What’s to like?
Classic live album from classic band celebrates its 40th birthday this year, and is still a high point in the career of this seminal group who managed to make progressive rock popular among the masses.
The low down
Nowadays bands have to release an obligatory live album on the back of their most recent tour, to recoup tour losses. Record companies rarely pay upfront for tours these days, so it’s a big financial outlay (and risk) for a band, and I can understand issuing a post-tour live album for financial reasons.
The problem for me is that it’s now become so de rigeur, that live albums have lost that special vibe that I enjoyed as a teenager, when a live album was an event in itself. Back then it would come in a lavish double LP set, with cool artwork which you could pore over while the sounds transported you into the crowd that night.
And in some cases, the live versions of songs turned out to be superior to their studio counterparts. This might be because the band had to tighten up the original studio arrangement because of the limited tech available to recreate the songs live, or because the songs needed pruning to keep the energy and momentum going and not lose the audience.
As a tour progressed, the musicians would become more comfortable with their setlist, performing it night after night, and would play around with the songs to avoid boredom setting in. Or it may be that the musicians were inspired to take their performance to a new level that particular night because of that particular audience.
Genesis’ Seconds Out was one of my first introductions to prog rock, and my first live album. I’ve never lost affection for it, probably because it ticks all the boxes described above. It’s almost the equivalent of a greatest hits set, with something from nearly every album, with the material arranged to sound as good as it possibly can to a live audience.
While the live versions may lose some of the more nuanced acoustic and 12 string guitar layers of their studio origins, the music loses none of its melody, drama and whimsy in the translation to a live environment. In some cases, I think it actually improves. Opening track Squonk never sounded quite right to me on the studio album with its gradual build-up spoiled by the abrupt fade out at the end. Live, with a slightly different ending it sounds more complete and satisfying.
The four musicians play consummately on these shows, totally locked in as a band and playing the music in a way that sounds fresh and vital. The band might have been undergoing internal differences, with guitarist Steve Hackett about to quit after the tour, but you wouldn’t know it.
Then there’s the added bonus of a second drummer in the shape of Chester Thompson, drafted in to keep the percussion cooking while Collins stepped out from behind his kit to sing upfront. The really cool thing about this arrangement is the opportunity to hear both drummers playing together during the longer instrumental passages. Each drummer is mixed to a separate speaker, so you can clearly hear when they’re playing in synch and when they’re playing off each other, and it’s hard not to get carried away air-drumming during the thunderous duet that introduces Los Endos!
Seconds Out also shows Phil Collins coming into his own as the singer and frontman. The previous Trick Of The Tail tour was his trial by fire, stepping into the departed Peter Gabriel’s shoes but by the Wind And Wuthering tour Collins was well into his element. His performances here are soulful and engaging and his onstage ad-libbing on the original lyrics brings something extra to the show. I got so used to his ad-libs that when I later tried out the studio albums, I could never quite get used to how muted the vocals sounded by comparison.
Interestingly the running order on Seconds Out is not the same as the actual setlist that the band played on the nights they recorded. Several songs were left off the album, most notably from Wind and Wuthering – ironically, it was the new album they were promoting on this tour.
Here’s a comparison of what was played during the shows the band recorded and what actually ended up on the live album:
|Tour setlist running order
||Seconds Out running order
In spite of the omissions, the running order for Seconds Out works really well, possibly to fit within the confines of four sides of vinyl, and you do get the amazing Cinema Show, recorded on the previous tour when Bill Bruford was the second drummer.
My first copy of the album was a cassette recording taken from a friend’s official cassette version, and even though my tape was in mono and ran out before the album ended – Genesis LPs tended to run just over 45 minutes – I played that thing till it was worn through.
By then I’d been given a record player, so it was time to upgrade the album to vinyl status. I couldn’t afford to buy it new, so I had to settle for second hand, and I had to cycle a 26 mile round trip to save on a train fare so that I had just enough cash for the album. The 13 mile journey home, with the album on my back, went by in a blur of anticipation, and I spent the summer of 1982 basking in the sheer pleasure of hearing the album in stereo for the first time, and poring over the artwork:
I eventually upgraded to CD, but often felt that the ‘Definitive Edition’ master lacked something, even though the new format offered added clarity. My final upgrade came after the band reissued new remasters of their catalogue in 2007. All their live albums were all bundled into one expensive box set, so I had to bide my time for the price to drop.
I did try and cut corners by buying the album separate from the rest of the box set, after an unscrupulous retailer opened the box and sold the albums individually. But “more fool me.” The dvd wasn’t compatible for my region and the cd was faulty!
Eventually the box price-dropped into my budget, and although I grudged forking out for other albums I didn’t want, it’s a measure of how much Seconds Out meant to me that I bit the bullet on the whole set.
It’s a shame that this version of Seconds Out hasn’t been made available as a single purchase, because the remastering has made a noticeable improvement. The 2007 remasters have taken a lot of flak for questionable editing of songs and brick-walled volume on some of the albums, but I have to say that the Seconds Out remaster hasn’t suffered from this.
The sound is that little bit more muscular now – the bass pedals really purr, drums have a little more kick, and Mike Rutherford’s bass lines are easier to pick out.
It also repositions Steve Hackett’s guitar a bit higher in the mix, so you can more clearly hear how fundamental his contribution was to the Genesis sound. You can really appreciate all the layering and effects he was playing underneath the main keyboard melodies, as evidenced by his tasteful and fluid licks in Carpet Crawlers, which are more prominent now.
As for the DVD surround mix – well, it puts you right in the middle of the whole experience, and if it’s not the same as being there on the night, it’s the next best thing. Thankfully, the engineer resisted the temptation to mess with the sound and play around with panning effects across the speakers, so what you get instead is an experience that sounds just like listening to the stereo album but in 3D.
It’s the same album you’ve always enjoyed, but with the added depth and clarity of a DTS mix, and a wider space for the music to open up around. And, because there are minimal visuals onscreen, you’re still relying totally on your ears for the experience, just as I started out all those years ago!
Genesis changed forever after this album, when Hackett left during the mixing sessions, and the band subsequently moved on to even bigger success and bigger audiences. But for me, Seconds Out is the moment where it peaked – “The music’s playing, the notes are right, put your left foot first and move into the light.”