On a late-summer Monday in 1978, the BBC’s tea-time audience got a 50-minute televised introduction to the band Genesis, a group that the network seemed to regard with both respect and curiosity. “You might not have heard of them, but they have a massive following among the young who take rock music seriously,” the narrator for the Three Dates With Genesis documentary said, loading his cut-glass accent with as much wonder as it could carry.
A film crew accompanied the band during the first European leg of their sprawling And Then There Were Three tour, which stretched across 10 months and three continents. The “three dates” in the title included shows in Germany and the Netherlands before finishing with their headlining set at England’s Knebworth Festival, where Genesis had top billing over Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Devo. While they sat backstage, the camera focused on then 28-year-old keyboardist Tony Banks. “You couldn’t really be on the road at 40, could you?” he was asked.
Banks didn’t hesitate before replying. “I don’t know. We’re coming up to see people who are still on the road in their 30s and late 30s,” he said. “I mean the [Rolling] Stones, they still seem to be doing very, very well, and performing very well. It’s just because rock music is a thing from sort of the last 20 years, and people have never seen older people in rock groups. But I don’t see why in the future that should be a rare thing at all.”
It’s not rare now—and the Rolling Stones remain the kind of perpetual motion machine that Daedalus dreamed about—but back in 1978, the three members of Genesis still had to answer the occasional question about whether they should’ve gone to university instead.
They were still eight years and three records away from Invisible Touch, which would sell more than 15 million copies worldwide; from frontman Phil Collins becoming an inescapable solo superstar; and from guitarist Mike Rutherford’s commitment to leather pants. They were 29 years from playing to a crowd of 500,000 at Rome’s Circus Maximus. And they were more than four decades from their The Last Domino? Tour, which started this September and brought Banks, Collins, and Rutherford, now all in their early 70s, back onstage for what is expected to be their final run of shows.
I was too young and too American for Three Nights, so I was introduced to Genesis through MTV videos, Top 40 radio, and No Admittance, a Disney Channel (!!!) documentary about the making of 1991’s We Can’t Dance. In the years since, my life and their music have become so intertwined that untangling my DNA would give you a combination of thymine, cytosine, and chromatic chord progressions.
Genesis’s evocative lyrics, innovative musicianship, and all-around artistry have defined them since their prog-tastic early days, the era when Rolling Stone called them “a new contender for the coveted British weirdo-rock championship.” The textural elements and atmospheric grooves that characterize their songs mean that, despite the frankly insane amount of time I’ve spent listening to them, there are still aspects of each track to appreciate anew, whether it’s an unexpected shift in the time signature, an under-the-radar cultural reference, or one of Banks’ well-placed instrumental passages.
I’m not the only one who feels this way: They’ve sold an eye-watering 150 million records, and the band members’ solo successes double that number. Collins’ decade-long run of blockbusters put him on a list with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney as the only musicians to have sold more than 100 million albums as both a solo artist and with a group. Rutherford had a string of Top 10 singles with his Mike + The Mechanics side project. And although Banks has become an acclaimed orchestral composer, I will still champion his less-appreciated rock albums with an enthusiasm that will make you wish we’d never made eye contact.
Genesis was formed in 1967 at Charterhouse, a well-heeled British boarding school that already counted a Prime Minister, an Archbishop of Canterbury, and the founder of fucking Rhode lsland among its alumni. Despite the fact that playing popular music wasn’t exactly encouraged (one housemaster banned Rutherford’s guitar, as it was “a symbol of the revolution”) it still took teenaged classmates Banks, Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, and Anthony “Ant” Phillips less than two years to score a deal with Decca, release a single, and write and record their first album, From Genesis to Revelation.
The record failed to make an impact, so Banks and Rutherford took college classes while Gabriel and Phillips finished their final year at Charterhouse. They spent the summer of 1969 rehearsing and writing new songs and decided to give their music another go. Genesis took whatever gigs they could get—one of their first shows was for “a company in Wolverhampton that made screws”—touring the pub-and-club circuit in a second-hand bread van.
