Forming a tribute act can be challenging when it comes to getting the sound as close to the original band as possible, and approaching the keyboard rig for a Genesis tribute certainly proved tricky.
In 1994, I turned 30. I think it's an important age for musicians; it's the age when you realise that you're probably not going to be 'the next big thing' and that the irritating job you were doing to earn a few quid while you pursued your musical goals is, in fact, your career. What do you do? I couldn't find the number for the Samaritans, so instead I launched a tribute band to early Genesis — music I had loved when I was younger, and which has always been an influence on my own approach to writing and keyboard playing. The time was right; bands like the Australian Pink Floyd and Limehouse Lizzy were doing very well, so why not a Genesis one?
Sure enough, ReGenesis has done very well. We're the biggest UK Genesis tribute act, we've played the length and breadth of the UK, plus a few merry jaunts through the Benelux countries, and we've even released some live albums! Fans have included all manner of celebrities (Colin Firth used to have a link to us from his page), original Genesis members (Steve Hackett has been to see us a few times, founding member Anthony Phillips has also shown up, and original drummer John Mayhew played drums with us — the first time he'd played since leaving Genesis in 1971) and a couple of Sound On Sound staff as well!
For the keyboard player, ReGenesis is a dream gig; how many other bands feature keyboards so prominently? Most of the time in rock bands, you're basically filling out the sound and helping the guitarist sound as though he knows what he's doing. In early Genesis, songs sometimes begin and end with keyboards (including the remarkable 'Watcher Of The Skies', which starts with two minutes of solo Mellotron!) and frequently feature lengthy keyboard‑led instrumental passages — instrumental passages, please note, not keyboard solos. No cloaks or daggers for Tony Banks! Tank tops were more his thing.
So it's great to play. It also presents an interesting challenge when it comes to getting an authentic sound. I was a bit young for Genesis in their early '70s progressive rock heyday (I was exposed to the music via my older brother), and as a keyboard player, I don't really come from the era of showing up with half a dozen large items of furniture to play. So understanding what Tony Banks was doing, and what he was doing it with, was a big learning curve for me.
I soon discovered an interesting fact, though. Despite the reputation of prog rock for a kind of 'why use one musical instrument when you can use 30, plus a full orchestra and a troupe of ice‑skating knights on miniature horses?' approach, Tony Banks had a very simple keyboard rig. He started with an organ, an electric piano (a Hohner Pianet, later an RMI) and a Mellotron (initially a MkII, later the famous ivory Mellotron 400). In 1973 he added a very basic monophonic synthesizer: an ARP ProSoloist, originally designed to sit on top of home organs to provide that crucial 'lead clarinet' sound while you're working your way through The Best Of Acker Bilk with auto‑accompaniment thrashing out a mindless calypso!
That was about it on stage, until 1978, when they had some cash and he was able to add polysynths, a Yamaha CP70 electric grand piano and all manner of posh gear. Yet despite this simple rig, his sound, especially on Selling England By The Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) is very sophisticated — a swirling wash of warmth and ethereal sound. How did he manage it?
The key is in the clever blending and layering of sounds using swell pedals and outboard effects, in particular a fuzz box, MXR phasers and stereo chorus units. For a classic example of the sweet sound this approach can produce, check out 'The Cinema Show' on Selling England By The Pound, or hear it live on the classic album Seconds Out (1977). It was probably hearing Seconds Out that made me want to be a keyboard player, so it came as a bit of a surprise that this mighty sound was created with such simple tools. Another part of it is Tony Banks' unique choice of chord voicings and intervals, often providing dense, hard‑to‑unravel blocks of sound. This has led to me spending many happy hours sitting listening to some Genesis recording or other, trying to puzzle out just what was going on and wishing I was in a Dollar tribute band instead.
Over the years, I've taken several approaches to the Genesis keyboard rig, and below are a few of them.
This rig was a disaster. It consisted of:
This is not a bad organ for the Tony Banks sound (not so good if you're trying to do Keith Emerson though, as the vibrato and overdrive settings are hopelessly inauthentic), with some basic split keyboard capabilities for imitating the double‑register bits. And best of all, it survives pub doors quite well. No flightcases for me!
