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Genesis - The MAMA Album (1983)

Just a job done: Genesis base a complete album on jam-sessions for the first time

Genesis polarize. Also or especially the fans. This is not a new thing and it has probably been going on all the time. There are moments in the band’s history about which fans like to bicker. One of these points was reached when Genesis suddenly began to enjoy commercial success. How dare they?

The album that achieved this and made Genesis a real stadium band to boot was their self-titled album from 1983. Up to that date the band had had some smaller hits with I Know What I Like, Follow You Follow Me and Misunderstanding, but it was the period around the Genesis album that brought the final breakthrough. Was it the music on the album or was it just that Genesis happened to be en vogue at the time? Perhaps it was also because Phil Collins became ever more popular because of his solo albums. Perhaps the fans were simply happy that Abacab, Genesis’ most experimental phase, was over. The direction in which Abacab had pointed stayed the same, though: Keep off the progressive songs, but do not exclude them completely. Banks, Rutherford and Collins seemed to become better at writing shorter songs as a consequence. They also broke with the custom of occasionally including songs that had been written by only one of them. On Genesis they abandoned that idea, the reason being their respective solo careers. Genesis is the return to a complete group effort – hence the name. It was also to be the first album that was completely recorded at the band’s own studio The Farm. With this new approach to the music and in this new environment Genesis recorded their self-titled album.

The beginning is remarkable: A peculiar drum computer pattern programmed by Mike. The unusual stress on the off-beat, the slightly muffled sound and then Banks’ keyboard set a dark mood for the whole song. Though it begins very simple the song turns into a compact, aggressive piece full of tensions with lyrics about a young man’s obsession with a prostitute. Not really typical Genesis. Phil’s laugh is atypical, too, but, inspired by a rap song by Grandmaster Flash, it made Mama so famous and so special. It seems strange that it was this song that gave Genesis a big chart success in Europe. Mama shows how much Phil’s voice has changed over the years; it is considered one of his best vocal performances ever with his voice more striking than ever. The dark über-lied is followed by merry danceable That’s All, a song based on a neat piano riff. It is about a relationship that simply does not work out. So Collins had lots of credibility in that area, but his vocals change from the slightly ironic tone in the beginning to biting cynicism through to aggressive shouting near the end. The music counters all this by continuing to offer the same merry tune. Those who find That’s All too Collins will be placated by Home By The Sea. With its length of almost eleven minutes (including the near-instrumental Second Home By The Sea) this mystical ghost song has progressive aspects, not least its length. The second half is dominated by the first electronic drums (Simmons) ever to be used on a Genesis album. They provide the powerful rhythmic foundation of the instrumental.

Second Home By The Sea brings the first and predominant half of the album to its end. The second half consists of five pop and rock songs that are (unjustly) easily overlooked: Illegal Alien is an ironic look at the situation of illegal Mexican immigrants who hope for a better life in the US. It is still a popular song with the radio stations despite or because of Collins’ tongue-in-cheek faux Mexican accent. Taking It all Too Hard is this album’s heartache with an excellent drum sound. It’s Gonna Get Better, their attempt at social criticism, may have been uplifting on the Mama tour but it is not nearly as strong on the album. Perhaps there is a threshold when Collins sings falsetto. Just A Job To Do is the story of a Dick Tracy character underlaid with a funky beat. Silver Rainbow is as confusing today as it was back then. It is musically interesting and uses the Simmons drums again. Banks envisioned this as part of something bigger, but in the end it remains a four-minute song about first sexual encounters. Perhaps the boy from the first song has overcome his obsession with a prostitute? Anyway, it pays not too listen too closely to this song.
Though one may have different opinions about some the lyrics, the music on Genesis keeps up the high standard: Phil’s voice is at its best in the early 80s, full and diverse: emotional on Taking It All Too Hard, aggressive on Mama, ironic and Mexican on Illegal Alien, mysterious on Home By The Sea. Mike gets deeper into his role as a lead guitarist and Tony Banks provides the very thing on his keyboards that constitutes the sound of Genesis. It is perhaps all a bit simpler than on previous albums, but not necessarily uninspired.
Genesis the album offers an interesting mix of various styles and contents. While the band took themselves very serious in the early 70s they seem much more relaxed in 1983. The band photo in the booklet shows the guys as stereotypical Mexican immigrants complete with moustache and gelled hair. The album cover is not very serious but betrays a lack of ideas: Yellow shapes (hence the album’s other nickname “Shapes”) that resemble sand moulds in front of a black backdrop.

The album has many fans. Mike Rutherford, too, frequently mentions how much he likes the album. But this cannot gloss over the fact that Genesis had irrevocably begun to develop in a direction few of their long-term fans were prepared to tolerate. Though it is well-produced music it is still AOR music. This is underlined by the fact that four songs were released as singles (Mama, That’s All, Illegal Alien and Taking It All Too Hard). The album has its merits, though, not least because of Mama. After all, the album is also called the “Mama album” by both fans and band members. Home By The Sea turned into a live favourite and became much more intense and aggressive. Yes, Genesis became more radio-compatible. There was still way to go in the pop-direction, and they would walk that way three years later. Genesis is a fine rock and pop album with progressive sprinkles. No need to feel embarrassed for owning or enjoying it.

by Simon Rosenberg
translated by Martin Klinkhardt