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Genesis Vs. Genesis: The Great Debate

You see, I was hoping for a little more Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and a whole lot less We Can’t Dance. To put it even more bluntly, I just wasn’t that interested in seeing the Phil Collins model of the band that became an unstoppable hit machine in the eighties (not to mention an immovable force on MTV back when the “M” actually stood for music).

You see, Genesis fans are a curious lot, and when it comes to these two incarnations of the band – the more progressive Gabriel led version, and the leaner, more commercial sounding Collins model – these same fans are split right down the middle. Proponents of the Gabriel years will tell you, rightly so I might add, that although the band didn’t sell as many records back then, they also didn’t really seem to care because they placed a higher premium on the artistic integrity of the music.

Gabriel himself dressed up in everything from foxhead masks to that giant blobby looking thing he wore on the tour for The Lamb back then, and the rest of the guys didn’t even stand when they played, preferring to sit in chairs onstage instead. But the music was something else. A twenty minute opus like “Suppers Ready” was just another day at the office for these guys, as were songs performed with all manner of layered mellotron strings and bizarre time signatures. Ditto for lyrics dealing with things like Watchers of the Skies, Colonies of Slippermen, and Giant Hogweeds.

Meanwhile, the Collins boosters will retort by telling you that much of that was a lot of pretentious bullshit, and that the only thing that saved the band was learning how to write songs with actual hooks that stuck in your head, and that you could even tap your foot to. Besides they will tell you, the band still flexes their musical muscles in concert, particularly when Collins stops singing long enough to climb behind the drumkit. Say whatever you will about the balding guy who turned a great prog-rock band into a cross between REO Speedwagon and Earth Wind & Fire, but he’s still a kick-ass drummer.

So on their surprisingly great new concert DVD When In Rome 2007, the Collins led band wisely splits the difference by dividing the setlist into basically equal parts older and newer Genesis. Each of the two best known band incarnations are well represented here, as well as a sampling of material from the middle period right after Gabriel left, but Hackett still remained. If that only further confuses you, don’t worry because you’re not alone.

I just think of albums like Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering from that period as Genesis at the halfway point. They were clearly moving away from all the Gabriel weirdness (hell, they were even standing up when they played live by now). But they hadn’t quite yet sold their souls to the devil in the form of MTV and all those stupid videos featuring puppet caricatures and even sillier dance routines (they weren't kidding about that whole "We Can't Dance" thing).

Phil Collins was at this point still a couple of albums away from his miraculous transformation from mere great drummer into the white man’s own version of Lionel Richie. So go ahead all you Collins fans, su-su-sudio me into submission. I can take it.

In fairness, I’ll also admit to liking some of the Collins era songs, even if it is only on sort of a guilty pleasure level. “Land Of Confusion” has a guitar hook that is catchy as hell, and on the occasional latter day prog-rock opus like “Home By The Sea,” you can still hear touches of the adventurousness that once made Genesis so great. But dammit, I miss my mellotrons, I miss my textures, and I miss my weird 9/8 time signatures. I miss my lyrics about Pythagoras through a looking glass even if I never had so much as a clue what they were actually singing about.

I also gotta’ give the Collins crew their props for the amazing spectacle of their live shows though. The guys themselves still pretty much just stand there and play, and for all of Gabriel’s goofy masks and oddball storytelling, I’ll still take that over Phil Collins dancing like a spastic cross between Michael Jackson (when he was still cool) and that hackeysack hippie guy from Spin Doctors (who never was cool) any day. But the staging and the lights at a Genesis show have always been at least three steps ahead of the competition. On the When In Rome 2007 DVD, the stage simply has to be seen to be believed.

As for those other guys who left the band?

Peter Gabriel remains as wonderfully pretentious as ever, although he has long since traded in the foxheads and such for a more modern brand of musical self-indulgence, advocating for the same world music mumbo-jumbo that gave both Paul Simon and David Byrne their second careers. Gabriel also sold a few albums in the eighties with whiteboy funk hits like “Shock The Monkey” and “Sledgehammer.”

Steve Hackett briefly was part of an Asia type prog-supergroup called GTR, whose sole album prompted a rather famous review that simply read “SHT.” These days Hackett enjoys a relatively obscure solo career by sticking to his guns and playing an uncompromising blend of prog and jazz-rock fusion. He may not have as many bucks or platinum record plaques lining his walls as the other guys, but at least he still has his integrity. Atta’ boy Steve.

So in case you haven’t yet figured it out, this old prog-dog falls squarely into the Gabriel era camp when it comes to the great Genesis debate. Although, I have to admit that the Collins stuff has grown a bit on me over the years, and I’m quite surprised at how much I liked the new When In Rome 2007 concert DVD. Besides, if I want prog, I’ve always got Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree, or even Radiohead for that matter (who are a prog band if ever I’ve heard one -- no matter how much they may protest that label).

Still, stuff like We Can’t Dance is where I draw my line in the sand. Sometimes a man has just got to stand on priniciple.

© by Glen Boyd

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