A rather basic S&S‑style synth, it was capable of producing a sound almost, but not entirely completely unlike a Mellotron, plus some rather nasty DX7‑style '80s electric piano sounds. Still, I was very attached to it.
Sequential Circuits Pro One
This is a nice monosynth, but it has a couple of huge disadvantages compared to the ProSoloist when it comes to playing the music of Genesis. Firstly, the ProSoloist consists entirely of presets, whereas the Pro One has none! This led to some frantic scrabbling around in between songs. Secondly, one of the ProSoloist's unusual features was that despite being an early '70s instrument, it had aftertouch. Tony Banks uses this all the time for pitch‑bend, filter and vibrato effects — check out 'Entangled' on A Trick Of The Tail.
This was a basic, semi‑weighted, 76‑note piano, which I loved, but sadly was stolen from my car about a year into ReGenesis.
Why did I have this? I can't really even remember what I did with it. It is the size and weight of a studio mixing desk, and appears to have been constructed from a mahogany and iron wardrobe. Or possibly it was originally fashioned from the rusting scoop of a bulldozer. I believe it had a flanger, which is why I added it to the rig. An effect! Hooray!
But on the night of our first gig, disaster struck! Not experienced in setting up complex keyboard rigs, when the moment came for the Trident to let forth a mighty blast (during 'In The Cage', if memory serves me correctly), I realised that I had cunningly placed it where I couldn't actually reach it at all! Oh well. I think it only lasted for about five gigs before I realised that either the Trident or my spine would have to go.
After a couple of years, I had learned a lot (there are lots of helpful people on the Internet, although some turn out to be a bit weird and after perfectly reasonable discussions about RMI patches suddenly entreat you to attend a model railway convention), and had gradually upgraded my rig until I felt that I could cover every note, every single sound that Tony Banks had ever made. This rig — the one I used the most — sounded OK, but was a monstrosity of cabling, MIDI and modules. I lived in constant fear of it going wrong and having to delve into the drunken spider's web of leads, plugs and power supplies to work out what the problem was.
The P‑55 piano module had a nice acoustic piano sound for the time, and was easy to edit on stage.
This mother keyboard was pleasant enough to play, but an utter pig to program, not helped by a manual that appeared to have been written in Japanese and translated, via Finnish, into English, by Yoda — something like "To achieve desired velocity curve, attenuate parameter seven you must, not forgetting the depressing red button X.” Eh? As a result, having somehow managed to save a couple of MIDI channel, split and effect settings, I then never touched the programming ever again and soon forgot how I had done it, thus defeating the object of having a flexible controller keyboard.
Roland Vintage Synths
This module has a couple of decent Mellotron patches — actually, the strings one is pretty nice. The choir patch isn't so good unless heavily edited — at the top end, they don't bother sampling it, so it starts to sound more like the Fairlight voices on Art Of Noise, or a chorus of chipmunks. However, I didn't really need the choir patch, as you will see.
A lovely descendant of the JV series, this was mainly used for electric piano sounds and odd effects – pre‑programmed slides such as the ones at the beginning of the song 'It', from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
Yes, so obsessed with getting the perfect Mellotron was I that in between songs I would be loading gigantic multisamples of Mellotrons into it from a Zip drive and chucking it through various outboard effects to get an 'authentic' sound. Sounds were accessed via the A‑30, as were the P‑55 and Vintage Synths module. Lots of MIDI in/out and, of course, the marvellous 'thru'.
With a stack of Zip disks, of course, plus lead, power supply and so on.
It's now missing a bottom C (some pub doors are tougher than others), but it wasn't a note that I used very much.
I paid several hundred pounds for this, and several hundred more to have its guts mounted in an internal metal frame so that it didn't just kind of dissolve due to excessive movement (in and out of vans and the like) whilst on stage. It was built for home use and taking it on the road is akin to taking your Fiat Panda out on the tank artillery range. It's a remarkable instrument for its age and has a couple of great sounds on it, in particular Elec Guitar 1, a curious sawtooth lead sound, which seems to actually change to something more like a sine wave after a second or two (something to do with ARP's ladder filter, apparently). This was my key reason for using it, as it's a very hard sound to imitate and Tony Banks used it all the time on stuff like 'In The Cage' and 'I Know What I Like'. Also, the primitive touch sensitivity is not quite like the behaviour of a modern keyboard, and this was after all the phase where everything had to be just right, regardless of practicality.
