Album of the Week, January 25: abacab by Genesis

GenesisAbacabFew bands have been on as long and varied a journey as Genesis. Formed by five lads at the Charterhouse school in England, they released one album of folky pop under the tutelage of impressario Jonathan King, a charterhouse alumnus. After splitting with King and changing labels, the group released a second, more ambitious album and began performing regular live shows. The lineup remained in flux until 1971, with the remaining founders Peter Gabriel (vocals), Mike Rutherford (bass) and Tony Banks (keyboards) joined by drummer Phil Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett. This quintet released four classics of progressive rock and became known for their long, intricate songs and elaborate live shows. In 1975, Gabriel got tired of the constraints of the band and struck out on his own. After famously auditioning scores of singers, the band finally chose Collins as their new lead vocalist, and the quartet released two discs. Hackett departed next, leading to the aptly titled …And Then There Were Three… in 1978, featuring their first hint of pop stardom with the single Follow You, Follow Me. The Banks/Rutherford/Collins trio managed to crack the U.S. Hot 100 and began moving in a more pop oriented direction. After one more album and  side projects by all three members, the group went back in the studio in the summer of 1981 and recorded the pivotal — and controversial — abacab.

Title abacab
Act Genesis
Label Atlantic Released
September 14, 1981
Producer Genesis
U.S. Chart  7 U.K. Chart  1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Abacab [#26]
  2. No Reply At All [#29]
  3. Me and Sarah Jane
  4. Keep It Dark
  5. Dodo / Lurker
  6. Who Dunnit?
  7. Man On the Corner [#40]
  8. Like It Or Not
  9. Another Record

Fans of the complex, literary, prog-rock Genesis were already frustrated by this point. …And Then There Were Three… maintained some musical complexity but presented much shorter songs, often with a clear pop sheen. Duke featured a bona fide Top 20 hit (Misunderstanding) but also reintroduced longer songs and a more epic feel. By the time abacab came out, Collins’ first solo album had begun to make him a star in his own right, with two Top 20 hits and a distinctive pop sound. Given that background, it’s easy to see why longtime fans were ready to disown the band — and why this was the album that tipped the balance. That said, abacab is one of the band’s finest moments, a strong, cohesive set that shows off the distinctive skills of three very talented musicians who have been working together long enough to form a tight, intuitive group. It also brings in what each of the three had learned in their extracurricular activities, making this a huge leap in energy, experiment, and enthusiasm from the interesting but lackluster Duke.

Make no mistake, Genesis really isn’t a prog-rock band at this point; they’re a powerful alt-pop band with rich rock roots. Curiously, those roots show up in smart epics that hearken back to their Gabriel days but fit the new framework. The first of these is abacab, named after the three song segments that were sequenced together into a menacing, compelling whole. Showing off the musical chops of all three players, it’s a great introduction and sets the stage for the 80s version of Genesis.

Of course, nothing makes the pop elements of the transition as clear as No Reply At All. A brilliant, energetic gem — and part of a trio of romantic betrayal singles that stretches across three albums — it features the Earth Wind & Fire horns, marking a stark sonic departure. What matters isn’t so much the change as that it works — and works well. It’s one of the best singles of the early 80s, a driving pop masterpiece with some of Collins’ best vocals and a fresh, clear sound. It also shows off the cohesion of the trio. Banks provides a surging keyboard line unlike anything else around at the time and Rutherford’s guitar work holds the whole song together, while Collins’ crisp drumming demonstrates why he had become a very busy, in-demand session player. This classic track is easily one of the best recorded by the three-man Genesis and a unique 80s hit.

Me and Sarah Jane is another little epic, a reggae-tinged story song shrouded in mystery. It’s Banks’ showcase and displays his keyboard prowess like nothing had in years.  Keep It Dark is another story song, reminiscent of the literary epics of early Genesis, but distilled down to its fundamental elements. It works extremely well, continuing the tight-knit band showcase.

Two more songs were merged into the third and final art-rock piece, Dodo / Lurker. A dark, energetic story of forces beyond our control, it’s compelling and complex but just accessible enough to fit in this new pop context perfectly. Things stumble a bit with the goofy Who Dunnit?, a mock-cockney bit of fluff that’s fun but verges on irritating before it’s over.

The final trio of songs all clock in under five minutes, further clarifying the pop-rock orientation of this rejuvenated band. Man On the Corner is a topical song, looking at homelessness and hinting at the kinds of songs Collins would use to attempt to add grit to his later solo work. In this case, however, the spare, aching instrumental work of his long-time colleagues creates a dark, compelling song and another fine moment for the band. Like It Or Not is a grim kiss-off song from Rutherford, a solid moment of pop that holds up well. Things wrap with Another Record, a somewhat artless ode to pop music. While the conceit stumbles a bit, the delivery is solid, and the message is clear — music has power in capable hands. Banks, Rutherford, and Collins proved more than capable with abacab, a fine album that captures a point in time and demonstrates the way three combined talents can rise far above the individual contributions.

FURTHER LISTENING: How do you like your Genesis? I appreciate their smart, distinctive contributions to progressive rock in the 70s, but it’s not my preferred style. Foxtrot is generally the most lauded. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway — Gabriel’s final album with the band — is magnificent but often trips over its own ambition. Wind and Wuthering, the last album with Hackett, is a lovely album. It captures the very English spirit of the band, keeps the best aspects of the arty side of Genesis, and has a sense of fun. It’s far and away my favorite of the 70s discs. After abacab, Collins’ star rose so high and bright that it became difficult to hear his Genesis vocals without filtering it through his solo material. Genesis is a decent album in the abacab mold, but every track lines up against a song from the earlier disc and pales in comparison, with That’s All! providing a brilliant exception. After that, Rutherford had found success with Mike + the Mechanics and the rest of the trio’s output lost the cohesive feel of abacab. There’s nothing really wrong with Invisible Touch, but it’s not particularly significant, either. Of the handful of compilations, 1999’s Turn It On Again does a decent job of capturing the most commercial period of the band and should work for casual fans.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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