In 1979, two most foreboding albums crept out of the world of Genesis. The band itself was at the peak of its powers so far, trimmed down to a trio of core musicians, and riding the biggest hit single, “Follow You Follow Me,” that they’d ever scored.
But all was not perfect behind the scenes. It was rumor-still-to-be-confirmed-as-fact, but vocalist Phil Collins had just announced he needed a year long sabbatical to take care of his personal life, and so the remaining pair went off to record solo albums. And anyone who’d followed the band for the last few years had a good idea what that meant.
In 1970, Anthony Philips quit, and out came The Geese and the Ghost (okay it took him seven years, but who’s counting?)
In 1975, Steve Hackett released Voyage of the Acolyte and, two years on, he was away.
In 1976, Peter Gabriel quit and he was now three albums into a whole new career.
Smallcreep’s Day from Michael Rutherford and A Curious Feeling from Tony Banks may or may not have been intended that way But they sure fell like presentiments of doom to a lot of folk.
Of course it didn’t turn out like that. Genesis regrouped, the solo careers continued in parallel, happy endings all round. But a four CD box set drawn from the Banksian end of the equation reminds us of how things might have turned out, and listening through A Chord Too Far (Esoteric Recordings), it might not have been such a terrible thing.
Nine Tony Banks albums released between 1979 and 2012, including two magnificent orchestral sets, may have been overshadowed by all else that was going on, but still they offer up highlights that the main band’s career… well, let’s just say they’re a lot more enjoyable, and sound a lot less dated, than other things we could mention.
Tony Banks sat down to talk us through A Chord Too Far.
GM: The most noticeable thing about the box, initially anyway, is that you don’t adhere to chronological sequencing.
TB: “I wanted to do it like all the tracks came out at the same time, like it was a new album of something, so I put it in an order that I felt enhanced each of the songs. It also gets predictable if you do it chronologically, I think, and it doesn’t necessarily enhance the pieces.
“People who know my stuff well would expect a certain track to come after each one, and I think it’s quite good to surprise them. Even when I hear it, I don’t know which track is going to come next.
“I just had a bit of fun with the order, particularly starting off with the little instrumental piece (“Rebirth”). Which is kind of just a little extra piece that was on the Soundtracks album, but that I thought was a strong theme to open the album with and set the mood. So just to think of it that kind of way really, it appealed to me to do it that kind of way.”
GM: Your entire solo catalog is scheduled for reissue, with surround sound mixes, bonus tracks, etc. But the box set goes beyond being a taster, doesn’t it.
TB: “Quite a high percentage of the albums are on this. With the rock albums, it’s probably 60-70% of each album [less the] two or three tracks on each of them that I was probably quite happy to lose…tracks that I’ve not been that happy with, where i felt the lyrics or things were not quite as good. There were a couple of lyrics I was kind of embarrassed by; a couple of melodic things that didn’t work as well as I thought they did orginally….
“But I still had to lose more tracks than I wanted to, definitely.”
GM: According to legend, your solo career almost began a little earlier, back when Peter Gabriel first quit and nobody knew whether or not Genesis would even continue. Had that been the case, I’m guessing what became Trick of the Tail is, in part, the “lost” Tony Banks album?
TB: “The obvious ones like ‘Mad Man Moon,’ ‘Trick of the Tail’ and ‘Robbery, Assault and Battery’ I pretty much wrote on my own. But then there were other bits and pieces that I hadn’t really developed and they ended up within other songs, if you like. Particularly ‘Dance on a Volcano’ and ‘Ripples’ and ‘Entangled.’ Things like that, where a section that I hadn’t really found a home for went in, but obviously if I had done a solo album, I would’ve done it slightly differently.
“But I was quite happy not to do a solo album at that point, I didn’t feel like I was ready for it and the band, once we decided that we were going to carry on, we obviously wanted to put in everything we had that was… we were very keen to put the best we had into that project.
“When I actually did do it in 1979, Phil needed a bit of space because he was having trouble with his marriage and, as you say, there was a possiblity that the band might not carry on, although I think we sort of thought it probably would. I just wanted to do this; I thought it was a good moment, whatever happens, to just do it and see if I could do it; to follow an idea all the way through and see what happens really. I think doing solo records does teach you an awful lot about music, in terms of writing and playing and production, and everything.”
GM: Plus you can do what you want, and not have to listen to other people!
TB: “Well that’s the best thing really; that’s why we all enjoyed solo records, I love doing the group’s stuff as well - it’s a compromise situation, but that’s quite nice in a way because you bounce ideas off each other and if you are having a bad day and one of the other guys has a good idea, and it starts something going, then it changes the day for you. Whereas if you are on your own and you are having a bad day, you’re having a bad day.
“But you can follow and idea all the way through without compromise. I could use all those chords that, sometimes, Mike and Phil weren’t quite so keen on. And I enjoyed doing it; I enjoyed making all the music on this album. The release was always kind of disappointing, but that was many years ago and I can come back now and take a look at it all and just judge it as music and i’m pleased with it.”
GM: None of the albums really took off at the time, did they?
TB: “The first thing one could say is that they weren’t good enough. I’m not going to, but it’s a perfectly valid thing to say. The other thing is, perhaps, there were no key songs, no key singles or anything and I wasn’t very good at self promotion or anything like tha,t either. For Phil and for Peter, doing solo records was sort of easy because the image of the band was wrapped up in them and everything. They had a good platform.
“Mike’s situation is a little bit different, but Mike is also is a very pushy guy, he is very good at getting people to listen to him and all the rest of it. He also writes a slightly more straightforward kind of music than I write, on his own. I did call this compilation A Chord too Far, and that is one of the reasons that it has not had the exposure that it might’ve done. It’s because I like those moments of weirdness.
“Within early Genesis in particular, and late Genesis to some extent too, they were part of what people liked about the band. Perhaps undiluted Tony Banks was too much for them! If something was recorded with both Phil and Mike, it was acceptable, but on its own, it’s a bit like having cream without the strawberries I suppose. You need a bit of both.”
Maybe you do. But A Chord Too Far suggests that maybe you don’t. Three CDs trace a gloriously unsignposted journey through the wealth of music Banks has made since ’79; a fourth rounds up some unreleased moments, including some absolutely revelatory keyboard-only demos from his orchestral suites. And if you want to play games with musical history, and imagine that Genesis did break up, A Chord Too Far reminds us what we might have been listening to, instead.
And again, it might not have been such a terrible thing.