On a cold and rainy night in October 1982, the ‘classic’ line-up of Genesis reunited for a one-off gig at Milton Keynes Bowl. The show was organized to raise money for their former singer, Peter Gabriel, who was facing financial difficulties after the failure of the first WOMAD concert, which he was the organizer of.
Genesis’ set that night consisted mostly of songs from Gabriel’s time with the group. However, modern day Genesis (now the trio singer/drummer Phil Collins, keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford) had scored big in the summer of 1980 and. Turn It On Again. So while the Milton Keynes show was a celebration of Genesis in all their 70s glory, it would have been churlish not to play it.
Gabriel agreed to swap roles with Collins while singing a big hit. Gabriel could play the drums – and, after all, how hard was it to play the drums on one of Genesis’ pop songs? As it turns out, it’s more complicated than Gabriel thought.
“It was typical Peter: ‘Oh, I can play this,'” Tony Banks says now. “But as soon as he started playing, he kept looking around saying: ‘Oh man!’ Turn It On Again does funny things; it is indeed a song of Genesis.”
What Gabriel hadn’t noticed was that the song was 13/8. “That made it like a fun game,” Rutherford recalled. “Peter would think he’d reached the end, and suddenly we’d be off again.”
When Collins succeeded Gabriel as lead singer in 1975, the band’s music began to change. Gabriel had sung about alien invasions and man-eating plants; on Collins’ watch, songs slowly began to address more human emotions. When guitarist Steve Hackett quit in 1977, Genesis were down to three men, but he scored their biggest single yet with a simple love song. Follow Me, Follow Me.
Collins’ influence on his bandmates was obvious. “Phil’s songs had a lovely, easy feel to them,” said Rutherford. “Phil was able to let the song breathe.”
This inspired Rutherford and Banks to think differently as songwriters. One result was Turn It On Againthe song that turned Genesis from a successful rock band into a worldwide single.
The song began life in the summer of 1979 at Collins’ home in Surrey. The singer’s marriage to his wife Andrea had just broken up and he had taken their children to live in Vancouver. Collins converted two bedrooms into studio-cum-rehearsal spaces and invited his bandmates in while they wrote their next album. Duke.
Turn It On Again it was created from two different musical ideas. “Mike was conflicted,” explains Banks, “and I had a part in the song that says: ‘I can show you, I can show you…’ Both were rejected from our solo albums.” (Bank A Feeling of Desire he had just come out; of Rutherford Smallcreep Day would follow in February 1980.)
Collins listened to Rutherford’s riff and suggested they speed it up. “The initial crack was very thick and heavy and slow,” recalls Banks. “Once Phil added it, it sounded better.”
Originally, though, the riff was intended as a bridge between some of the longer tracks on the new album. “We were ready Behind the Lines, Duke’s Travels and The Duke’s End, and we thought it would fit in there, until we realized it was really cool to use as a link. Our solution was to play the riff twice, paste my last part and then write a song around it.”
“Making Turn It On Again and Duke it was a happy time for Mike and I,” Banks adds. “But Phil was in the throes of a very painful divorce.”
“I was living alone … things had gone a little out of whack, drinking too much,” Collins said in 2007. “But I have very good memories of those training days.”
With his wife and children gone, Collins had thrown himself into his work with Genesis and anyone else he would be with. Earlier that year he had recorded with the jazz-fusion side project Brand X with singer-songwriter John Martyn, putting together several ideas for what would become his debut album, 1981. Face Value.
Rutherford wrote Turn It On AgainThe lyrics – a classic story of someone who is so obsessed with watching TV that he starts to confuse it with real life – but Collins imbued it with his own personality. “Duke it was the first album where Phil started to sound like a real singer,” said Banks.
Rutherford had written the riff for the song on bass pedals, using echoes for every other note as it was too tiring to play. But when it came to recording the song, at Stockholm’s Polar Studios in the winter of ’79, he wanted to do it right. Rutherford sat on the studio floor, pounding the pedal with his fist: “And when I got tired, Phil took over.”
What did their combined pounding of the bass pedal lead to? A rolling stone a magazine that later called it “smart rock’n’roll”, and a radio-friendly pop song. Yet despite its memorable hook and chorus, Turn It On Again he was a Trojan horse – listen closely and you can hear the strange Genesis of the past in its transitional rhythm.
The song was released on March 8, 1980, spent six weeks in the UK chart and finally reached No.8. Duke, meanwhile, gave Genesis their first No.1 album. “It took us all by surprise,” Banks admits. “But it’s a great song. And Duke is one of my favorite Genesis albums.”
From here on, Genesis slowly moved out of the shadows of the rock and into the arenas of the world. Turn It On Again it would be a staple of every Genesis show after that. There’s just one problem, as Peter Gabriel learned to his cost. “You can’t dance or clap to it,” warns Banks, “because of the time signature. When we play it live, you can see the audience is always fascinated.
You have been warned.