Back Off, Jerk: ‘Invisible Touch’ and the Misconceptions of ’80s Genesis

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To many listeners, Genesis’ 13th LP, 1986’s Invisible Touch, epitomizes everything that was wrong with popular music in the ’80s: The album’s production is as unctuous and compressed as Strawberry Shortcake lip-gloss; the songwriting is as tasteful as Bill Cosby’s sweaters; and the overall concept is as commercial as Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Nonetheless, Invisible Touch was also the first cassette tape I ever bought, so maybe that’s why I have a soft spot for it — at least in my head. You never forget your first true love, do you?

Listening to the album now, I am struck not by gooey nostalgia but by how effective the tunes actually are. The title track conveys the giddiness of new love (darkened, admittedly, by some misogynistic fears). “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” throws you deep in the claustrophobic jungle of addiction in search of an angry fix. “Throwing it All Away” evokes the sour feelings of a man who realizes he can’t save his marriage — kind of like an ’80s update of Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” And so on.

So why has this album acquired such a bad rap? The answer can be found in a few misconceptions regarding pop music and the band’s overall motives.

Misconception #1: Invisible Touch was a cynical ploy to earn gobs and gobs of American yuppie cash.

The line of thinking goes like this: The music on this album is so far from the prog-o-licious epics the band issued with Peter Gabriel at the helm that the remaining band members couldn’t possibly have been sincere. (Regarding the shift from “Supper’s Ready” to “Invisible Touch,” we might say that it was like Meshuggah collaborating with Pharrell Williams on the soundtrack for Despicable Me 3. Actually, that might sound pretty cool. Somebody make some calls.) But this argument falls flat on its face when you listen to the urgency in Phil Collins’ voice and the multi-layered soundscapes created by keyboardist Tony Banks — the band was clearly committed to these songs.

Furthermore, while Gabriel spat out some subtle social commentaries during his tenure with the band, he never penned a protest anthem like “Land of Confusion” for a Genesis album. (“Get Em’ Out by Friday” is political story song, but it’s not an anthem.) Personally, “Land of Confusion,” and the puppet-addled video that mocked Ron and Nancy Reagan, played a crucial role in my progression from a kid who thought Jack Kemp should be president to the pinko-commie-liberal I am today.

It is true, of course, that the band sold the rights to “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” to Michelob for a commercial, but if this really bothers you, I invite you to go back to cuing up “Repeater” on your Fugazi LP. After all, even U2 — the most self-righteous band of its generation — has been at the beck and call of Apple for years.

Misconception #2: The songs are uninspired pop pap.

Back in high school, when I was still in the closet about my forbidden love for Invisible Touch, I was complaining about the album’s insipidness to my one proggy friend. (This guy was a serious prog-nerd. He had not only read all the liner notes to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway but also claimed to understand them!) He surprised me, saying “Well, there is ‘Domino.’ That’s pretty good.” Indeed, the “Domino” suite is the best bit of prog Genesis produced after guitarist Steve Hackett left the band. In terms of melodic invention, dramatic shifts in tone, and driving energy, it’s head and shoulders above “Duke’s Travels.” “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” may follow the traditional ABACAB (not ABACAB) structure — but dig the way the drums contribute to the melody, how the keyboards help keep time. There’s some depth here, after all.

Misconception #3: Real musicians play real instruments.

The above declaration was the mantra of old white men in the ’80s who were appalled by the use of sampling in rap. These guys were the children of the Stalinist folkies who went ape-shit when Dylan went electric and the fathers of the hold-outs who insist on buying their dad-rock on CD instead of through iTunes. More to the point, this misconception was also aimed at musicians who used synthesizers to simulate trumpets, violins, drums, and the like. The feeling, I think, was that synthesized sounds were a pale imitation of the real thing — sort of like when you go into K-Mart looking for a wooden spoon and come out with a flimsy plastic one.

Look, I can’t blame anyone for disliking a drum machine. If you want to hear drums with depth and resonance, a drum machine is woefully insufficient. However, I think it is better to view the use of a drum machine as an aesthetic choice rather than the degradation of “real” music. (For the Baudrillard eggheads out there, I am saying that the sounds on Invisible Touch are a 4th stage simulacrum.) Simulated drums are lighter and more malleable. Synthesizers expand the palate of orchestration for musicians, and more of a few “classic” artists became enamored of them (including Stephen Stills and Jerry Garcia). A synthesizer doesn’t replace a trumpet; it’s just something else we can listen to (or not).

From this perspective, we can regard the glossy ’80s sound of Invisible Touch as a choice. Yes, the keyboards on the title track are candy wrapper thin, but the song is about ebullience at the start of a relationship. The guitars and keyboard on “Land of Confusion” sound like a video arcade because the song is directed to the wasted youth that hung out there. The contrast between industrial noise and the downy soft keyboards on “The Brazilian” signifies hope in the face of the Thatcher-Reagan world order. Meaning follows form, even if that form is the aural equivalent of a Benetton rugby.

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I’ve always thought of ’80s pop-rock as the music of survival against sinister forces. The idealism of the ’60s had crumbled a long time ago, and the hedonism of the ’70s had taken its toll. We’re talking about subsistence listening here. So even though Invisible Touch doesn’t scale the heights of Genesis’ early epic masterpieces, it still chronicles the noble effort to survive with love, laughter, and a few brain cells.

Sadly, the ’80s inaugurated an era of “just getting by” that hasn’t really ended. Invisible Touch still serves a purpose. “Superman, where are you now?” indeed.

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One thought on “Back Off, Jerk: ‘Invisible Touch’ and the Misconceptions of ’80s Genesis

  1. Joe Reply

    Do you like Phil Collins?
    I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke.
    Before that, I really didn’t understand any of their work – too artsy, too intellectual.
    It was on Duke where Phil Collins’ presence became more apparent.
    I think Invisible Touch was the group’s undisputed masterpiece. It’s an epic meditation on intangibility; at the same time, it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums.
    Listen to the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins and Rutherford – you can practically hear every nuance of every instrument.
    In terms of lyrical craftsmanship, the sheer songwriting, this album hits a new peak of professionalism.
    Take the lyrics to Land of Confusion. In this song, Phil Collins addresses the problems of abusive political authority.
    In Too Deep is the most moving pop song of the 1980s, about monogamy and commitment. The song is extremely uplifting – their lyrics are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock.
    Phil Collins’ solo career seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying, in a narrower way – especially songs like In the Air Tonight and Against All Odds, but I also think Phil Collins works best within the confines of the group, than as a solo artist, and I stress the word artist.
    I especially like Sussudio – a great, great song – a personal favorite.

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