“Like the story that we wish was never ending/ We know sometime we must reach that final page/ And still we carry on just pretending/ That there’ll always be just one more day to go” –Genesis, “Fading Lights” (1991)
How do you replace one of the most charismatic frontmen of all time? How do you know when your time is up?
Over the years, Genesis dealt with their fair share of departures, the biggest of which came in 1974 when their theatric cross-dressing frontman Peter Gabriel left the band to pursue a solo career. Then in 1978, the band endured a lesser but still significant departure of their moody lead guitarist Steve Hackett. Both members played integral parts in the band’s sound and growing popularity in its early stages, but the band endured without them.
The core trio Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, and Tony Banks remained unscathed by these exits. Instead of folding, they matured as songwriters and quickly became one of the biggest bands in the world in the 1980s. Each album sold better than the one before it, and as they climbed the charts, small clubs became arenas and arenas became overflowing stadiums.
For a while, there was no escaping Genesis, especially Collins. The guy could be in London in the morning, Philly in the afternoon, and on an episode of Miami Vice by the evening. Even with the allure of solo success calling for Collins, he remained with the band. Never before had one artist seen that much success both solo and as part of a band at the same damn time. It’s the reason why even today many people still don’t know the difference between a Genesis and Phil Collins song.
Even while Nirvana and grunge threatened to dismantle the foundation of ’80s rock at the turn of the decade, Genesis’ momentum carried on with 1991’s We Can’t Dance. That album sold more than 4 million copies in the US alone, and it even earned them a couple of Grammy nominations. It seemed that as long as Collins was in the mix, the Genesis name would survive.
But that would all change one day in 1996 when, following a long worldwide tour and brief hiatus, Collins decided he had finally had enough. He quit the band to focus full-time on his solo endeavors, ending a 20-year “experiment,” as the band cheekily phrased it in a press release. Once again, Genesis found themselves without a singer. Insistent on carrying on, Banks and Rutherford could’ve chosen anybody in the world, but instead they went in an unexplained new direction.
Ray Wilson was eating breakfast at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland when he got the call. At the time, he was the singer of an alt-rock band called Stiltskin, who played the same type of music Genesis was competing with in the early 90s. Their debut album, The Mind’s Eye, contained a minor hit titled “Inside,” which topped the UK singles chart and apparently was used in a Levi’s commercial back in the day (I do not remember this, but maybe you do). Otherwise, they were pretty unknown in the States. At some point in 1996, a Stiltskin CD landed in the hands of Rutherford and Banks, and they were impressed with 28-year-old Scottish singer. His full, throaty vocal delivery that had a “natural darkness” to it (as they put it), and while Wilson didn’t quite have Collins’ range (to be fair, not many people did), his gruff and rumbling voice resembled Peter Gabriel’s in a way. The duo felt that Wilson’s voice would be well-suited for the darker, proggier direction they wanted to explore on the next album. So, after a brief audition, Wilson had a choice. He could try to build upon the success of “Inside” with Stiltskin (apparently, Interscope was interested in re-releasing The Mind’s Eye in the US, but after some pushback, they signed the band Bush instead), or he could front one of the biggest rock bands in the world. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The choice by Rutherford and Banks was pretty surprising, to say the least. In the past, Genesis had survived potentially devastating lineup changes by looking inward and sticking with the familiar, but neither Rutherford nor Banks had the vocal chops to handle this particular vacancy. Instead, while fans were eagerly anticipating Genesis’ next move, they took a huge risk. By choosing Wilson, this was the first time the band went with a complete stranger. He was such a relative unknown that they might as well have gone through Craigslist. On top of that, they replaced one of the best drummers in the world with two — Nick D’Virgilio and Nir Zidkyahu — and even they had a hard time filling the void. Genesis became a ragtag team of misfits attempting to steer a sinking ship without a real captain.
On September 1, 1997 — 20 years ago today — the band released Calling All Stations, their only album featuring Ray Wilson. It would also be the last album of new music Genesis would ever release. Comprising 70 minutes of music over 11 tracks, the album is a dull drag that feels longer than The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Genesis’ magnum opus double album. While that album was effortlessly dark, strange, and timeless, Calling All Stations felt overwrought and forced; a mix of terribly dated ’90s progressive rock and a few radio-friendly singles. “Congo” and “Not About Us” are pleasant enough, but the rest just didn’t have that spark.
