GENESIS - The Earls Court Supergig and Mike Rutherford Interviewed

Mike at Earls Court Earls Court is more like an aircraft hanger than a concert hall. But the space which might have been more appropriately filled by a VC10 is filled to overflowing with 15,000 punters. Shouting, hooting and whistling fills the air, as if one had walked unwittingly into an aviary of exotic birds. All around the front of the circle is the familiar red, white and blue drape of the Jubilee; everywhere else is a sea of people, half of them wearing those fluorescent green plastic necklaces bought at an outrageous price out in the foyer.
Earls Court is more like an aircraft hanger than a concert hall. But the space which might have been more appropriately filled by a VC10 is filled to overflowing with 15,000 punters. Shouting, hooting and whistling fills the air, as if one had walked unwittingly into an aviary of exotic birds. All around the front of the circle is the familiar red, white and blue drape of the Jubilee; everywhere else is a sea of people, half of them wearing those fluorescent green plastic necklaces bought at an outrageous price out in the foyer.
On the stage the road crew are working with quiet efficiency to remove the debris left behind by Richie Havens and his band. No stumbling around bonking the microphones and mumbling, One! One! One two! This show has been timed. If somebody stopped work to tie his bootlace, the whole schedule would probably be thrown out of gear.
I reminded Mike Rutherford about the days when they used to appear at Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, billed no higher than such gargantuan superstars as My Cake and Thunderzone. "That's a long way back," Mike said. "For our first gig there we had a fee of five pounds, but because we went down so well, and he liked us, he gave us seven pounds. I'll never forget that. And we dropped two microphones in the river." But things were happening. A couple of years later they were top of the bill at Isleworth.
The lights go out suddenly, so that the hail of roars and whistles that goes up is a little delayed. A dinner jacketed figure emerges from the gloom, stage right. "Let's see how much noise you can make!" he chortles. It is Alan Freeman. The punters dutifully bellow their acclaim, Freeman conducting the noise with an outstretched hand and then, as it reaches a crescendo, cutting it off with a dramatic downward sweep of both arms. "Ladies and gentlemen - They have their Own Special Way - and they are - Genesis!" Torches flash briefly to his right, as the band walks on. This time the roar is spontaneous. "'Ullo!" shouts Phil Collins.
"Phil is very good in foreign countries. He writes things out in huge writing on a bit of paper that size and does a bit of the foreign language, and his gestures are exaggerated. But apart from the talk in between, musically we don't change it. You can't really change it, either. Brazil was interesting, actually, because its a very new country for groups. It was great - they really liked us, but the didn't quite know what to do at a concert. When the last song was, when to clap, how long to clap for, when to cheer back - they hadn't really got the concert-going technique."
"Did they know the songs?"
"No. We played to ridiculous amounts, like a quarter of a million in about ten gigs. So maybe thirty thousand of them knew the albums. But I often find that very challenging - less easy sometimes, but each time you think you're hopefully getting through to a whole new area of people. There were coachloads from Argentina and Uruguay and . . .er, whatever else is nearby."
Although Genesis began like everyone else in small venues and with smaller audiences, they have always concentrated more on creating a sense of drama than on asking the crowd if they wanna rock an' roll. For this reason the huge auditoriums they now find themselves playing in suit them better than they do some bands. It's a show as well as a concert.
For their three shows at the Rainbow at the beginning of the year there were 100,000 applications. So it's a case of playing in an aircraft hanger like Earls Court or depriving thousands of the chance to see them. In some venues, largely Stateside, the sound can be remarkably good, especially (for some reason) the hockey stadiums. "Madison Square Garden is an amazing hall. It's a pain in the arse to do, because the unions are a real problem. But the quality of the sound in that hall is very high - it goes up very quickly, so you feel quite close to everybody."
Centre stage is Mike Rutherford with the double-neck guitar that has become his trademark. The band head straight into "Squonk" from their last but one album, followed by "One for the Vine" from Wind and Wuthering. Mike switches from the bass neck to the 12-string and back again with consummate ease, striking no poses, hardly moving, in fact, from his designated spot. His concentration is focused on his music....