After Phillips left in 1970, drummer Phil Collins successfully auditioned his way into the band, and they added hotshot guitarist Steve Hackett. A re-energized, recalibrated Genesis released back-to-back-to-back records that are now hailed as Prog Classics. Their audiences increased by the concert date because of their willingness to invest in cutting-edge lighting and visual effects, and because of Gabriel’s onstage theatrics. His costume rotation included a now-iconic fox head and red dress combo; a rubber elderly man mask; a bat-wing headpiece; and the bulbous ‘Slipperman’ suit, which had the kind of pendulous ballsack that looks familiar to anyone who’s been in a YMCA locker room.
Following 1974’s complicated The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway concept album, Gabriel decided to bail. “I was just feeling the whole weight of commitment and thinking, ‘When is life going to happen? Is it all just tours and records?’” he told Classic Rock in 2004. “I wanted to stop every now and again and have time with my family. But you couldn’t because it was fucking up the band.”
After politely smiling through hundreds of singers’ lackluster auditions, Banks and Rutherford realized that their future frontman was already behind the drum kit. Collins took over vocal duties, two more records inched their way up the album charts… and then Hackett unplugged his Les Paul Goldtop and headed out too.
Genesis continued as a trio and their next record—appropriately titled And Then There Were Three—finally cracked the U.S. charts. Although their frequent tours had helped them build a dedicated American fanbase, they didn’t have a Top 25 single on our side of the Atlantic until the release of “Follow You Follow Me.” The straightforward love song, which Rutherford wrote for his wife, hinted at a shift in their sound and broadened their appeal. “If Genesis had never released ‘Follow You Follow Me,’ if we’d split up before it came out, most people would’ve never heard of the group,” Banks said in the band’s retrospective book, Genesis: Chapter & Verse.
Every subsequent record built on that success, until Invisible Touch and its massive songs—”Land of Confusion,” “In Too Deep,” and the title track among them—launched them somewhere past the stratosphere. (In his autobiography, Collins noted that “this was the tour on which we’d start to have underwear thrown at us onstage.”)
Their final release as a trio was We Can’t Dance, in 1991, which, to me, still makes for a satisfying finale. I also dare you to find another band who could go quadruple-platinum with an album that covers religious hypocrisy, 19th-century railway workers, estranged families, and haunted hit-and-run drivers.
Phil Collins stopped playing the drums a decade ago, due to dislocated vertebrae in his neck, nerve damage in his hands, and hearing problems, the side effects of earning a living by bashing the shit out of a stationary object. He’s also had other well-documented health issues that have left him walking with a cane and singing while sitting onstage in a utilitarian-looking office chair.
That was one of the reasons that everyone—myself included—assumed that the band’s 2007 Turn It On Again tour was their last go. But in January 2020, when cameras caught the three of them in the crowd at a New York Knicks game, everyone—again, myself included—started wondering whether they were together to plan their return, re-emerging after 13 years like cicadas with arpeggiated chords.
In early March 2020, Genesis announced they would be reuniting for 10 shows with Collins’ 20-year-old son Nic filling in for him on drums. Then, you know, everything happened, and those shows were rescheduled multiple times (and a series of U.S. dates were added and rescheduled) before the whole lot was pushed a full year ahead.
I had tickets for their show in Belfast, which was eventually canceled entirely. Knowing that this could be both my first and last chance to see them, I frantically Stubhubbed tickets for their Raleigh, North Carolina concert in mid-November, put on a Duke shirt that still smelled like its original owner’s attic, and took off toward the packed PNC Arena. I don’t know what I expected—I’m not sure I even allowed myself to have any expectations—but it was incredible, from the optimistic opening riff of “Duke’s Intro/Behind the Lines” to “The Carpet Crawlers” cathartic show-closing sing-along.
At the risk of sounding like I’m about to seal myself in my mausoleum, it was surprising to see so many young fans in the audience, people who had their baby teeth during the band’s last reunion tour but who still knew the words to every song.
They were people like Robb Deheny, a 23-year-old law student, who will be in the crowd when Genesis play their final two U.S. dates in Boston later this week. “I already have tickets for one show, and I think I’m going to say ‘Screw it’ and get tickets for the other one too,” he told me. “I’ll have their albums for the rest of my life, but I won’t get to see them again. I’m taking some friends the first night, but the second night, I think I’ll have to go on my own to sort of have that moment in my head to say thanks.”
