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The Number Ones: Genesis' "Invisible Touch"

Prog-rock won. All it had to do was stop being prog-rock.

By the summer of 1986, for instance, Genesis, a band once known for expansively bugged-out concept albums, had become a chart-conquering behemoth. By the time Genesis scored their only #1 hit, ’70s art-rock peers like Pink Floyd and Yes and even Vangelis had made #1 hits, but none of them had come to utterly dominate American pop radio the way Genesis had.

By that time, Genesis were, of course, led by Phil Collins, the goofy and genial drummer who, against all odds, had become one of the world’s biggest pop stars. Collins could’ve left Genesis at any point, but he decided instead to balance out his solo work with the band that had brought him to the dance. By the time Genesis reached #1 with "Invisible Touch," Collins had already scored three #1 singles of his own, and his album No Jacket Required had been one of the biggest sellers of 1985. A whole lot of people probably heard Genesis’ Invisible Touch album as the follow-up to No Jacket Required. It definitely sounded like a Phil Collins album.

Phil Collins’ brand was strong. The week that "Genesis" hit #1, Collins didn’t have any singles on the Hot 100. "Take Me Home," the fourth and final single from No Jacket Required, had only just dropped off the charts after peaking at #7. (It’s a 10.) But Collins, working with regular collaborator Hugh Padham, had co-produced Howard Jones’ single "No One Is To Blame," and that song was still in the top 20 after peaking at #4. ("No One Is To Blame" is a 7.) Collins seemed to have an invisible touch.

And yet Phil Collins was not the only member of Genesis who was charting around that time. In the time that Collins ventured off to make No Jacket Required, Genesis bassist and guitarist Mike Rutherford started a side project called Mike + The Mechanics, and their self-titled debut album had done well for itself, launching two singles into the top 10. The Mechanics’ debut single "Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)" peaked at #6. (It’s a 5.) The group’s follow-up "All I Need Is A Miracle" did even better, making it up to #5. (It’s a 5.) The week that "Invisible Touch" hit #1, "All I Need Is A Miracle" was still on the Hot 100, down at #67. And another Mike + The Mechanics song, "Taken In," was at #48, on its way to peaking at #32. (Mike + The Mechanics will eventually appear in this column.)

That’s not even the whole story. In 1975, Phil Collins went from Genesis’ drummer to the band’s frontman when original leader Peter Gabriel left the band. Gabriel became a pretty huge star on his own, and he hit his commercial peak at the exact same time that his old band reached their own. The week "Invisible Touch" was at #1, a Peter Gabriel song — one that will appear in this column very soon — was right behind, at #2. Also, guitarist Steve Hackett, who’d left Genesis in 1977, had formed a new band with former Yes/Asia member Steve Howe. The same week that Genesis and Peter Gabriel held down the top two spots, GTR’s biggest hit, an airless rocker called "When The Heart Rules The Mind," reached its peak of #14. The only Genesis member who wasn’t having any chart success was keyboardist Tony Banks, who couldn’t really sing and who mostly worked on film scores when he wasn’t doing Genesis stuff.

That means that the current and former members of Genesis were at least partially responsible for six of the songs on the Hot 100, including the top two. That’s nuts. That would be nuts for any band, let alone one that had gotten its start making mythological, nerded-out song-cycles. Plenty of graduates of the British art-rock universe of the ’70s made hits in the ’80s, but nobody out there was crushing shit like Genesis. So how does a band like Genesis become an absolute commercial juggernaut?

Since the days of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, all those Genesis musicians, current and former, had been drifting toward the pop mainstream. In the Peter Gabriel era, only one Genesis song, 1972’s wiggy "Happy The Man," even made the Hot 100. (It peaked at #46.) But when Collins took over as frontman, he pushed the group in more accessible directions. The band scored its first real American hit in 1978, when "Follow You Follow Me" peaked at #22. Around the same time that Collins was becoming a solo star, Genesis finally made it into the top 10, getting to #6 with 1983’s "That’s All." (It’s a 7.)

Forces were at work here. Part of it is that Phil Collins was interested in R&B and dance music and that he actually had the necessary chops, as a singer and songwriter, to push both himself and Genesis toward pop’s center. Collins also maintained a cordial relationship with the ex-members of Genesis. Collins discovered his trademark gated drum sound, for instance, when he was working on Gabriel’s song "Intruder," and Gabriel sang backup on Collins "Take Me Home." These guys were all influencing each other. They were also making rich, layered digital music — using bajillion-dollar Fairlight synths, putting time and effort into creating immersive sonic environments.

As with Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms, the music of Genesis and their associates probably sounded best on compact disc, the emerging format that rich people really liked. Some of the American yuppies who bought Genesis’ ’80s music had grown up with the band in their prog era, but plenty hadn’t. Instead, this small core of musicians found a style that, in the high Reagan era, briefly overlapped with the moneyed zeitgeist.

Genesis’ 1986 album Invisible Touch arrived right on time and hit big. The band came up with the title track while jamming on the 11-minute epic "Domino." Mike Rutherford had improvised a guitar riff, and Collins, who’d already programmed in his beat on a drum machine, came up with a line about how she seems to have an invisi-ble touch, yeah. The band liked it, and so they wrote a whole song around that line.

