No, this isn’t a celebration of Invisible Touch‘s 30th anniversary. Like many Genesis fans, I jumped ship in that fateful year of 1986, when the band went commercial. This is rather a commemoration of everything the band did before. In the ’70s they made some of the best progressive rock of all time, especially in the early part of the decade under the sometimes autocratic leadership of Peter Gabriel.
So here are my personal favorites, ranked in descending order. You won’t find any songs from the last three albums (which are top-40 garbage), nor even from the first two (which are painfully amateurish). That leaves the ten albums from 1971-1983. Click on the right album-icons to hear the music.
1. Supper’s Ready. 1972. I can name three songs of over 20 minute length that had lasting impact on me: Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, Rush’s “2112”, and this apocalyptic piece which is the best of all. It’s a journey through the pages of the Book of Revelation, and a hell of a trip. It starts with a couple about to have dinner, the wife is suddenly possessed and black-robed men descend. Things get crazier until the Apocalypse of John is in full progress — the seven trumpeters, the earth disgorging obscenities, everything. This is what an epic song should aspire to, with a theme ambitious enough to match the music. I still get chills listening to Gabriel bellowing at the end for the New Jerusalem and the angel summoning birds to the great supper of God. But it’s an incredible song in each of the seven acts, adding up to the best prog song of all time, let alone of Genesis.
2. Turn it on Again. 1980. There has been endless commentary on the unusual time signature, which no one can even agree on. Is it 13/8 or a to and fro between 6/4 and 7/4? Supposedly you can’t dance to it; people try but end up in clumsy fall offs. But if the rhythmic structure is off-kilter, everyone agrees about the compulsive result. It’s a concert favorite for good reason. The Duke album is based around the character “Albert” who lives in a world of fiction, and in this song it’s the TV; he believes the actors are his real life friends. The song speaks to the way we invent ourselves in imaginary relationships with on-screen characters, while screening off our real-world friends and family. Another song I can listen to anytime.
3. Deep in the Motherlode. 1978. I have more nostalgia for And Then There Were Three than any other rock album. It’s a run of glassy melodies and rhythms, suffused with themes of the American western, and the first Genesis album I bought. “Deep in the Motherlode” was an instant favorite, describing a guy who follows his family’s advice to “go west young man” and chase the Nevada gold rush. It blends progressive and pop, with distorted guitar, bass guitar and bass pedal combos, even guitar synth, with a great synthesizer segment. I can’t believe the band never performed it after the 1980 tour. It’s a song that has faded into obscurity like others on this album, which is way underrated by critics and even by hardcore Genesis fans.
4. The Battle of Epping Forest. 1973. That’s right, my favorite song from the masterpiece album is the absurdist tale of gang wars inspired by the rival thugs who terrorized parts of London in the sixties. Every song on Selling England by the Pound is a gem, but for some people “The Battle of Epping Forest” is a bit overwrought. Not for me. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Gabriel chewed everything he bit off and shat out a masterpiece of gonzo prog. The other band members were famously aghast at his hyperventilating narrative and they insisted on hacking and trimming, but there was no time for editing, thank the gods. It turns out he really did know what he was doing, and I never tire of listening to this overblown epic.
5. Mama. 1983. We didn’t know it back then, but the eponymous album was forcing us to take a blistering look back and an ugly look forward. Side One was the last gasp of all that was ever excellent about Genesis. Side Two announced what fans could expect from now on: top-40 garbage. Really, you could throw most of the side-two songs on Invisible Touch: “Illegal Alien” (the “Invisible Touch” of this album), “Taking it All Too Hard” (“Throwing it all Away”), “Just a Job to Do” (“Land of Confusion”), etc. But the first side was a mini-masterpiece. “Mama” is still a powerhouse, opening on menacing keys and escalating incredible tension before the drums finally break in and release the pent up fury. It’s about a guy with a mother complex for a prostitute. I linked to the live version from ’84, which is even better than the studio.
6. The Musical Box. 1971. Known for the tail-end climax in which Peter Gabriel shouts out, “Touch me! Touch me! Now, now, now, now, now!” But let’s back up and tell the 10-minute story in full: A girl asks her boy cousin to join her in a game of croquet. She soon gets pissed at him and knocks his head off with a croquet mallet. She rummages through his things and finds a musical box and opens it. The spirit of her dead cousin appears, and he starts to age rapidly as he lusts for her, harasses her, and sexually assaults her. The kids’ nurse finally rushes into the room, picks up the musical box and hurls it at the spirit, destroying both him and the box. This was Genesis’s first song on their first strong album, and it hasn’t lost its vitality (virility?).