Mike with a Shergold two-piece In the official concert programme Rutherford's guitar is described as a Shergold/Rutherford Custom Double-Neck, making it sound like a 300 rounds-per-minute machine gun than anything else. "I tried a Shergold 12-string in a shop, and I liked it very much, so I said 'Do you make basses?' And they said yes, and I tried that. Very nice sound - it had the sort of treble attack I like, and the bass warmth. I said 'Can you do me a double-neck?' I've always had this idea of a changeable instrument, to give me the scope during a live show to swap over easily, and they came up with that."
Mike's contribution to the design was actually little more than the idea of being able to detach the two halves and clip on separate pieces to convert them back to "single-neck" guitars. "It was fairly easy, really. They had to come up with just a system of screws, and the electrics from the top half all come out of one cannon socket at the bottom. There are little prong things that connect them."
All Shergold guitars come with modules, of which there is a choice of around five. Rutherford's is module 4, which is straight stereo with a tone control and volume for each pick-up, and a three way selector switch. "The phasing module's not that great. For me, the best thing about them is not the modular idea but the sound. And things are very easy to replace. The neck went, abroad, and so they sent one out to me so I could change it straight away...They have a recording module, which is quite nice, which gives you an in-phase/out-of-phase range." Despite the greater flexibility afforded by the dual guitar, he still makes changes during the set. He uses an 8-string Hagstrom bass "I Know What I Like", since the weight of the Shergold begins to make a deep rut in his shoulder if worn for too long. Shergold? Hagstrom? Whatever happened to (sigh) Fenders and Gibsons? "People have this thing about these being the guitars to use and those ones not. I go purely on sound. Like acoustics. Everyone raves about Gibson acoustics. I think they're rubbish. Now what we do, for the road we've always used very cheap acoustics, because they get very beaten up on the road. They just can't take it. So I use one that'll maybe last a batch of touring. Now here's an example: Epiphone, right? We bought two about five years ago. This one's amazing - fifty quid - a beautiful guitar. And the other one's rubbish. They're production-line guitars, and it's just luck if you get the right bit of wood. Then I've got an Alvarez guitar, which no-one ever seems to have heard of. It's got a similar feel to a Martin, and it cost a hundred quid. It's my favourite guitar - beautiful action, lovely sound. Better than any Gibson I've found...
"I like variation in guitars, especially in recording. Otherwise you get stuck in the same sound. You see, Microfret probably isn't a fashionable name, but I used to play a six string bass, which I really liked, and I put that on a double neck with a Rickenbacker 12-string on top. In fact I only had that for one batch of touring - the Lamb tour. Then Dick Knight made me a guitar - which unfortunately didn't work out too well. I find custom guitars rather dangerous, because you don't know quite what you're getting."
The light show is literally dazzling. There are two rows of Boeing 747 aircraft landing lights sending down a blinding waterfall of light which is diffused and refracted by the clouds of smoke hanging over the stage and swirling out into the audience. When they come on at the end of "In That Quiet Earth" the stage explodes into a glorious rainbow umbrella of coloured lights, like a Mormon vision of heaven, and the gasp that goes up is almost loud enough to drown out the music.
Not long after, the green laser comes on. Sadly the red one's tube broke on the way back from Brazil, and replacements are hard to find in a hurry. Tonight the green tube disintegrates as well, about three-quarters of the way through the set...
"I think all this stuff can detract from the music, unless you use it subtley and at the right time. I think our music too lends to imagery and visual interpretation. Which is why a lot of rock and roll bands put it all on and it doesn't seem to be quite right. But the lasers are a pain. I think we may blow 'em out now. It's not worth the aggravation."
"But why not cut down on the smoke instead?"
"Lasers don't work without smoke, you see. There's nothing for them to reflect on. The single beam is okay, but any kind of shapes wont work, because it's when the smoke passes through that it takes form. But I agree - smoke's difficult. It does get in the way a bit too much. There's no halfway stage. In a way I'd like not to use it, and have a substitute: something that was there when you wanted it, and not when you didn't. That's what we're after really."
