Headley Grange for 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway to work on a film project with director William Friedkin. When that collapsed, he returned to the band, only to subsequently advise his cohorts he was leaving after the group’s forthcoming Lamb… tour dates.
"That was a very dark time," admits Tony Banks. "Everything started to change at that point. You felt he was a bit of an unwilling passenger. We had a meeting in this rather strange hotel in Cleveland when he said he was not going to do anymore. We’d been very close friends. I did try and persuade him to stay for quite a long time, but I think ultimately it was definitely the right thing. The group had to reduce in size. He was the only who could leave, because he was the only who had a career he could to go to. No one knew who the rest of us were."
(Photo by Armando Gallo/Press)
Reflecting on his departure from the band, Gabriel told Uncut in 2007, "I hated having my life planned. You’d sometimes be looking 18 months or two years ahead, when you were touring. It felt like there wasn’t much room for independent thought and action. And then my first-born, Anna, [the doctors] didn’t think she was going to survive. We were halfway through recording Lamb… in Wales at the time, and she was in Paddington, and I was tearing between the two. There’s nothing as important to you as your family, but the band were really unsympathetic and didn’t appreciate that they should sit around while I was dealing with life-and-death issues. We’ve had conversations about this since, but it built up some poison between us, internally."
"I used to think he left because Friedkin had asked him to do the film," muses Collins back in New York. "And this was actually better than being in a band, being a collaborator for music for films and blah blah blah. But I think there were a lot of personal reasons in there, too, which I didn’t know. Maybe Tony knew. Mike, did you know?"
"He never really complained about it," shrugs Rutherford. "But on the tour, there was no thought at the time about what to do after Peter left. You put that to one side because you’ve committed, so you get your head down you don’t start drifting off into sentiment."
"We had to carry on doing the rest of the tour," says Banks. "The penultimate show was in Besançon, and it didn’t go down very well at all. We cancelled the final show completely because there was lack of interest, the ticket sales were very poor and we thought, ‘What’s the point? It’s just too depressing so we’ll just peter out.’ That could’ve been it. We did think at the time, ‘Is there going be a future for the band?’"
Asked whether his predecessor gave him any advice when he assumed vocal duties with Genesis, Phil Collins says the subject was never raised. "I’ve heard Peter say later that he had no doubts that we would be okay without him, but he didn’t impart any kind words of confidence to me. There was no animosity. It just wasn’t spoken about. A very public school thing. Just get on with it, don’t talk about it. But I was very close to him. Tony and Pete were schoolmates, but I came in the band and he was a drummer, I was a drummer, we related really well. We were soul mates, if you like. We liked soul music, I was his stooge on stage, I was always there singing, we were peas in a pod."
"Was there ever a conversation with Peter? No, not really," confirms Tony Banks. "He was leaving to do his own thing, and we accepted that. The rest of us – particularly Mike, Phil and I – were very keen to carry on really. I think particularly Mike and I were bloody-minded. We wanted to show that it wasn’t just Peter. The band had been perceived like that towards the end."
The band are careful to present the transition from hymnal prog rock to unlikely Eighties’ pop stars as an entirely natural progression. While Collins talks about "the awkward join" between the two incarnations, Banks is keen to stress "When you’re inside it, you don’t see it like that at all. It was just a continuous thing. People think about ‘Phil era Genesis’, which is the hits and the videos, but you’ve got all the records in between, from Trick Of The Tail to Duke, and even Abacab, which are not like that at all. Phil got more confident, particularly after the success of Face Value, and came forward as a proper writer; before that, he’d just been a contributor. But I’ve nothing against having hits. We set out in the early days to write hits. We were part of the 60’s. Our favorite groups were The Kinks, The Animals, The Beatles, and we were only trying to emulate them. It’s surprisingly difficult to write a concise song that works. It’s much easier for us to write a 26-minute epic, where you don’t have got to worry about choruses and stuff, than it is to write a four-minute song that really works."
