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Why Genesis's Lyrics Were Great -- or Awful

Why Genesis's Lyrics Were Great -- or Awful
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Phil Collins recently announced he'd be open to touring with his former Genesis bandmates again, and those of us who love the band rejoiced. No matter the lineup, the English prog-pop group always possessed some of rock music's most skilled musicians. The extended instrumental breaks alone on some Genesis songs are breathtaking.

But one thing always bothered me about them: the lyrical content. Genesis wasn't known for writing challenging lyrics. Maybe not a problem on modern-day radio, but at a time when Rush, the Police and Talking Heads were writing thoughtful and evocative songs, this shortcoming was sometimes painfully obvious.

Why Genesis's Lyrics Were Great -- or Awful

But thankfully, not always. Rocks Off boasts at least two Genesis fans, the other being Corey Deiterman.

We decided to team up to point-counterpoint our best and worst examples of Genesis lyrics. I play the baddie here, with many and profuse apologies to my pal Warren Najarian, who is still the biggest Genesis fan I know, Corey notwithstanding. Just know my harsh words are only tough love for a band of beloved brothers I'm eager to see onstage once more.

"DODO/LURKER" One thing about Genesis' lyrics: they create good Internet fodder. I Googled this one and songmeanings dot com or some such site had a "Dodo/Lurker" thread. People who are apparently a good degree smarter than I am explained the song was about a) a submarine; b) bullets; c) "anthropocentric arrogance toward non-human life."

For my part, I was just amazed to learn Collins is singing the words "Dog-baiter, agitator" at the song's opening. All these years I've been singing "Darth Vader, agitator." J.S.J.

FLY ON A WINDSHIELD Many of Genesis' earlier compositions were so much prog-rock fluff lyrically that they were either incomprehensible or utterly ridiculous, to the point where even the band later expressed embarrassment about them. It was on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway when front man Peter Gabriel changed all that and came into his own as a storyteller and lyricist.

Gabriel is well-known in his solo career for his deeply intelligent and introspective lyrical content. While Lamb shows him still deep into the fantastical aspects of fiction, it has some real shining moments like "Fly on a Windshield," which paints the perfect picture of someone arriving in New York for the first time and being captivated by the sights and sounds of the city.

In the story of the album, this person is Rael, but it's well-known that the story is at least semi-autobiographical and it's not hard to imagine it's what the English-born Gabriel felt the first time he touched down in NYC. C.D.

INVISIBLE TOUCH Invisible Touch, the album, was released in June 1986, a month after Peter Gabriel's So. Each has at least one song describing a lover. Lyrically, "Invisible Touch" is to "In Your Eyes" as Hop on Pop is to "Ode to a Nightingale." In one, someone's heart is touched. In the other, the doorway to a thousand churches is opened in someone's eyes. Pretty sure you could guess which is Keats and which is Seuss. J.S.J.

ANYWAY You could really tell on The Lamb where Peter Gabriel was headed as a lyricist, as the story often took detours to wax poetic on philosophical subjects. "Anyway" is a perfect example of where the plot stalls so Gabriel can reflect a little bit.

"How wonderful to be so profound," Gabriel says in sprechgesang, "when everything you are is dying underground." It relates to the plot, but also to Gabriel himself. He's trying to make a statement with this record, but for all his profound statements, he isn't reaching the people. It's one of the deeper lyrical endeavors of Gabriel's career and it comes accompanied by the perfect musical representation. C.D.

I CAN'T DANCE This song makes no sense to me unless I am watching the video made for it. Which begs the question: which came first, the song or the video? I mean, obviously the song was written and recorded first, but were the lyrics written specifically to one day be taken as literally as they are in the video?

At best, its a series of vignettes about a guy with self-esteem issues roaming from the Australian outback (where else you gonna find a gator in the dry heat?) to the beach and the pool hall. At worst, it was the script to a video in waiting. J.S.J.

The battle continues on the next page.

 

DUCHESS Described by Tony Banks as the story of the band itself, "Duchess" is the story of a starlet who finds herself getting older and desperate for the attention of a fickle audience who had long since stopped giving her the applause that once came so easily. It's a tragic story with truly evocative imagery.

Looked at from the perspective of the band themselves, it also shows where their heads were at as they transitioned into the '80s and found a dwindling audience for epic prog-rock compositions in the midst of the punk-rock revolution. Little did they know when they wrote this song the kind of success they'd soon experience. C.D.

ILLEGAL ALIEN Some people, especially my fellow Latinos, would consider this the poorest example of Genesis' lyrical expression. It's pretty awful -- and I'm not just talking about Collins' terrible faux Latin accent. The song is illogical. For example, what pendejo would take a full bottle of tequila to a public park on a sunny day, especially someone attempting to remain invisible to la migra and other law enforcers?

They're going to confiscate your bottle and possibly you. And, it's offensive. That line, "I've got a sister who'd be willing to oblige, she will do anything now to help me get to the outside" implies something very sordid and potentially heartbreaking. J.S.J.

MAMA Where erstwhile band mate Peter Gabriel had delved brilliantly into the mind of the pathological on songs like "Intruder" (where he played a peeping tom to full effect), "No Self Control," and "Family Snapshot" on his third self-titled record, Genesis picked up the torch for "Mama" on their own self-titled album. Maybe Phil Collins playing drums on Gabriel's record inspired him.

Either way, Collins really gets into the act on "Mama," borrowing vocal ticks from Grandmaster Flash to live the role of a depraved individual obsessed with a prostitute. The words themselves make a statement, but it's Collins' vocal performance that sells this one so well. The dangerous, stalker-ish obsession portrayed in the cracking screams, creepy laughs, passionate whispers, and, of course, the brilliant lyrical content is Oscar-worthy. C.D.

WHO DUNNIT? Easily, the worst lyrical content in Genesis' repertoire is found in "Who Dunnit?" It's a filler track on 1981's double-platinum Abacab -- the title song itself is so nonsensical Collins reportedly scratched it from a tour set list because he didn't know what it was about.

"Who Dunnit?" puts the focus on what plagued Genesis during the Collins era. His voice was so unique, so soulful, it was an instrument all its own, no different than Tony Banks' synth or Mike Rutherford's guitar. Didn't matter what words he was singing; it sounded fantastic.

This song is the most egregious example of "just sing whatever, it'll sound awesome." The lines "was it you or was it me? Or was it he or she?/ Was it A or was it B? Or was it X or Z?" are sung six times. The song ends with a cacophonous chorus of "we know, we know,..." ORLY? Well, if you do know, maybe you can explain to the rest of us. J.S.J.

JESUS HE KNOWS ME Typically when Genesis tries to get humorous, it turns out pretty brutal to listen to. Phil Collins has a wonderful sense of humor, but I think we could all do without ever hearing "Illegal Alien" and his awful Mexican accent ever again. "Jesus He Knows Me" works, on the other hand, because of the wonderful musical accompaniment and Collins' straight-faced seriousness throughout.

It's a tremendous send-up of the televangelist culture that has been pervasive since the '80s, the best part being that every single scathing word of the essay is still relevant today about so many scam artists. The video is pretty amazing as well, with Collins' hilarious acting chops standing in to sell the lyrics even more. C.D.

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