The Weirdest and Most Divisive of Genesis, According to Tony Banks

“Most of the time we battled it. I tended to win the arguments, so I got a lot of my stuff on. If you like Genesis, then that’s quite a good thing, isn’t it?” Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Angelo Deligio/Mondadori via Getty Images

In the beginning, when …

Just kidding. But perhaps there’s some humor to Genesis the band being as polarizing as Genesis the text, with Tony Banks there since the start as a quiet stalwart of uncompromising originality. He’s a master of the chords, never lacking a solo of epic proportions. Genesis was a progressive band that never stopped progressing, so we’re not here to squabble about which era was best, because Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, and Steve Hackett are always worth celebrating in their own right. Yet you just get the sense, whether putting the stylus down on Nursery Crime or Duke or Invisible Touch, that Banks and his keyboards were their guiding forces.

With Genesis ending their touring career last year, Banks decided to open up the band’s vaults to curate BBC Broadcasts, a new collection of previously unreleased material. It’s a wonderful 53-track set — just don’t expect it to stoke the idea of future projects. “I don’t think there’s anything else left. The well is dry,” Banks tells me. “We can’t tour any more because of Phil’s state, so that’s the end of that. Let’s face it, when we did our last show the most recent piece of music must have been written about 30 years before. That was our era, and anything I do now tends to be independent of Genesis. I’ve been working a lot with orchestral music in the last few years.” When I joke he could’ve used this as leverage to be a guest on Graham Norton to promote the collection, he offers a rare smile and deadpans: “Those programs are awful because you’ve got to be funny.”

The thing is, Banks is pretty funny when he wants to be, despite his public perception as “the serious one.” We recently talked for an hour about the agony and ecstasy of being in Genesis, and his memories are often punctuated with a chuckle or two. By the time we say our goodbyes, he’s willing to admit: “I’m always happy to talk about myself.” As he should be.

Song that doubled as the biggest restart

As far as I’m concerned, the band’s always been carrying on year after year. Different eras, different singers, and different lineups have made less of a difference to me. I carry on doing the next project. But we made a conscious decision with Abacab to slightly get away from the things we’ve been doing for the previous ten or 15 years, in terms of the longer songs and trying to streamline everything. Or make things less dependent on “the big sound.” We returned to that again after, in a way, but it was an important album. It hasn’t ended up being one of my favorite albums for that reason. But it was an interesting thing — the first time we had drums with that sound that Phil became famous for.

A song like “Abacab” was a return to a different era when we were first starting off. More of a rock thing. But my heart is much more in the elaborate stuff, so my favorite song on the album is “Me and Sarah Jane.” It goes different places, has lots of interesting changes, and doesn’t stick around the same idea all the way through. I like songs that do that. Those are the ones that give me the most pleasure.

Weirdest song

“Who Dunnit?” from Abacab. Most of our audience just hated it. But we rather enjoyed it. We knew it was going to cause controversy. I had this Prophet-5 that I abused to create that backing sound. I think I played it so often that Mike and Phil felt they had to do something. Phil went along and wrote this ridiculous lyric that went with it — very repetitive. I actually really enjoy it and I still enjoy it, but it’s a controversial song because it doesn’t fit necessarily with the idea of Genesis. We vary between, I suppose, beauty and atmosphere, as well as a bit of musical accomplishment. It’s got none of those things, apart from just making you sit up and listen.

Some people also didn’t like it because it meant that we kept off a few other pieces. There was a song called “You Might Recall,” which ended up not being on Abacab because we had “Who Dunnit?” instead. It was a lovely traditional Genesis balance thing.

Solo that should’ve been longer

Most people would say the exact opposite. I’ve been criticized many times about my solos going on and on. My solos have always been instrumental passages. They’re like vocals with no vocals, so you’re trying to build up a certain lot of time. One of the first most significant solos I did was “Apocalypse in 9/8” from “Supper’s Ready” on Foxtrot. The way I saw it was to start quite playful and slowly build a bit of menace into it. To come into a big call that you weren’t expecting and then have the incredibly dramatic vocal on top is the icing on the cake. I think it produced one of the strongest moments from the early Genesis catalogue.

