Sunday, October 07, 2012
ABACAB: GENESIS REINVENTED
For Genesis fans who discovered the band as it had emerged in the early seventies, the departure of Peter Gabriel is considered to be an event from which the group never fully recovered. While the quintet made some great music, the level of acclaim for their efforts was restricted to a much smaller audience at that time. Emerging from the background, drummer Phil Collins stepped into the open lead vocalist slot, sounding not unlike Gabriel early on. Contrary to what their detractors had to say, the musicians' creative continuity remained intact and their commercial fortunes increased.
Within two years, guitarist Steve Hackett also made his exit.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE
Showing no sign of distress, the trio of Banks, Rutherford and Collins closed out the seventies on a high note, making two albums that certainly rank amongst their best. For touring purposes, they were augmented by two gifted players, drummer Chester Thompson and guitarist Darryl Stuermer. A shift away from long form pieces began at this point, with Collins now taking up more of a share in the writing duties. Coming together to devise a follow up to Duke in 1981, there was one prevalent theme that dominated the sessions.
Several factors led them down the path that would influence the making of their eleventh disc. All three men had recently indulged in solo recordings, each enjoying the opportunity to stretch out and do something outside of the expected. Surprisingly, Collins would score in a big way with the Face Value LP and the single "In the Air Tonight".
Phil had also played on former bandmate Peter Gabriel's third release(self-titled like the first two, distinguished by "melting face" cover art), thus forging the infamous gated drum sound, abetted by Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham. Both this innovation and Padgham would figure prominently in the next phase of their development.
Seemingly energized by their recent extracurricular endeavors, they now regrouped to jam and quickly discovered that they were fed up with sounding like...Genesis.
What happens to a band when they no longer wish to play to type?
Any sonic reference to what they had done previously now went out the window. Even the design chosen for the sleeve was a 180 degree turn from the past, consisting of random blotches of color.
Catchy melodies, in-your-face drums, horns, icy synthesizers, repetitive riffs on loops and drum machines all took center stage. The result was entirely worthwhile with a few concessions to those who favored their progressive ideas ("Dodo/Lurker") but served to underscore their growing commitment to a more straight ahead pop/rock format("Abacab", "No Reply At All").
Tony: "We tried to make our writing process ... more straightforward. So we got rid of the big choruses and the keyboard solos aiming to hone everything down.“
Phil saw another aspect: "From Duke on, we wrote more as a unit. On Abacab, we brought in one song each and after that there were no individual songs. This gave Genesis a genuine reason to carry on besides the solo careers."
Balancing "art" with accessibility would see a lot of their older followers check out in disgust. Many more flocked to the band, digging the new direction. Had they not moved forward, Genesis probably would have called it off at this point. No less than four singles were issued, with the title song charting high on both sides of the Atlantic. "No Reply At All", with a nimble Rutherford bass line that saw him running high up the fretboard where the air gets thin, also had a super strong hook line supported by the razor sharp Earth, Wind and Fire horn section. Radio loved it, providing maximum airplay.
Of the remaining two 45s, "Keep It Dark" rides high on a memorable guitar figure, underpinned by Collins' relentless, steady thump which was itself was looped and supported by clanging percussive effects. It is the lyric that deserves special mention, as it is one of the most fully realized in the set. Concerning a man who is abducted by aliens, he cannot reveal where he went or the wonders he saw for fear of being ridiculed. Instead, he invents a story that he was kidnapped for money and let go when he's found to have no great fortune to extract. An excellent song in every respect. Spent quality time with ETs? Keep it dark, mate.
"Man On the Corner" prefigures the eventual transition of Phil Collins from prog-rock drummer/vocalist to one of pop's biggest hit-makers of the 1980s. Heralded by a simple drum program and keys that provide the refrain immediately, this hidden gem from side two builds to an emotional crescendo before it fades.
You also get a glimpse of the treacle-laden ballads that Collins would soon churn out with regularity, assuring him massive mainstream success and cries of "sellout" from the old guard. All of this was still a couple of years away for Phil, though.
Abacab still found room for multi-part works that took a strange turn. Witness the rich, keyboard driven fantasy of "Dodo/Lurker" with the sublime bordering on nonsense for subject matter and a treasure trove of inventive organ and synth wizardry from Banks. All is nicely balanced, with Collins affecting some odd vocal mannerisms. "Me and Sarah Jane" is another one that stretches out, replete with a multitude of chord, key signature and timing shifts, yet there is still a terrific melodic sense at its core. For anyone who might think that any of these selections ("Abacab" included) run long, I invite you to velcro yourself to a chair and sit through "Supper's Ready" or "The Battle of Epping Forest" from the Gabriel era. The lads are pretty concise here by comparison.
One point on which Genesis devotees from any era could find common ground on is the sheer existence of the lone clunker here, "Who Dunnit?" It is an excruciating ear-worm which in no way should have been allotted 3 minutes and 25 seconds of space to annoy prospective listeners.
Curiously, they did have a few tunes in the can from these sessions which could have been readily substituted. Instead they were packaged the following year as part of the 3 X 3 EP.
That cover remind you of anything?
Two EP cuts, "Paperlate" and "You Might Recall" would have greatly enhanced the finished LP, with "Who Dunnit?" making for a nice joke B-side instead.
That all being said, Abacab was a pretty brave move for these guys. Quite calmly, they resolved to turn their back on the legacy they had built, raise a giant middle finger up to all and make a record that truly pleased them. There is no middle ground here. Some crowds roundly booed the material when they first played it live. As previously mentioned, others flipped and swore off the band for good. I was introduced to this one through a friend who gave me a very clean cassette version that he made from his older brother's vinyl copy. It made a huge impression on my then 14 year old brain, right from the opening crash into the hypnotic title track. This is art/rock with pop leanings at its finest. Has it held up well?
It must be stated that their partnership with engineer Hugh Padgham paid handsome dividends in terms of how sharply defined their sound became. Padgham had worked with XTC and The Police, bringing with him a fresh energy into the recording sessions. Drums to the fore in the mix to make them sound more vibrant was but one of the tricks that made the new stuff seemingly leap from the speaker grills. He would remain an integral part of the team for their next two projects, both of which were wildly successful despite dwindling artistic merits.
For those who like to dig deeper, there is a great bootleg (Abacab-Complete 2nd Edition) that captures material excised from the final master, including a third section to "Dodo/Lurker" called "Submarine".
By the way, what the hell is an Abacab?
Let's allow Mike, Phil and Tony the final word on that.