Genesis: Abacab - Album Of The Week Club Review

In which Genesis cause controversy and dismay by turning their hand to shorter, more pop-orientated songs

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Genesis - Abacab

Abacab
No Reply at All
Me and Sarah Jane
Keep It Dark
Dodo/Lurker
Who Dunnit?
Man on the Corner
Like It or Not
Another Record

While some of the previous decade's output from the Phil Collins-fronted versions of Genesis adhered to the templates of old, their output in the 1980s - music's most derided decade - has aways caused fierce debates among prog purists. 

Abacab, the band's 1981 album, remains a perplexing recording. To some, it's a disappointing, clumsy experiment with synthpop. And those preferring expansive progressive ramblings will certainly find fault with such songs as Who Dunnit? and No Reply At All. 

But it's wasn't all about the Top 40 land grab: the title track and Dodo/Lurker went some way towards retaining the band’s innovative spirit.

Amidst the confusion, Abacab was a commercial success, hitting the number one spot in The UK and selling two million copies across the pond. 

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

Abacab was self-produced and a watershed. Recording it, the band discarded an entire album’s worth of material as they thought they were becoming, in Rutherford’s words, “a caricature of ourselves”.

With evangelical new-wave-era zeal, they threw out any songs that sounded like anything they’d done before. It firmed up their move towards radio-friendly pop-meets-AOR, although the albums generally still featured concessions to longer-form structures. As Phil Collins had done on Face Value the year before, they used Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn section – an unthinkable move to fans of Genesis albums like, say, Nursery Cryme or The Lamb.

Even the album’s title was the polar opposite of the fantasies-and-fables days of yore. Rutherford told an American radio show: “There were three bits of music in Abacab, and we referred to them as Section A, Section B and Section C. At different times, they were in different order… and at one point it spelled ‘ABACAB’. On the final version, it wasn’t that at all, it’s more like ‘ACCAABBAAC’.”

Other albums released in September 1981

  • 1234 - Ronnie Wood
  • Dead Ringer - Meat Loaf
  • Allied Forces - Triumph
  • Discipline - King Crimson
  • You Are What You Is - Frank Zappa
  • Camera Camera - Renaissance
  • Dangerous Acquaintances - Marianne Faithfull
  • Grand Funk Lives - Grand Funk Railroad
  • Mark of the Mole - The Residents
  • MSG - Michael Schenker Group
  • Nine Tonight - Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
  • Premonition - Survivor
  • Rock Until You Drop - Raven
  • Snaz - Nazareth
  • Special Forces - Alice Cooper
  • Time Exposure - Little River Band
  • Too Late the Hero - John Entwistle

What they said...

"If Genesis are hunting for a new audience then Abacab could be seen as an album of hooks all baited in a different way to see which one catches. If there's been a bite, maybe it'll show in the next record, but in the meantime this is far more promising than Duke or Then There Were Three." (Melody Maker

"On that particular record, we were trying to get away from what was, at that point, traditionally Genesis, which was quite flowery and fantasy, and to go to something that was much more stark and abstract. That's why we went for an abstract art painting on the front and gave it this abstract title, Abacab, so, that it didn't conjure up any particular emotion at all. We started with a kind of blank canvas. It worked well as both a song and an album title, I think." (Tony Banks)

"Duke showcased a new Genesis - a sleek, hard, stylish trio that truly sounded like a different band from its first incarnation -- but Abacab was where this new incarnation of the band came into its own. Working with producer Hugh Padgham, the group escalated the innovations of Duke, increasing the pop hooks, working them seamlessly into the artiest rock here. And even if the brash, glorious pop of "No Reply at All" - powered by the percolating horns of Earth, Wind & Fire, yet polished into a precise piece of nearly new wave pop by Padgham -- suggests otherwise, this is still art rock at its core." (AllMusic)

What you said...

Bill Griffin: I saw Genesis for the first time on the tour supporting Three Sides Live which was kind of the Abacab Tour part 2. That show remains my favorite concert. For me, everything on Abacab is listenable and most of it I actually like, even if the tracks aren't all prog masterpieces. Dodo/Lurker/Abacab were particularly effective tracks as a medley on stage. Not as good an album as Duke (the last Genesis masterpiece) but I think it is better overall than everything that followed.

Paul Nadin-Salter: This is the turning point between prog and pop. Despite that, this is a great album that turns the traditional view of a prog group on its head. Still love it after all these years.

Sandra Ford: Is this the first one you could listen to without the aid of psychotropic drugs? Fan of Prog, but didn’t and don’t get the early stuff and believe me I’ve tried!

Nigel Leppard: This is where they hit a nadir with the track Who Dunnit?, generally reviled by Genesis fans... along with We Can't Dance this is my least favourite of their recorded works and where it started going downhill.