I’ve often tried to chop things down a little bit, but I went on as long as I felt the bit required. Sometimes it’s as long as the others would let me. I didn’t do a single solo prior to the album Trespass. I didn’t feel comfortable until then. On Trespass we had the song “Stagnation” — Mike started to play two chords and I found I had something to put on top of them. It opened a door for me. I didn’t feel I was a solo player at all. I was very much a chord and accompanying man, but it opened up the whole world for me in a way.

It was just fun for me to work. I never improvised onstage, but obviously to get to where I got with those solos I did a lot of improvising in the studio. The idea was to try to work out a part from those improvisations and put them together in a way that felt attractive. I’m not a jazz guy. I can’t go out there and just play stuff. I worry too much about the bum notes. The jazz guys don’t worry about the bum notes; they just play them again because that’s how it works. I like the solos in a way to go through, because they often go on moving chord patterns and shapes. As a writer, which is primarily what I think of myself as, that was the most satisfying thing to do.

I don’t really see myself as a virtuoso, but I do like my introduction to “Firth of Fifth.” There are loads of versions of it on YouTube — a lot of people play it better than I ever played it. When I wrote it, it was a development from an idea I had rejected from the Foxtrot album. I found a way of developing it that I thought was quite interesting. Being a person who doesn’t worry too much about time signatures or cue signatures, I just let my hands do exactly what I felt they wanted to do. Once you’ve heard it, it’s natural, and when you hear it with the whole group, they follow it all. I suppose that’s always been a key thing from the early days.

Nerdiest song for keyboardists

“Robbery, Assault and Battery” was the most complex solo I’ve ever done. It was written on a drum riff that Phil had come up with and I thought, “Well, this is a challenge.” I did a certain amount of playing on top of it to see what would happen and then I decided I’d think about breaking up the thing into 13/8. That was fun to do but it’s technical. I wouldn’t want to play that one again, I have to say, so that’s not in the repertoire. It’s similar to “Riding the Scree” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway — a very difficult thing to play. For that reason they’re not necessarily the best songs.

The instruments we had made a difference. Initially it was all written on piano and then we got a Hammond organ. I also wrote quite a bit on guitar and those guitar parts I would transfer to two keyboards. In the early days I would sometimes start off with the keyboards, with Mellotrons and stuff like that, and then I eventually got into the synthesizers. Sometimes when I got a new synthesizer it had a couple of sounds on it, and those sounds suggested a song’s idea to me. Take a song like “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.” It has that marimba on it, which sounds like milk bottles going all the way through it. I just got my Akai sampler at the time and it had that marimba sound preloaded on it. I put it through an echo box and it had this fantastic sound. So I played a whole thing on that, and we wrote the song around it.

Song that deserves more acknowledgment

All of them. Yeah, all of them.

The song that both Phil and I always rate as perhaps our favorite Genesis song is “Duchess” from Duke. I like it because it has a simple lyric — the rise and fall of a female rock star. It’s the first time we ever used a rhythm machine and a drum box. I think it has an incredible atmosphere. I always thought it could have been a hit. We did release it as a single at one point, but it didn’t get far. So I’d rate that as very underrated.

There’s a lot of tracks like that because there’s about a dozen Genesis songs that get the most play on the radio. The tracks that aren’t given that attention are the longer ones. You’d never hear “Supper’s Ready” on the radio now. “Blood on the Rooftops” is a lovely song and you’ll never hear it out of the album context. We’re lucky that 10 percent does get quite a bit of attention, but the other 90 percent doesn’t. I think our best work is actually in that other 90 percent, because — although we’ve written one or two good pop songs — our real strength lies in slightly more adventurous music.

