Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 18: The Way We Walk


Following hard on the heels of their 1992 album, 'We Can't Dance', Genesis embarked on a wide-ranging tour of the USA, Europe and the U.K. This was to prove to be their final concerts together until the reunion tour in 2007, as Phil Collins would quit the band in 1996. But posterity was served as some of the concerts on that tour were recorded and subsequently released, augmented by three tracks from 1986 & 1987, as two CD sets: 'The Shorts' & 'The Longs' in November 1992 & January 1993. For the sake of this article I'm considering both collections together.

'The Shorts', as it suggests, has 11 songs running between 3½ and 7 minutes, all drawn from the band's 'popular' period. It is, effectively, a concert performance of their greatest hits. 'Land of Confusion' opens the show - a faithful rendition, with the large, enthusiastic German crowd joining in the 'whoa-oh's. 'No Son of Mine' follows, with Collins demonstrating his tendency to not be able to leave an instrumental passage without scatting over the top of it, and then 'Jesus He Knows Me' which rattles along at a fair pace, and includes some 'preachy' ad lib-ing towards the end. We move from Germany to Knebworth for 'Throwing It All Away', with Phil and the crowd sparring with the opening gibberish, as well as later on. 'I Can't Dance' allows for some improvisation, though it takes a little time for the German crowd to realise which song it is. 'Mama' is the first of two songs from July 1987's Wembley show - a large crowd in fine voice, though Collins does seem to be finding some of the higher notes a bit of a struggle (a number of songs on these albums were apparently played in a lower key to help his voice). This is a good version, with some passion and power coming through in the singing and some great guitar work. 'Hold On My Heart' is a faithful version, which just seems to drag on a little, almost as if they'd not really worked out how to finish it. 'That's All' is again from Wembley 1987, and is clearly a crowd-pleaser, with a good guitar break at the end. 'In Too Deep' is the earliest recording on the set, from October 1986, and to be frank Collins' voice sounds the best it has so far: clearly touring, and a flourishing solo career, was beginning to take its toll. The set ends with a segue from Invisible Touch, beginning with a cut-down version of 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight' (just the opening section) which flows into 'Invisible Touch', with the obligatory f-bomb and an extended play-out with some reggae-style chops. On the whole a good record of their live performances of the new, more accessible Genesis, though it does seem to lack a certain amount of spontaneity - just a little too clinical really. But maybe the length of the songs doesn't allow for too much of that?

'The Longs' comprises 6 tracks, 5 of which clock in at 10 minutes plus, and demonstrates the more progressive side of the band (not as overtly dominant in their later years as in their formative ones). All of the songs are taken from 2 nights played at the Niedersachsenstadion in Hanover, Germany (as was a large part of 'The Shorts'). The set opens with 'Old Medley', which does exactly what it says on the tin - a collection of tunes from the classic period of the band. It starts with the opening section of 'Dance on a Volcano', sliding seamlessly into 'The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway' (minus the third verse). As this winds down Collins can't help slipping in a 'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight', before the classic segue into the closing section of 'Musical Box' (as per 'Seconds Out'). We're then into the instrumental section of 'Firth of Fifth' with Daryl Stuermer taking Steve Hackett's part on the guitar and giving it a slightly rockier feel. The medley ends with an extended jam based around 'I Know What I Like' which, confusingly for an Old Medley, brings in brief excerpts from newer songs after Phil's obligatory tambourine dance - 'That's All', 'Illegal Alien', 'Your Own Special Way', and 'Follow You, Follow Me', with a bit of 'Stagnation' uncredited towards the end. Clearly both the band and the crowd enjoyed themselves immensely: shame there's not more of their older material on show here. Following that 19½ minute feast, we move to some of their more contemporary material. 'Driving the Last Spike' from 'We Can't Dance' tells the story of the building of the railways in England in the 19th Century, and is faithfully played: there doesn't seem to be much space in the song for any elaboration, anyway. 'Domino' follows, and seems to lack some of its oomph, with the keyboards a little high in the mix at the expense of the drums in the 'Glow of the Night' section. They also seem a little keen to get into the 'Last Domino' - the transition seems to lack some of the tension of the studio recording for me. Last Domino rocks nicely, but seems to end a little abruptly. 'Fading Lights', the other long song on 'We Can't Dance' is next - a solid rendition - followed by the 'Home By The Sea' suite. The transition from 'Home...' to 'Second Home...' is a little better than the 'Domino' one, but the guitars seem a little quiet in the mix in 'Second Home' as opposed to the keyboards, until around the 8:40 mark when they start to come into their own. We end with what had become de rigeur at Genesis concerts ever since Chester Thompson joined the live set up: a 'Drum Duet' between him and Phil Collins. The two know each other's styles very well, and play off each other wonderfully, switching tempo effortlessly. Maybe not quite up there with the 'Seconds Out' duet, this one comes close, and demonstrates what exceptional drummers both of these guys are (or at least were).

