How Genesis and Phil Collins shaped the development of rock music

From their humble beginnings as a progressive pop five-piece, Genesis grew into something more colourful and expressive, not least when Phil Collins joined the band as drummer. Drawn to his drum patterns, vocalist Peter Gabriel stationed the 19-year-old as his rock from which he could narrate his tales of knights and fairies of gay England past.

Ensconced in their little orbit, Genesis had no immediate contemporaries, although 10cc came closest, and some critics likened the band to Queen and, in an interesting twist of fate, Roger Taylor was asked to join Genesis in 1970, but he declined. Despite that comparison, Genesis were something else entirely. They all wrote separately, intertwining their various contributions under one impressive banner, as was heard on the magnificent ‘Supper’s Ready’. Their schemes were unorthodox, yet punched with melody, agony and gallows humour. Gabriel made for a fiery frontman, but it was the power of Collins, all back pedal and bass drum, that proved the band’s wild card.

Genesis peaked in the winter of 1974 with a supremely confident album of ominous-sounding music, that was tidily laced together by a story Gabriel had written outside of the sphere. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a milestone in narrative rock, although pianist Tony Banks wasn’t sold on the plot, and neither was guitarist Steve Hackett.

The rumours suggested that all was not well in the band – Gabriel left the group in 1975 – but Collins keeps the interest going through a series of colossal drum exhibitions. From the barrelling landscapes of ‘In The Cage’ to the frothier, cymbal work on ‘Counting Out Time’, Collins wears many guises, from Ginger Baker posturings to the more playful form of drumming favoured by Ringo Starr. Between these epics stands ‘Back In N.Y.C’, a blistering, sparsely produced that heralds the beginnings of punk, complete with a pounding drum backing based on energy and steel.

It was Mike Rutherford who, after suggesting that the band write an album based on Le Petit Prince, gallantly stepped aside to let Gabriel concoct many of his more idiosyncratic ideas, only for the singer to disappear for another project with William Friedkin. Hackett also missed out on writing instrumentals due to a hand injury, so this left the core lineup of Collins, Banks and Rutherford to piece the work together. Keenly aware of Gabriel’s desire to remove himself from the band, the trio comforted themselves by embarking on a series of explosive jams, formulating the next chapter of their career.

By 1977, Hackett had also left the band, but by that point, Genesis were anxious to cast off the shackles of progressive rock for something more immediate, intellectual and understanding. Determined to fashion the music based on the instinct of the moment, the band happened upon a strangely romantic melody that Rutherford fashioned into ‘Follow You, Follow Me’, a shimmering pop ballad that offered discerning listeners a more thoughtful work to express themselves.

Collins was promoted to singer, and in 1980, stumbled onto another lucky break when he channelled the anger of his divorce into Face Value, a stormy album built on remorse, regret and repartee. Meanwhile, the smoother pop axis of Rutherford-Banks kept the band steering into the 1980s, enjoying considerable success with Abacab (1981) and Invisible Touch (1986), although Hugh Padgham’s smoother production style was regarded with suspicion by Genesis fans aching for something with added ballast and edge. The band’s shows were a mixture of charm and shrewd, singular musicianship, not least because they featured Zappa drummer Chester Thompson as stage percussionist.

Collins ignored Gabriel’s predilection for costume and stage antics for something purer and more genuine, placating audiences aching for theatrical dressing with a series of tambourine shakes and salutes. He was naturally buoyant and could be found racing all over the stage, from drum to microphone and back again. Gabriel admired his replacement, considering him the more accomplished vocalist, but said that some of the nuances from the early recordings were lost in the process.

Genesis were arguably the first progressive rock band to abandon prog to the 1970s and began the 1980s with a fresher, more sophisticated, mantra that respected the audiences enough to treat with more candour over impressionism, revelations over impressionism, soul instead of chamber-pop. The tunes were urgent, urbane and intended for a mass audience, as punk had demanded from its songwriters. But Genesis had beaten punk to the punch by three years, complete with a compelling sound drama seeped in the centre of bubbling America.

And even without Gabriel, Genesis were distinctive to carry on, curating a collection of uncompromisingly produced albums that made for exhilarating live shows. Collins left the band in 1996, and although he was replaced, Banks and Rutherford found out how irreplaceable he was. Little wonder when Genesis reunited in 2007 and 2020, they returned to Collins, reclaiming the crown that had been theirs since 1974.

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