One user on the r/Genesis subreddit recently posted to ask the “Under 30s and Under 40s” how they got interested in the band. Of the dozens of people who responded, an honestly surprising number said that it was because of the songs Collins wrote and sang for Disney’s animated Tarzan flick.
Dehney grew up listening to Tarzan in his mom’s car and hearing his dad’s Peter Gabriel records. “My mom schlepped me and my younger brother around in our old Chevy Suburban and we just played that CD on repeat for years,” Dehney said. “I think there’s something particularly interesting to children about percussion, there’s something visceral about it. I remember hitting the seats in front of us. That’s a memory I cherish and share with my mom, especially with ‘You’ll Be in My Heart.’”
Christos Ioannou, a 20-year-old college student from Cleveland, Ohio, said that he only knew Collins as “the singer from the Tarzan soundtrack” before he had a charmingly retro introduction to the band. “I was driving around and I caught the very end of a song on the radio, and I grabbed my phone to ask Siri what song it was. It was Phil’s cover of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love,’ and I immediately fell in love with it. The same thing happened with Genesis: I heard a song during another drive that I knew Phil Collins was singing, so I looked up the lyrics, and it was ‘Land of Confusion.’”
They both brought turntables to their respective universities, and digging through the crates at local record stores helped them discover the Genesis discography. “I had heard a lot of the radio staples like ‘That’s All’ and ‘Misunderstanding,’ but I really fell in love with the band when I started to dive in and get past some of the big songs,” Dehney continued. “I’d go to different record shops, and the completionist in me wanted all of their records, and then I’d find songs like ‘Domino’ and ‘The Brazilian’ on Invisible Touch that stretched my musical interests in a different way.”
There are many reasons I wish I was still in my 20s, and not just because there’s a kind of freedom that younger Genesis fans get to experience. They missed the backlash that followed Collins’ mid-1980s ubiquity—Entertainment Weekly once wrote that “even Phil Collins knows that we’re all weary of Phil Collins”—and the preconceptions about both prog and pop that attached to the band like barnacles as their popularity increased, and holy shit, did they also swerve a lot of American Psycho references.
“I do see a parallel between Genesis and some of the classical musicians in that I don’t feel that they were appreciated broadly until whatever stage they were at, musically speaking, was over,” Dehney added. “I know some folks would say it’s a shame that they evolved to the extent that they did, but for me, that’s very exciting. It means that every time I got a new record, it was surprising and could fill a different niche in my life. You’re in a very different mood listening to ‘Home by the Sea’ versus ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed,’ and they all have their place for me.”
Both Dehney and Ioannou said r/Genesis helped them feel more connected to the band and to other fans, especially during the isolation of the pandemic. “What I love about it is that I can explore things for myself, but I can also converse with people who are listening to these records too,” Ioannou said. “I’ve learned more about the music, about the backstories behind the songs, and have had discussions with people about their favorite albums. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I feel like I can chime in with my opinion now, which is nice.”
“Perhaps as you get older, you find yourself looking back sometimes and thinking about things that can’t be anymore, and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, so you don’t quite know what is the final thing,” Banks said in the No Admittance documentary. “When you’re actually experiencing the last time you ever do something, you don’t know that it’s the last time you’ll ever do it, which is sort of an interesting thought.”
Those ideas inspired him to write “Fading Lights,” the introspective final track from the band’s last album with Phil Collins, We Can’t Dance. I’m approaching the age Banks was when he finished the song, and let me tell you, lines like “Still we carry on just pretending/ That there'll always be one more day to go” hit differently now than they did when I first heard them 30 years ago.
Just before filing this piece, I decided to fly to Boston for their final U.S. show on Thursday night. I posted about it on social media, almost hoping someone would tell me how ridiculous that sounded. Instead, one of my college professors offered to give me airline miles, and a junior high classmate commented that I was usually playing Genesis CDs when we talked on the phone. Seventh Grade Me had a habit of holding the receiver up to the speakers, possibly in a weird attempt to convince her of the merits of “Man of Our Times.” Everyone knew that I had to go.
“Fading Lights” has been on the setlist for the duration of The Last Domino? tour, and when they play it in Boston on Thursday night, I wonder if any of them will allow themselves to feel the weight of it.
I know I will.