As a collection, these two albums demonstrate that Genesis, even at the height of their commercial success, were still a live force to be reckoned with, despite Phil Collins starting to show signs of deteriorating as a performer. Sadly this band would not perform again for another 15 years, but this record stands as testimony to their tightness as a live unit, drawing crowds in their tens and even hundreds of thousands to hear songs old and new.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Observations of America - Part 2

After almost two weeks in the USA, most of that time enjoying the delights of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I thought I would offer an update on my reflections on the trip. I concede that some of these points may be particular to the parts of the US that we have seen, rather than being generalisations about the entire country, but here we go...

1. Despite being, relatively speaking, a young nation, there seems to be a great deal of pride in the country's heritage and history. Virginia was the first permanent settlement, and consequently there is much to note around the towns of Jamestown & Williamsburg, which we visited. As English tourists, you get used to being apologised to for the past, too!

2. There are some spectacular memorials around, particularly in Washington DC, and they especially like to remember (some of) their presidents - Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson stand out (Jefferson more so in Virginia, his home state). But their war memorials - for Korea, Vietnam and the Marines Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington - particularly impressed me.

3. The Flag is everywhere: on public buildings, businesses, private houses, even in the church we attended yesterday. This is probably a link to the obvious national pride that my earlier points illustrate. In Britain this would bother me more than it does here.

4. I mentioned in Part 1 that everything is big here. This is a big country, with lots of huge open spaces, and the scenery is quite breath-taking. We had a day exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park and were astounded by the scale, scope and grandeur of it all.

5. I have also been struck by the hospitality of people here - and not just, I think, because they are church folk. People have been very helpful to us, getting used to different ways of doing things, and the perhaps clichéd refrain of "Have a nice day!" seems for the most part to be genuine and heart-felt. One practical out-working of this was that everyone at church had name-tags that they could wear, which helped with introductions at times of interaction.

6. A consequence of that hospitality is that we have received a number of invitations to eat with folk: we managed to garner two lunch invitations for yesterday! This usually means eating out, which people here seem to do quite regularly, and there is always a wide choice of cuisines to choose from.

So, just a few further thoughts. Another week here in VA, then we head north before heading home. Maybe a little more reflection later...

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Observations of America - Part 1

Jude & I have come to the a United States for a few weeks, as part of my Sabbatical. Having been here for a few days now, I thought I'd reflect briefly on things I'd noticed about life here, compared to life in Britain.

1. It's a cliché, but everything seems so much bigger here. The roads are wider, the portions are larger (and, as a consequence, the girths seem to be too), and our hotel room in Washington is HUGE!

2. Life seems geared around cars rather than pedestrians. In the parts of Richmond where we were staying, sidewalks seemed absent, and trying to cross a 6- or 8-lane highway was interesting to say the least!

3. For those without a car, buses are a reasonably cheap way to travel, but as white folk we stood out on the buses.

4. Tipping is expected, and is assumed to be a means of providing a living wage for many in the service sector. 18% seems to be the norm, but part of me wonders why they don't just increase the minimum wage. And if a discretionary payment becomes almost obligatory it loses its meaning.

5. Taxes seem to be added to most things, and at vastly varying rates. Why can't the price shown be the price charged?

6. Contrary to the myth often heard in the UK, I have not seen many weapons on display: in fact the only one I was aware of was carried by a police officer outside the White House. Maybe it's different in 'open carry' states?

7. And finally (for now): it's HOT! Daytime between 28 and 35 C, and night-time not much below 22 C. And it's humid. When we arrived at our first hotel it was the first time my glasses had misted up stepping outside. AC is great, but the rooms can get a little cold because of it!

More later, when I've had time to experience more of this interesting nation.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 17: We Can't Dance

Having formed in the late 1960s, come to prominence in the 70s and risen to mega-stardom in the 80s, we find Genesis in their fourth decade as a band, with their 14th studio release, We Can't Dance, which saw the light of day in1991, after a five year break from recording for the band.

In some ways this is a return to previous patterns of album-making for the band, in that there are a couple of story songs and also a couple of tunes clocking in at (just) over 10 minutes. At a total running length of 70:36 it is one of their longest single albums - a feat made possible by the demise in vinyl records in favour of CDs. The album was produced by the band in conjunction with Nick Davis, replacing Hugh Padgham, who had worked with the band since 'Abacab'. The cover art is by Felicity Roma Bowers, and she also provides iconic works of stylistic, simple watercolours which illustrate each song.

No Son of Mine begins with the steady tick of a clock and slightly menacing guitars, for a song about domestic abuse and the breakdown of relationships within a family, setting the mood quite well. The keyboards don't really feature until towards the end of the song, which is heavily guitar-led, along with the steady gated snare. Not a bad song, but perhaps lacking in musical imagination a little.