Like Wilson wails in the title track, the band lost all sense of direction. Most of the album was written exclusively by Banks and Rutherford in the years during the band’s hiatus, and by the time Wilson was brought in, it was too late for him to make any sort of meaningful contribution. Because of that, a crucial third element to the chemistry was clearly missing. “Without a third writer, there was no one to glue Tony and me together,” Rutherford wrote in his recent autobiography, The Living Years. “It only hit me then that Phil was the one who reined us both in, took what we did best and found a setting for it.”
Wilson, as decent a singer as he was, had a hard time improvising in the studio. While he came up with a few of the lyrics for “There Must Be Some Other Way,” “Not About Us,” and “Small Talk,” it still wasn’t enough. The album lacked any sort of transcendent hit — that one song that screamed “Genesis.” Even their worst album up to that point at least had “Abacab.” You’d have to think some of the songs on here could’ve benefited from that Collins sheen. “If Phil had been there I just know it would have just taken off and gone somewhere else,” Banks recalled of the songs on Calling All Stations. Collins had a knack for writing a catchy pop song. He provided that extra coat of gloss to Banks and Rutherford’s base structure. Without it, the record suffered.
There are many problems with Calling All Stations, but most notably, there’s simply no way to listen to the album without any pretext. Did anyone really want to listen to a new Genesis record without Phil Collins? With all due respect to Ray Wilson, there was nothing about him that made the record enticing. Calling All Stations had a lot to live up to, and it missed the mark terribly. Collins left a hole too big for Rutherford and Banks to fill, and too deep for them to climb out from. Wilson played the role admirably, but without Collins, audiences simply didn’t have the patience, and neither did the band.
The industry was changing, and in a decade that wasn’t kind to aging rock bands, there was no room for a watered-down version of Genesis. Still, it’s entirely possible Rutherford and Banks would’ve been better off taking their time and working under a different name completely. If they were so adamant about having Wilson become their new singer, they should’ve given him a clean slate. By all means, he is a talented singer, but as a newcomer in a prolific band, the leash was always going to be short. A new name would’ve at least bought The Band Formerly Known As Genesis + Ray Wilson some time to gather a new following and create a sound of their own. It would’ve given the trio of Wilson/Rutherford/Banks some breathing room and a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. Most importantly, it would’ve rid the band of the weight of the Genesis name. Wilson wouldn’t have had the pressure to replicate either of his predecessors in the band. Instead, he was never given time to blossom, and the new band was never fully given the opportunity to gel.
Calling All Stations achieved a dismal 90,000 in US sales, which prompted the band to cancel their Stateside tour due to an uninterested American audience, and plans to record a follow up were scratched. Banks and Wilson were actually willing to record another album, feeling that towards the end of their European tour, the band was beginning to click and feel like a cohesive unit again. But Rutherford had lost any sort of enthusiasm for the project, and so not wanting to waste any more money, as well as anyone else’s time, the band puttered out.
This didn’t exactly sit well with Wilson. “They should never have tried it in the first place if they weren’t prepared to see it through,” said Wilson later on. “If they didn’t have the balls to do it they shouldn’t have done it at all. And they didn’t have the balls to do it, that’s it in a nutshell.”
Yet it’s hard to sit here and blame Rutherford and Banks for at least trying. They’d done it before, and there was no reason to think they couldn’t do it again. From where they were standing at the time, Genesis were still a top-selling rock band, which is why it was so weird to see them become so small so quickly. They faded away without so much as a whimper. Twenty years after Collins’ departure, it’s easy to say that Rutherford and Banks overplayed their hand, but with money still left on the table, how could they not go for it? They just didn’t know how to handle the cards they were dealt, perhaps refusing to even look at them at all.
What’s most frustrating about all this, to me anyway, is that Genesis already had a perfect swan song, “Fading Lights,” the final moment on We Can’t Dance. It’s a sprawling 10-minute epic in which the band mediates on coming to terms with the end of an era. It would be the last time we would hear the trio of Collins/Rutherford/Banks on record firing on all cylinders like they did on the song’s lengthy instrumental breakdown, and it would’ve made for a fitting epilogue. Banks’ lyrics revealed an inner dilemma: was it time move on? It’s kinda sad, in a way. Change is one of life’s biggest challenges we all have to cope with at some point. Clearly, Collins was willing to see the end, but Rutherford and Tony couldn’t let go of the band they started way back when, thinking there’d always be one more day to go. Like an aging athlete, they refused to admit their time was done, and in turn, they became a lesser version of themselves. We’ll always have those great Genesis albums to look back on — everybody has a different favorite — but Calling All Stations will always be that one blemish on the band’s history that’s hard to ignore. In the end, that is its only true legacy.