8.5

Genesis Pull Off The Impossible With BBC Broadcasts

A surprisingly cohesive boxed set of live odds and ends reconciles the iconic English outfit’s two disparate legacies.

Music Reviews Genesis
Genesis Pull Off The Impossible With BBC Broadcasts

Nothing about this boxed set should work.

For starters, it’s nigh impossible to encompass the arc of Genesis’s career within the confines of one release—even one that spans multiple discs (five CDs or three LPs). The contrast between the iconic English outfit’s seminal prog-rock period and its chart-topping synthpop era is so glaring that ingesting both extremes in the same sitting would test even the most ardent of fans. Moreover, BBC Broadcasts draws from a hodgepodge of different performances—often a surefire recipe for a mess of a listening experience. An unimaginative title and a tacked-on cover don’t bode well either. And that’s not even touching on the fact that much of this material has been previously available elsewhere.

Yet, co-founding keyboardist Tony Banks and longtime engineer Nick Davis managed to curate something cohesive with BBC Broadcasts. Somehow, their song selections reconcile the band’s disparate legacies in such a way that fresh listeners and longtime fans can finally bridge the stylistic chasm between them.

After releasing a pair of LPs that saw them searching for their sound, Genesis cemented their place as progressive rock cornerstones with a four-album run from 1971 to 1974 that featured the classic lineup of Banks, frontman/flutist Peter Gabriel, bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford, lead guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer/backing vocalist Phil Collins. The music these five players made together instantly canonized the now-familiar hallmarks of prog: shifting time signatures, epic-length songs, impenetrable concept albums, classical influences, church organs, and a distinctly English taste for medieval instrumentation and folklore.

Oh, and let’s not forget: enough pretense to make your head spin. When that classic lineup makes its entrance three tracks into BBC Broadcasts with a 1972 rendition of “Fountain of Salmacis,” even the threadbare recording quality can’t diminish the grandiosity of the material. The first third or so of the song teeters somewhat tentatively between flower-power psychedelia and pastoral English folk, but then a flurry of drum rolls from Collins cues the band to switch gears in unison into what can best be described as an apocalyptic hymnal march that seems to coil upwards as the music keeps landing on unexpected chords.

When Gabriel sings “unearthly calm descended from the sky,” the band around him really does make it sound like the sky is opening. Two more epics follow in immediate succession: “The Musical Box” and “Stagnation.” Between them, these three tracks take up nearly half an hour on their own, and they highlight just how skilled Genesis already were at building suspense by this point. The most ambitious tracks from this period tower over the stereo field—rising, falling and sprawling outwards like a vast mountain range made of sound. When strung together into a set, the music is almost too massive to be contained by a radio studio.

But, compared to peers like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, these compositions didn’t put listeners through an endurance test. What first catapulted Genesis to immortality, in fact, was the unique symbiosis between the members of this lineup. Even at their most busy, Genesis at this time balanced their outward flamboyance with a razor-sharp instinct for when to pull back as a group. BBC Broadcasts reveals, in fact, that Genesis weren’t actually noodlers at all. This 1971 rendition, for example, of “Stagnation”—a tune predominantly made up of space—reveals a band that excelled at listening.

No matter how frenetic the playing gets throughout the set’s first disc, you can almost always hum Banks’ keyboard parts (a harbinger of what was to come). Likewise, the chorus of “Get ‘Em Out by Friday,” rivals the later material in terms of catchiness; it’s just that the hooks are spread out over eight-plus minutes. Overall, though, these early BBC recordings document a band whose spirit and drive are palpable, even infectious, as they throttle against the physical limitations of the various radio studios. And it’s a joy to be able to hear in their playing a group that had clearly hit its stride and found its sound but was still hungry to push itself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Phil Collins-fronted lineup that churned out slick, catchy radio hits throughout the ‘80s dove into the commercialism of that decade with both feet. One endearing feature of this box, though, is that Banks avoids focusing on obvious cuts from both periods: There’s no “Supper’s Ready” or “Firth of Fifth” on the one hand, and you have to sit for more than two hours before catching the first scent of singles like “Follow You Follow Me,” “I Can’t Dance,” and “Throwing It All Away.”

Between those two poles is where BBC Broadcasts truly establishes its flow. (One caveat: the CD edition contains 53 tracks, while the vinyl edition is reduced to 24, significantly reducing the continuity of the experience.) If the band’s forward lurch towards a skeletal, glossy sound with 1981’s Abacab still seems drastic in retrospect, in truth the transition played out gradually. Another four-album stretch—this time between 1976 and 1980—found Genesis emerging as a more song-oriented outfit while still retaining heavy traces of their progressive identity.

Discs two and three showcase a full set’s worth of material culled from two concerts in ‘78 and ‘80. Gabriel and Hackett were both gone by that point, and they took a great deal of the band’s personality with them. There’s a case to be made that it was Hackett’s departure—not Gabriel’s—that truly altered the band’s future direction. Nevertheless, the long-running live configuration of Collins-Rutherford-Banks with Jean-Luc Ponty guitarist Daryl Stuermer and Weather Report drummer Chester Thompson was not without its charms. It’s this lineup, in fact, that steals the show here with an undeniable combination of agility and muscle.

Just before fellow prog giants Rush found their golden formula by shoehorning their prodigious chops into tighter, catchier song structures, Genesis beat them to the punch, but they did it with more of an edge—and, arguably, with more of their old spirit intact. Setlist standards from the time like “Squonk” and “One for the Vine” are every bit as “progressive” as the Gabriel-era material, but they capture the band reaching new heights of accessibility while still challenging listeners in the way their audience had come to expect. These BBC Broadcasts renditions in particular come as a godsend for fans.

Where the early-’70s broadcasts sound like they were recorded with modest budgets under tight time constraints, the production values increase dramatically once you get to the 1978 portion of the program. An introduction from late Radio 1 DJ legend Tommy Vance, longtime host of the UK institution the Friday Rock Show, adds a welcome dose of coziness to an otherwise professional-grade simulcast of the band’s 1980 show at London’s Lyceum Theatre recorded in support of that year’s album Duke. The then-new songs benefit from an assertive delivery that’s largely missing from the tame production of the album. By this point, Genesis’s transformation was just about complete, but their heart and soul was apparently still intact onstage.

The box set is rounded out with performances from the height of the band’s popularity—Wembley in 1987 and the 1992 edition of Knebworth (along with two songs from 1998 featuring Collins’ replacement Ray Wilson). Here, the sense of the band as a global stadium juggernaut becomes almost inescapable. When the ominous, heavily sequenced drone of “Mama” opens the Wembley portion of the program, there’s no longer a sense of a living, breathing band on the other end of your speakers. Across the first three discs, Genesis used size to create a sublime sense of majesty onstage. Here, the scale of the production simply alienates, and listening to this section often feels like being dwarfed while observing a huge, impersonal machine rotate its blades in place.

By the time you get to that point, though, BBC Broadcasts has provided more than ample reward. The dedicated fan will already be familiar with many of these recordings, and if you’re old enough to have seen the band during any of the periods it covers, you might find this set frustratingly incomplete seeing as Banks could have included more full shows. Then again, more isn’t always more. And, for any slightly-more-than-casual listeners looking to wrap their heads around the totality of an extraordinary career that set the bar not once but twice, BBC Broadcasts is a great place to start and an even better place to keep coming back to.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com

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