John Edgar: I'm a big fan of this album. I bought it when it was initially released, based upon a listen at a friend's house. I tried their Gabriel-era stuff, but just couldn't get into it, even though I'm a big fan of Peter Gabriel's solo outings. I'd heard Duke and I did like it, but I didn't purchase a copy. For me, this album was solid enough that I bought all future Genesis releases without needing a 'pre-listen'. Well performed and well produced, this one stamped me a 'Genesis Fan'.

Brian Corry: The last Genesis album I care about. The title track, Dodo/Lurker and Keep It Dark are all faves.

Jochen Scholl: An album with such an outstanding track like Abacab can't be total mess. The middle part of the long album version has an overwhelming atmosphere that catapults me back in 1981 every time I listen to it (like Twilight Zone by Golden Earring, it was cut off for the 45"-radio-version)

Glenn Chadwick: It was an interesting time for the old prog acts - do you reshape your style for a post-new wave landscape, or stay the course of prog? Genesis weren't alone in making changes, yet they are the ones that get singled out time and again. Keep in mind too that Peter Gabriel wasn't afraid to embrace pop at times in the 1980s...

Simon Cryer: Me And Sara Jane is a peach. There's one track which repeats the line "we don't know we don't know we don't know we don't know" ah, Whodunnit, that's the bastard. Awful.

Graham Tarry: After the brilliance of Duke, this was a major disappointment, and the signal of a change in direction, but not for the better. The title track and Dodo both have good things therein, but the rest of the album has meant that it has rarely seen my turntable these last 30 plus years.

Gary Claydon: I've got to be honest and say that I think this is a pretty poor choice of album for review. You might deduce a few things from that statement. That I don't like the album. That I don't like Genesis. That I like Genesis but think they were only relevant when Peter Gabriel was around. On the first point you'd be mostly correct, on the other two, well wide of the mark.

I'd never describe myself as a Genesis 'fan' as such, but a quick delve into my record collection would reveal that I own all of their albums up to Invisible Touch. Yet not one of them would come close to making any favourite album list. I never enjoyed any of them completely from start to finish but there just always seemed to be something on each of them to varying degrees that would drag me in. That in itself is the mark of a good band/artist. And let's be honest, at times Genesis were capable of fantastic things.

The main reason I think this is a poor choice is simply that in the band's body of work they did much more interesting stuff than this. The two albums either side of Abacab (Duke and Genesis) would have been better choices for review, as would any of their earlier work (both with & without Gabriel). And yet, I went out and bought this album. I bought it on the strength of the title track which is excellent. It allows Tony Banks to stretch out a little and continues the pop sensibility that was increasingly becoming part of the Genesis 'sound' but doesn't lose sight of their prog roots. Dodo/Lurker is undoubtedly the 'progiest' thing here and is fairly decent while Keep It Dark is quirkily enjoyable and the second best track on the album. The rest is just forgettable. Who Dunnit? is annoying and the other tracks could have been outtakes from a Phil Collins solo album.

There is no questioning the band's pedigree. Their musicianship and songwriting abilities are beyond dispute. It's just that very little of that was on display here. All in all, Genesis made numerous other albums that are much more worthy of discussion than Abacab.

Clay Halford: I like Abacab - the song and the album. While Who Dunnit? is a bizarre mess of sound that just doesn't fit, there is a great balance of older-style prog in the title track, Dodo/Lurker and Keep It Dark to an extent as against the pleasant pop stylings of Man On The Corner and Another Record. It is more of a collection of songs as opposed to a proper album but it works well.

Gavin Norman: Very good album , love the title track and man on the corner. Loads of diff sleeve variations too, nice bargain bin challenge to get everyone

Benjamin Kelk: While this isn't my favorite Genesis album, it definitely doesn't deserve all the hate it gets. Abacab signalled a huge change in Genesis' career. Changes in both musical style and writing, we saw a major shift away from their earlier prog roots to more of a pop sound, while still retaining some prog elements, seen in songs like the title track Abacab, Dodo/Lurker, and Man On The Corner. Every song on this album is enjoyable, even the song that most people like to rip on, Whodunnit?, which I see as Phil, Mike, and Tony just trying to have some fun. Overall, I think Abacab was a solid effort and a fun album from the three piece version of Genesis. 

Side note: Genesis fans that hate on 80's Genesis baffle me to no end. They say that Genesis went downhill when Peter Gabriel left the band and they went more towards pop, but the majority of the same Genesis fans will defend stuff like Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel. Peter Gabriel went in a very similar musical direction after leaving Genesis, but they have no issue with it. What gives?

