I found the first live album by Genesis in a record store in my first year at university – it cost me $1. I still listen to this, always somewhat wide-eyed in a strange kind of wonder at the music. Because I knew Peter Gabriel was the original lead singer of Genesis and I knew that the band didn’t always make the sort of music that had them selling out stadiums as with the Invisible Touch album – but hearing Genesis Live, finding that early 70s album was my first experience with the Gabriel-led version of the band. It was music I would never have imagined.
Ask almost any Genesis fan and they’ll tell you there are essential albums from the early 1970s – from when Gabriel, the lead singer and conceptualist, was out front dressed in a fox-head, playing his pied-piper flute, the songs stretching towards quarter of an hour and half a side of vinyl, the songs spilling over three and four sides of vinyl…the songs sounding nothing like the ones when Phil Collins took over, nor like the material Gabriel would go on to make.
In fact many – particularly now – will tell you they only ever liked the music when Gabriel was at the helm, or that they accepted the first couple of albums with Phil Collins (the band’s drummer) stepping up the microphone – but not once the band made it really big.
Gabriel left the group – and in fact it was around about this exact time on the calendar some 40/41 years ago. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he released four albums all called “Peter Gabriel”. Those albums contain multitudes, music that still baffles and engages, music that moves me, that drives me, music that I couldn’t imagine anyone else ever making.
Put simply – Peter Gabriel left Genesis and went on to have a huge, artfully managed career.
And so did the band he quit.
Gabriel would become a pop star by the mid-80s, after making art-rock of a type and scoring film soundtracks too. He is both revered superstar and learned activist and humanitarian. There are reasons we could praise him and his work that have little to do with music and then there are the things he has done that are music-related that have had such impact outside of his own solo career – the formation of the Real World label, the creation of WOMAD for instance.
Meanwhile Genesis had hit after hit and its drummer turned second lead vocalist released a set of shaky demos, eventually crafted into a very fine solo album – and became not only reluctant lead vocalist but reluctant solo star. He managed, somehow, to have two of the biggest careers on the planet, simultaneously. And of course is now hated for his dominance across the pop charts in the 1980s and the wimpy music that followed in the 1990s, a career summary last year of reissued records attempted to correctly contextualise his albums and there were some “hidden”/“forgotten” gems – but Collins is most often some kind of punchline or ironic, guilty-pleasure. Strange given his obvious talents. But it’s simply not on to out yourself as a fan of the Collins-led Gabriel. Not past 1981 anyhow.
Me? I love it all really. That weird, wonderful live album introduced me to a sound – and coupled with a love of the early Pink Floyd was what hooked me into psychedelic pop and prog-rock. I bought up all of the early Genesis records and Gabriel’s entire discography. I owned most of the Phil Collins albums – until, in the 1990s, it did become a bit tricky to justify. The music wasn’t really there anymore. And I kept buying the Genesis material – the only album by the band I have never listened to more than once is the group’s final studio album, Calling All Stations. Released nearly 20 years ago it was the one and only record to be released without Gabriel or Collins at the helm. It features a journeyman vocalist (and maybe that’s putting it politely) Ray Wilson. He killed off any interest in the band until Collins returned for live shows – in a series of sporadic reunions…the fans still hoping that Gabriel will commit to one final world tour with Genesis, that maybe the band would feature sets by both Peter and Phil.
I’ve traced around all this simply because a reader asked me to write about the idea that Genesis is a band where its original lead singer walked away and both the singer and the band became more popular.
And it’s true.
What’s more Gabriel has never leveraged his career with any real nods to Genesis. The band has continued to include Gabriel-era songs in their shows – but it’s hardly ever been the other way around.
Just recently I saw Sting and Peter Gabriel in concert together – a dream gig. And what was interesting was just how heavily Sting relied on material by The Police, whereas the one Gabriel-era Genesis song performed on the night – the appropriate Dancing With the Moonlight Knight (its “selling England by the pound line” timed for Brexit-related political relevance) – was performed by Sting!
I don’t know what any of this means, really – nor how to finish it. Simply an appreciation of some great music made by talented players, and how in some sense for Genesis and Gabriel to really work – to truly succeed – they had to leave one another; like some marriage where the partners end up better friends in recognising they should be apart, or at least have happier lives.
What’s your favourite era of Genesis? Are you in fact allowed to like both versions of Genesis? I’m sure plenty of people do. And are you a Gabriel solo fan or do you only like his prog-rock work with the band?