Songwriter Interviews

Tony Banks of Genesis

by Greg Prato

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Back in the '70s when they were a progressive rock band fronted by Peter Gabriel, you wouldn't have pegged Genesis as one of the top-selling acts of all-time. Yet here they are with an estimated 130 million albums sold worldwide, thanks largely to their '80s breakout when their snowball rolled downhill (all four albums they released that decade went to #1 in the UK).

Of its three members, two have scored quite a few hits outside of the band: Phil Collins as a solo artist and Mike Rutherford as a member of Mike + the Mechanics.

While Tony Banks has not replicated the chart success as the others, he has built an impressive solo discography which is the most musically varied of the three. His work is showcased throughout the 4-CD box set, A Chord Too Far. Comprised of 49 tracks (most of which have been remixed), the collection touches upon Banks' seven solo and two orchestral albums: A Curious Feeling (1979), The Fugitive (1983), The Wicked Lady (1983, film score), Soundtracks (1986, a combination of original scores written for the films Starship and Quicksilver), Bankstatement (1989), Still (1991), Strictly Inc (1995), and his orchestral albums Seven: A Suite for Orchestra (2004) and SIX Pieces for Orchestra (2012).

Banks spoke with Songfacts shortly before the release of A Chord Too Far, and was up for chatting about songwriting, the lyrical inspiration behind specific key solo tracks, and his memories of an era when Genesis was one of MTV's biggest stars.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): In revisiting your career on A Chord Too Far, which period do you feel was your most creative?

Tony Banks: I don't particularly feel any particular period. I suppose in the late '70s, I seemed to have the most material around - stuff I contributed to Genesis at the time, and the [solo] album A Curious Feeling. But I've never been dry of ideas. Over the years, when I've wanted to do something, I seemed to be able to find the inspiration.

Songfacts: What was the most important innovation in keyboards or samplers for you?

Tony: I came in with a piano, so the most significant innovation was probably the synthesizer, which came in the '70s. The first one I ever used was the ARP Pro Soloist, which was a simple device, but had quite a good variety of sounds. And it developed from there. That would have been my most significant one.

Songfacts: Which of the songs on the box set hold the most meaning for you?

Tony: I like them all - it's a difficult question, really. There are a few moments that are worth talking about, I suppose. A very long song, "An Island in the Darkness," which lasts for about 15 minutes and perhaps is comparable to the early Genesis days more than any other, I think has the most to it. It's the most "meaty" piece on the record.

There's a track called "Charity Balls," which is more interesting on a lyrical level. It's about hypocritical people who do a lot of work for charity, but meanwhile have some nasty secret which they have to hide. That has become rather relevant in England in the last few years.

I can name any track and be happy with it, because different periods are different things. The fourth CD is all instrumental and starts off with four pieces taken from the last orchestral albums I've done in the more recent times, and they're quite significant for me.

But for me, it's a body of work, and I feel quite good about most of it, really.

Songfacts: Which Genesis songs do you feel very strongly about?

Tony: The answer is a little similar, I suppose. If you're asking about favorites, in the early days, the long song "Supper's Ready," that was about 26 minutes long and went through all these changes, and worked really well.

And then in the '80s, we had the song off the album Duke called "Duchess," which would be one of my favorites. But I like a lot of the singles we've done, like "Turn It On Again" and "Mama."

I don't really listen that often to the early tracks, but when we re-did all the albums a few years ago, I found songs all over the place that I still really enjoy.

Songfacts: How has your songwriting changed over the years?

Tony: In the early days, because of the way we wrote in Genesis, we tended to offer everything as ideas - some of which were more developed than others - and we'd develop things as a group. I first started writing complete songs I suppose more on the A Trick of the Tail album.

I go about it pretty much the same way all the time: I sit down at a piano, fiddle about, and see what happens. If something interesting happens, then I work on that and develop it. And pretty much, that's how I still do it, really. Even though I am writing for an orchestra, it's a similar kind of thing.

Songfacts: What is your philosophy on lyrics?

Tony: They're necessary evils, sometimes. I'm in the business because I write music, but I also write songs. So therefore, lyrics are a part of it. I don't find they come as naturally to me, but I do enjoy writing them, and I've written for Genesis as well as on my own.

But you just try to think of something you feel. The lyrics are always written afterwards in the case of everything I've written. The important thing is to try and make sure the lyric you write doesn't destroy the mood you set up with the music. Try not to make it too wordy, but try to get across the meaning that means something to you, but also is enhanced by the music that you've written.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration for the song "For a While"?

Tony: Well, it comes from the album A Curious Feeling, which is a concept album. It's the story about a guy who loses his mind, and there's a particular point in the song where he knows he's about to lose some of his memory and faculties and everything, and he's just reflecting on how it is for him, and also, for his young lady, and how it affects her. It's a sort of sad song in a way, and out of context, it doesn't make quite as much sense. But in the context of the album, it's quite a moving point.

Songfacts: "Shortcut to Somewhere."

Tony: The lyric to that was written by [former Marillion frontman] Fish, who I worked with on that. Really, I was writing the music to the film Quicksilver, and we wrote this as a possible song for inclusion in the film. It wasn't actually used in the film in the end, but it ended up on the soundtrack album.

I had an instrumental piece that I thought could work well as a song, and I wanted to work with Fish - we hadn't worked before. He wrote something that was kind of relevant to the story of the film, which is about a chap who is working in Wall Street. It goes wrong for him, and he ends up becoming a bicycle messenger instead. It's a reflection of that, really, and Fish got a few ideas in there that he wanted to get out in relation to finance and politics.

