"Readings From The Bank statement" - Tony Banks in conversation about his solo career with Alan Hewitt. Photographs: Charisma Records. Memorabilia: TWR Archive.
TWR: Let’s start with your first solo album, A Curious Feeling, which you released in 1979. What actually prompted you to start the solo work after all the years with the band?
TB: I think that I always wanted to do it at some point and particularly when Peter left and Steve did a solo album, I didn’t think it was the right time. At that point we brought all our energy into the group and even when we started writing A Trick of The Tail, Steve was still involved in his solo project and the time wasn’t quite right then. A bit later on when Phil was having problems with his marriage in order to give him a bit of breathing space Mike and I said; “well, we want to do the solo albums, why don’t we do them now?” and that would give us the time and we could get back together after doing that. It was something that had been on my mind for a long time really and some of the stuff that ended up on A Trick Of The Tail I did consider for a solo album at one point. Obviously at the time with the way things happened, it didn’t work out like that.
TWR: In a lot of ways it is very similar in particular to Wind & Wuthering but at the same time there are a lot of different chord sequences and different sounds. Did you try and experiment and branch out being on your own?
TB: Well the thing about being in a group is that you always compromise to some extent via the opinion of the other people. With certain chord changes they tend not to be as fond of them as you might be. I have always liked to try unusual chord changes and all sorts of harmonies and weird things. You can wallow in it a little and it’s an excuse to be self indulgent. I actually looked at it like that and also looked at it as being an excuse to go a little further down the road like Wind & Wuthering. That was one of the most extreme Genesis albums - I think it was the most musical and the most grandiose album we ever did.
With One For The Vine I was confined to ten minutes or so and I wanted to try and expand that same sort of feeling over a whole album which was what A Curious Feeling was. I wanted to be able to use all the little differences of quiet and loud and contrasting them within the same song with another but to still tell one story effectively throughout.
TWR: You also played the acoustic guitar properly for the first time in quite a few years.
TB: Yes, in fact I used to play guitar even up to Wind & Wuthering, I was playing acoustic guitar on things like Your Own Special Way when I used to join in. Back in the early days of the group I used to play as much as Mike did really, because he was playing bass most of the time and even on Supper’s Ready when the first part of that was something of mine which I wrote on the guitar and so it was natural to keep playing it I suppose.
What I tended to do in the early days was put my guitar through the Leslie which gave it a rich sound that was quite good for rhythm backing. That would let the others - Steve, Ant or Mike - do the proper stuff. It was just good to have it sometimes. The other reason was that on stage the first three or four songs that we used to do, I used to play guitar on them and as a result people didn’t even know that I was the keyboard player! When we used to do things like Dusk, it was just with guitars and on Stagnation we used to start on guitar and then I switched to the organ and we just slowly built the thing up like that.
I really don’t play that much guitar anymore because you can cheat so much on the keyboards! (laughs) so I tend do that more and more. Obviously my hands are sort of small and I find it hard to hold the strings down. When I did A Curious Feeling I actually played the lead guitar and bass as well and I had to stick bits of foam under the strings to stop them vibrating. I never could work out how to stop the strings vibrating after you played them (laughs). I wanted to try and get a guitar sound but it ended up sounding a bit like the synthesiser anyhow.
TWR: Do you still compose predominantly for the keyboard or do you still vary your approach?
TB: I don’t really think about it to be honest. A lot of the things I have written over the years have been transferred to guitar. I write the songs and I happen to be more proficient as a keyboard player so I tend to write that way. Some things I used to play on guitar like bits of Supper’s Ready and Cinema Show and the reason for doing them like that was that I didn’t always know what I was playing. The thing about a guitar is that it is not too logical for me because the six strings are set out illogically and you put your fingers on and off the strings. You can get a chord that sounds good as well as these climbing down kind of shapes and they sound very effective on guitars that in the same way they don’t sound the same on a keyboard. I could fool myself with a guitar and there’s nothing on a keyboard that I can play and not know what it is going to sound like before I play it. Yet with the guitar I can’t do that. The guitar is also funny in the way that the strings resonate. Even if you know what you are going to play it doesn’t always sound the same because the inversion is very important on the guitar whereas on a keyboard it is much less crucial.
TWR: With the overall storyline, a concept album in 1979 was a brave step but what made you choose the idea of a man consciously losing his mind as the main concept for the album?
TB: Well, I have to say that I originally wrote the thing to go with the story Flowers For Algernon, which was a science fiction story that was made into a film called Charlie at some point I think. It’s about a man losing his mind and he describes it in his diary. He’s a simple person who through some scientific breakthrough is able to get more and more intelligent and he gets more and more intelligent until in the end the treatment stops working and he goes back to where he was at the beginning. It’s a very sad story and it made a very good basis for an album. At the time I was doing the music I rang the guy up whose story it was to see if it was OK to use his story. He said “I have to tell you that there’s a musical coming out in London based on this story” and of course, I had no idea if the musical was going to be a success or not. I actually went to see it and it wasn’t bad but it only ran for a week! I could have easily stuck with it. I wish in a way that I had because some of the lyrics I could keep the same. Most of the stuff on side two - You and Somebody Else’s Dream was very much part of that.
