Career Killers: “Calling All Stations” by Genesis

In honor of Genesis’s recently announced reunion tour, let’s take a look at the band’s most recent (and in all likelihood, final) studio album, 1997’s Calling All Stations — an epic flop that broke up the band and is considered to be the red-headed stepchild of its discography. In other words, it’s no son, it’s no son of theirs. (Sorry. That’s the last pun, I promise. That’s all.)

While there have been a number of established bands that have successfully replaced a lead singer and gone on to greater heights, there aren’t many that have done it by promoting from within. The list is pretty much Pink Floyd and Genesis (if you count Joy Division/New Order as one entity, then they would be the third entry on that list).

Like Pink Floyd, Genesis seemed to revolve around its original, larger-than-life frontman — in this case, the dynamic showman Peter Gabriel, who was known for his flamboyant theatrical performances punctuated by a series of outlandish and outrageous costumes. Even though Genesis had a fairly democratic and collaborative songwriting process, by virtue of being the frontman, Gabriel was often singled out as the creative genius behind the band. And just like when Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd, many people thought Genesis would fail after Gabriel exited in 1975 to start a solo career.

Instead, drummer Phil Collins stepped up to the mic and the band exploded in popularity in the 1980s, experiencing the kind of sustained mainstream success that had eluded the band during the Gabriel era. The band had never gone platinum in the U.S. with Gabriel as lead singer; with Collins, it managed a string of six consecutive RIAA-certified platinum albums between 1978 and 1991, highlighted by its best-selling album, the 6x platinum Invisible Touch (1986).

Indeed, the 80s were very kind to current and former members of the band. Gabriel became a legitimate pop superstar, dominating the airwaves and becoming a mainstay on MTV with his eye-catching and innovative music videos. Bassist-turned-guitarist Mike Rutherford managed a few hit singles with his Mike + The Mechanics side project. Throw in a BPI-gold certified solo album for keyboardist Tony Banks, and a gold-selling album from former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett as part of progressive supergroup GTR, and it seemed as if being associated with Genesis gave you a license to print money.

Collins, of course, towered above all of his current and former bandmates, going supernova as he released several monster albums and singles (his 1985 album, No Jacket Required, sold nearly double what Invisible Touch managed). As the 80s progressed, he impressively balanced his demanding solo career with his commitments to Genesis, while even finding time to dabble in acting.

Soon, his fame eclipsed that of the band, and in 1996, he decided to quit, leaving behind some pretty big shoes to fill — arguably much larger than Gabriel’s had ever been. This time, Genesis couldn’t promote from within, as neither remaining members Rutherford nor Banks were capable lead singers. As such, they had to bring in someone from outside the band — but given how easily they had experienced one successful lead singer transition there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it again.

After lengthy auditions, Rutherford and Banks picked Ray Wilson to be their third lead singer. The then-28 year old Scottish singer, who had been the frontman for alternative-rock band Stiltskin, sounded similar to Gabriel, which meant the band could dust off a lot of its older stuff for the tour. On the other hand, his voice was lower than Collins’, so the band had to transpose its songs to a lower key — which made for a weird thought experiment of how it might have sounded if Gabriel had sang the Collins songs.

However, it was clear that Wilson was not being brought in as an equal partner — at least, not yet. According to Wilson, he signed a contract for two albums. That first album, though, had already been mostly written by Rutherford and Banks, leaving Wilson with little opportunity to contribute creatively. While the incumbent members of the band were good, capable songwriters, they, admittedly, had trouble writing without Collins, who had often served as a mediator and editor.

It definitely shows. As with most albums in this series, this one has its share of defenders and has amassed a cult following over the years. I don’t know why, though. Clocking in at 67-plus minutes, this album is a bore and a real slog to get through. I’ve never been much of a Genesis fan (I can see why some critics called them “Genesnooze“) but at least both the Gabriel and Collins-led incarnations have been interesting.

Calling All Stations, however, is completely forgettable and sounds exactly like what it is: An uninspired band that should have called it quits but decided to put forth a half-hearted and half-rate record in a misguided effort to prove it could succeed without its superstar frontman.

Musically, the album lacks any kind of cohesion or consistency. According to Banks, Rutherford tended to skew pop while he liked longer, more experimental songs. As such, Calling All Stations sounds like two different halves of an album with mainstream alterna-pop/rock songs like lead single “Congo,” the title track, second single “Shipwrecked,” third single “Not About Us” and “Small Talk” alongside longer, prog-style pieces like “Alien Afternoon,” “The Dividing Line,” “One Man’s Fool” and “There Must Be Some Other Way.” It’s a formula that has worked for them in the past (Invisible Touch, for instance, combined the pure pop stylings of the title track, “In Too Deep” and “Throwing it All Away,” the more cynical “Land of Confusion” and the eclectic epic “Domino”).

But this time, it just falls flat and makes it sound like Genesis can’t decide if it wants to update its sound to continue being FM stars or go back to its progressive roots. On the other hand, the album’s lyrics are actually quite uniform and consistent, in that they are quite dark and probably reflect the state that Rutherford and Banks were in as they struggled with life without Phil. Arguably, Calling All Stations is a concept album about a band that is utterly miserable and rudderless.