7. Dancing with the Moonlit Knight. 1973. Many consider this the best song from the band’s best album. It’s usually interpreted as an elegy for a lost England, or a response to the economic wreck of the ’70s, especially the massive unemployment. The Labour Party had adopted a hard left agenda, and Peter Gabriel insisted the album be titled Selling England by the Pound, the reference to that party’s slogan at the time. It’s a mistake, however, to think of this as a protest album. Unlike overtly political bands like U2, Genesis never preached like SJW’s. Here they tap into the effects of the British economy on the daily lives of Englishmen and dress it up in prog legend. It starts on notes of sheer beauty and revs up thunderously.
8. Cul-de-Sac. 1980. One of those hidden album gems that for whatever reason gets underplayed. Think “Ultraviolet” from U2’s Achtung Baby. Both songs are incredibly catchy but not in a commercial way. Both were eclipsed by the album’s more arresting points, in this case the six-song Duke suite which monopolized concert time. “Cul-de-Sac” is also sandwiched by two ballads, which aren’t nearly as strong but do have a way of silencing the song. It’s a parable about extinction and the need to evolve. Face-value, it’s about dinosaurs (“You know you’re on the way out/It’s just a matter of time/You thought you’d rule the world forever”/etc.), but really about the “dinosaur” prog bands like Genesis who might resist changing trends. You can almost hear this song as a warning to fans that Duke would be the band’s last prog album.
9. The Lamia – The Colony of Slippermen. 1974. I keep hoping for a musical genius to write a book about The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Two years ago The New Yorker did a pretty good write up, calling it the The “Ulysses” of Concept Albums, but we really need an in-depth scholarly analysis of Rael’s journey through the demented purgatory that only Peter Gabriel could have imagined. The final act is the strongest and most demented. First when Rael enters the pool of the Lamias; they caress him and eat his flesh until his blood kills them. Then when he comes to the colony of the deformed Slippermen who are ruled by lust, and he avoids joining them by getting castrated by a maniacal doctor. In a memorable segment the doctor places Rael’s genitals in a tube which is then stolen by a raven. These two songs back-to-back are my favorite part of Rael’s journey, both musically and conceptually.
10. Dance on a Volcano. 1976. A Trick of the Tail is doomed to stand in the lamb’s shadow. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a very good album on its own right, and a solid first effort without Peter Gabriel. In the case of “Dance on a Volcano”, it’s the only group composition and clearly the album’s best, with a soundscape and measured tempo that still sounds futuristic after 40 years. It’s about taking extreme risks, and as usual one senses the band is offering a commentary on its own musical trials. In terms of sound, the song is a near microcosm of the album on whole. Just as every song on A Trick of the Tail is remarkably different, so the segments of “Dance” make surprising jumps without losing its cohesion. It’s brilliant, and a fiery way indeed of announcing a new era for the band.
11. The Light Dies Down on Broadway. 1974. After the unpleasant business with the Slippermen comes the title track reprise. I consider “Light” much superior to “Lamb” and it’s the understated crux of the album. Despite the fact that his brother John abandoned him twice and kept refusing to help him, Rael rescues him from drowning. Had he ignored him and escaped through the sky-light back to New York City, he would have presumably started the whole chain of events of the story over again. By saving his brother he is freed from the weirdest purgatory ever concocted — single handedly by Peter Gabriel, though this is actually the one song (out of the album’s 23) that he didn’t write. I’d never have guessed if you hadn’t told me.
12. Home by the Sea – Second Home by the Sea. 1983. Along with “Mama”, this prog throwback redeems an album that otherwise whores for the ’80s. It’s a ghost story about storytelling; a thief breaks into a haunted home by the sea and is imprisoned by ghosts who need to share stories: “Sit down, sit down/As we relive our lives in what we tell you”. Pictures come to life, etc. The keyboard efforts blanket the song in an ethereal quality that marks an appropriate end point, as I always think of it, to the band’s greatness. Whenever the second instrumental piece winds down, my heart sinks in bittersweetness. With “Home by the Sea”, the band was essentially reliving its own life before turning the page to “Illegal Alien” and the top-40 world of Invisible Touch.
13. The Fountain of Salmacis. 1971. I have a peculiar relationship with this one. It seems somehow sentient — that the music is working against the band’s intentions with the music, or pushing out on its own terms. That’s the feeling I had when I first heard it dozing in a half-waking state on my couch, and it’s the way I’ve heard it ever since. It’s the best final track on any Genesis album (aside from the seven-part “Supper’s Ready”), and has fun with Greek mythology. The story is about Hermaphroditus who was seduced by the nymph Salmacis, drank her water and became fused with her. (Which of course is where “hermaphrodite” comes from.) This song is a mindworm (quite different from a catchy earworm) that stays in my head for a long time.