The main songs I had to change were The Lie and After The Lie which obviously was the scene setter and I had to find another way for a person to be losing his mind which was beyond his control. So this idea of some sort of mental thing that was probably more in his own mind than anywhere else which caused him to go through this change. I liked the idea of the songs, the way in which they reflect the idea of this person going through this terrible sense of loss and knowing that he is going and to see what he is feeling at the time.
In terms of a concept album, I always felt that Genesis were so out of tune with what was considered mainstream so I didn’t think twice. I wanted to do it. I thought that with The Lamb… the one fault that it had was the story was much too complicated and therefore didn’t allow the music to express the mood of the story because you didn’t know what was happening next; it was too episodic. So I wanted something that had a much simpler tale to tell which people could understand. It had moments that I think anyone can relate to, the concept of anyone losing their mind in that way and all the thing sit would lead to, particularly in terms of relationships.
TWR: The first track, From The Undertow, actually sounds like an overture, and it became part of the soundtrack to the film The Shout. How did you become involved with that?
TB: That’s right. Well, I originally wrote that piece of music to introduce Undertow, hence the title From The Undertow but it wasn’t right and I put a totally different emphasis on it. The piece that was used that sounds like The Undertow is the bit in the middle and that was he main part, whilst the part that starts it off was just an interlude. We were asked to do the music for this film called The Shout and so I had this part around which sounded good but I didn’t know what to do with it and so I completely modified it, turned it on its head and used this little intro part as the main thing because I just thought it had a nice quality about it. In those days with the Polymoog you had all these swooping sounds, the big crescendos which you could do on that instrument.
So I just combined the two together and wrote this piece which I suggested to the director who really liked it. I used it in A Curious Feeling because I wasn’t very happy with the way it was used in the film because you could barely hear it. I liked the film, I thought it was quite good and we were involved in it quite closely but the day they decided to do the main credits which was where I thought the music was to be the main thing, they did it without us and we were really depressed by that. Anyway, I thought the piece of music was good and as it hadn’t really been used in the film, I thought why not use it as a starting point for this and it sets a certain kind of atmosphere I think because it has a slightly uneasy quality about it.
TWR: There was a connection with the past as you used Kim Beacon as singer, who sang with String Driven Thing, one of your support acts in the early days…
TB: I wasn’t aware if any connection at all; that’s news to me if there was! I didn’t know that (laughs). I was desperate for a singer so I listened to loads and loads of tapes. I approached one or two people and nothing came of that so I just listened to tapes and I came across this guy singing a version of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother which is not one of my favourite songs at all but he had a really nice quality to his voice. I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure but I thought it might work. So he came down and I gave him a tape with me singing it and he said he had never heard such a peculiar kind of thing! (laughs). Anyway he very faithfully sang everything I had written although once or twice he did a couple of really pretty things that I thought were quite nice but he kept himself pretty much sublimated so that he was doing pretty much what I wanted. I think his voice goes with the whole feeling of the album. I’ve not seen him since that album either; he’s kind of lost in limbo land a bit like the album’s character! (laughs).
I liked his voice and it was the first time I had ever worked with a singer outside the band so it was fun to do because people have such different strengths. With him for example, he was brilliant at his harmony parts - he could do the vibratos absolutely in time with each other which was something that had never occurred to me before and there were lots of little things which Peter or Phil couldn’t do. It just made me excited about working with other singers.
The main problem I had with the album of course, was the identity thing which was the main reason why I sang on the next one myself. Everyone seemed to say; “well, it’s another singer, it’s a solo album but it’s not you singing” and it was a slight problem. To overcome that problem I tried to have a go at singing myself but I think that A Curious Feeling for me, is, out of all the music that I have ever done - including the stuff with Genesis, perhaps the most satisfying 45 minutes of music I have ever done.
Production wise it leaves a certain amount to be desired but some of the instrumental stuff on that such as The Waters Of Lethe I think is one of the best things I have ever done. It was a big thing for me and I was disappointed by the reaction it got. I had kind of assumed if you like, that because Genesis with A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering had kind of sailed through the loss of Peter and people had been very kind in wanting to like that material, that my album would do better actually. The thinking at the time was that a solo record would probably do a third as well as a group album, that was the general idea and if you take the likes of Yes solo albums, that’s what they did. Whereas this didn’t do anything like that. It reached a very small audience and we couldn’t’ get a single off it or anything to be played on the radio and so most people didn’t know it was out which was half the problem. I didn’t know at the time that it would be my highest chart position! (laughs). I never thought of it in terms of a monster but I thought it would appeal to people who had what I had done before with things like Afterglow or Firth Of Fifth which had gone down very well with the Genesis audience, so I assumed it would reach most of them but it didn’t quite go that way.
TWR: Why was the single from the album released twice?
TB: Well, there was a feeling that it was a hit. Charisma really thought it was a hit and so we remixed it which I felt didn’t make any difference at all and it wasn’t quite as good as the original mix but the record company had the enthusiasm to do it, so I thought “let’s do it!” I thought it was the only possible single on the album and Strat - Tony Stratton-Smith, who was always a big fan of mine was quite embarrassed by the fact that it didn’t do anything, so he wanted to do something to try and get it off the ground. We had no friends in the press which was a big problem at the time and you couldn’t awaken any interest you know, you just got a footnote in reviews if anything. There were some extremely bad reviews in the likes of the NME and it just made it a very difficult situation to work from. We just had to accept that was how it was.