Saturday, 11 June 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 12: Duke

The 1970s had begun with Genesis defining their style with seminal albums 'Nursery Cryme' and 'Foxtrot' - in fact defining not only their own style but to a large extent that of English Progressive Rock music too, with their complex song structures, lyrical inspiration and increasing virtuosic dexterity. By the end of the decade the make up and feel of the band had changed (along with much of the musical landscape of Britain): they were now a three piece band, drawing on the talents of Chester Thompson and Daryl Stuermer to produce their music in a live setting.

After recording and touring '...and Then There Were Three' in 1978 the band took some time out. Phil Collins' marriage was struggling, and he moved to Vancouver to try to save it. While he was there Tony Banks & Mike Rutherford each worked on a solo album: Banks producing 'A Curious Feeling' and Rutherford 'Smallcreep's Day', both of which garnered critcal acclaim. The band reassembled towards the end of 1979 to begin work on their next album, but material was in short supply due to the solo projects. Collins had quite a bit of material, but didn;t feel it was suitable for the band, and kept most of it for his maiden solo work. 'Face Value'. In the end they decided on two solo pieces each for the band to work on, and the rest of the album, which was to be called 'Duke' would be composed by the group together.

The inspiration for the group material came from a French children's book 'L'Alphabet d'Albert', which had been published that year and featured the artwork of Lionel Koechlin. Koechlin's style was almost childlike in its distortion of perspective, and was an interesting departure from the Hipgnosis style that had been used by the band for the previous five years, though no less eye-catching. The hero, Albert, would become the focus of a 30-minute suite of songs that were at one point to feature as one piece, but which in the end would top and tail the album, with another part appearing mid-way through.

The album opens with 'Behind the Lines', the start of the Duke suite - the story of Albert. There is none of the gentle, subtle starts of 'Watcher of the Skies' or 'Down and Out' here: Bang! We're off and running! Keyboards, bass and drums kick off at a driving, rocking pace, joined by guitars which soar subtly. A brief quieter period soon gives way to the incessant 3-chord pattern which then takes us into the vocal section. If anything the music seems a little stilted here, lacking the fluency of the opening section, and Collins' vocals seem just a little high in the register for absolute comfort. We segue gently into 'Duchess' as Collins gets to play with his new toy, the Roland Drum Machine. Electronic music was beginning to come into its own at this time, and clearly the band didn't want to be left behind. Gentle electric piano plays over the top of a looping drum pattern, alongside quite atmospheric keyboards giving an ambient feel. The intensity grows as the piano takes up the looping rhythm, leading into the vocal section. This is a stronger performance from Collins, to my mind, and the lyrics tell a powerful story of fading glory and dreams of lost fame. As the glory fades, so does the song, back to solo piano and the metronomic drum pattern. This takes us into the contemplative 'Guide Vocal' - part of the band's Duke suite, but credited to Banks. Short, tender, this is a gentle interlude that brings us to a natural break in the story of Albert. The song will reprise towards the end of the album.

The first section of solo-written pieces kicks off with Rutherford's 'Man of Our Times'. This is quite a heavy, riffy song, but played quite reservedly - it could be a lot harder with less keyboards and more distortion on the guitars. I get a sense of Mike being something of a frustrated rocker here. But this is Genesis! Sadly it loses some of its impact in the chorus, which strikes me as a little weak compared to the rest of the song. Then there's 'Misunderstanding', the first of the Phil Collins relationship breakdown songs - and there will be more (so many more...). With this song all pretence at Prog has gone: this is pure pop. A simple premise, simple chords and structure, and a minor hit. But not the band's A-material. 'Heathaze' does try to restore some progressive credentials. Banks has been experimenting with interesting chord progressions for a while now, and these are to the fore here, along with more obtuse lyrics. Increasingly though in Genesis's canon, this kind of song feels 'like an alien, a stranger in a alien place'.

The next movement in the Duke suite is 'Turn it On Again', the biggest hit from the album (peaking at #8 in the UK) yet to my mind the weakest of the group compositions. Yes, it does have some interesting changes in signature, and Collins' vocals are harsher and more powerful than in other places, but lyrically it falls short and is just too repetitive.

We return to solo-written material. 'Alone Tonight' is a different kind of song from Rutherford to 'Man of Our Time'. This is a gentler song; a pleasant enough ballad with a nice key change for the third verse and it plays to Collins' more soulful voice very well. Another side of Rutherford here. 'Cul-De-Sac', the last of the Banks songs, is the most reminiscent of his work on 'A Curious Feeling'. Again there are some interesting chord sequences, but the overall sound is a bit same-y and there doesn't seem to be much room for guitars here - it's a very keys-heavy song. As is 'Please Don't Ask', probably written by Collins on piano and another of his 'marriage-going-down-the-pan' songs. To be fair it does address some of the difficult emotional aspects of the breakdown of a relationship, but as the subject-matter for a song it's two-for-two on this album (and more on his solo work).

The album concludes with probably the strongest material on the album, the twin instrumental ends to the Duke saga, 'Duke's Travels' and 'Duke's End'. We begin with a kind of piano jam over thrumming guitar chords which eventually fades out as the drums take up a 12/8 rhythm, which is picked up by Banks on keys. This drives along at a blistering pace, occasionally pausing for a period of half-tempo playing before picking up the pace again. Collins seems in his element drumming here. We move into a reprise of 'Guide Vocal' after some ringing guitar from Rutherford. A spot of fairground organ rounds off the first part of the finale, and then Duke's End - essentially a restatement of the opening part of 'Behind the Lines' - brings things to a rousing, climactic conclusion.

Clearly the work that the individual members of the band had done over the 12 months prior to this album had had a profound effect on how this collection turned out. Each of the three of them have developed their own particular style, quite distinct from each other and from the work that they produced collectively. Because of this, the album ends up with a kind of disconnected feel to it. That said, it was the band's first number 1 album and genuinely marked that new direction - in a more commercial vein - that the band would be taking throughout the coming decade and beyond. This is not the band of 10 years ago: but is this progression?

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