For me, there’s a six-to-eight year window in which Genesis is relevant to my musical tastes, and it starts on March 28, 1980 with the release of their tenth studio album, Duke. This album finds the trio of Rutherford/Banks/Collins coalescing into a more pop-minded machine while still paying homage to their prog-rock roots.
The first time I was consciously aware of Genesis on Top 40 pop radio was in late 1983 with the release of the single “That’s All” which received heavy airplay on the local stations. It is an upbeat, major-key nugget driven by strident piano and insistent drumming – the piano line set it apart from most early-80s musical fare and it caught my ear. In time I ended up with a copy of their self-titled twelfth LP and liked it enough to dig deeper into their back catalog. While the early stuff is far too much of a prog-trip for me to enjoy it, Duke begins a four-album winning streak of prog-tinged pop music that skates the line between accessible and adventurous.
The lead single off the record was “Turn It On Again,” a massive, chugging, insistent throbber that just flatout sounds like it should be a single. With its driving 4-on-the-floor beat, it is a perfect pop tune. The song was a group effort, with all three band members contributing writing credits. It was a different sound for Genesis, their biggest charter to date having been 1978’s pop-esque “Follow You, Follow Me” which had flirted with pop success two years prior. “Turn It On Again” was the first Genesis single to crack the British Top 10.
Singles aside, however, this is one of those albums that works best as a single work of art, larger and more grand than the sum of its components. The album starts out with the massive orchestral keyboard work of Tony Banks, joined in short order by Phil Collins powerhouse drums and Mike Rutherford guitar sketches rounding out the soundscape. The band plays for two-and-a-half minutes of instrumental bliss, letting the longtime fans know that they’d not completely abandoned their past. And then the vocals come in and inform listeners that this is a new, more pop-oriented band than what they might be used to. Phil Collins included his own take on this track when he released his solo debut a year later. It’s one of the highlights of that album, but doesn’t hold a candle to the original here. (Check out my review of Phil Collins: Face Value here.)
The second track and second single, “Duchess” is a Ziggy Stardust like parable of stardom that might as well be called “The Rise And Fall Of Duchess.” The fact that it’s positively derivative, at least from the perspective of lyrical theme, does nothing to detract from the fact that it is an excellent song and further explores the fecund land between prog-rock and pop-rock. It’s pretty and expansive and manages to explore the birth of ambition, the realization of a dream, and the death of that dream all within six-and-a-half minutes. It segues seamlessly into the 95 second extension, “Guide Vocal” which presents lyrical themes which will be revisited at the close of the album.
If there is one misstep on this release (spoiler alert: there is), it’s the inclusion of the Collins-penned “Please Don’t Ask” on side two. This would have been much better suited to Face Value the next year and, inexplicably, this song was chosen over the immortal “In The Air Tonight,” which, classic though it may be, would have been at a whole different level if it had been handled by Genesis. As it is, the trio of Banks, Rutherford, and Collins are able to turn the cloying “Please Don’t Ask” into something passable that earns forgiveness simply by dint of its inclusion on this otherwise excellent album.
The coup de grace on this album is its de facto title track, the last two songs on the album, collectively referred to as “Duke’s Suite” (“Duke’s Travels” and “Duke’s End“) a nearly-eleven minute odyssey that begins with a slow, bucolic synth’n’guitar wash, gradually building to the inclusion of galloping drums that truly evoke the “Travels” in the song’s title. It’s an instrumental epic that delves deeper into their prog-rock roots than any other track on the album while still maintaining a sense of major-key pop music throughout its various swoops and climbs and the various segments at odds with one another throughout the song. In the last two-and-a-half minutes, the lyrics from “Guide Vocal” close the arc of the album: “I am the one who guided you this far / All you know… and all you feel…“
Despite its comfort with pop song-structure and Top 40 radio play, Duke has its fair share of darkness about it. The final lyric on the album is “Take what’s yours and be damned…” Some of this can be attributed to the complexity inherent in the grasping tentacles of prog-rock, but some of it is also no doubt due to the fact that Phil Collins’s marriage had ended just prior to work on the record beginning.
Over the years spent listening to Duke, Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch, it is this album that has emerged as far-and-away my favorite. My least favorite record of that era, their self-titled album, is the only one to break away from the blueprint set forth by Duke, in that it veers much further into pure pop territory (“Home By The Sea/Second Home By The Sea” being the notable exception and thus the best song on that disc). I took a lot of other notes as I revisited Duke over the past day or two, particularly on “Man Of Our Times” (“…bombastic synths, wailing vocals… drum pattern on this track is enormous…”) and their other hit from this album, “Misunderstanding” (“…Herman’s Hermits’ ‘Silhouette’ without the happy ending…”)
This is the Genesis album I revisit most frequently. After nearly 40 years, it still feels comfortable and familiar while still imparting a sense of edginess and adventure.