Atlantic Records, 1979
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/18/2011
The conventional wisdom holds that Genesis ceased to be a progressive rock group sometime after the departure of Steve Hackett in the late ‘70s. That oft-debated change in quality is debated to this day, and is particularly annoying to members of the group still active in the business. Phil Collins is often fond of saying that the same group that wrote the classics “Supper’s Ready” and “The Musical Box” wrote “Hold On My Heart.”
You can argue the point about Genesis shifting towards the pop-centric direction until you are blue in the face, but really, what’s the point? The thing that people tend to forget about Genesis is that even in their commercial heyday of Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance, they continued to express their delightfully wicked sense of humor and in no way slowed or weakened musically speaking.
Selling England By the Pound and Nursery Cryme are more decidedly “English”; the band has admitted as much. The apocalyptic visions of “Supper’s Ready” and poetic wordplay of Peter Gabriel continue to amaze in the present day, and there is certainly no attempt made by Rutherford, Banks, and Collins to duplicate it on Duke. That’s where Genesis made their bones, and they deserve to be applauded for it.
Yet maybe that’s why Duke has always been the quintessential Genesis record. I defy those who claim the band lost its spine after Gabriel and Hackett to throw this album on the turntable, and tell me nothing interesting is going on. In fact, there is something more human and relevant to Duke than any Genesis album that came before it. The characters and scenarios of early ‘70s Genesis reveled in the extreme: violence, murder, science-fiction, contrasted with scenes of perfect, pastoral paradise. Duke narrows that scope, and removes the fantastical elements.
Duke came in the wake of personal and professional trauma for members of the group, particularly Phil Collins, whose marriage had completely dissolved by this point in time. The meaning of “Misunderstanding” could not be more blatant when presented with the proper context. There’s an emotional connection to be made, with a man wearing his feelings on his sleeves. The fact that it comes wrapped in a beautiful box doesn’t change the message. Collins just knocks “Alone Tonight” out of the park, letting traces of that devastation break through the outward facade of strength and positivity inherently present in pop music.
Those who know the story of Duke are aware of the ideas the band kicked around during its recording, including an attempt at devoting one side of the album to one track, exactly like “Supper’s Ready.” The album is better off for it, simply due to the undeniable fact the track would inevitable have been compared to its epic brother at every moment. The remnants of the medley remain strewn across the track listing, and consistently demonstrate just what the three-piece Genesis was capable of. The kinetic force of “Behind The Lines” propels the song to the ranks as one of the band's best openers regardless of era. In fact it’s well past the two and a half minute mark before the vocals come into the mix, a strong reminder of the instrumental prowess of the remaining members.
If one were to cast criticisms towards Duke, it would be hard to deny that the sound of the record has not aged well. Drum machines may have been the technology of the day and impressive in their own right, but in 2011 they lose some steam. Tony Banks’ noodlings on the keyboards have been attacked since the beginning of the group’s career, and there are moments on Duke (“Duke’s Travels”) when the synthesizer’s versatility does not an engaging song make.
Were one to take a single track from Duke for the purposes of wrapping things up in a neat little bow, “Turn It On Again” would make the best presentation. How many other bands would effortlessly shift between 6/4 and 7/4 signatures and throw the main refrain at the very end of the track? How many other groups could take such a piece of music, and turn it into a hit? This is where Genesis gets underrated, not to mention unfairly blasted by their critics. Duke is a definite turning point in the discography, but it represents the climax of their career. Never again would Genesis reach such a tremendous blend of what they were, and what they had been.