Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 29, 2004)
Back in the Eighties, Phil Collins emerged from the shadows of Genesis as a powerful solo success. He really broke through in 1985 with No Jacket Required, an enormous hit that took him to the heights of the charts and made him one of the era’s main stars. His popularity seemed to eclipse that of the band with whom he first hit it big, as Genesis started to feel like something of an afterthought.
Or maybe not. To me, it always seemed like Collins was substantially more popular in the mid-Eighties than Genesis, a fact somewhat borne out by the sales of their 1986 release, Invisible Touch. While the album did well, it didn’t match up with the success of Jacket, and Genesis began to come across as Collins’ ugly stepsister.
Although Collins sold more records on his own than with the band, the situation reversed when it came to their touring success. Unquestionably, Collins moved a lot of tickets as a solo act, but he couldn’t compete with the sales ability of Genesis. Very few acts ever have been big enough to play stadiums, but Genesis did just that in 1987.
In fact, the group proved so popular with concertgoers that they did a whopping four shows at London’s famed Wembley Stadium. This moved about 288,000 tickets in all, which remains a pretty remarkable feat. Granted, it doesn’t compare with the roughly 750,000 tickets Bruce Springsteen sold in New York/New Jersey during 2003, but it still seems terrific, especially for a band that started as a rather quirky progressive rock effort.
By 1987, however, Genesis remained prog rock mostly in name, as Collins’ pop tendencies dominated their work. Live at Wembley Stadium documents their highly successful four-night stand and also shows the two sides of Genesis, as it highlights both their pop tones and their more offbeat work.
When we look at the DVD’s setlist, we find a mix of sources, most of which favored the band’s then-recent history. They toured behind Touch, and it provided six songs: the title track, “Land of Confusion”, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, “The Brazilian”, “Domino” Parts 1 and 2, and “Throwing It All Away”. The band’s prior effort was 1983’s Genesis, and from it we got “Mama”, “Home By the Sea”, and “That’s All”. 1981’s Abacab presented the title track, and 1980’s Duke gave us “Turn It On Again”. From the band’s Seventies work, all we found was “Los Endos” from 1976’s Trick of the Tail, their first album after the departure of Peter Gabriel. (“Drum Duet” is nothing more than a live instrumental showcase with no album connection.)
Although I prefer Gabriel to Collins as a solo artist, I feel differently about the incarnations of Genesis they led. I have no interest whatsoever in Gabriel-era Genesis, and although I’m not nuts about the band with Collins at the helm, I definitely prefer their work. I don’t own much Genesis, but everything I have - Duke, Abacab and Genesis - comes from the Collins era.
Unfortunately, I think they started to flounder once Collins made it really big on his own. Invisible Touch was and remains a pretty weak album, though some of the tracks have their moments. I can’t stand the rinky-dink title song, and although the tune of “Land of Confusion” seems decent, it suffers from its dated Reagan-era politics. “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” comes across as overwrought but still fairly good, while “Throwing It All Away” presents a fairly average Collins ballad. Others tried to recapture the band’s more experimental side but just seemed thin and pointless.
Happily, the non-Invisible Touch material seems more satisfying. Though erratic, Genesis may be the band’s most consistent Collins-era album, and I really like “Mama”, “That’s All” and “Home By the Sea”. Both “Abacab” and “Turn It On Again” also present pretty terrific tunes. These help balance out the less compelling mid-Eighties songs, though it remains too bad that Genesis didn’t present a more diverse range of tunes.
Do the band bring any of these numbers to life in a new way during the live performances? The band finds core members Collins (drums and vocals), Mike Rutherford (guitar), and Tony Banks (keyboards) abetted by drummer Chester Thompson and bassist/guitarist Daryl Stuermer.
I saw Genesis during their 1987 tour when they did a show at DC’s RFK Stadium. I remember virtually nothing about this concert, which might give you an indication of how memorable it was. Frankly, a stadium simply seems like too big a setting for this sort of group, especially since they do very little to open up the stage. They used no real theatrical deliver the visuals to the cheap seats, which makes this a dull concert to watch most of the time.
Collins does display a fairly charismatic personality, but it can take him only so far in this big a place. Someone like Springsteen does fine in stadiums because he’s a big, physical presence. Collins falls more into a stand-up comic mode, and that fails to translate well to such a large environment. The theatrics espoused by Gabriel would have worked better, as the Collins-led Genesis doesn’t have enough gusto to fill an enormous venue.
Musically, the show seems more than adequate. As already noted, the concert relies heavily on Genesis’ Eighties songbook, which makes sense for a number of reasons. For one, they wanted to emphasize the better known material, as huge audiences don’t often sit still for obscurities. In addition, the setlist favors the band’s more pop-oriented side, which also works better in this setting. I can’t imagine extended esoteric tracks going over well in front of 70,000 people.
The band help embellish the recorded tracks nicely. For the most part the arrangements stay fairly close to the original versions, but they open them up a bit and give them a little more life. As for those Invisible Touch songs I never much liked, they fared okay. “Domino” feels too plodding for the stadium and “Brazilian” also falls flat, but most of the others work as big sing-alongs. The grand audience reception helps overcome some of their flaws.
For the most part, director Jim Yukich replicates the concert with reasonable accuracy. He doesn’t favor quick-cutting and gimmicks, so we see the material displayed in a fairly concise and logical way. At times this makes it a little on the dull side, but I must admit there’s only so much Yukich can do to overcome the naturally low-key nature of the stage presentation.
All of this makes Live at Wembley Stadium a reasonably enjoyable document of a remarkable concert stand. I can’t say much about it stood out to me as terribly memorable or exciting, but the show presented a mix of good songs and somewhat bland ones and seemed like a generally entertaining experience.