Shane Reho: For me, Duke is the last great all-round Genesis album. But this one does have its moments, but all in all I'm not sure I'd ever go gunning for a copy. Track by track: The title track is the best thing here, works very well; No Reply At All has too poppy an arrangement for me, doesn't work, but I can see how it was a hit; Me And Sarah Jane and Keep It Dark are both good enough to keep interest; Dodo/Lurker is good; Who Dunnit? is a waste of time and vinyl; Man On The Corner gets boring after a while; Like It or Not works; and I gave up a minute into Another Record (wouldn't have if it was the last song or I hadn't heard this before), not my kinda song. 7/10.

Chris Vasquez: Not a big fan of the album, it does have a few good songs. Really like the drums on No Reply At All. Duke was a better album in my opinion, but with my brother being a big fan of Genesis, I have to give props to this album 

Mike Knoop: Abacab was my first exposure to Genesis. All I knew about Peter Gabriel at that point was his weird and cool song about the little kids and their flags with the whistling and the lady singing the chorus in French. And I still think Abacab is great. Well, two-thirds of it anyway.

What we old-timers call “Side 1” is fairly flawless. The listener is immediately dropped into the muscular groove of the title track that also showcases one of Phil Collins’ stronger vocal performances. Next comes No Reply At All, a harbinger of the pop success to come. Even though the horns steal the show, a closer listen reveals our intrepid trio playing seamlessly as a unit. Me And Sarah Jane is an intriguing, if overlong, pseudo-prog pseudo-ballad. It took me eons to catch that Sarah Jane didn’t actually exist, which then made me sad.

Keep It Dark is so phenomenal that it gets its own paragraph. My favorite Genesis song, on this or any other album. I’m a sucker for a good alien abduction tune and this one’s a beaut. Another great rhythm by Mike Rutherford, great drums and vocals (#falsettoshowcase) by Collins, great “lead keyboard” by Tony Banks, great vocal harmonies – even if it’s just fill Phil multi-tracking himself.

Side 2 opens strong with Dodo/Lurker, a moody yet funky rumination on extinction or the food chain or something. It may be prog lite compared to old Genesis but it works for me. But then the band craps the bed. Who Dunnit? is insufferable and then it’s three middling soft rockers in a row to close out the album. Man On The Corner is at least recognisable since it was a minor hit but Like It or Not and Another Record sound like those anonymous tracks tacked onto the end of Sounds Of The Whenever compilation albums.

When I listen to Genesis, honestly, it’s usually Turn It On Again: The Hits. But as far as studio albums go, it’s Abacab – OK, the first five songs of Abacab.

Eduardo Tovar: From the trio era, this one and Invisible Touch are their low points. The Mama album and I Can’t Dance have better moments, being Duke and ATTW3 much better albums imho. Abacab has some few good songs, some weak, forgettable songs and their unforgivable sin, Who Dunnit?. A bad record for such a trio of talented musicians and great composers. Not that bad if you forget the name of the band, but certainly not a great album. 5/10.

Iain Macaulay: Well, here we are, a real divisive band. 

So, I like Genesis... well, parts of Genesis. They were one of the first bands I got into as a kid, after hearing Mama. Then I traveled back through their catalogue to find... well, we all know what I found. Foxtrot, Nursery Cryme and The magnificent Lamb Lies Down. (Three albums I still listen to today) Hackett and Gabriel. Musicianship and lyricism. Humour and indulgence. Statements which I guess signpost that this album is not a favourite and lies firmly in the part of the band history I don’t quite appreciate. 

Listening to it now, out of context, after many years, I have to say there’s nothing really wrong with it. The songs are well pieced together and very well played but it just doesn’t cut it for me. I have no problem with Collins. Hell, I was a member of the fan club for a number of years after the Genesis album came out. This is just not a rock album, it’s a pop album, all be it a dark and complex one, made by a very accomplished rock band trying out new ideas, but it’s not a rock album. And it’s far from being a classic album. 

In the Genesis cannon it sits way down in the bottom quarter of the table. That said, Abacab is a great song, as is Keep it Dark, and Dodo/Lurker. But, Me And Sarah Jane sounds like they were trying to emulate a Gabriel solo track, and it failed. Who Dunnit? is, to me, weak. Hate those horns. And, No reply at all and the last three tracks, Man On The Corner, Like It Or Not and Another Record, all sound like Collins solo material. Genesis can’t be faulted for experimenting and breaking out of the box. No bands wants to keep writing the same song year after year. But on this occasion, to me, it was a misfire.

Roland Bearne: I'm really not a fan. Always thought they were over-thought boarding school show offs. (Bit rich from a boarding school boy!!) wonderful musicians. Cutting edge digital production. Tony Banks is the star here with his infinitely 'sample-able' textures but... meh for me I'm afraid. This is slickly played and produced 80s Art Pop. Music to be played at avant-guard 20th Century art expos.

