By Brian Ives
It’s strange in 2016 to think of Phil Collins as an artist at risk of overexposure. He’s rarely recorded, toured or made any public appearances in the past decade, and doesn’t do many interviews. He’s had other issues to deal with, of course: namely some rather serious physical ailments that have prevented him from playing his beloved drums.
But in the ’80s and early ’90s, it seemed like he was kind of everywhere. He’d go from multi-platinum solo album and arena tour to multi-platinum Genesis album and stadium tour. Somewhere in the middle, he’d produce other artists (including Frida, Howard Jones, Adam Ant and Eric Clapton) and play drums for other artists (including Robert Plant, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and Clapton). He even was getting into acting (with a one-off role on Miami Vice and a staring role in the film Buster). He was on MTV and VH1 a lot during an era where that really mattered. And you could hear him, and Genesis, on a number of radio formats in high rotation.
But while broadcasters and fans couldn’t get enough of them, the critics cheerily had their knives out for both Collins and Genesis (Collins, of course, was the band’s drummer and singer; the group also included guitarist/bass player Mike Rutherford and keyboardist Tony Banks).
Genesis combined two things that critics didn’t digest well: progressive rock (the roots from whence the group came) and adult contemporary (a direction that Collins was credited, or blamed, with bringing them in).
By 1986, when the band released their most successful album, Invisible Touch, Collins was a bona-fide solo superstar; his latest album, 1985’s No Jacket Required, topped the charts, won three GRAMMYs (including Album of the Year) and sold over ten million copies in the U.S. alone. Few bands would ignore that kind of success when starting to work on their new album. But Mike Rutherford’s influence could also be felt: his band, Mike + the Mechanics, debuted with a self-titled EP in 1985 that yielded three hits, including “Taken In,” which easily fit into the “soft rock” category.
The band’s old-school prog-rock fans would often grouse about the group’s more accessible work. But by the mid-’80s, Collins, Rutherford and Banks were in their mid-30s; at that point in one’s life, not every song is going to fit on a black-light poster. Divorces happen; so does heartbreak and other disappointments that come with adult life. That’s the “adult” part of “adult contemporary.” It may not be sexy, but artists like Collins, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel were writing and singing about what it’s like to be a grown-up (which was not necessarily what rock and roll was designed to do).
But no matter what was going on in their lives, Genesis never forgot their prog-rock roots, and that was one of the things that made 1986’s Invisible Touch so effective and successful; it did a lot of different things, and it did them all well.
Take, for instance, the title track and lead single, the band’s only #1 hit in the U.S. “Invisible Touch” was inspired by Prince’s use of synthesizers and drum machines and provided the band with their most perfect pop moment. It resonated with young and older audiences, finding airtime on both MTV and VH1; the lo-fi video just showed Collins, Rutherford and Banks horsing around on a soundstage. If you loved them, it was a fun video. If you hated them, you’d probably roll your eyes.
The second single went a bit more adult contemporary, with the ballad “Throwing It All Away” (a #4 pop hit). While some felt that the song would have fit in on a Collins solo album (and maybe it would have), Rutherford actually wrote the lyrics. Teens and twenty-somethings, of course, enjoy a good breakup song, but “Throwing It All Away” lacks the drama of youth. “We cannot live together/We cannot live apart/And that’s the situation/I’ve known it from the start,” is the sound of a grownup relationship slowing to a halt. There’s a warmth there; it’s “Too bad it didn’t work out”; it’s “You messed up.” But it isn’t, “I hate you.”
The next single and video would be far less stoic. “Land of Confusion” (another #4 hit) was an arena rocker which also featured Rutherford-penned lyrics that vaguely critiqued the state of the world. What made the song a classic, though, was the video directed by puppet makers from the British show Splitting Image, who parodied, among others, Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev and Muammar al-Gaddafi. Oh and also: the then-current President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. In a recent interview interview, Collins said, “It’s still relevant, wouldn’t it be great to do that with Donald Trump? He’s just crying out for it!”
“Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” (a #3 hit) was the band’s “blacklight poster” single, akin to the previous album’s “Mama“; eerie keyboards, crashing guitar chords, mysterious lyrics and Collins’ most frantic vocals. The fact that it rose to the upper reaches of the singles charts (albeit in edited form) shows what a strong hold Genesis had on popular music in the mid-to-late-’80s. They went further in that direction for the non-single “Domino,” a two-part epic (akin to the previous album’s “Home By the Sea” and “Second Home By the Sea”) that really threw back to their prog-rock days. Also satisfying the old-school fans was the instrumental jam “The Brazilian.” It should be mentioned that Banks, in particular, shines on all three of these songs. And interestingly, all three songs have sections that sound more like today’s EDM than Genesis’s peers in Yes or ELP; it’s fair to say these songs were decades ahead of their time.
The album’s final single, “In Too Deep” (a #3 pop hit), was an adult-contemporary smash with Collins-penned lyrics, and, in fact, would have fit in perfectly on a Collins solo album. Like with “Throwing It All Away,” these are lyrics that wouldn’t resonate with the band’s younger fans: “All that time I was searching, nowhere to run to, it started me thinking/Wondering what I could make of my life, and who’d be waiting.” It seemed it was like Phil’s payback for having to sing about swimming in a “river of hell” in “Domino.” He was no longer the prog-rock guy, but was willing to go there sometimes for the fans. Writing about heartbreak seemed, increasingly, where his heart was at.
At one point in the ’80s, Genesis and its former members were so dominant that they had five entries on the album charts at once: Invisible Touch, No Jacket Required, Mike + the Mechanics, as well as So (by former singer Peter Gabriel) and GTR (a project led by former guitarist Steve Hackett). And, as mentioned, Collins in particular seemed unavoidable. But compare that to today: in 2016, pop stars have P.R. and social media teams designed to keep them in the news cycle on a daily basis, or more. They share memes, create memes and and even write songs and shoot videos with the intent of being meme-d. Casual consumers of music news know that you won’t go for too many days without seeing a new story about Drake, or Iggy, or Justin Bieber, particularly when they are “on-cycle.” By contrast, Collins and Genesis were pretty low-profile.
Three decades later, what should matter is the music. Invisible Touch is an impressively diverse album, packed with great songs. Perhaps the pop listeners who loved seeing “Invisible Touch” and “Land of Confusion” on MTV didn’t love the whole thing. Maybe the Phil fans who wanted more “In Too Deep” and “Throwing It All Away” were turned off by “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.” And, for sure, the prog-rock true believers may not have approved of much beyond “Domino” and “The Brazilian.” This is another way that the album, and the band, was ahead of its time: today, music fans casually jump from genre to genre (a product of what could be called the “iPod effect”).
And, divorced of any context at all, Invisible Touch is a collection of great songs that stand the test of time. Here’s hoping that we have the chance to see Collins, Rutherford and Banks play them again.