“Turn It on Again” I always thought was an interesting song because it’s on a strange time signature and has unexpected changes. It sounds deceptively simple because the drums are relentless through it. It was a combination of a bit Mike wrote and a bit I wrote. We stuck them together just thinking it would be a link section on Duke and then it turned out so strong that we played it twice and made a song out of it. It’s not an obvious way to put a song together. I think once we got our foot in the door with singles, which happened with “Follow You Follow Me,” the public accepted things like “Turn It on Again” and “Mama.” We ended up getting a lot of radio play for quite a few years, which was great, because it acts like an advertisement for the whole body of work. When people came to the concerts, often the tracks that went down best would be the longer and more ambitious pieces because you have time to build an atmosphere.

It’s funny. There was a moment when we did a charity performance in 1982, and Peter came back to sing. We did early Genesis songs and added “Solsbury Hill” for him, but we also added “Turn It on Again” for us. On that song, Peter went onto the drum kit for double duty, thinking, This’ll be easy. He’s playing along every fourth bar and there’s an extra beat. And sure enough he’s looking at me and saying, “What the hell is going on?” Because it’s not apparent that it’s an odd time signature. It shouldn’t be, really. It’s not like we’re Dave Brubeck trying to do funny time signatures for the sake of it. It’s just what came naturally to us.

Song you’re undercredited for

If you look at the credits as they’re written, I was credited with writing a lot of stuff. On the later albums and on the earlier albums we credited it to everybody — and that meant everybody. In the early days, everyone thought it was always Peter and then by the time we got to the ’80s, it was always Phil. I never liked that. The writing was very much amongst us all. Mike was good at bringing out the simple stuff in me. Sometimes I’d be playing around and he’d say, “That’s good, we should use that.” Even for songs that weren’t obviously keyboard songs. What I’m trying to say is that I’m known for the more complicated songs, like “Home by the Sea” and “Domino (Part 1 and 2)”, but there’s a list of simple songs like “Land of Confusion” and “Invisible Touch” that have quite large elements of my writing in them. Mike and I wrote “Turn It on Again” and “Follow You Follow Me.” Everyone recognizes the keyboard parts and doesn’t think about the parts where the keyboards aren’t dominant, but I’ve been involved in every song. There’s no Genesis song that would’ve sounded anything like it did if I hadn’t been around. If you don’t like Genesis, I’m what you don’t like.

I always wanted a weird chord here and there, which sometimes was my downfall. Definitely on solo projects. But that’s what excited me — if you listen to the opening of “Watcher of the Skies,” you’ve got those weird chords and it’s an incredibly strong atmosphere. It’s not like anybody else. I like that. It’s good to not be like anybody else. If you’re getting confused with another group too often, then what you did probably wasn’t worth doing.

Most competitive album

Most of the time we battled it. I tended to win the arguments, so I got a lot of my stuff on. If you like Genesis, then that’s quite a good thing, isn’t it? I know Steve sometimes found that his ideas weren’t considered as much as mine were. Peter and I used to fight a lot — he’d get bits on, and I’d get bits on, until we’d compromise and stick them together to see what happened. We pulled all the ideas and normally agreed what would go on. The only album where we had any real disagreement about what might end up on it was Selling England by the Pound because both sides were too long. I said to Peter, “I don’t want ‘After the Ordeal’ on this album.” I wasn’t happy with it. And he said he didn’t want the second half of “The Cinema Show” on it because he felt it wasn’t something that we would do. I said, “No, we’ve got to have that on, because it’s really good, interesting, and different.” We ended up putting a whole lot on because that was the only way we could solve that particular argument. I think I was right in that particular argument. “The Cinema Show” definitely had to be there and “After the Ordeal” didn’t.

I’ll tell you one argument that I’m very glad I lost. On “Supper’s Ready,” I had the keyboard solo, “Apocalypse 9/8,” and I’d intentionally put a chord sequence at the front and a chord sequence at the end. Peter was writing the lyrics and wanted to do something on it. He sang on the first sequence and I thought, Oh, God, he’s singing on that. I was angry. But then I realized, No, this is actually something rather good. It ended up sounding fantastic. Then he did the same thing on the final chords. And I really thought, Oh God, not again. You’re going to sing on my bit. He’d done it at the end of “The Musical Box.” But it was very effective. It’s always good when he does it — that’s what’s even more irritating.

