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“It isn’t the kind of thing that gets the Tennant toes tapping”: When a Pet Shop Boy reviewed Genesis, Blondie & Elvis Costello live in Smash Hits

“The Smash Hits days were the days of free records, so I would listen to songs that I normally wouldn’t encounter. This was one of them. I liked its energy, and its simplicity, and the fact that it was in thrall to Kraftwerk. Then I went to New York for the first time, and was picked up from the airport by Mike Rutherford of Genesis, whom I was there to interview. The car went through the Midtown tunnel, and just as we hit the toll station [Afrika Bambaataa’s] Planet Rock came on the radio, and I was sick with excitement. New York was scary back then, and you heard Planet Rock everywhere you went. It was wonderful.” — Neil Tennant, the Guardian, 2006 

“I wish someone would shoot Genesis!” — Edina Monsoon, Absolutely Fabulous, 1994

Yo ready for this, Sweeties? Because what follows is the rarely seen article marked Future Pet Shop Boy Quizzes Genesis, from the Smash Hits issue dated September 30 – October 13 (ie the one with Spandau ballet’s Kemp brothers-in-arms as cover stars). 

Nine months into his new role on Britain’s brightest pop mag, the interview wasn’t Neil Tennant’s first for Ver Hits — with chalice aforethought, shiny and new(ish) contemporary duos Yazoo, Soft Cell and Wham! begat those honours — but it was his first international assignment and first time “hanging out” with a hoary old rock band he, by his own admission, had little time for — though, curiously, Tennant was far kinder in his review of the trio’s erstwhile colleague Peter Gabriel’s fourth album (that’s Security in its American incarnation), awarding it seven and a half out of ten.*

History records that it was Neil’’s second trip to the US that was a famously fortuitous event, being sent to review and interview The Police in 1983 that resulted in the Pet Shop Boys recording the first version of West End Girls with disco supremo Bobby Orlando.

Yet a year earlier he tested the water with another British trio. So just put the needle on the record as the “poshie” Geordie collides with three suburban Surrey prog rockers, who boast the not exactly small fry A Flock Of Seagulls, Blondie and Elvis Costello as tonight’s support acts.

In other words, swingorilliant! 


Genesis went forth among the multitude 50,000 screaming Philadelphians to be precise.

Neil Tennant (words) and Mark Rusher (pictures) mingle with the masses.

We were fervent David Bowie fans in our house back in 1973. You couldn’t move for posters of Ziggy Stardust and copies of Hunky Dory. Those were the days when Bowie was pioneering the theatrical presentation of rock music, with outrageous costumes, wild make-up and a painstakingly plotted light show.

Then one night my brother came home saying he’d just seen a band who were “even better than Bowie”. I sneered at the very idea: “Who was it then?” “Genesis.” A few days later he produced a copy of their live album which featured Peter Gabriel wearing what looked like a pyramid on his head. The songs had stupid titles like Return Of The Giant Hogweed. Better than Bowie – huh! I put Aladdin Sane on for the tenth time that day.

Nine years later Mark Rusher and I are sitting on an aeroplane bound for Philadelphia and a mammoth Genesis concert. We pay £1.50 to hear the in-flight music on earphones. The first song is In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins…

Since those heady days of 1973 Genesis have changed a lot. When Peter Gabriel left in 1975 people in the music business prophesied that the band wouldn’t be able to stand the loss of such a startling front man. Instead they went on to greater success.

A couple of years later their guitarist, Steve Hackett, departed, leaving just three of them: Phil Collins on drums and vocals, Mike Rutherford on guitars and Tony Banks on keyboards. People said they’d never hack it without Hackett but they soon developed a neat line in hit singles. Their 70s’ pomp-rock sound has been trimmed down to a leaner, fitter mix. And Phil Collins has, of course, made an incredibly successful solo album, Face Value.

“I’ve just seen Phil C-a-r-l-ins!”

We’ve arrived at our hotel in Philadelphia and very nearly got knocked over by a thrilled young lady. Sure enough, the members of Genesis are standing round in reception waiting to go off to their sound check before the next day’s concert.

Phil Collins looks fit and wiry – rather sporty, really. Mike Rutherford looks like you’d imagine the guitarist in Genesis to look; lanky and bearded. Tony Banks seems quiet and serious. Rusher and I check into our rooms and set out to explore Philadelphia. 

The next day dawns hot and sunny. After lunching on some of those American sandwiches so big you dislocate your jaw trying to take a bite, we head down to the huge J.F.K. stadium, which is already surrounded by teenagers carrying cans of beer and mats to sit on.

“A Flock Of Seagulls are feeling a little under the weather. They need energy. They need your energy. Have you got energy out there?” This is no ordinary concert. For a start A Flock Of Seagulls are playing, to be followed by Blondie and Elvis Costello. It’s an afternoon-and-evening do and you don’t get Genesis until it’s dark.