Jesus He Knows Me is a (some would say justified) dig at Televangelists, that melding of capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity that seems so popular in certain circles. It is a subject ripe for the picking, and the band do so quite well and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. A pacy song, again with the dominant gated snare, with a jaunty reggae-style middle section and a delightfully comic video to accompany it. And can I say, that as a Christian minister, I'm more offended by the people being parodied here than by this song!

The pseudo-faith of the previous song is starkly (though not uncritically) contrasted in the next: Driving the Last Spike, a song which tells of building the English railway system in the early 19th century. In the opening verse we find our 'hero' saying: "I looked to the sky, I offered my prayers/ I asked Him for guidance and strength/ But the simple beliefs of a simple man/ Lay in His hands, and on my head." Like the best of Genesis's material, this song has a strong narrative thread running through it, telling of the hardships faced by the workers, in conditions in which many did not survive. Musically there are a number of themes present, which gives the song an epic, symphonic feel, but with a harder edge than their classic material, perhaps more fitting to the era. The song builds in intensity, delving into England's industrial history in a way that perhaps has become Big Big Train's legacy now: is this a prototype BBT song?

I Can't Dance does what it says on the tin, really. To me it's a kind of anti-dance song: music you can't dance to, at least in the conventional way, and as such the band devised a kind of Pythonesque anti-dance to accompany the song. Maybe it's about not being able to 'pull': maybe it's a critique of the image-conscious times it was written in. Whatever it is, I'm glad it's under 4 minutes! Not quite 'Whodunnit?', but not far off.

It wouldn't be a latter Genesis album without a love song, and Never A Time is such. And like so much of the material of that particular genre by the band, it's one about a relationship coming to an end. Perhaps good for a slow dance for people who don't listen to the lyrics of these songs.

Dreaming While You Sleep is probably my favourite track on this album. It concerns the guilt felt by a driver involved in a hit-and-run accident caused by their falling asleep at the wheel, which left the victim in a coma. Movingly told, it is a song of great emotion, the consequences of which are told in an equally stunning short story by the author Chris James in his first collection of Stories of Genesis. Musically there is an interesting interplay between the three musicians with counter-rhythms working with each other to create a rich atmosphere for the lyrics.

Tell Me Why has a nice jangly  12-string opening, which gives the song an interesting feel for one about the poor, dispossessed and starving in the world(!). And as a piece of political commentary, it's a little weak in offering any solution. Maybe another piece symptomatic of its time, when we were very good at saying 'Isn't it awful' but did we do anything about it?

From the starving of the world we move to the latest dietary fads, in an attempt at Living Forever. The song shows up the futility of it all and concludes that we should just get on with living: not a bad idea. The song has an extended (almost half the run-time) instrumental section to finish, which is OK but nothing spectacular, though it has the feel of something which would work well live (It appears, however, that it was never played in a live setting!).

Hold On My Heart is definitely a slow dance number, but this one is just right for that time in the evening. This is, to be fair, quite a beautiful love song: soulful, contemplative and heart-felt (no pun intended), and suits Collins' quieter register and more Motown-y vibe. Not Prog, not really rock, but nice!

Way Of The World is another anomaly of an up-tempo song about the desperate state of the world. Maybe not quite as jolly as Tell Me Why, but probably just as innocuous, and seems resigned to things being as they are: "it's just the way of the world/ and that's how it's meant to be." A protest song for the post-Thatcherite world?

Since I Lost You was written by Phil Collins for Eric Clapton following the accidental death of his son, Conor, and seeks to deal with the strong emotions caught up in such a tragedy. After the bridge in the song, and again in the fade at the end, there is a short, almost Clapton-esque, bluesy guitar solo, which seems quite apt in the circumstances. This, above all the songs on the album, has the Collins solo feel to it.

We close with the other 10 minute-plus song, Fading Lights. Drum machine pattern leads into sweeping chords from Banks before Collins' soulful vocals come in. Guitars finally appear towards the end of the second verse, to take up into an extended instrumental section. This is at quite a pedestrian pace for most of the time, but has a certain amount of power to it nonetheless. As the vocals return for the final verse things kind of drift, and Phil Collins' time with Genesis ends more with a whimper than a bang.

Yes, this will be the final time that Collins would record new material with Genesis: indeed, many were surprised that he made this record with the band, as his solo career had blossomed so much. His 25 years with Genesis had produced some quite sublime progressive rock, and some memorable pop-rock - and some stinkers. He had increasingly been able to bring his theatrical training to the service of the band, particularly in the MTV age. But his legacy will be a lasting one: I'm just not sure this was the best way for him to go out.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 16: Invisible Touch

Since the recording of their eponymous album in 1983, Genesis had drifted into a kind of hiatus as the three members worked on their individual solo projects. For Collins this was a time of growing popularity, and his success seemed to have a knock-on effect for the band. The three of them re-convened towards the end of 1985 at The Farm in Surrey to work on creating their 13th studio album. All the compostiton was done in the studio, and as with the previous offering all the songs are credited as band compositions.

