Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins [photo M. Putland / Getty]
There are certain moments in pop music when an artist reaches that pinnacle of success or dominance - either buoyed by a blockbuster album, a streak of hit radio singles, inescapable media presence, or a combination of all three. Pop music history is filled with examples of artists who had the stars aligned perfectly in their favor during a certain time period: Elvis Presley in 1956; the Beatles in 1964; Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969; the Bee Gees in 1977; Michael Jackson in 1983; George Michael in 1988; and Taylor Swift in 2014.
In the case of the veteran British rock band Genesis, 1986 was a banner year for them in the States, albeit with less fanfare than those aforementioned acts. Having been in existence for almost two decades up to that point as essentially the standard bearers of progressive rock, Genesis skyrocketed into the pop stratosphere with the release of the smash album Invisible Touch. From 1986 to 1987, that multi-platinum record yielded five Billboard top 10 singles: the title track, “Throwing It All Away,” “Land of Confusion,” “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” and “In Too Deep.”
Phil Collins, 1986 [photo: B. Spremo / Getty]
But it wasn’t just Genesis that enjoyed mainstream success 30 years ago. Coincidentally, both current and former members from the 70s classic lineup era - Phil Collins,Mike Rutherford, Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett - scored hit singles as solo artists during that same period. All of this made for a rare occurrence in pop music history in which the parent band and 4 out of its 5 associate members had songs in the Billboard top 40 within a calendar year. (To put that in perspective, the Beatles released their final album, 1970’s Let It Be, which yielded two number one songs in the title track and “The Long and Winding Road,” John Lennon and George Harrison were the only two members of the Fab Four with their solo singles, “Instant Karma!” and “My Sweet Lord” respectively in the top 40 that same year).
“The amount of success Genesis has had, plus Phil’s solo career, Peter’s and the Mechanics’ has been unreal,” said Mike Rutherford in the 2007 band biography Chapter and Verse. “There was a time when we all had a single in the American charts, Steve too with GTR; it was ridiculous.”
Since the departures of singer Peter Gabriel and guitarist Steve Hackett during the late 70s, Genesis evolved from a progressive rock collective known for their epic and abstract story songs to a more accessible pop-oriented-band. With each subsequent album, the group made inroads into the American top 40, starting in 1978 with singles as “Follow You Follow Me,” “Misunderstanding,” “No Reply at All,” and “That’s All” - songs that were considerably shorter.
“I think we were shown the way by groups at the time like King Crimson, Family and Fairport Convention… and that’s why we got into the progressive thing,” Banks said in the 2007 Invisible Touch reissue interview about the group’s early years. “We found we were able to do things in that area that no one else was doing. Whereas in the pop area… by the time we got to this stage, we just felt almost went as far as we could in certain directions of progressive music and extended solos, and the idea of trying to craft songs was quite appealing. So that’s what happened on this album [Invisible Touch].”
Phil Collins, 1986 [photo: B. Spremo / Getty]
Genesis’ commercial profile was further heightened by the meteoric solo success of singer/drummer Phil Collins, beginning with his 1981 debut record Face Value and its breakout hit “In the Air Tonight.” Prior to the release of Invisible Touch, Collins, by then a bona fide pop star, was finishing the spectacular run of his 1985 blockbuster LP, No Jacket Required. Having had hits the previous year with “Sussudio,” “One More Night” and “Don’t Lose My Number,” Collins started his 1986 with another Top 10 hit off that record in “Take Me Home.”
“This was a period of continual rise,” Collins later recalled in Chapter and Verse. “There was a point at that time and we’re talking about ‘84, ‘85, ‘86, where everything I did on my own was working out, whether it was with [Earth Wind & Fire’s] Phillip Bailey or “Against All Odds” or No Jacket Required; four or five top singles, a couple of number ones in the U.S. and God knows where else around the world building up to Invisible Touch which was a number one Genesis album and with a number one single.”
Collins’ string of hits perhaps rubbed off on his fellow Genesis band mate, guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford. Following two commercially unsuccessful solo records, Rutherford finally became a hit solo artist in his own right through his band project Mike + the Mechanics, featuring singers Paul Carrack and Paul Young. Rutherford and company’s self-titled album from 1985 yielded three Top 40 hits during the following year: “Silent Running,” “All I Need is a Miracle” and “Taken In.”
Amidst all this individual success, Genesis released their 13th studio album on June 9, 1986. Co-produced by the band and Hugh Padgham, Invisible Touch was a perfectly-crafted and produced pop record - from the peppy title song, through the lush balladry of “In Too Deep” and “Throwing It All Away,” to the dramatic clockwork machinery of “The Brazilian.” In his review of Invisible Touch back in 1986, Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine wrote: “If there were a time for Genesis to abandon art rock in favor of a pure pop approach, the time would be now… every tune is carefully pruned so that each flourish delivers not an instrumental epiphany but a solid hook.”
