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Genesis revelations

I don’t watch very much television. Broadcasting corporations don’t really cater for my tastes and commercial stations are nauseating because you get meaningless adverts every 15 minutes; the advertising industry is really over-regarded and badly regulated. I’ll watch the odd documentary, Have I Got News for You, Crystal Palace appearing on Match of the Day and Dr Who, though I’m still unsure about Peter Capaldi. I think his Doctor has potential and this potential is helped by some more sinister storylines but I think I may be getting a bit old to make time to watch the programme. I think Matt Smith initially carried the sonic screwdriver pretty well but towards the end of his tenure I was less convinced of his suitability for the role. The writing and Who mythology weaving is admirable and as fantasy series go, it’s pleasant escapism and easily watchable and touches on that evasive quality of ‘Englishness’ but when I start actively thinking about the suitability of the actor in the lead role, then it’s probably time to move on.

My wife is responsible for informing me of programmes that I need to watch, so I was a bit shocked when I got a text from a friend yesterday, hoping that I was watching the ‘Genesis evening’ on BBC2. It’s a friend I’ve known since university and though his musical taste is far, far removed from mine (rock ‘n’ roll), his wife is into progressive rock and has accompanied me on many a mission to seek out and enjoy live prog, and she’s also a valuable source of reminders of impending musical documentaries but I’ve normally been handed the TV remote and left to get on with it. However, the call from my friend yesterday was necessary because my wife, not unreasonably given her knowledge of my definitions of ‘prog’ and ‘not prog’, failed to tell me about the programme because of the wording of the Radio Times’ Saturday Choices article on Genesis: Together and Apart which began promisingly enough: “At the vanguard of prog, uncaring of cool, Genesis wrote radio unfriendly epics about lawnmowers and failed Scottish uprisings” but concluded “while the tediously de rigueur rock-doc dissing of the group’s early oeuvre – for many, a thing of rich musicality – is largely shunned.” She was correct in the assumption that the documentary overlooked Genesis’ early material because when I switched over to watch the programme, 20 minutes or so after it had started, they were just skipping through Selling England by the Pound on to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

It’s the 1974 period that coincides with the start of my personal appreciation for the band thanks to a couple of school friends who were more enthusiastic about Genesis, and it would have been around this time that I first heard The Fountain of Salmacis, the epic, Mellotron-drenched Genesis offering on the Charisma label sampler Charisma Keyboards, which remains one of my favourite Genesis tracks. My first Genesis purchase, in 1976, was Genesis Live, a cut out distributed by Buddah Records bought it in the Leeds branch of Virgin Records when I went to visit my brother at university. This satisfied the basic requirement of covering the band’s early history and I think it’s still a valid documentary album. I subsequently went to see Genesis twice, in Liverpool on the Wind and Wuthering tour and at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, after winning tickets in a Capital Radio competition. Part of this prize was a signed copy of Three Sides Live, which had been released four months earlier and which I later sold to a friend for £5.

From the moment I began watching the documentary, the narrative closely followed that set out in Mike Rutherford’s autobiography The Living Years and Rutherford seemed to have more to say than the other members of the band. Steve Hackett barely featured and was omitted from most of the studio footage when the ‘classic line-up’ all sat together. His last contribution was a single comment after Peter Gabriel admitted that he’d often been congratulated for A Trick of the Tale. There was no mention of Bill Bruford and no discussion of Wind and Wuthering.

Not surprisingly, when you look at the Genesis timeline, there was a great deal about the post-Hackett Genesis which was of much less interest to me as they slid from prog greats to exceptionally successful middle-of-the-road soft rock. The definitive turning point, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Afterglow as the last track on Wind and Wuthering. Rutherford describes this album as displaying the feminine side of Genesis (he also labels Tony Banks’ chords as feminine) and though the music comes across as prog, it marks the beginning of the band’s venture into the lyrical mundane. There’s no doubt that this style became more prevalent over the later releases and the complex, multi-section compositions with fantastical or mythical concepts were dropped despite protestations from both Banks and Rutherford that they continued to write ’15 minute long songs’. Prog isn’t about bearing your soul after a divorce, however painful; that’s more the realm of some other rock medium like the Blues or Country and Western. Rutherford’s belief that he should handle guitar duties was originally somewhat misplaced but he developed a rather mechanical style of picking chords that came to represent 80s guitar playing. This made it was almost impossible to discern the songs he was playing in Genesis from those he was playing in Mike + The Mechanics, a process further compounded by the reduction in distinct keyboard sounds utilised by Tony Banks, the Mechanics’ Adrian Lee and any of the generic pop-rock bands making an appearance on the fledgling MTV. MTV embraced Genesis but all of their videos were truly awful.

I managed to watch the missing part of the programme which included a few more words from Steve Hackett and some thoughts from original guitarist Anthony Phillips. Another Charterhouse alumnus, friend and former manager Richard Macphail was interviewed, as was Tony Smith who managed the group and some of the solo ventures. I’d not previously seen the archival footage of the band playing the Atomic Sunrise festival at London’s Roundhouse, the only video documentation of Genesis with Phillips and drummer John Mayhew. Mayhew and his two drum stool predecessors Chris Stewart and Jonathan Silver didn’t get a mention. Despite what appears to be some unresolved rivalry between Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks, it was good to hear Gabriel talking about the band.

The film was supplemented by commentary from comedian Al Murray, New Statesman arts critic Kate Mossman, author, former actor and stand-up comedian Mark Billingham, music journalist Chris Roberts and radio DJ Angie Greaves. Mossman interviewed Peter Gabriel for the New Statesman in October 2013 and along with Greaves she added some useful insight and analysis; the others offered opinion, with Murray quite happy to admit to liking the later, more commercial material.

The idea of Genesis: Together and Apart was quite good but still left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. Hackett’s solo work and his current live performances toured as ‘Genesis Revisited’ was totally overlooked, though one section of the documentary was dedicated to solo albums and featured much of Gabriel’s work. I rate Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte very highly, a standout progressive rock album from 1975 which happens to feature both Rutherford and Collins. It’s easily as good as A Trick of the Tail and I think it’s of a much higher standard, more coherent and better balanced than Wind and Wuthering and all that came after. Hackett is the only one of the band who seems to regard their early 70s material as music that continues to deserve an airing, something that would have been worthwhile for the documentary to highlight.

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