'Invisible Touch' was released in June 1986 and was an immediate hit on both sides of the Atlantic and across Europe. It was the band's fourth consecutive number 1 in the UK, and reached number 3 on the Billboard charts - their highest position. Reflecting the band's more 'commercial' style, the album spawned five singles, all of which made the Top 5 in the US with the title track becoming Genesis's only #1 single. This feat was a first for a group and a non-US act, after Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson & Madonna.

We begin with the chart-topper, 'Invisible Touch', which opens with a flourish on the drums before the chorus motif comes in on keyboards & guitars. Structurally a simple song (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental break, chorus, verse, key-change for chorus, and repeat with counterpoint), lyrically unchallenging and musically memorable in an ear-worm sense, this does, to be fair, have all the hallmarks of a hit record, and the band seem to have learnt from (or been influenced by) Collins' solo success. It just seems to lack the flair, imagination and inventiveness that marked Genesis out as something different even ten years earlier.

'Tonight, Tonight, Tonight' does seem to have a little of that 'difference' about it. The drum pattern that starts it off (and continues to form the background for the first half of the song) has a certain lyrical quality to it, and the keys & guitars give it an interesting texture. In the instrumental break after the third chorus there are sounds akin to blowing across milk bottles - are these keyboards or drum synths? But this builds a nice tension to the music which crescendos to the 'You keep telling me...' section, after which the song drives along and there's even a hint of a guitar solo towards the end. This is a bit more like it for me.

'Land of Confusion' is an interesting song. Lyrically a piece of social/ political commentary; musically quite a heavy song in places, with some staccato, almost machine-gun rhythms going on, but with an almost elegiac passage around the 'I remember long ago...' section. This heavy feel made it an easy cover for metal band Disturbed. But for me it will always be difficult to take this song seriously because of the promotional video that was made for it, using Spitting Image puppets of the band and others, which naturally puts a comic slant on it.

'In Too Deep' is a soulful ballad, a love song, pure and simple, and is perhaps indicative of the issues that many people have with this album as a whole. This is, more perhaps than anything else on this collection, so much like Phil's solo material as to be almost indistinguishable from it. In fact the only thing that sets it apart is the brief instrumental interlude which could've been lifted from Tony's solo debut.

If 'Land of Confusion' was unintentionally comic, 'Anything She Does' is, I hope, meant to bring some light relief (if relief is the right word). There can't be many mainstream rock/pop songs which tackle the subject of pornography in quite the way Genesis do here, but that's what they do, with a kind of carnival feel to it. Is it meant to be so horn-y, I wonder? (OK, I'll stop now)

'Domino' is a song in two parts, and clocks in at just over 10½ minutes, and is the longest song Genesis had recorded since The Cinema Show in 1973. In contrast to the more tightly structured, poppy songs this has a more complex feel to it and is (along with Tonight, Tonight, Tonight) more on the band's Progressive side. 'In the Glow of the Night' gives us a rich and complex tapestry of rhythms and tempos with a quite soulful edge at times. The transition to 'The Last Domino' is gentle, but takes us into a more pulsating, driving section which lyrically has echoes for me of 'The Lamb...' and has a kind of salsa feel musically in the 'Now see what you've gone and done' section. This is a great song - Rutherford apparently claims it is one of the best things the band has done: I would certainly say the best they've done in the 1980s for sure.

'Throwing It All Away'  - from the sublime to the mundane, I'm afraid. It's all a bit dreary, to be frank: a love song with very little passion in it. A good sing-along live, but little else.

'The Brazilian' rounds things off: an instrumental which seems to have some quite complex rhythms going on, but which seems to be dominated by Collins' drumming. It's only during the last minute or so of the song that the full band get to interact with each other, playing drums, keys and guitars almost in counterpoint, which gives it a more rounded sound. Not a bad way to finish, but maybe the jam could've gone on a little longer.

Somehow a band who prided themselves on some spectacular musical arrangements and instrumental virtuosity have, with one or two exceptions, morphed during the 1980s into nothing more than Phil Collins' backing band. There are glimpses here of what the three of them could be capable of, but having cracked the lucrative American market it seems that they are content to tap it for all they can, with the occasional brief flurry of artistic integrity. But so much of this material coud have been released as Phil Collins solo material with very little change to it, and that is perhaps its greatest weakness. Having said that, this is a collection of on the whole memorable tunes, albeit mostly pop-rock rather than Progressive, and in the 30 years that have elapsed since its release it still stands up as a good example of the genre.