Genesis are a five-piece band that sounds like an orchestra. Critics of rock technology forget that there is little connection between the music of a traditional five-piece rock combo and the sort of music areas that Genesis are exploring. To most of their followers the rock element is actually just a foundation for something more ethereal, with its roots in a lineage older than Bill Haley, and yet taking him and everyone else into account as well. It's a music which thrives on the combination of many forms, not on any notion of exclusive purity.
Because of this constant search for new avenues to explore, you need an orchestra: in this case the orchestra is electronic. It has to be, since there are only five people playing in it. Hence a ten ton PA, and a carefully selected array of instruments and effects. All of these things have to sound as near perfect as possible, because any one component that sounds wrong is going to be amplified to the tune of n thousand watts, along with everything else.
"I run everything stereo," Mike began. "I've got a little Yamaha eight-channel mixer, stereo out. I run everything through that, which goes into a couple of Crowns. Then there's a Martin Audio system of speakers - there's a bass bin with a couple of 12's, an a mid horn, and a high. My gear's got to take the Taurus bass pedals which I use, and it's got to take the highs of the 12-string. So it's really got to cover a pretty high range."
The mixer is positioned just behind him on the drum riser, but he alters it hardly at all during the set, having arranged the settings beforehand. The only change occasionally required might be to turn off a noisy channel. In addition there's a Roland Space Echo, and then an a simple pedalboard a Roland chorus pedal, MXR flanger, fuzz box, and an MXR graphic equalizer. The guitar goes though a five pin cannon, and the signals run separately along various courses. Some go straight into the DI boxes to the mixer, and some to any particular effect. On the 12-string most of the effects are used with the treble pick-up, whilst the bass pick-up runs straight through. The acoustic guitar goes into the mixer via the graphic.
It seems a pretty terrifying load of bits to be in charge of, especially in front of a crowd. But Mike has built up his armoury over a number of years and gradually assimilated the skills involved in handling them all at once.
Collins has the audience in the palm of his hand. They follow his every movement: whether he's the villain of "Robbery, Assault and Battery", the cheerleader in "I Know What I Like" or the storyteller in "Supper's Ready". His energy provides the audience with a focal point, leaving the rest of the band to get on and play. His drum battles with Chester Thompson are equally riveting, though the thunderous power of his drumming overshadows the ex-Weather Reporter...
"When Peter left we obviously lost a very strong stage performer. Phil hasn't replaced him - Phil's done a different thing. Pete was very moody and ethereal. We're a band who can easily seem a bit distant and removed, and a bit unfriendly. Y'know, I'm not a natural performer. I get nervous and I still don't put across much, especially not a relaxed feeling. But Phil does that - he's very human and down-to-earth. Pete used to communicate with the audience always in his talking, his stories. He was very strong. But you lose and you gain. You change, which for a band that's been going for a long time is good."
"But hard."
"Yeah, but that's all right. I don't mind that."
A few minutes later Phil walked into the trailer where we were doing the interview. He was looking for a drink. He also no longer appeared to have much hair. One might almost say he now sported a convict cut.
"My God!" cried Mike. "Well at least the beard's gone. When did this all happen?"
Readers of Beat will want to know how they can write songs like Genesis. Answer: they can't. But they can take hints. Mike himself knows little about the theory of music: Tony Banks is the one with the classical training, and his influence shows through in the linking chord sequences. But a lot of what ends up sounding like a finely crafted work of one composer's pen is actually the result of what Mike calls "improvisation and just boozing around". There is no secret method for hitting on a good sequence of chords.
"Seventy per cent of what I write, I throw out. More. I can write very easily, but writing original things is the hard bit. And I just sit with the guitar, play around. After the initial stage you often get a couple of nice sounding chords, but to build up a whole sequence round it of something interesting and different is the hard thing." Once they get into rehearsal for new songs, various members of the band will come in with ideas, bits and pieces of music, some a more advanced stage of completion than others. The important thing about this, according to Rutherford, is "not to be too protective towards one's own material, being able to take criticism and other people's suggestions."
But more than anything else it's down to work. Plenty of it. "I like working. If we didn't think it was so important, we would work less live. But it's the way we sell records - everything. I think it saves you from stagnation..."