Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
It is extremely rare for a well-known band to survive the departure of their lead singer, not to mention achieve even greater mainstream attention. As Chris Salewicz posited in Gig in 1977: “If Mick Jagger were to quit the Rolling Stones or Robert Plant were to leave Led Zeppelin, there doesn’t seem to be the least possibility that either band would – as Genesis has done since lead vocalist Peter Gabriel split the outfit in 1975 after several albums – retain its status or actually increase its popularity.” It would seem even more unlikely for the band to find that new, star figurehead in the recesses of the stage line-up, hidden behind a few toms, a bass drum and some cymbals. And yet, the unlikely transformation of Phil Collins from drummer to lead vocalist of Genesis in the mid-seventies corresponds with the band’s own transition into mainstream commercial success. Further, the band somehow manages to maintain its artsy, prog-rock aesthetic all while venturing into the world of pop stardom. This can be seen especially with the band’s 1980 hit single “Turn It On Again”, from their album Duke. Despite its complex musical structure and unusual lyrical content, “Turn It On Again” broke the top ten in the UK and has remained one of the bands most loved tracks.
By the time Genesis had come together to record Duke, the band had nine albums and over a decade of experience under their belt. In the early seventies, Genesis had earned a reputation, and a cult following, for writing long and complex compositions with progressive sounds and theatrics. Gabriel’s departure in 1975, and guitarist Steve Hackett’s in 1977 certainly affected the band’s dynamic and sound, as they shifted towards a more pop oriented style. The band’s commercial success only grew with this shift and Collins on the mic; 1978’s …And Then There Were Three (Genesis’ first album after Hackett left the band) produced the band’s first UK top ten single, “Follow You, Follow Me”. While the band achieved remarkable success – the album hit number 3 in the UK and number 14 in the US – the band members have often described it as a difficult album for them both creatively and dynamically.
A short hiatus in 1979, allowed Tony Banks and Mike Rotherford to put out their own solo albums while Collins’ moved to Canada in hopes of repairing his failing marriage. When Collins returned to the UK later that year and gathered with his bandmates to work on Genesis’ next album, the band felt revitalized and cohesive. In the midst of recording Duke, Banks told Sounds in October 1979, “I think a lot of it is down to not having worked together for a while…Good ideas are coming out in rehearsals which hasn’t happened for some time.”
“Turn it On Again” is a phenomenal example of what could come out of this time of working and writing together. It evolved out of various pieces of material that the band had developed for other projects. In 2009, Banks explained:
“Mike wrote the main riff on ‘Turn It On Again’, which is really what is best about the song. We kind of put that bit – the bit he didn’t use on Smallcreep’s Day, curiously enough – with the bit I didn’t use on A Curious Feeling, and put these two together. We made it much more rocky, both bits became much more rocky, my bit was a bit more epic, and Mike’s bit was a bit slower and a bit more heavy-metal. And then Phil gave it a much more straightforward drum part (perhaps neither of us would ever have thought that we would want that on that bit) and it made it into something much better, I think.”
Rutherford’s infectious riff is the first deceptively simple element of the song. Its driving pulse hides a complex rhythmic structure. Rutherford explained that he only realized the hidden complexity, when Phil suggested that he play the riff at a faster speed: “…and then he said to me, ‘Do you realize it’s 13/8?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean it’s in 13? It’s in 4/4, isn’t it? ‘No, it’s in 13.” There’s a few ways to interpret the meter, but it comes down to a constant and smooth shift between alternating groupings of 4, 5, 6 and 7. And yet, Collins’ seemingly straightforward drum part completely masks the challenge of these tricky changes.
Collins’ vocal melody and performance also perfectly compliment the instrumentals’ dynamic drive, making the uneven phrasing seem natural and balanced. His passionate performance draws out Rutherford’s philosophical lyrics, telling the story of a man raised on television who is unable to distinguish the technological medium from reality.
In the four years since Gabriel’s departure, Collins had proven his vocal talent in recording and live performance, but it was not a role that came easy at first for the now-legendary singer. Looking back he explained: “You’re singing someone else’s lyrics mostly, so you feel like you’re playing a part…The emotion didn’t come from you. Peter used to do that effortlessly, but I found it hard. However, he found a completely new level of comfort and connection with “Turn It On Again” and the Duke album. Banks reflected,”After all those vocals he did on his demos, Duke was the first time Phil really sounded like a singer, a total singer.”
Finally, Genesis’s transition from Gabriel to Collins – from progressive rock legends to pop superstars – was, in many ways, guided by the steady hand and influence of producer David Hentschel. In addition to his skills in the studio, Hentschel’s musical training and talent made him an extra valuable asset at Trident studios. He became the first programmer and session synthesizer player in the UK and played synth on iconic tracks like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and “Funeral For a Friend” (both in 1972).
Hentschel’s first project with the group was A Trick of the Tail (1976) corresponded with Collins shift to lead vocalist. Reflecting on that album, Collins credited Hentschel with fostering a new sound and energy when the band entered Trident studios to record: “We go into Trident with a new co-producer, Dave Hentschel, and record at a cracking pace. We’re really pleased with these songs. They’re sounding strong, fresh and a bit different. We feel like a new band, and we’re sounding like it.” He continued with the band through all their following albums, ending with Duke.
Over the past four decades, Genesis has created a legacy for fusing artistic brilliance with great pop songwriting. In 2010, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have received numerous awards and recognitions including Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Mojo Awards (2008) and the Progressive Music Awards (2012).
“Turn It On Again” marks an important period in the development of Genesis with Banks, Rutherford and Collins coming together to reimagine the band’s songwriting and sound. It also showcases the trio’s ability to write captivating popular hits which retain the band’s reputation for artistic creativity and complexity. “Turn It On Again” continues to be a fan favorite to this day and has been performed at every Genesis show since it’s release.