The ARP has a couple of drawbacks though. It's very low output with a lot of background noise — at least, mine was. It also has a short keyboard, which means that you spend a lot of time flicking the Octave key up and down whilst playing, even in the middle of a run on some occasions! Trying to make it sound smooth was a real challenge, and my admiration for Tony Banks playing such beautiful lead lines on this clunky oddity increased hugely.
Incidentally, before the ProSoloist I was using a Prophet 5 for the monophonic lead stuff, which was great (my favourite synth of all time), but hilariously unreliable. On more than one occasion I wondered why there was so much dry ice on stage, and then realised that it wasn't dry ice...
Of course, it was only a matter of time before I attempted the gig on a reasonably authentic version of Tony Banks' actual setup. By now, my obsession with understanding Genesis had commanded much of my disposable income for some time and so I was the proud owner of a Hammond M‑102 Spinet organ (similar to the T‑102 Tony Banks used), a Leslie cabinet, a Hohner Pianet and, of course, the ProSoloist. Roadie Andy Thompson had a white Mellotron M400, so with the simple addition of a fuzz box and an MXR Phase 100, I was ready to go!
It was bloody awful. Now I hate to sound sacrilegious, but with the exception of the Hammond, which is a thing of wonder, the rest of it was a bit of a bastard to play. Playing a Mellotron is like playing the washing machine they so closely resemble both internally and externally. The keyboard is spongey and the tape runs out every eight seconds, so you have to remember to slowly arpeggiate your chords so that they don't all run out at the same time. The Pianet sounds like a cheap version of a Fender Rhodes with no sustain, and the ARP is good but challenging, as I've already described. Also, when Tony Banks was playing these keyboards, they were new. The rig I was playing had been hammered on for nearly 30 years, so the keyboard actions were not what they once were!
I guess if you grew up with this stuff you'd be used to it, but really, apart from the fact that it looked great, it was hard to play, unpredictable and, perhaps because of my ignorance of how to get the best out of these artifacts, actually didn't sound that good. Again, except the Hammond, which when cranked up through its Leslie speaker was so loud that we didn't bother putting it through the PA! I could now understand why Tony Banks swamped everything with effects and replaced as much of it as he could as soon as budget would permit. In 1978 the band were doing well off the back of 'Follow You, Follow Me' and the Banks keyboard rig was gone forever, replaced by shiny polysynths, vocoders, and then samplers and digital synths as soon as they were invented.
I left ReGenesis in 2002 after a very successful tour of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, complete with video projections, scenery and a very silly 'Slipperman' costume for our singer Tony Patterson (although we never managed to get his testicles to inflate like Peter Gabriel's — there's clearly a whole science of genital pneumatics, of which we are ignorant). The band continued with the masterful Piers De Lavison on keyboards, and I stayed in touch and helped out a bit with bookings and such. My son, Charles Hammond (I hope he forgives me, but at least its better than calling him Charles Sequential Circuits Melbourne!), was born, and we moved out of London to the relative pastoral calmness of Wiltshire and generally did a lot less gigs. We put together a home studio (my wife, Carrie, is a musician when she's not being Mum, and as a session bass and Chapman Stick player she has worked with Tricky, Mike Oldfield and Babylon Zoo amongst others).
Then in 2008, Charlie was at school and I had some time on my hands. ReGenesis had been pretty much inactive since 2005, I wanted to get back to a bit of serious playing, so I made a few calls and, hey presto, we're back! This is a good time to be doing a prog tribute band. Thinly disguised prog from Muse, Air, Radiohead and Elbow dominates the music scene, BBC Four's season of prog programmes have generated interest and, of course, Genesis themselves re‑formed in 2007 to do a very successful tour, rekindling interest in their past.