Another argument that happened later on was on We Can’t Dance. One of my favorite tracks was “On the Shoreline,” which I was very keen to have on the album. A lot of people liked it. One of Mike’s children thought it was fantastic, and yet, Mike came back and said he didn’t want it on the album. Phil also didn’t want it. Being a democracy, we didn’t have it on, and we ended up having a couple of pretty weak tracks on there — “Way of the World” and “Since I Lost You” could well have not been included. “On the Shoreline” is a really strong track, and I think it could have been a hit.

Most divisive album

That’s difficult. At the time, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a very mixed response. It didn’t sell very well and didn’t get a great reaction. Since then it’s considered something of a classic. From my point of view — and I think from a lot of our points of view — it was a mixed thing. It’s got some great moments on it but perhaps it doesn’t quite deliver at the end. It gets slightly weaker as the record goes on and the final side isn’t the climax that one might have hoped for. When we did “Supper’s Ready” we had a 25-minute piece and it built to a fantastic climax on Foxtrot. Lamb didn’t do that.

From a fan’s point of view, it’s album to album. Some people like Abacab and some people hate it because of what it came before. Some people didn’t like anything after Peter left or after Steve left. I’m happy with all the records. Even the ones that aren’t considered in the same way as the others, like From Genesis to Revelation and Calling All Stations, they’ve all got merit. I can understand why people perhaps don’t rate them as high as some of the others, but I’m not one of those people who doesn’t like what they’ve done. I can always listen back to an old track and get a lot of pleasure from it. I can talk about tracks that no one’s ever heard. There’s one called “The Day the Light Went Out” that I wrote, which is supposed to be about science fiction. It didn’t work at all. It ended up being a B-side of a B-side, so that wasn’t too important. I never liked “After the Ordeal,” which was a nice enough piece when Steve wrote it. But I put this pseudo-classical piano on it that I don’t like, so I don’t listen to it. But even the songs I don’t like I usually don’t mind hearing, because it takes me back to the time we wrote them.

Proudest year with the band

Clockwise from left: The synth smokeshow through the decades. Photo: David Warner Ellis/Getty ImagesPhoto: Paul Natkin/Getty ImagesPhoto: Scott Legato/Getty Images
Clockwise from left: The synth smokeshow through the decades. Photo: David Warner Ellis/Getty ImagesPhoto: Scott Legato/Getty ImagesPhoto: Paul Natkin... Clockwise from left: The synth smokeshow through the decades. Photo: David Warner Ellis/Getty ImagesPhoto: Scott Legato/Getty ImagesPhoto: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

I’m going to give you two years. The first one would be 1972, when we first played a venue called the Rainbow Theatre in London. It was the first time we’d ever used any real visual effects. We just had this curtain behind us, which we’d flukily shine a UV light on it. It suddenly came alive and had an extraordinary look. We played a show there and it was one of the first times we did “Supper’s Ready” on stage. I felt we’d finally moved on to a different level — we’d actually managed to do something worthwhile and we weren’t just up there playing music.

The other one would have to be when we did the Invisible Touch Tour through that period of 1986 and 1987. We did four nights at Wembley Stadium, which is around 80,000 people. I felt that was probably going to be the peak of our career. We were never going to have it better than this. And it probably was. All four days were sunny and the audience was fantastic. Invisible Touch had been out for about a year and it was still in the top ten. It was very, very exciting to be in that position. I’m not really a performer. I’m just up there. But there was something about that particular moment in time that was very strong, looking out at all those people night after night. We were very hot and it was great fun to live through that period, but you know it’s never going to be quite like that again.