For instance, the title track, which was primarily written by Rutherford, opens with these lines: “Calling all stations/ Can anybody tell me, tell me exactly where I am?/ I’ve lost all sense of direction/ Watching the darkness closing around me/ Feeling the cold all through my body.” “Congo,” a song that’s been described as “two people who cannot get along with each other in their relationship, leaving them to want to be rid of each other and as distant as possible” opens thusly: “You say that I put chains on you/ But I don’t think that’s really true/ But if you want to be free from me/ You gotta lose me in another world.”

“Shipwrecked” is an apt title for a song about feeling out-to-sea with nothing on the horizon. “I feel shipwrecked/ I might as well be shipwrecked/ I’m helpless and alone/ Drifting out to sea/ I can’t believe what you said to me.”

Even a song like “Alien Afternoon,” which harkens back to some of the band’s earlier stuff by utilizing fantasy and supernatural imagery as parables or metaphors, in this case, an alien masquerading as a human and feeling out-of-place and isolated, furthers the overall theme of the album.

This album isn’t completely terrible. “Congo” is a decent song and shows Wilson at his best. Perhaps that’s because, according to Banks, they wrote the song, then heard the latest Stiltskin album, thought it would be perfect for Wilson and invited him to audition. I like “Not About Us,” but it sounds more like something you’d hear on a late 90s alterna-rock station alongside bands like Staind and Lifehouse. In fact, both Banks and Wilson have praised the song while pointing out that it doesn’t sound like Genesis (Wilson has said that the Rutherford-penned piece, at first glance, sounds a bit like Mike + The Mechanics).

Perhaps the best song on the album is “The Dividing Line,” which shows off some excellent interplay between Banks’s dominant keyboards, Rutherford’s complimentary power chords and Nir Zidkyahu’s intricate, pulsating drumming (Zidkyahu does a great job, but you wonder what Collins would have been able to do with this). Apparently, this was supposed to be the closing song on the album, but they moved it up because, in Banks’ words, “the feeling was that a lot of people didn’t listen to albums as consecutively as they used to, and in that context we wanted to make sure that they got to that song not too late.” Maybe that was a subtle admission they knew this record wasn’t very good. After all, they’ve never had to worry about their fans quitting before reaching the end of the album, right?

It makes you wonder why they even bothered — especially since Wilson brings little to the table creatively or vocally. As Rutherford pointed out, both Gabriel and Collins had a way of taking a song to soaring heights — something that Wilson didn’t, or couldn’t, do. “The only thing Ray lacked [as a vocalist] was that both Peter and Phil could let rip towards the end of a song,” said Rutherford. “In the last quarter they would improvise, screech, and just go for it. Ray could never quite do that, it’s not his thing. He doesn’t improvise and go mad, which has always been part of what we have done with singers.”

During the ensuing tour, which saw the band perform on a bare bones stage without any theatrics or effects, Wilson’s limitations really came to the forefront. While he did a decent job with the Gabriel material, his renditions of Collins’ songs often fell flat. Lacking Collins’ buoyant style or range of expression (say what you about him, and plenty of people have, but few singers can go from bouncy and happy to anguish and despair as quickly or effectively as Phil Collins), Wilson’s versions often sounded dour and dark. Not to say that it couldn’t have worked, but it only added to the general sense that this band needed to be put out of its misery.

And, indeed, that’s what happened. Calling All Stations flopped in the U.S., debuting at #54 on the Billboard chart before quickly falling off en route to a dismal 90,000 in sales (in contrast, We Can’t Dance, the last album with Collins, debuted at #4 and went quadruple platinum). The record did slightly better in the U.K. and Europe, hitting #2 in the mother country, but also failed to reach the levels of previous albums.

As such, after a European tour, Genesis ended up canceling its American dates due to poor ticket sales. The band broke up soon afterwards, as Rutherford decided not to go through with the second of Wilson’s contractually obligated albums. Wilson, for his part, has managed to carve out a decent career performing his own music alongside numerous Genesis covers. Despite that, he doesn’t have fond memories of his time in the band.

“It was too corporate and I never felt comfortable because of the class difference,” Wilson told The Scotsman in 2007, after Collins, Rutherford and Banks reunited for a successful tour. “But when something like that comes along, it’s hard to say no. I’m often asked if I regret working with them. And I do.”

His former bandmates seem to regret it too — at least when it comes to recording Calling All Stations. When the five members of the classic lineup reunited in the studio in 1999 to record a new version of “The Carpet Crawlers,” the plan had been to include Wilson in the project so that all three lead singers would have a part on it. However, Wilson had recently left so they stuck with Gabriel and Collins.

In the years since, they’ve acknowledged him even less. Wilson wasn’t inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the others, and his entire tenure was ignored in the 2014 Genesis: Together and Apart documentary, which featured the five together on camera for the first time since Gabriel left the band. For its 2014 R-Kive boxed set, the band saw fit to include several fairly obscure solo numbers from Banks and Hackett, but only one song from Calling All Stations made the cut (the title track).

And it goes without saying that the band has played none of the Wilson songs since the Calling All Stations tour came to an abrupt and premature end, and probably won’t do so on its 2021 reunion tour. Then again, Wilson is touring Europe this summer, so if you have a burning desire to hear these songs live, then feel to venture to Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia.