Somewhere between being one of the biggest but most avant garde (and perhaps a bit pompous) art rock bands of the ’70s and one of the world’s most popular straight-ahead radio-oriented pop bands of the ’80s, Genesis straddled the decades with something a little in between. Duke, their tenth studio album, came out this day in 1980. In their British homeland at least, it’d been released to American markets earlier in that week 40 years ago. While all remnants of their artsy, prog rock passed weren’t entirely erased, it certainly pointed to the direction they would take in the new decade.
Genesis had begun and spent the first half of the ’70s as a quintet, largely under the control of quirky Peter Gabriel. He left the band mid-decade, followed by a guitarist named Steve Hackett, leaving a trio with the balance of power shifting towards drummer (and suddenly singer) Phil Collins. We heard a bit of what that would entail with And Then There Were Three, Duke stepped it up a bit more.
It had been a busy time for the band. It was only two years (to the day in the UK) between albums, and they’d capitalized on their newfound appeal, largely from the single “Follow You, Follow Me” , to tour the world and increase their profile substantially. This however, wasn’t good for home lives and Phil Collins marriage was on the rocks. He put the band on hiatus for a bit in ’79 as he moved to Canada temporarily to try and salvage that relationship, unsuccessfully as it turned out. The divorce that ensued ended up giving him albums worth of material as it turned out. In the downtime, all three were writing music and both Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks (who turned 70 yesterday – belated happy one to him!) would both put out solo records around the same time as Duke; Collins himself wrote a number of tunes that became his first solo, Face Value during the time as well. Surprisingly, what is now seen as his signature song, “In the Air Tonight”, was written for the band and could’ve ended up on this album, but they weren’t keen on it so it was shelved until he put out his own record. That was a bit of an “oops!” but it didn’t really harm the fortunes of Genesis.
When they reconvened at the end of ’79, they each had some songs written and they decided to put some collaborative efforts on the album (including the first single, “Turn it on Again” and “Behind the Lines”) as well as a couple of songs written by each of the individual members. One of Collins’ contributions was the big hit off it, “Misunderstanding.”
They recorded it in Sweden, with the help of producer David Hentschel, whom they’d worked with regularly before. He’d come to prominence in the music world being a studio engineer and playing synthesizer for Elton John on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
Sweden was new for them, but not the idea of recording on “the continent”; they’d made their last couple of studio records in the Netherlands and most of their previous live one in France. By all reports they quite enjoyed the process and found it one of their easiest records to make.
There were little nods to the band’s early days, like the 10 minute piece “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End” which ends the record, and a loose – very loose – concept to the album about a guy called “Albert” who went by the nickname “Duke”, for the most part it was a solid collection of relatively smart, catchy pop tunes.
That might have been a change for the fans, but evidently it was a good one… and the number of fans increased as well. It became the first #1 album for them at home and in Canada as well and in the U.S. it got to #11, likewise their best showing to date. The first single, “Turn it on Again” made it to #8 in the UK and Italy, and deserved a bit better fate over here where it just missed the top 40. However, “Misunderstanding” (which probably set the template for Collins’ work of the following five years) scored them their first American top 20 hit and zoomed to #1 in Canada, while flopping in their homeland.
Critics by and large saw the “new” Genesis as an enjoyable, possibly “new and improved” one. Smash Hits in the UK gave it a so-so 6 out of 10 but Sounds there rated it 4-star, saying Collins sounded “more convincing” than before and that “no Genesis fan could be disappointed.” Rolling Stone found it to have a “refreshing urgency” and singled out “Turn it on Again” as “vibrant rock and roll.” Years later, allmusic gave it 4-stars and called it a “major leap forward” for the band and when they “leaped into the fray” of being pop stars.
Busy ones too. Each member worked on at least three albums (between the band and solo) in the 1979-81 period.