Genesis 1983-1998: A Review
In one seven-minute song, Phil Collins earns his place among rock’s great singers — and begins his decline. That track, “Mama” -- which opens the self-titled 1983 album by prog-pop punching bag Genesis -- preserves everything that Collins (and his bandmates) do well and locks out the facile impulses that continue to hound him (and his bandmates) in late middle age. The song reads as a reply to founding Genesis singer Peter Gabriel’s 1982 single “Shock the Monkey,” an abstruse bit of hamboning about sexual jealousy set to urgent tribal rhythms and now-dated electronic beats. Keyboardist Tony Banks’ sequencer comes from the Radio Shack down the block from Gabriel, and Mike Rutherford’s spiky guitar figures reinforce the song’s carnal fury. But whereas Gabriel’s throbbing, gnomic “Monkey” traps its prey (as well as its cuckold) in angry riddles, “Mama” slaps its bitch up with hulking drums and an unhinged vocal. At the microphone and behind the kit, Collins comes on like a lead pipe, conveying menace in a way only hinted at in his solo chart debut, “In the Air Tonight,” and not duplicated afterward. His career since, all establishment trophies and critical brickbats, exists almost entirely in retreat from this moment.
Too bad the remix of “Mama” that kicks off this second career-spanning Genesis boxed set is a botch. Despite a richer sonic palette and a deeper focus (owed to the set’s primary goal: shoehorning the original recordings into five-channel surround), engineer Nick Davis’ new master kneecaps the song by de-emphasizing the vocal and turning up everything else to absurd levels. Elsewhere on Genesis (and its catchy, vapid, huge-selling follow-up, the 1986 electronic-drums workout Invisible Touch), Davis’ thick reverb turns snapping-turtle drum-machine accents into crocodiles and sets Rutherford’s rhythm guitar loose in unexpected places, both welcome improvements. But on “Mama,” he turns Collins’ cackle into a risible House of Wax trick and holds the vocal at arm’s length where it should be hot against the face.
After that crucial disappointment, what can the rest of the set do but offer relief at its relative lack of molestation? Here and there on Invisible Touch and the warm, damp We Can’t Dance (though not at all on the Collins-free Calling All Stations, an abortive gesture with a couple of solid numbers), a fade lingers a few seconds longer or a vocal track has been mixed in from a different take, allowing for a few surprises. But the set’s annotation lacks insight — video director Jim Yukich’s useless liner notes heap praise on his former clients but fail to provide even a charming anecdote (unless disclosing the late Benny Hill’s fee for appearing in the “Anything She Does” video counts) — and the bonus disc treats the faithful to nothing new.
Keeping all of the Gabriel Genesis albums together (in a third box, slated to arrive sometime in 2008) burnishes the myth of the leader who outgrew his first enterprise but harms what should be a solid legacy for the group’s later incarnations. Even Gabriel (in the pleasant but unrevealing recent book Genesis: Chapter and Verse) seems wary of being equally enshrined by fans who abandoned the band when he left and critics who forgave his early indulgences. Had reissue label Rhino bundled Genesis with its rightful companion, 1981’s Abacab (included on the previous set) and allowed early Collins-as-frontman discs A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering to sit at Gabriel’s table, the band’s place in the firmament would be more assured. For now, the novelty of a remixed “Mama” and a fuller-bodied Invisible Touch will have to do.
-- Scott Wilson