For our 2007 reunion tour, we played at the Circus Maximus. It was a free concert and we were playing to about half a million people. That was pretty extraordinary and nerve-wracking. We recorded it as well, which didn’t help, but we got through it. The great advantage of playing in Rome is they don’t really care, and you can play as late as you want. We were able to go on stage when it was dark. Most other European cities would force us to go on when it was light, so the effects of our light show wouldn’t fully be seen until the last couple of songs. When we did Rome it was dark all the way through.

Phil Collins song you wish he gave to Genesis

“In the Air Tonight.” There’s always a dispute about this. Phil reckoned he played it to me when we were choosing songs for Duke. That’s not true. We always knew we wanted “Misunderstanding” and “Please Don’t Ask,” so he took those for us. I think there’s such a great atmosphere about “In the Air Tonight.” But if Genesis had done it, I’d have probably screwed it up. I bet I would’ve added another chord or tried to do something with it and taken it somewhere else. I bet I would’ve said, “Phil, what are you doing, you can’t use just three chords in song.” In a very simplified form, it has an essence of something that Genesis did well, which was a strong and moody atmosphere. That’s my favorite of his songs and always has been. It’s a great piece of music with the greatest drum riff of all time.

Most terrifying ‘Land of Confusion’ music video puppet

There was a program in England called Spitting Image that used puppets as satire. The idea of using them to make a video was exciting because it was a song that had a simple political message in it. I didn’t like the puppet of Prince putting mustard on his tongue. I couldn’t help but turn away, but I wouldn’t say I found any of it particularly terrifying. I thought it was wittily done.

The funniest thing was Spitting Image already had a puppet of Phil. They’d used him once or twice in their program, but he had no eyes because he was always crying. So they had to create a new puppet with eyes for the video. Puppets for Mike and I were created especially for the video and then sold the day afterwards. My puppet turned up at an auction somewhere and everyone said, “Oh, you’ve got to bid on it, go for it.” And I said, “Why do I want it?” There’s someone out there weird enough to want a puppet of me and that’s fine. I think the best thing about the video was that we weren’t in it. It was great because, while Phil is an actor and can hold his own, Mike and I can’t. It won a Grammy — the only Grammy we’ve ever had. And we’re not in it, which is quite funny. It’s funny what gets awards; I don’t really understand it.

Your thoughts on Genesis being a long-running torture device on Top Gear

Top Gear was a fun show. I haven’t seen the program much, but people love to tell me about the moment when Richard Hammond was locked in a car and forced to listen to us. I’ve met Jeremy Clarkson and James May, both of whom like Genesis a lot. I’ve never met Richard. Whether he dislikes us as much as that, I don’t know, but it’s just a bit of fun on the program. It’s like General Noriega being played rock music to get him out of his palace. Yeah, I think it’s great. The only thing I’m pissed off with was when Jeremy did Desert Island Discs, which is a radio program where you choose eight favorite songs of all time that you want to go to a desert island with. He didn’t choose a Genesis song. I thought, “Well, come on, man.”

I never got invited to the Test Track, but I would never do that thing, anyhow. What’s great about it was Mike actually holds the record for the slowest round on the Top Gear circuit. I always believe I could’ve done better than that, but I’m never going to do it. I try to avoid doing anything that’s outside of the music industry. I’m a musician and that’s my main strength, you know what I mean?

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A sample stanza: “Was it you or was it me?
Or was it he or she? /
Was it A or was it B?
Or was it X or Z?”
A terrific Gabriel quote about Banks’s solos: “They start in prehistoric times and move swiftly into the future.” It peaked at No. 46 in the U.K. Singles Chart. Tragically, no footage from the performance exists. It was the only occasion when Gabriel reunited to play with the band. He would go on to attend Genesis’s final show in May 2022 as a spectator. Other pop-culture puppet figures included in the video are Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Benito Mussolini, Bob Hope, and Madonna. “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” is the torture song of choice. It’s very funny and you can watch it here.
The Best & Most Divisive of Genesis, According to Tony Banks