In the only surviving photographs of one of rock’s most historic concerts, it looked as if a bunch of wannabe rockers were playing inside an unassuming high school gymnasium. The band’s frontman — a bearded, tank top-clad Englishman — hugged the microphone stand as if it were a life preserver. His bandmates concentrated intently on their parts, glancing upward only on occasion to acknowledge an equally concentrated crowd.
It was the night Phil Collins first fronted Genesis after the departure of Peter Gabriel, the band’s flute-playing, flower-wearing co-founder and lead singer, who left the band in 1975 following an acrimonious tour. Collins was a reluctant frontman who’d long been the band’s sure-handed drummer and wasn’t particularly keen on his new role in one of prog rock’s biggest bands.
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None of the 2,000 people in attendance — especially Collins and the rest of the band — had the sense that his iteration of Genesis would become one of the biggest bands of the ’80s, and he one of the era’s most recognizable pop stars.
The band’s success “depends on the vocal ability of lead singer Collins,” wrote local critic Noel Gallagher in The London Free Press the next morning, “the member who must come through if Genesis is to survive Gabriel’s departure.”
They survived and then some. Genesis returns to Canada this month for the first time since 2007 on their Last Domino? tour. But the Phil Collins who will greet Torontonians on Nov. 25 and 26 at Scotiabank Arena is a far cry from the Energizer Bunny-like figure who appeared onstage in 1976; Collins now performs from a chair, having suffered a devastating neck injury in 2007 that caused severe nerve damage to his hands and left him unable to drum.
On March 26, 1976, though, Collins was 25 years old and the band was opening a new chapter in its history on the first night of the Trick of the Tail tour. On that now-legendary night, Genesis took the stage at London Arena, a rickety relic of a bygone era in central Ontario’s so-called Forest City.
It was a long way from Wembley Stadium and Madison Square Garden — perhaps intentionally — and provided the perfect venue for a new-look Genesis to work out the kinks.
Billed in its heyday as “the recreation and entertainment centre of the city” and referred to lovingly as “the Old Lady of Bathurst Street,” the London Arena was a decrepit, largely wooden barn that came to function as a roller rink and concert venue during the middle of the century. Before its demolition in 1977, Londoners spent countless nights on its concrete floor enjoying various conventions, rowdy wrestling matches, and, most prominently, rock concerts.`
During the early-1970s, it played host to such acts as Frank Zappa, Rush, Kiss, Bob Seger, and Alice Cooper. In the ‘60s, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins graced its scanty stage, so too did Bill Haley, Duke Ellington, and Jerry Lee Lewis in the ‘50s.
That March night, Jim Fisk joined the small crowd heading to the arena with a group of prog-loving friends.
Fisk, then a second-year computer science student at the University of Western Ontario, took the only known photographs of the show on his father’s Praktica camera. An army brat who moved to London in 1966, Fisk discovered Genesis after their seminal 1973 album Selling England by the Pound.
His photos are simply framed and often feature the musicians in focus, against an unfocused background.
“When he was up front, he would basically stand at the microphone,” Fisk remembered of Collins’ first moments as the band’s frontman. “I wouldn’t say he was clutching it, but I think that was his initial protection.”
Fisk is a lifelong Genesis fan — his first dance with his wife was to 1978’s “Follow You, Follow Me” and he’s seen several of the band’s individual members live over the years. Most of the audience, though, likely simply welcomed the opportunity to go see a rock band — any rock band — and probably had no idea they were witnessing history.
“For lovely London, Ontario,” Fisk asked aloud, “how many people in that arena were hardcore Genesis fans? Probably not a large number of them.”
Collins was hesitant to fully express himself in his maiden voyage; in his 2016 memoir Not Dead Yet, he writes that he was so nervous that night that he spent “almost the entire show hiding behind the microphone stand,” something his predecessor never did. In the same passage, Collins recalls cursing under his breath and gulping loudly when the arena’s house lights went down.
In an interview with the National Post, then-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett said Collins’ biggest challenge that night was impressing a judgemental fan in the front row who was dressed in Gabriel’s iconic “Watcher of the Skies” costume, almost as if to taunt the band and suggest they would never live up to their former glory. It was the prog equivalent to having a David Lee Roth look-alike standing front and centre at a Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen show, but with way more phosphorescent face paint.
“Well,” Collins reportedly quipped to his bandmates after the show had concluded, “none of you had that to contend with, did you?”
Collins persisted and gave a steady performance that, at times, mimicked the spontaneous theatre of Gabriel’s on-stage antics; during “Robbery, Assault and Battery,” Collins donned a brown jacket and hat and did his best imitation of the Dickensian Artful Dodger to accentuate the song’s cockney flair.
This gradual comfort was evident to attendees, who picked up on Collins’ immediate charisma.
“By the end of the show,” Fisk said, “he was pretty into it.”
The mythology of the London show has only been enriched by its startling lack of surviving documentation. Collins’ second show as lead vocalist — which took place the next night at the University of Waterloo’s Physical Activities Complex — was recorded and distributed amongst fans, but the resourceful and communal online bootlegging community of Genesis fans hasn’t produced a shred of audio of that first gig in the decades since.
In that era, the band remained understandably nervous about starting over with a new lead singer, a transition few bands are able to make. Canada, an early adopter of Genesis, was a safer haven than the U.S.
Hackett remembers how Canadian fans had been welcoming to him and his bandmates, far more so than the Americans, who he says weren’t as receptive to the band’s fantastical, intricate brand of progressive rock.
“The Canadians accepted us first before the Americans,” Hackett recalled. “The complexity of the music did not faze the Canadians, but European-based rock was anathema to the Americans who, most of the time, just wanted to rock out and boogie.”
Bill Bruford, the prominent prog drummer whom Collins had tapped to take his place on the tour, said Collins was, at his core, a brilliant mimic, making the emerging talent blossoming before Bruford an unsurprising element of the tour.
“His early gigs were modelled on Peter Gabriel’s singing till in later years he found his own voice,” said Bruford, formerly of King Crimson and Yes, adding: “Generally, I think, there was astonishment that Phil had done such a great job replacing Gabriel.”
Of course, Genesis exploded in popularity with Collins at the microphone, and he became one of the top solo hit-makers of his generation. He and the band have had multiple number one albums and songs, solo and combined. Genesis has sold more than 100 million records, while Collins’ solo efforts combined to sell an estimated 150 million albums.
Collins’ early tenure as Genesis’ lead vocalist — and that first show in particular — may not have been perfectly polished or massively popular, but Hackett now muses fondly about the band’s transitional period between 1976 and 1977.
“He did such a great job. He always hit his marks, he was right on,” he said. “I think that many things sound sweeter with the passing of time.”