14. Undertow – Burning Rope. 1978. These tracks don’t run in sequence, but to me they’ve always seem connected and they’re damn good songs besides. “Undertow” is a plea to make the most of life, while “Burning Rope” shows the consequences of taking that advice too far. In the latter, the attempt to achieve something special (reaching for the moon) results in a distance and disharmony from others which can’t be undone. The first is a ballad — the best Genesis ballad ever — and the second is the longest piece on the album channeling prog and nervous bolts of energy. Prog was going out of fashion this late in the ’70s, but the band didn’t let go entirely as they evolved, and thank the gods for it.
15. Man on the Corner. 1981. Abacab is the definition of a just-so album. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It took a commendable stab at a synth-based approach as the band tried adapting to the ’80s, and it puts me in mind of the way Rush also turned to synths as it turned from its ’70s prog roots. Rush did it very well; Genesis less so. The songs on Abacab feel rather dry and by-the-numbers, with the single exception of this rogue track about a lonely man on the corner. The synths are effectively haunting for a change, as Phil Collins cries out for a homeless man on the street who does everything he can to get attention but fails. The song is even better live, and I linked to the New York performance.
16. The Carpet Crawlers. 1974. One of the band’s most dreamlike songs, possibly the most atmospheric, and certainly the most distinguished. Reason being that Peter Gabriel wrote the music as well as the lyrics (music was usually written by the other band members, while Gabriel supplied the lyrics), and the music is minimalist in a way never heard before in the Gabriel years. There’s even a chorus. It’s a transitory point in the story where Rael enters a red carpeted corridor and sees people on their knees crawling towards a door at the end of the hall. This song has been so widely loved that it was remade in 1999, a bastardized version with choppy synths and cheap inflections. Stick with the original.
17. Behind the Lines – Duchess. 1980. For a long time I thought these were one song, because my homemade cassette had the tracks mislabeled. It turns out I wasn’t far off. Both were originally intended as part of a 30-minute suite, along with “Guide Vocal,” “Turn It on Again,” “Dukes Travels,” and “Dukes End.” They go well together in any case. “Behind the Lines” is about a guy so consumed by the book he’s reading that he can’t tell the difference between the story and his own reality (the TV will effect him likewise in “Turn It on Again”). “Duchess” then tells of a woman’s rise and fall from musical fame, which some have interpreted as an embarrassing metaphor for the Genesis band in the ’90s. At first she plays with concern for her artistry and doesn’t give a shit about pleasing crowds, but as fame sets in she sells out and soon “nobody calls for more.” This is a strong double feature of loneliness, isolation and failure.
18. A Trick of the Tail. 1976. Even on an album that seems to pride itself on dissimilar songs, the title track is especially anomalous. Which is no surprise given that it was originally written for the Foxtrot album back in ’72 and thus is a sort of homage to the mythic prog narratives the band was starting to shed at this point. It’s mournful and upbeat at the same time, and incredibly catchy, telling of a beast who leaves his kingdom and enters the human world, where he’s captured and put on display as a freak. Originally it was surely just a tale of alienation, but some have seen it as a sly parting blow at Peter Gabriel’s abrupt departure: “He left and let nobody know”. Who knows, it’s a great song in any case.
19. I Know What I Like. 1973. The only song from the early 70s that made the U.K. charts, attracting non-prog fans. It provides a bit of comic relief between two serious tracks, with lyrics derived from the album cover, about an underachieving lawnmower who ignores advice from people because he’s content with his life as it is: “I know what I like/And I like what I know”. It basically indicts the culture of careerism in favor of simple and honest living. If the man is an underachiever, he’s at least happy in his creativity. I’ve never been sure about the line, “getting better in your wardrobe”, but suspect it’s a Narnia allusion, saying that if we spent more time in artistic creativity and indulging our “wardrobe” fantasies, society would be better off for it.
20. Follow You Follow Me. 1978. The song that started it all for me. I heard it on Rock 101, Manchester (my refuge from top-40, back in the day), and the next day rushed out to by the album. This song actually did make the top-40; it was the band’s first world-wide hit. But it’s not commercial, and has such a groovy simplicity that makes a fitting exit point on what is for me the most nostalgic album of my lifetime. To many fans of the Peter Gabriel era, this song was perceived as the deepest treason, but that’s rubbish. The song shows the band evolving, not devolving, though the latter would certainly become true by the mid-’80s. At this point they were just trying to make themselves more accessible, especially to female audiences. It’s a haunting lullaby that hasn’t lost its magic.