Backstage we spot various members of Blondie. Their Tracks Across America Tour ’82 tour of America has been getting a mixed reaction with low ticket receipts matching the poor sales of their recent album, The Hunter. The local morning paper has run a feature today beginning: “Debbie Harry is not pretty.” When I catch a glimpse of her, I have to disagree: she is. She takes the stage with her blonde hair tucked into a cap and wearing large, white-framed sunglasses, looking pretty fab. After beginning with a really terrible version of Rapture, Blondie turn out to be the perfect group for a hot summer afternoon.**

Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks are standing backstage watching and they enjoy the set, although Tony finds it “a little limited – it doesn’t vary from a formula.” Both he and Mike are more enthusiastic about Elvis Costello. When he and The Attractions launch into Accidents Will Happen, it’s obvious that they’ll have no problems summoning up their particular intense power. Elvis looks rather incongruous in front of this audience. 

It’s difficult to see how these docile teenagers, raised on a diet of junk TV and bland bands like Foreigner and Boston, can relate to a podgy Englishman in a suit and specs singing Shabby Doll from behind his usual scowl. But somehow they do.

Later I express surprise at the variety of the groups on offer: in Britain you’d never get Elvis and Genesis on the same bill. “I think it’s great,” says Phil Collins, “Because it would be very boring to sit through four bands like us in terms of music.”

Are they surprised by how young many of the audience are? You’d expect Genesis to attract an older crowd: the early ’70s generation ten years later.

“Live audiences are always younger than record-buying audiences,” explains Mike Rutherford. “A lot of them probably only go as far back as Duke and Abacab and the top thirty hits,” says Phil Collins, “which I think is good because we’re appealing to them and we’ve gained more of them than we’ve lost old fans.

At this concert there are over 50,000 people in the audience. How come they’re all so keen on Genesis? “Well, I’ve always found it puzzling, really,” admits Tony Banks. “I think that American music has got so formularised that anything that sounds a little different must be interesting for just that reason.”

Phil agrees: “I think there’s a proportion of them that buy a Genesis album in the same way you. go into a hotel or a restaurant here and they say “Are you English?”- it’s something totally different. And I think the fact that we’ve always had something to look at as well as to listen to has helped.”

Genesis, unlike many of their musical generation, have moved with the times and changed. They have a harder, tauter sound. More of a pop sound. Phil Collins thinks they’re more “accessible”.

“And maybe better at the craft of writing songs – in as much as you say the same thing but in a more astute way. That’s as relevant as being apparently more commercial.”

“We used to write very long songs,” says Mike Rutherford, “very intricate, complex stuff. We had to change to avoid caricature of ourselves. “It would be easy for us just to go out and do a rehash of the stuff we were doing in the early ’70s because there’s still a big market for that and there aren’t many people filling the gap,” says Tony Banks. “It’s more of a challenge for us to do a few different things that we didn’t do around that time.

Phil Collins’ solo success must have had an effect on the group as well, I supposed. He’s proved he can knock out top ten pop songs without any trouble.

“He’s developed a real ear for commercial music,” says Tony Banks. “He has a very good feel for the simpler side of music. Prior to Duke he didn’t really do much writing – he used to do sessions while Mike and I were writing.”

Now the three of them write Genesis songs together, banging out ideas in a rehearsal room. I couldn’t help wondering if Mike and Tony weren’t a little bit jealous of Phil’s rise to solo stardom.

“Initially you can’t help but feel a bit jealous,” admits Mike. “You think ‘My solo album didn’t do very well’ but we’ve been going for so long now, that’s not going to bust us up. I thought ‘Good for him’.

Their solo work is important to each member of the group. Mike has recently released an album called Acting Very Strange on which he sings lead vocals for the first time and which features Stewart Copeland of The Police playing drums. Tony is about to start recording a solo album.

“How many albums can you make a year as a band?” asks Mike. “One, maybe. You need other experiences.”

“Because I’ve had different things to do,” says Phil, “every time I come back to the group, it’s different. I’ve learnt something from some other project I’ve done and I bring that into the group.

The show is nothing if not spectacular. Loud music, bright lights, thick smoke. To be quite honest, a lot of it isn’t really the kind of thing that gets the Tennant toes tapping but this Philadelphia audience lap it up. 

Phil Collins is remarkably skilful at controlling such a huge crowd. He manages to divide them up into two and get each side to shout different things. It’s a bit like a Christmas pantomime. Phil certainly keeps himself busy with “other projects”. Recently he’s produced albums for Robert Plant and Frida (of ABBA) and finished recording his own new solo album, called Hello … I Must Be Going.

By nine o’clock it’s dark and time for Genesis to go on stage. Down in the photographers’ pit where Mark Rusher and I stand it’s almost frightening. Bodies are crushed up against the wire fencing and when Genesis start to play they come tumbling over into the pit. I move smartly into the audience.

The lighting is brilliantly worked out which is just as well because it’s obviously as important as the music to much of the crowd. “If you can’t see the expression on a bloke’s face, at least make the stage look nice.” Phil Collins had remarked earlier.

“For a very big audience, you’ve got to be less subtle. You’ve got to make everything as big as possible.”

Which is why after the final encore of I Know What I Like there’s a big fireworks display. 

Out with a bang. 

© Neil Tennant, 1982

Edited by Steve Pafford

*And on to that PG4 review then…. [** The Philly show would turn out to be Blondie’ last show for 15 years]


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