Songfacts: Before, you mentioned "An Island in the Darkness."

Tony: I had written a long piece, and it was a good 50-60 percent instrumental, and I wanted the lyrics to follow the flow of the song, which starts in a certain place and goes darker and the end is optimistic. So, it's a song about ambition and achieving what you set out to do, and then about sustaining it, and how it goes for you after that, and how you cope with failure and all the rest of it.

But a lot of people have different interpretations of the song, and I intentionally kept the song quite ambiguous, so people could put their own ideas into it a little bit. But it is about finding yourself in a place that you perhaps didn't think you would have ever been in - a good place. And then perhaps later on, finding yourself in a bad place, and then how you cope with that.

Songfacts: "This is Love."

Tony: It's a pretty straightforward song, really. When I was writing lyrics to the album, The Fugitive, which is an album where I sang all the songs myself, not being really a singer, I found I had to keep everything a bit simpler than I've done in the past. So I kept the lyrics quite simple and the music quite simple, as well. I just wrote what is essentially a "love gone wrong" song, if you'd like, inspired by all the songs I used to like back in the '60s - the Beatles and all the rest of them.

It has nothing to do with me - I'm writing from the point of view of someone who has just been abandoned, and writing how he might feel. When I'm writing lyrics, I'm not normally writing from my point of view - I write from the point of view of somebody, and try to write how they might react.

Songfacts: Do you enjoy singing, or do you like to focus solely on keyboards?

Tony: I quite enjoyed doing the singing when I did. But I don't see myself as a singer, I never did. It wasn't so much the singing that was the problem, it was more whatever goes with being a singer: you've got to front everything, you've got to somehow be that personality that affects the song. I found that a lot more difficult.

I would say I'm much happier being a person behind the scenes. I mean, I happen to play piano, but really, writing is what interests me. I'm a keyboard player, but more importantly, I'm a songwriter. I've written several songs over the years on guitar, and now, we have synthesizers you can write using any kind of sounds you want. I'm just more interested in the composition than anything else.

Genesis was one of the first rock bands to realize the importance of music video as a marketing tool, as they regularly began filming clips for their tunes in 1976. With the launch of MTV in 1981, Genesis was already armed with a cache of videos to offer the upstart channel, and the simple performance videos for "Abacab," "No Reply at All," and "Turn It On Again" were early favorites. But as music video budgets began to expand, Genesis offered up more elaborate - and quite popular - clips, including "That's All," "Illegal Alien," and the Grammy winner (Best Concept Music Video) "Land of Confusion."
Songfacts: The way I was first introduced to Genesis' music was by seeing the band's videos on MTV. What do you recall about making videos during that era?

Tony: It was a lot of fun, really. It sort of became a thing you had to do, almost. We weren't naturally inclined to do it, but Phil fortunately was very comfortable in front of a camera, so he could kind of front the video. So when we did something a little bit different, he could act, and Mike and I could do it as best we could in the background.

It was entertaining being on film - something I never thought I'd ever do when I started out in this business. Then it gave us a chance to explore some quite fun ideas. When the lyric had an obvious way to go - with something like "I Can't Dance" or "No Son of Mine" - you could do it and express it quite well.

The songs that were most difficult in a way were the ones that didn't have any particular thing to act out. A song like "In Too Deep," for example, was quite difficult to do - it was just a performance video. We did a few of those, which was OK. But if we could get a little idea to do something to hang it on, and hopefully with just a little bit of wit, as well, that was what we were after.

The best video we ever did was obviously "Land of Confusion." It was one of those things where it led itself to that particular interpretation, and I think it worked pretty well.

Songfacts: Do you have a favorite video?

Tony: My favorite video is definitely "Land of Confusion." But I enjoyed doing some of the others, some worked quite well. We enjoyed doing the video for "Jesus He Knows Me." Having done all these videos, at some point we decided we wanted to have a little moment where we had a conventional video with lots of beautiful girls in it and everything, so we felt we had this possibility in the middle of that song, since the song was about TV evangelists and some of their hypocritical behavior. So we thought that perhaps in the middle they can be seen in hot tubs. That was entertaining, but it was just something we did - it was a day here and a day there. You worked with fun people, and it was a fun thing to do, but it was certainly not the most important thing to us.

Songfacts: One of my favorite eras of rock music was in the late '70s and early '80s, when many prog bands began shortening their songs and scored pop hits. Do you reckon this was an influence of the punk and new wave movements, or was Genesis heading in that direction anyway?

Tony: I think we were just sort of heading that way. We wanted to try and do it a bit differently, I suppose. Our most complicated album in many ways was probably Wind & Wuthering in about 1977, and then when Steve Hackett left the band, the next album we did, ...And Then There Were Three..., ended up being shorter songs for whatever reason. But we just decided we weren't going to do them quite as long. And then when we got to the album Abacab, we made a definite decision to try a new approach, go somewhere else slightly. We had done a certain kind of thing for many years, so we tried something else.

I think you are affected by trends to some extent, but it didn't really feel like that. I mean, we'd always liked writing shorter songs - we came into the business because we liked The Beatles and all the rest of them. So our natural inclination was to have a go at that. And when we started to get a bit better at it, it was fun to do that - as craftsmen. It was like writing sonnets as opposed to writing epic poems, which was quite entertaining for us.

July 28, 2015.
For more Tony, visit tonybanksmusic.com.

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Comments: 1

  • Dave Juhl from Naperville, IlGreat interview with Mr. Banks; thank you!
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