Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Genesis: The Re-Evaluation of John - Chapter 19: Calling All Stations

The final seismic shift in Genesis's long and tortuous history came in 1996 when Phil Collins announced his departure from the band. Having negotiated the transition from 5-piece to 4 with Gabriel's leaving in 1975 with only a slight change in musical direction; and from quartet to trio 2 years later, a move which had a  massive effect on both the band's direction and subsequent popularity, how would this impact on the sound and future of the group, particularly noting that Collins' charisma, and the strength of his solo work, had had a huge influence on where the band ended up?

The two remaining members of the band, Tony Banks & Mike Rutherford, started working on new material and began the search for a new vocalist. Among the contenders for the job were Nick van Eede, from Cutting Crew; Francis Dunnery, from It Bites; David Longdon, who went on to front Big Big Train; and Ray Wilson, from Stiltskin. Any of these would have been suitable, but Banks & Rutherford eventually offered the role to Wilson. This line-up was to record just one album together - 'Calling All Stations', most of which had been written by the time the trio was formed, though Wilson was able to supply lyrics and riffs to a number of the songs. The drumming stool on the album was filled by Israeli session man Nir Zidkyahu and Nick D'Virgilio, then of Spock's Beard and latterly of Big Big Train.

The album opens with the title track, 'Calling All Stations', a rocky number with a steady, uncomplicated beat throughout. Wilson's vocals are deeper, huskier and less strained than Collins's of late and seem to fit the music well, and the guitars, which dominate early in the song, seem to hint at something perhaps a little less pop-y than hitherto. This is a song looking for direction: I'm not sure it completely finds it as it slowly fades out, but a reasonable start, nonetheless.

One thing that this album failed to find was huge commercial success, particularly in the USA. 'Congo' the second song on the album, just managed to creep into the UK Top 30 singles chart, and the album peaked at #2 in the UK. It starts with some 'tribal' rhythms, and a verse that appears to have a couple of beats too many in each line. The chorus is catchy enough, though the bridge seems a little incongruous, but on the whole it's 'neither nowt nor summat' as we say in Yorkshire - I just don't get it as a song.

'Shipwrecked' has a bit more structure to it, and of the songs so far it's one I can imagine Collins singing, but there's still that spark missing. "I'm helpless and alone, drifting out to sea" may sum it up, really. It all seems just a little flaccid, and therefore an obvious single.

'Alien Afternoon' opens with some dreamy keyboards, but soon turns into son of 'Illegal Alien', with pseudo-reggae rhythms and and echoes of 'Home By The Sea' - a kind of mish-mash of the worst and best of the band's 80s catalogue.

'Not About Us', the third and final single from the album, is the first song that Ray Wilson gets a writing credit on, and opens with a simple acoustic guitar riff over which the first couple of verses are sung. The chorus has a fuller musical feel to it, and on the whole this is quite a pleasant ballad, giving some scope for the more emotional side of Wilson's voice to show through.

'If That's What You Need' is a standard song - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental, verse, chorus - and as such it ticks all the boxes, musically and lyrically: a quiet, gentle, inoffensive love song, which would probably have made a better single than 'Shipwrecked', but is sadly lacking in any kind of nuance or inventiveness.

There seems to be a pattern with Genesis albums of the 80s & 90s, in that amongst all the pop there is always at least one little ray of hope that the band haven't completely abandoned their more progressive roots, and here 'The Dividing Line' is the one that makes me sit up and pay attention. The opening 1:55 is so reminiscent of early 3-man Genesis, it's almost as if the 80s never happened!, and that vibe carries on as Wilson's vocals come in. Perhaps the drums are a little more muted than Collins would've played them, but there is a clear 'Duke' feel to this song. The stand-out song on the album for me.

'Uncertain Weather' is a song that kind of creeps up on you. It seems quite tame to begin with, but has a certain depth to it that is quite disarming, telling as it does of the fragility and impermanence of life, and of the significance to some of even the most insignificant of lives: 'He must have had a life, maybe with a family, people who meant everything to him...'. It reminds me of It Bites' 'Map of the Past' in many ways.

'Small Talk' sees Ray Wilson providing the lyrics for the only time, and perhaps that's not a bad thing. The song doesn't really seem to go anywhere, to be honest, and it leaves me feeling 'meh'.

Next is 'There Must Be Some Other Way', which launches with some ominous keys, bass and drums - in fact probably the most pronounced bass riff so far on the album (Rutherford seems to have been concentrating on his guitar more). Wilson almost sounds like David Coverdale here, particularly towards the end of the chorus, and musically there is more than a hint of the band's late 80s sound in the instrumental passage (Second Home... comes through clearly for me).

'One Man's Fool' closes the album, and is, in effect, a song of two halves, or maybe two songs knitted together as one. The first three verses and choruses seem to be one entity, and the rest of the song another, though they do seem to be linked with an underlying theme of a search for truth in an increasingly pluralist and uncertain world., and the futility of nationalism & creeds, and war as a tool of enforcing these. A song for our Postmodern age - a far cry from the nymphs and demi-gods of 25 years earlier!

As I mentioned above, this experiment in the life of Genesis failed to make a meaningful impression on the important and lucrative US market, leaving tours having to be cancelled and the band having to rethink their future. From 1998 the band effectively folded, and have produced no new material since. As an experiment it showed that perhaps the strength of the band was in the sum of its parts, and as those parts were reduced, so was te creativity of the band as a whole. For me, Genesis's golden age in terms of creativity and pushing musical boundaries was when they were a 5-piece band, and nothing has quite matched the quality of the material that they produced between 1970 & 1974. Perhaps, despite some high points, this was an album too far and Phil's departure should've marked the end point of Genesis, but they carried on, and we have what we have. The trio of Collins, Banks & Rutherford (augmented by Stuermer & Thompson) did have one final fling in 2007, and that will be the subject of my final piece in this series. I hope you've enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Progarchy Radio

I recently recorded an edition of Progarchy Radio with Brad Birzer - you can find it here.
Progarchy Radio Episode 11.

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.