I was cleaning out a bookshelf this afternoon and came across my senior high school yearbook, from 1978, in which had been scrawled “Genesis Rules” (with the band name in the font of their seminal 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway of course). These days instead of printed yearbooks, I spend some time in Facebook, and now belong to many fan groups for 70’s bands like Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Gentle Giant. As we did so long ago, the posts therein still frequently debate which instances of a band’s body of work had merit and which did not, and I find myself, more often than not at this stage of life, wincing at the derision shown to groups or players who are accused of having “sold out” to achieve commercial success. It’s all good – everybody is entitled to their opinion, especially on the web where we feel very entitled thank you. But for me, while I used to fall into the more critical camp I’m inclined to celebrate all of this work, whether “prog” or “pop”. The debate raged back then, and is still continuing today – questioning the artistic merit of 70’s bands as they “progressed” from more experimental work to the mainstream. It’s an engaging pastime for many of us, who pour through our favorite albums, examining the musical passages (some of them in 9/8), the meaning of the lyrics (unifauns?), and the art of album packaging. It was and still is a fantastic era for discussion – music that meant something to so many – music not to be listened to in awful compressed digital replications, but on hi fidelity audio systems we assembled with attention to how sound would be replicated in our rooms back at home or in the dorms.
But sometimes, all the analysis and hand wringing over the purity of the vision and musical prowess of progressive era bands misses an important point. In our zeal to celebrate the exceptional artistry of more complex early works, we may dismiss later efforts when oft times prog artists stripped down from a dozen keyboards to a few, set down their mandolins and flutes, and focused on music that was a bit more direct, unadorned, and actually rocked or touched the heart as priority one. In fact, most bands of the era went from long, complex compositions to more accessible three-to-five minute songs, more often than not in the verse-chorus-verse form and possibly even, gulp, including “love songs” or more overt “rockers” in the mix. While some were no doubt driven to this change by the popularity of punk (itself the ultimate celebration of raw simplicity) others headed that direction in order to feed their families, and some just did so as their own tastes changed. At the time, many dedicated fans felt betrayed by these rare bands that had so successfully engaged our analytical minds. When much of that faded away, we were left with music that was meant to appeal more to the heart than the head, and possibly even inspire, dare I say it, dancing (you know, to a rhythm, not the hippie free flow). For many, the emotional “divorce” from these early works, these heroes who left “home” to embrace new lives, left lasting scars on their musical psyches. Instead of being able to appreciate a wider body of music from these bands as they aged, listeners have been tempted to hold on to past glories, seeing all that comes after as being lesser than before. Many fans I know basically stopped listening to new music after the 70s unless it came from newer bands that played in the old way. I’ve always found this limiting view to be unfortunate.
As to my own journey, I studied piano for seven long years from age ten, and I had been introduced to music from the classical masters, knowing well what it took to create some of these compositions and perform them on record and in concert. Keyboard players like Tony Banks of Genesis, Rick Wakeman of Yes Keith Emerson from ELP, and Kerry Minnear from Gentle Giant were my heroes. Their work had been blindingly complex, and inspiring to trained ears. Much of it directly or indirectly incorporated passages from the classical composers, such as Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and others, who had been their musical inspiration. I, like many, mourned the time when Tony Banks put away his Mellotron, and stripped his compositions back to their essence for albums like Abacab. The same kind of regret took hold when Kerry Minnear switched to simpler tracks and overt rockers for the last three Gentle Giant albums. But I had also liked Cat Stevens, Elton John, Supertramp, and others who started and continued in a more pop friendly vein, and who were unencumbered by the expectation that they deliver more complex works. While I mourned what seemed like the end of the classical prog era, I also was able to embrace the different work that followed from these artists, and new bands from the 80s on.
One musician who seemed to be the very embodiment of the prog to pop transition, and who caught the lion’s share of the derision for it all was, wait for it….., Phil Collins. Phil had spent time behind his drum kit as one of the best drummers on the planet – from his work in Genesis, to Brand X, and his long solo career, his artistry behind the drums was top tier. Yet Phil as a vocalist and songwriter very intentionally travelled this road from prog complexity to international pop superstardom, and he took a great many critical hits along the way. Part of this can be explained by his overexposure during the 80s, and part can be attributed to the fact that some of his pop work goes to the extreme side of the form, sometimes cloying (see “Sussudio”) and in almost complete opposition to his original musical roots. But to dismiss the entirety of his output after the 70s is tragic, as in the world of “heart ruling mind” he became a master.
The defining moment for me in Phil’s transition was seeing him on tour supporting “Hello I Must Be Going” at the Universal Amphitheater, December 17, 1982, in “Los Angleeeze” as the man used to exclaim. That night Phil played an amazing set culled from his first two albums, and he included just one “theatrical” element, donning a dodgy overcoat for his ode to voyeurism, “Thru These Walls”. When he both sang and played drums for the hit “In The Air Tonight” it was enthralling – pure magic. But theater and mystery didn’t particularly matter on this night. For the most part, Phil told jokes, treated us to some of his clearest most beautiful vocal performances, and during a few tracks, his legendary powerful drumming. Basically, he entertained the talkative crowd, who raised drinks in celebration and chatted endlessly through the show.
Just the night before, in a tone that was a stark contrast, Peter Gabriel played the same venue, in support of his dark masterpiece dubbed Security. It was his darkest and most theatrical show since leaving Genesis. The players entered from the back of the venue, banging out the opening beats of the first track “Rhythm of the Heat”. As the band reached the stage, and stood in line across the front, still pounding out the Ghanaian beat, Gabriel climbed to the top of a structure center stage towering above, stood with his arms raised high, and let out a blood curdling tribal yell to open the song, and the show. A chill went down my spine that I will never forget. The audience in whole was immediately struck silent, in rapt attention as Peter took all on a journey through his most recent, brooding work. I recall looking behind me across the amphitheater, at a sea of blank faces, as audience and performer merged during the performance. The intensity let up only for the more upbeat “I Go Swimming” and Gabriel’s ode to going solo, “Solsbury Hill.” It was, and remains, the best concert performance I’ve ever seen.
The contrast between these two nights was extreme, and I’ve told the story to many since, recognizing Gabriel’s accomplishment, while at the same time appreciating Phil’s lighter, celebratory evening of entertainment. In fact, the two lead singers had just played together again only two months before at the first and only Genesis reunion in early October the same year. Peter would go on to record his most successful album So as a follow up to this one, shedding much of the dramatic tones of the early 80s and embracing a more commercially appealing approach. Phil continued on his pop solo career, increasingly driving Genesis to broaden their appeal as well, in agreement with Tony and Mike.
Having said all of this, tonight, we are relaxing, having some wine, and flipping through videos. We came upon some clips from Genesis during their 90’s era. While I still love the oldest songs best, I’ve realized that I really appreciate the pop-‘n-rock stuff too. Maybe I’ve gone a bit soft, sure, but maybe its a little needed perspective, after all these years. In the past Phil was omnipresent, but now that he’s almost gone, I wish he were here.