Jason Gravestock: I got into genesis via the Phil Collins era so am inclined to like this album anyway. I do have some of the Gabriel years as well but I have to be in the right mood for those. It's a good record but not one I would recommend if someone hadn't heard any genesis

Andy Aris: I got into Genesis via Collins era also but it was when I back filled that I saw how special they really were. The drum sound and the synthesised brass dates many 80's albums but I think Abacab gets away with it

John Davidson: I'll set my stall out early and say that I lost interest in Genesis after Steve Hackett left and that my favourite album is Seconds Out - blending as it does the best of their older material with Collins more mainstream vocal style. 

Abacab - itself is decent enough rock song - it sounds like it was made in the 1980s with its keyboard blare but otherwise has stood up pretty well.

No Reply At All - Not a bad song in its own right but sounds like it would have fitted better on a Phil Collins solo album. There's a decent bass line burbling away in the background but beyond that it's pure 60s pop homage.

Me And Sarah Jane - Genesis do Madness, but without any of the energy or sense of fun. Madness indeed.

Keep It Dark - Dull and plodding relying on keyboard and vocals and an out of place 'chorus' but none of these are interesting enough to keep you wanting to listen for the full 4 and a half minutes 

Dodo/Lurker - Starts off like it might actually be a prog song - albeit one re-imagined with an 80s sensibility - but then it switches into a faux reggae beat and we recall all that is bad about the 80s as well. 

For a band that produced such wondrous songs over many years, the closing section is worst of all. It manages to be dull

Who Dunnit? - A total stinker, containing neither melody nor lyrical interest. 

Man On The Corner - a simple, vocal led song. Not bad but (again) seems more like a Phil Collins solo song that got lost.

Like It Or Not - Very similar song structure and tempo to Misunderstanding from Duke. Not bad but not great eitehr.

Another Record - Put another record on? Yes please.

Overall this album consolidated the change in direction since the departure of Hackett and Gabriel, where the complex rhythms and fantastical themes have been replaced by the mundane.

It's reasonably well executed pop with elements of rock, but with a very 80s feel (you practically hear the pastel coloured jackets and shoulder pads) it's not stood the test of time, with only the title track holding any real interest. 3/10

Pekka Turunen: Well it's... decent. Genesis was a fine pop band, and even though I find their quintet and quartet output vastly superior, I respect their decision to streamline their writing. They were young pop fans growing up and always wanted to be popular, and prog just happened to be the way to go at the time they were finding their feet. Their (d)evolution from prog to pop was a gradual process, not a sudden shift in obvious pursuit of more radio play and more money.

The self titled album from 1983 is in my opinion their crowning pop achievement with excellent songs like Mama, That's All and Home By the Sea, and nothing from this album is quite as memorable. They are reasonably nice songs with pretty badly dated production values, not bad but not very good either

Hai Kixmiller: Abacab by Genesis; A Prog Rock album plagued by the insidious effects of song order. 

Having repeatedly listened to this album for the past few days, I can certainly understand the arguments about which musical genre to label Abacab. Extremely heavy on the synthesizer, the opening title track just screams out, this is synth rock or new wave! And then track two, No Reply At All, with its jazzy horns and the tinge of power pop caused me to draw up images of mod revival. Imagine Genesis getting about town on their Vespa scooters, their leather jackets covered in button and pins. Ludicrous, right? 

Catchy, up-beat, toe-tapping, 4/4 time... where's the sophisticated progressive rock aspect? Where are the multiple time changes, where are the poetic lyrics and imagery, where is the sublime, artsy music composition? Did Genesis really forgo these key elements of progressive rock on this album and go new wave on us? With the third track, Me And Sarah Jane, Genesis answers this question with a resounding NO!

It is my opinion that Genesis are very avant-garde in their prog approach to Abacab. They sprinkle and meld various styles throughout the album and then challenge the audience to still accept it as a Prog Rock work, albeit not a traditional definition of prog. I think it works.

What doesn't work though, is putting two Pop flavored songs at the start of the album. This "Kool-aid" is just to sweet for the Genesis purist. By the time the third track comes along the bitterness of having had to suffer through two "new wave" tracks simply sours any possibility for the traditional Genesis fan to enjoy this album.

Dan Moore: Funny to see this album labeled as 'pop'. I've read several times, how the time signatures are all over the place in the songwriting... and to me, besides perhaps Man On A Corner, the album is basically modern progressive songs condensed with hooks. The drumming rhythms/beats are all over the map, nothing pop straight forward about them. Another Record might be my favorite/best example of this. That's the genius of this era (and what Rush could do in their prime around the same time)... they made complex music sound easily accessible to the regular Joe. Def my favorite Genesis album of the post-Hackett period.

Final Score: 5.62 ⁄10 (115 votes cast, with a total score of 647)

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