All three members of Genesis wrote "Invisible Touch" together, but it’s basically a Phil Collins song. The song is built almost entirely around Collins’ ridiculously sticky hook, his innate sense of when to hit the key change, and the weird little pleading-groan zone that his voice can sometimes find. The other members of Genesis get plenty to do on "Invisible Touch"; Tony Banks, in particular, goes nuts with his busy and expensive-sounding keyboard bloops. (Banks’ mid-song solo sounds a bit like a thumb-piano orchestra attempting to recreate the sound of rain.) But those other Genesis guys are in supporting roles, and they know it. Collins is the star of the show.

(For some reason, I have decided that this extended aside is worth an entire paragraph: If Genesis were G-Unit, then Tony Banks would be the Tony Yayo to Phil Collins’ 50 Cent. The Lloyd Banks of Genesis is obviously Mike Rutherford. Peter Gabriel is the Game, though that analogy messes up the timeline. I guess Steve Hackett is Young Buck. Collins’ first divorce is his version of getting shot nine times and dropped by his label. Tarzan is Power. Maybe G-Unit’s name was really short for "Genesis Unit" this whole time.)

Lyrically, "Invisible Touch" is a big and slightly toxic nothing. Collins sings about feeling utterly powerless against one particular woman’s feminine wiles. He’s attracted to her, and he seems to resent her for that: "She’s got something you just can’t trust/ It’s something mysterious/ And now it seems I’m falling, falling for her." It’s like: Take some responsibility for yourself, buddy! Collins seems to be basing all this on a first impression: "Well, I don’t really know her, I only know her name/ But when she crawls under your skin, you’re never quite the same." Or maybe you’re just writing some whole dumb narrative in your head! Phil Collins is out here getting mad at this lady before he even talks to her. It’s pretty dumb!

But "Invisible Touch" doesn’t carry any of that sweaty resentment over to its music. The part everyone remembers is the hook. When my wife was a kid, she heard it "an invisible touch, yeah" as "an invisible top shit," and she tried to get her brother in trouble for listening to it. That’s a pretty good sign that those lyrics don’t really matter. Like so many Phil Collins songs, "Invisible Touch" works as a fine example of ’80s craft, with those liquid Rutherford guitars and those bleepy Banks synths and their backup harmonies working to elevate it.

The song also has Collins’ big beat, though the drums don’t make as much of an impression as they do on a lot of his songs. Collins has said that "Invisible Touch" was inspired by Sheila E.’s "The Glamorous Life," but it’s nowhere near funky enough to earn that comparison. ("The Glamorous Life," from 1984, peaked at #7. It’s a 9.) Instead, "Invisible Touch" is functionally just one more Phil Collins hit that fades nicely into the blur.

For Genesis, though, "Invisible Touch" was huge. "Invisible Touch" was the first single from the album of the same name. Before "Invisible Touch," Genesis had only made the top 10 once. After "Invisible Touch," they pretty much set up shop there. The Invisible Touch album sold six million copies in the US, and all five of its singles made the top 5 of the Hot 100. Not even No Jacket Required managed that. That’s almost Michael Jackson-level shit.

The ballads "In Too Deep" and "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" both reached #3. ("In Too Deep" is a 5. The self-indulgent and way-too-long "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" is a 4.) Meanwhile, "Throwing It All Away" and "Land Of Confusion" both reached #4. ("Throwing It All Away" is a 6. "Land Of Confusion" is an 8.) As big as they were, most of those songs haven’t stuck around too much, even as the internet seems to rediscover Phil Collins every five years or so. Some of that probably comes down to imagery. In most of their videos, Genesis were just doofy-looking rich guys who were content to be doofy-looking rich guys. That’s definitely true of the "Invisible Touch" clip, which is nothing but the members of the group filming themselves mugging. But "Land Of Confusion" remains a totem of its era — partly because it’s a better song, with its quasi-industrial jackhammer thump, and partly because the rubber-face puppet grotesquerie of its video is so memorable.

Genesis spent a solid year touring behind Invisible Touch, playing huge venues and finishing things up with a four-night sold-out run at Wembley Stadium. After that commercial triumph, Genesis once again went on the back-burner, as the members of the group did their respective solo things. They took five years between albums, returning with 1991’s We Can’t Dance, which sold even better than Invisible Touch but which only yielded one top-10 single. (The lovably silly "I Can’t Dance" peaked at #7. It’s a 7.)

Phil Collins finally announced his departure from Genesis in 1996. Banks and Rutherford tried to replace him, bringing in a Scottish singer named Ray Wilson and releasing one more album, 1997’s Calling All Stations. It was a miserable commercial failure, so that version of the band didn’t last long. But Collins rejoined Genesis for a 2006 tour, and they all got back together this past March for one more reunion. Unfortunately, they announced that tour just one week before the pandemic hit. The tour didn’t happen, obviously, but it’s supposedly going to happen in 2021. We’ll see.

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

© Stereogum, by Tom Breihan

Video

GENESIS - Invisible Touch (Live at Wembley Stadium 1987 - HD 1080p 50fps) Jacopo Di Giuli

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