The catchy title song became the group’s first and only number one song in America on July 19. “Invisible Touch” is my favorite Genesis song and it came more or less out of nowhere,” Collins told the Guardian in 2014. “We would arrive in the studio every day and just start playing. One day Mike Rutherford played a riff on the guitar, with an echo, and I suddenly sang: ‘She seems to have an invisible touch - yeah!’ It came in to my head fully formed.”
“We felt very strongly about this album,” Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks said of Invisible Touch for the Genesis Archive #2 1976–1992 box set from 2000. “Everything from the cover art to the design was bold and striking. We were confident that we had done something really good.”
The tense rocker “Land of Confusion” was Genesis’ rare foray into political/social commentary - the track was best known for its satirical video featuring the band members depicted as Spitting Images puppets. As Rutherford recalled in his memoir The Living Years: “‘Land of Confusion’” was the nearest I’ve ever come to writing a protest song… It was intended to be slightly tongue-in-cheek; it was the last song on Invisible Touch to be written and just as I was about to write the lyrics I’d got a flu bug. I was lying at home delirious, covered in sweat, but was running out of time. Eventually Phil came over and sat on the end of my sick bed - being careful not to get too close - and stayed there until I’d written them.”
Despite the pop overtones of the record, the band still relied on what had been their calling card: the epic songs that showcased their dazzling instrumental chops. The first instance was the moody and anguished “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” which was originally eight minutes in length and then later edited down to four minutes as a single. Then there was the 10-minute “Domino,” which recalled the band’s past works with its extended instrumental passages and shifting tempos.
“We didn’t really ever stop doing the long songs,” Rutherford said in a DVD interview for the Invisible Touch reissue. “They were dwarfed conceptual-wise by the power of television, really. Funnily enough, when you see us live, that balance is so different. The long songs are probably as big a part of the audience’s enjoyment as the short songs.”
“It was a really enjoyable album to make,” said Banks. “Confidence allows you to write shorter pieces in a way. In a strange way, for me, it’s very much easier to write long pieces… you almost don’t have to answer the question, Is that bit good enough? Whereas on these things - you either have three-and-a-half minutes, four minutes a song and you want it to be a good song - every bit’s gotta count. I think we did a good job on this.”
The record became a huge success, peaking at number three in America. Not only were Genesis a ubiquitous presence on the charts and MTV, but also on those Michelob beer commercials that featured Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood (something Neil Young later lampooned on “This Note’s for You”). Genesis’ commercial ascendancy during the Invisible Touch period was a double-edged sword - it brought out new fans but it also probably alienated the old ones who had been with the band since 70s benchmarks as Nursery Cryme and Selling England by the Pound.
“It seemed to me realistic to assume that you’d got into Genesis in the early days you probably wouldn’t be so keen on Invisible Touch,” guitarist Mike Rutherford wrote in The Living Years. “Fans are always going to prefer the era when they first discover you and assume that any change is for the worst. It’s a problem common to all long-lived bands. But on stage when we were playing live it never felt any different at all to me: it was all a continuum.”
Beyond its popularity on the album charts, Invisible Touch became part of pop culture, most notably (or rather infamously) in Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho, in which the narrator/serial killer Patrick Bateman chillingly waxes poetic about the band and their music.
“Invisible Touch - Atlantic, 1986 - is the group’s undisputed masterpiece.” Bateman deadpans. “It’s an epic meditation on intangibility, at the same time it deepens and enriches the meaning of the the preceding three albums, Duke, Abacab and Genesis. It has a resonance that keeps coming back to the listener, and the music is so beautiful that it’s almost impossible to shake off… In terms of lyrical craftsmanship and sheer songwriting skills, this album hits a new peak of professionalism.”
Not only did Genesis achieve mega-commercial success in 1986, but so did their former lead singer Peter Gabriel. On May 19 of that year, he released So - the first one not named Peter Gabriel, unlike his previous four studio albums. Prior to So, Gabriel’s solo music was a mixture of art rock and world music elements, but on So all of those things crystallized into an accessible pop sound. Whereas Gabriel’s past albums tended to be musically and lyrically introverted and dark, So was a bit brighter-sounding and up front, as evidenced on the album’s biggest hit, the funky-horn driven “Sledgehammer,” accompanied by its now-legendary groundbreaking video
In the years since its original release, So is considered an acclaimed work, so much so that Rolling Stone selected it as one of its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; Tim Green wrote in his review for the magazine: “So is a record of considerable emotional complexity and musical sophistication.”
“There was less sort of esoteric songwriting,” Gabriel toldRolling Stone in 2012. “I think they were simpler songs in some ways, but I think we caught a wave. They were done with passion and we had a really good team working on them. Then, of course, we had things like the ‘Sledgehammer; video, which helped enormously. It got us a wider audience. Also, the one concession I agreed to was to place an actual photo of myself on the cover rather than the usual obscured stuff I had been doing.” Gabriel would score another top 40 hit later in the year with “In Your Eyes.”
