Albums constructed apart have allowed Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Steve Hackett to explore areas of their songcraft that might have gone undiscovered in Genesis.
Certainly, as we examined these five solo deep cuts, there emerged a deeply personal theme that was rarely there before — and that stretches from the initial Collins recordings of the early 1980s through Peter Gabriel’s confessional 1990s recordings into Hackett’s varied prog-rock efforts in the last decade.
Some would argue (and they’d be right) that there’s much more to be found for those fans intrepid enough to move away from their tattered copies of Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. What about Gabriel’s trio of highly experimental self-titled LPs beginning in the late 1970s? Or Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford’s hitmaking group Mike and the Mechanics? This is just meant to get you started.
You’ve heard the hits, now let’s dig a little deeper …
“MERCY STREET,” PETER GABRIEL (SO, 1986): Gabriel, of course, finally broke into the mainstream with this album, sending “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” up the charts thanks to a pair of endlessly inventive accompanying videos.
But the darkly mysterious “Mercy Street,” which used the self-destructive life and harrowing confessions of poet Anne Sexton as a theme (right down to the title, which recalls her poem “45 Mercy Street”) hearkened back to an earlier time. In fact, “Mercy Street” seemed to synthesize everything Gabriel had been trying to do since leaving Genesis in the previous decade, deftly blending electronics and world music.
“Mercy Street” features both a cadence recorded in Brazil by Djalma Correa (which was slowed down to produce the track’s dream-like polyrhythms) and a series of layered keyboard sounds. Gabriel also doubles his voice, in a final reference to Sexton — who, before her suicide in 1974, was said to have suffered from bipolar disorder. That only deepens the swirling sense of portent around “Mercy Street.”
“IT DON’T MATTER TO ME,” PHIL COLLINS (HELLO, I MUST BE GOING, 1982): One of the earliest, and still best, examples of Collins’ emerging fascination with blending radio-ready pop hooks with funky horn stabs. He had a Top 10 hit the previous year with the similarly constructed “I Missed Again,” but this lesser-known track unfolds with more nervy aggression.
And it still feels experimental, arriving before this sound became a signature element of his hitmaking zenith. Of course, the results are suitably uneven on Hello, as Collins tries to determine which direction his career apart from Genesis might take: Is he the spittle-spewing ex-husband, raging against the feelings he once had, as on the Top 40 hit “I Don’t Care Anymore”? Or the broken romantic who desperately hopes for reconciliation, heard here amidst the manic delirium of “Do You Know, Do You Care?” The quiet and thoughtful lover of “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning’? Or is he, in fact, the creep-tastic stalker dude from “Thru These Walls”?
Answer? Well, yeah, kinda all of that. In a way, Hello, I Must Be Going! holds inside of it the entirety of Collins’ musical DNA strand, both as a solo artist and a member of Genesis. It might sound unfocused but none of it, at least not yet, sounds formulaic — least of all, this deliriously fun aside.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Don’t look for a whole lot of Genesis music when Mike and the Mechanics hit the road. Guitarist Mike Rutherford brushes aside such nostalgia, saying: ‘I’d rather live in the now.’]
“LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL,” STEVE HACKETT (OUT OF THE TUNNEL’S MOUTH, 2009): Hackett’s first prog-rock project in three years was a turbulent, layered outburst of creativity, capped by this exotic album-closing track featuring violinist Ferenc Kovacs. Hackett, who was emerging from his own broken marriage, traversed a dizzying array of styles, influences and textures as he worked out what must have been a torrent of emotions. It couldn’t have been further away, in texture or in content, from his memorable No. 14 hit “When the Heart Rules the Mind” with GTR back in 1986.
“That was the first project that I really did after my divorce,” Hackett tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “That had been a very dark, difficult period for me to get back on my feet. I did the album in my living room, although it doesn’t sound like that. It was a difficult, traumatic time – and one where I realized that I was clinging to music like a life raft. I had a lot of personal experience to draw from with that. It traversed a number of styles, and that’s what progressive music does, at its best: It doesn’t stick around in any genre long. It’s changing styles. It’s travelogue music, really.”
That’s certainly true on “Last Train to Istanbul,” which remains so full of both feeling and of Byzantine mystery. Also included on Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth, by the way, are two songs recorded with Yes co-founder Chris Squire (“Fire on the Moon” and “Nomads”) — giving a preview of what will eventually become a full-scale collaboration as Squackett.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett talks about collaborating with Yes bassist Chris Squire, the deep impact of Bach and a lasting passion for his old band.]
“SECRET WORLD,” PETER GABRIEL (US, 1992): This album found itself inevitably compared with its blockbuster pop hit of a predecessor, So. In between, however, Gabriel had produced Passion a 1989 soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Us was actually something in between those two things — at least musically. Topically? It was like nothing Gabriel had ever done.
The driving and emotional “Secret World,” though its soaring arc might on first blush draw comparisons to “Red Rain” from So, is a far more complex combining of drum loops, dobro and cello — and it draws to a thunderous conclusion the most deeply personal project of Gabriel’s career. Save for “Fourteen Black Paintings” — the only song that touched on the former Genesis frontman’s penchant for the political — Us focuses on the wreckage of two past relationships.
He comes away with few answers, meaning songs like “Secret World” unfold with a confessional complexity. The melodies often aren’t clearly stated, even if the words are so often stingingly honest. That friction gives “Secret World,” and all of Us, its lasting intrigue.
“IF LEAVING ME IS EASY,” PHIL COLLINS (FACE VALUE, 1981): Songs like this started out as personal music — something done out of homage, something done alone as a kind of catharsis after Collins’ wife left him for a painter and decorator. That made for an album which was oftentimes delightfully extemporaneous, then frighteningly real and almost always determinedly different from Genesis.
Collins’ devastating divorce would, of course, provide the grist for a number of songs — many of them, like “Against All Odds,” huge hits. But he never wrote a more harrowing, starkly emotional one than “If Leaving Me Is Easy.” Featuring Eric Clapton on guitar — though Don Myrick’s alto is far more prominent in the mix — the tune would become a Top 20 hit in the U.K. That led to a performance on the BBC’s “Top of the Pops” that said it all, as Collins sang “If Leaving Me Is Easy” with a paint bucket and brush atop his piano.
Collins would go back to Genesis, and he would make more solo albums — though many of these recordings were as interchangeable as they were wildly successful. Unfortunately, as fame surrounded Collins, he left behind the unmannered mainstream experimentation found in these shined-up old demos. He never again sounded so off-guard and direct.
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