Time is a great thing; I was able to reassess my approach to the gig and decided that I really didn't want to use my old rig, because it was horrendously complicated, heavy and actually not much fun to play. So I sold a couple of my old keyboards (including my much‑loved, though not suitable for regular gigging, Prophet 5, Hammond XB‑2 and Fender Rhodes Stage 55) and bought some new stuff. I had four basic principles in this new rig:
1) Simple and quick to set up. As I usually do the management side of the band, I needed something that I could set up quickly and then do the other stuff that needs to be done as soon as you arrive at the venue — argue about money, try and discover where the hotel is and ponder the fact that your rider, which requested mineral water, bottled German beer, some chocolate, fresh fruit and sandwiches, has been ignored, and instead, on entering the dressing room, find you are faced by a football‑sized pork pie and a bottle of budget lemonade.
2) Great sounding (obviously). This presents a tension between authenticity and a truly monster keyboard sound, but I think I've got the balance about right.
3) Lightweight. Trying to carry half a ton of gear up a frozen fire escape to a venue called The Cellar, which for some reason is two storeys above ground level, is no laughing matter, and I'm now a positively ancient 45 years old!
4) Fun to play! I wanted to be able to play like the trained musician I am, rather than approaching music like a mad scientist, or like I was milking a cow.
So, with all this in mind, my rig is now just three keyboards and a mixer. No MIDI, no racks, no outboard effects. And the keyboards are:
The only refugee from the old rig, but extensively re‑programmed. Finally, 15 years after I started this, I have an authentic sound for 'Watcher Of The Skies', which is more authentic than the sound I got from the Emu using the original samples or from the Mellotron itself. How do you explain that? I also now employed the 'keyboards of the '60s and '70s' sound card, which in addition to expanding the Mellotron sounds available, has a complete set of phased RMI piano sounds, some patches even called things like 'Trick Of The Tail' and 'Carpet Crawlers'! I believe these patches were originally created by a certain Mr Nick Magnus…
This was a bit of a hard decision, as I'd have liked to use my Prophet 08, which I am deeply in love with and which on stage has a sound like being crushed by an elephant. However, this would mean either getting outboard effects for echo and fuzz, which goes against principle one, or doing lots and lots of patch changes on the XP, which goes against principle four! The MS2000 doesn't have aftertouch, which for some songs would be a problem. Fortunately, our set this year concentrates on the albums Trespass, Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme, plus the odd bit from Selling England, none of which use this feature.
In any case, the MS2000 has a number of things in its favour. Firstly, it's a great keyboard to play physically. Secondly, its got built‑in effects, which means that I can get the fuzz and echo settings just right without extra boxes. And finally, I've had it for a while and am very used to programming it. Despite owning a Prophet 5 and a Pro One over the years, the Prophet 08 is sufficiently different in concept that programming it is a slow process at the moment. However, its marvellous tones will be heard, as our bass player Shaun Hunt is using the 08's little brother, the Mopho, to simulate Moog Taurus bass pedals, and it's fantastic!
Nord Electro 2
What an instrument! Fabulous to play, and quite simply the best emulation of a Hammond that I've ever heard. Not only in sound, but also in the way you set sounds up, almost every function of a real Hammond is produced. The built‑in Leslie effect is great, you can hear those upper and lower horns speeding up at different rates, and as a bonus it has a decent selection of acoustic and electric pianos, as well as highly usable phaser, distortion and other effects! Sound‑wise, this is the biggest single step forward for my ReGenesis keyboard parts. And yes, it's fun to play. 'Apocalypse In 9/8' has never sounded better.
And that's it! Mixed in stereo through a basic mixer and some swell pedals (as I mentioned, crossfades are popular with Mr Banks), I will soon once again be playing songs about hermaphrodites, croquet and killer plants taking over the home counties. One final point: a lot of analogue fans are a bit sniffy about modern keyboards, and in the '80s and '90s perhaps it was true that all that digital convenience came at the price of warmth and playability. But I defy anyone to say that a Prophet 08 or a Nord Electro is not at least as good as a classic analogue instrument, with added portability and stability! I've also reached the conclusion that if you are too obsessive about accuracy, you get closer to the letter of the music, without necessarily capturing the spirit of one of the great live acts of the '70s. If you want to hear it all in action, we've got a gig this November 28th at the Shepherds Bush Empire, London. Come on down and take a trip back in time, albeit with thoroughly modern time machines!
For further ReGenesis information and gig details visit: www.regenesis-band.co.uk