By Brian Ives
Released twenty-five years ago this month, Genesis’s We Can’t Dance was their final album with longtime drummer/singer Phil Collins and marked the end of the band for many fans. They would continue on with a new singer named Ray Wilson for one more album, but Genesis as a stadium-headlining hit machine ended here with the last date of the “We Can’t Dance” tour.
In Phil Collins’ newly-published memoirs, Not Dead Yet, the drummer/singer writes about his 1996 meeting with bandmates Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks. As all three of them knew going into the meeting, Collins would officially be giving his notice that he was leaving the band. Collins joined Genesis in 1970 as the drummer, and in the years since, took over as lead singer, and helped to bring them to insanely high commercial heights, all the while launching an incredibly successful solo career.
The always understated Mike Rutherford responded, “We’re just surprised you stayed this long.”
A lot of people probably shared that sentiment; while Genesis was a multi-platinum band that sold out football stadiums, Collins’ solo career was just as popular, if not more. He didn’t need to stay with them, but he did, probably out of loyalty to his mates. As he notes in his book: “These are my oldest musical friends. Two of my oldest friends [period].”
Commercially, it probably made sense to end Genesis: with each album, leading up to 1986’s Invisible Touch, the band got bigger and bigger. In the ’80s, anything with Phil Collins’ stamp on it seemed to turn to commercial gold (including projects he produced for Eric Clapton, Howard Jones, Adam Ant, Phillip Bailey and Frida). But at the dawn of the ’90s, things were changing; Nirvana released Nevermind, which had a “year zero” effect in music, particularly in the music that people in their 20s listened to. Also, there was a sense that, with all his projects, Phil Collins was getting a bit “overexposed” (a quaint idea in the pre-internet era; it’s not a complaint that gets lobbed at, say, Drake, even though he puts out multiple releases in a year, and guests on other artists’ albums as well).
Even outside the context of the era, it may have been time to “call it.” Collins had worked at an insane pace for about at decade at that point, between his solo albums and tours, Genesis albums and tours, other artists’ projects and tours (he played drums in Eric Clapton and Robert Plant’s solo bands in the ’80s) and even acting (staring in the 1988 film Buster). It took a toll on his personal life (which he discusses in Not Dead Yet).
And while We Can Dance had a lot of highlights — it has the fun MTV hits, the bittersweet VH1 ballads (they were still one of the few bands to get support from both channels) and a few prog-rock epics — there were more dull spots on the album than on previous records, although that may have been an effect of the CD era, which gave bands the freedom to do longer albums (and the expectation that they’d do so). 1983’s Genesis and ’86’s Invisible Touch seemed leaner, nearly every song filled a slot; but We Can’t Dance seemed to go on too long, as many other albums did during that time. “Tell Me Why,” “Way of the World” and “Living Forever” may have been good as B-sides, but they made the album drag.
Genesis announced their return with the album’s first single, “No Son of Mine,” which had the creepy, ominous tone of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” and “Mama,” but didn’t seem to make the impact of either of those songs, despite being a #12 hit.
The follow-up, though, would mark the band’s last zeitgeist-grabbing song. “I Can’t Dance,” like “Invisible Touch,” “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” “Land of Confusion,” “That’s All” and “Illegal Alien” (and many of Phil Collins’ solo hits from the era) was catchy, had a eye-grabbing video, and was inescapable. Based around a Stones-y guitar riff and a goofy percussion track, it was a funny song in which the middle aged trio bragged about not being sexy enough, and didn’t sound like anything they’d ever done before; it was a #7 hit, their last top 10 single.
The third single, “Hold On My Heart,” was adult-contemporary gold, and indeed topped the Adult Contemporary charts, while hitting #12 on the pop charts. They followed that with “Jesus He Knows Me,” the latest in a line of songs with funny but politically incorrect videos (following “Illegal Alien” and “Land of Confusion”). In the video, Collins lampoons TV preachers; it’d be interesting to see how that would go over in today’s era of 24 hour news channels looking for something to be angry about. They went back to the adult contemporary well again with “Never a Time,” a song that is ostensibly about the breakup of a relationship (and indeed, Phil Collins’ second marriage was hitting a rough spot at that time, as he details in his book). But in retrospect, lyrics like “There is never a time to say/Cause it seems to me we’ve lost our way” could easily be interpreted as Collins mulling leaving the band.
Some of the We Can’t Dance‘s gems, though, weren’t the singles (which has always been the case with Genesis). “Since I Lost You” was a mournful ballad inspired by the 1991 death of Eric Clapton’s young son, Conor (also the inspiration behind his classic “Tears in Heaven”). One of the band’s most powerful songs, when Collins sings “My heart is broken in pieces, since I’ve lost you,” it is shattering.
The album – and the band’s recording career – ended an epic song, “Fading Lights.” Genesis generally kept their adventurous prig-rock side and heartfelt balladeer side very separate. Genesis had “Taking it all Too Hard” and “That’s All” and also “Home by the Sea” and “Second Home by the Sea”; Invisible Touch had “Throwing it All Away” and “In Too Deep” and also “Domino” (parts 1 and 2!). But “Fading Lights” artfully combined the two disparate elements. The roots of the very band, the ability to go on long musical explorations were there. And so was smooth odes to regret that made them adult contemporary giants.
“Fading Lights” stars with a programmed percussion pattern, next to Tony Banks’ soft synthesizers, and it sounds like it’s going to be a four minute single. But at about 3:30, Phil gets behind the drum kit and the song goes to another place entirely. His precise but explosive playing powers an epic jam, topped by Banks’ soaring keyboards, and anchored by Rutherford’s tight and restrained bass and guitar playing.
Phil sang, “Like the story that we wish was never ending/We know sometime we must reach the final page.” It says it all. But the real goodbye is in the playing; the song almost sounds like the band are having a conversation with their instruments, saying, “It’s been great.” Collins didn’t announce that he had left the band until 1996, and some fans expressed shock and surprise. But the clues were all in “Fading Lights,” a great epitaph for a great band.
Banks and Rutherford tried to continue on with another new singer, Ray Wilson, for one album, 1997’s Calling All Stations, but the magic was gone. Happily, there was a 2007 reunion tour with Collins back at the mic and behind the kit, and there’s often talk of future projects. But until that happens — if it ever does — “Fading Lights” remains a perfect final wave goodbye for Collins, Banks and Rutherford.