Gabriel commented in the same interview on the album’s accessibility, whether that was deliberate move or a natural progression: “I think that was a bunch of songs that were there at the time,” he said. “With ‘Sledgehammer,’ everyone thinks, ‘Oh, he must have created that to get a hit’… It was late in the day and we just fell into the groove, landed a beautiful drum track on it, a great bass line and it all came together. I think the video really helped get it to a different audience. I’ve not had many intersections with mass culture, so that was one occasion where that happened.”
Genesis and Gabriel’s most mainstream-sounding works collided with each other in the summer of 1986. In probably one of the most unusual and coincidental occurrences, Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” knocked off Genesis’ “Invisible Touch” from the number one position on the Billboard pop chart on July 26. “We weren’t aware of that at the time,” Collins later told the Guardian. “If we had been, we’d probably have sent him a telegram saying: Congratulations - bastard.”
“That Pete was reaching his peak at the same time as us wasn’t a surprise,” Rutherford wrote in The Living Years. “We had been both working hard at our careers and each of our albums had sold more than the last, so at some stage it was very likely that we’d end up at the same point in our separate trajectories. I don’t think either of us had thought those points would be as high as they were.”
Meanwhile, Steve Hackett, who for the most part still stuck with his progressive rock pedigree after leaving Genesis in 1977, also flirted with commercial success through GTR, the supergroup he co-founded with Yes guitarist Steve Howe. The band’s 1985 self-titled debut album was radio- friendly progressive rock a la Asia (coincidentally, Asia keyboardist Geoff Downes produced the GTR record). The breakthrough hit from the album was the dramatic guitar-heavy “When the Heart Rules the Mind,” which peaked in the Billboard top 20. Despite the star power of the two legendary guitarists, GTR folded shortly afterwards. “It was a great radio record and I’m still very proud of many aspects of that record,” Hackett toldAXS about the GTR album in 2014. “‘When The Heart Rules the Mind’ was a terrific song. It had great instrumental hooks and sounded wonderful on FM radio when it was ultra compressed.”
In an the same interview, Hackett discussed the success the Genesis members had during that period in 1986. “That was notable and I was extremely proud,” he said. “I managed to lay to rest the suspicion that maybe I had just gotten lucky with Genesis and wasn’t going to be able to do it again in terms of great commercial success. I always wanted to take tremendous risks and in my opinion, the success of GTR was due to the amount of ideas that went into it.”
The only member of Genesis who got shut out from the top 40 sweepstakes in 1986 when it came to his own solo work was keyboardist Tony Banks. That year, he released the Soundtracks album, which consisted of music he composed for the films Quicksilver (starring Kevin Bacon) and Lorca and the Outlaws.
What Genesis and its individual members achieved collectively in 1986 was remarkable, even though that feat perhaps didn’t garner much attention then or now. That’s not surprising given the history of a band that had always worked under the radar despite changing musical tastes. Even with their high-profiled singers Gabriel and Collins, Genesis were never fashionable, nor did they ever attract unwanted notoriety, scandal, gossip, or screaming teeny-bopper fans. Unlike the Beatles, the Bee Gees, or Michael Jackson, they have never been defined by one particular cultural moment. One would even be hard pressed to say what the definitive Genesis album is (early fans might posit The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, while latter-day fans would argue Invisible Touch), since they never had their own The Dark Side of the Moon or Rumours.
And even if all of those projects from the time were quite commercial-sounding, they still carried the distinct stylistic and artistic imprint of both Genesis and the individual members: tracks like Genesis’ “Domino,” Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told,” or GTR’s “Hackett to Bits” could have appeared on the group’s earlier records. As Colin McGuire of PopMatters wrote: “Many have tried to emulate their signature sound, but few (if any) have ever really succeeded. Be it ‘Watcher Of The Skies’ or ‘Mama,’ there is still that indescribable element that’s always been there when music from that name is played through speakers. There simply aren’t a lot of acts that sound like they sound. Shoot, even Phish couldn’t really pull it off when they helped induct them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few years ago.”
As history has shown, the Invisible Touch and So eras for Genesis and Gabriel were the high watermarks of their careers - fans had to wait 5 to 6 years for new material from the two acts. In 1991, Genesis released We Can’t Dance, a somewhat reflective and warmer return to earlier days. While a hit album, We Can’t Dance never surpassed the success of its predecessor, and it became the final Genesis record with Phil Collins. Meanwhile Gabriel returned in 1992 with Us, a very intimate and personal record that didn’t have that breakout “Sledgehammer”-like hit. It was as if both acts said, “Let’s try to move on, as it’s pointless to try to surpass our zenith of popularity in the States.’”
“That was probably our peak in America to some extent,” Collins said later in the interview for the 2007 Invisible Touch reissue. “We Can’t Dance may have just kept up there with it. But certainly from a record point of view, Invisible Touch was probably the biggest wave album.”
“We toured the Invisible Touch album in 1986 and 1987, playing four nights at Wembley Stadium,” Rutherford told the Guardian in 2014. “It was a beautiful hot summer. As we went out on stage, I remember thinking: ‘This is as good as it gets.’ And I was right. The next album, We Can’t Dance, did pretty well… but Invisible Touch was the pinnacle.”