"Early on, everything came from improvisation and I’d record it on a cassette, on my Nakamichi," reveals Collins. "None of us could read music and if you wanted to go to an idea that we liked it was, ‘Can you dig out the cassette from 4 days ago and go to about five o’clock in the afternoon?’ We’d listen back and that’s how sometimes these bits were remembered. I think what changed Genesis writing a bit was the drum machine, because it plays in 4/4. I was singing more, and all those tricky signatures tended to fade out a little because I was singing at a microphone, using a drum machine to keep everything together. Otherwise, I think most of it was just a natural progression. But I have found that people – and God knows peoples lives are heavy enough and hard work enough without thinking too much about this, because it’s only music and it’s only Genesis – who think there’s a big divide. Before Phil was all the thinking stuff and all the prog stuff, and then after Peter it was straight ahead rock/pop/stadium. Actually, it’s not true. I was there, and I know there was no conscious effort."
These days, Phil Collins can no longer play the drums. Since 2007, he’s been suffering from nerve damage to his elbow. Despite undergoing surgery, he explains, he has two numb fingers on his left hand and cannot grip a drumstick. "I joined Genesis when I was 19," he says. "I’m 63 now, I’ve played drums all my life. I don’t miss it. It’d be nice to have the choice, but I don’t miss it." Collins’ injuries, he concedes, are one critical reason why the 1971 – 1975 line-up of Genesis could never reunite again. "There’s this incessant desire for it to happen," he acknowledges. "But I often think, ‘Have people thought it through?’ It’s not as if you’re going to get Peter as the singer, me as the drummer. I can’t play any more, so it’s never going to happen. But even if it could, you’re not going get Peter singing ‘I Can’t Dance’ or ‘Invisible Touch’ or ‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight’ or ‘Mama’."
Do the band feel that they were trying to escape the shadow of the Gabriel era during the Collins’ years?
"No, I don’t think so anymore than Peter was trying to escape the shadow of us," counters Tony Banks. "It’s just what you did. Peter’s music became much more streamlined and harmonically a lot simpler in the later years. I’ve always tried to keep a few rambling moments in Genesis. Things like ‘Domino’, ‘Home By The Sea’ and ‘Drive The Last Spike’, and I think they are very much part of Genesis’ character. Funnily enough, up on stage they proved to be some of the most successful songs."
"I think I’m still regarded as the new singer," laughs Collins. "I’ve been here 40 years as singer. ‘74/75 I took over the singing and I’m still thought of to be the new guy. It doesn’t frustrate me. I just find it kind of comical. But yeah, what is the difference between ‘I Can’t Dance’ and ‘Sledgehammer’? We’ll never know."
"You’ve got to remember, while we were doing things like The Lamb…, we were generally unloved," explains Banks. "We didn’t get much support at the time. Tribute bands like The Musical Box, they get far bigger audiences than we ever did then. It’s a funny thing, nostalgia. It’s interesting, the music we made in the early 70’s. It’s not really like anything else. Whereas some of those things we did in the Eighties – really good pop songs, but not so dissimilar from what else was going on. That’s why I like things like ‘Domino’ and ‘Home By The Sea’, because they couldn’t be done by another band."
"I was a lot easier to understand than Peter, but less interesting," admits Collins. "I won’t have it any other way. I was far less interesting and that’s added to his mystique as a personality and all the stuff he does. I’m far too normal, I’m far too… I hate to say it, but I am far too middle of the road and far more showbizzy than Pete was. That enhances the mystique about those early years. I used to think, because of my background in stage school, I was the closest to all those nasty words: ‘middle of the road’, ‘show business’, ‘Max Bygraves’. I guess I’m not that far away, when you look back on it."
Although not a fan of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – a consensual Gabriel-era peak – Tony Banks remembers being pleasantly surprised when he went to see tribute band The Musical Box perform the album live. "I crept into the Albert Hall to watch them play it," he reveals. "It was interesting. The trouble is, they’re using the old show that in this day and age looks very dark and a little bit strange. When it was good, it was great. I thought ‘Back In New York City’ sounded great. The best moment for me was when they did ‘The Musical Box’ as an encore and I though that was a lot better. The Lamb is always a bit of a funny album for me. I never felt that it really concluded very well. I thought the song ‘It’ was not very strong ender and so I have a slightly funny feeling about it all. But they did a grand job."
Tony Banks pauses for a second, then reflects on the experience of watching his former schoolfriend and closest collaborator impersonated on stage. "At times, the guy doing Peter was uncanny," he considers. "From the distance, I thought it pretty good, really. The mannerisms of speech, his stuttering. It was really quite funny."
© Uncut, by Michael Bonner