Calling All Stations by Genesis and The Cosmos Rocks by Queen + Paul Rodgers. Two final studio albums by two very different and iconic rock bands. Two albums that served the same purpose. In both cases a new singer was brought on board to replace an iconic and much beloved front man. The end result in both cases was different, but the final outcomes were similar.
In November of 1991 Queen singer Freddie Mercury tragically passed away. Mercury’s passing immediately put an end to Queen, for a time. Roger Taylor and Brian May initially spent time focusing on their solo careers. After a period of grieving May and Taylor began to perform with various guest singers under the banner of Queen +. Singers such as George Michael, Luciano Pavarotti, Robbie Williams and Elton John, among others, appeared with the band either on stage or in the studio.
In March of 1996 Phil Collins announced his departure from Genesis. After two plus decades as a member of the band he decided to exit and focus solely on his solo career. Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, the remaining band members, decided to continue on with Genesis. Soon after they began the process of writing a new album and auditioning a new lead singer.
Both bands faced an uphill battle. How do you replace legendary singers who were also extremely talented songwriters and instrumentalists? Both singers were overflowing with stage presence and charisma. Each band opted to take a different approach to solving this enormous issue.
Brian May and Roger Taylor joined forces with another legendary rock singer, Paul Rodgers. Rodgers is best known for his work with classic rock bands Free and Bad Company. The trio discovered that they worked well together and set out on a world tour as Queen + Paul Rogers. The highly successful tour inspired the trio to go into the studio to write and record the album The Cosmos Rocks (2008). After the album was released the band embarked on a second tour. Despite the success of both tours Paul Rodgers opted to move on and focus on his own music.
Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford went through the process of holding auditions for a new lead singer for Genesis. The position was given to unknown vocalist Ray Wilson. Soon after Wilson went into the studio and recorded vocals. Most of the music had already been written before Wilson won the job. The end result was the album Calling All Stations (1997). After the release of the album the band intended to embark on a world tour. Unfortunately without Phil Collins in the band ticket sales in America were lackluster. The American tour was cancelled, but the band was able to tour successfully in other countries. After the tour ended Banks and Rutherford decided to call it quits. Wilson was not happy with the situation, but his opinion did not factor in their decision.
Two iconic bands, two new studio albums, two different outcomes. What worked and what did not? In the case of Queen they wisely recruited a highly experienced and world renowned singer to front their band. They brought in an all time great singer to step in for another all time great singer. Overall the end result worked out well. Rodgers brought a bluesy, testosterone infused delivery to the music of Queen. His charismatic stage presence and youthful energy made Rodgers an ideal fit for Queen. Taylor and May had so much respect for Rodgers that part of their set list was dedicated to Bad Company and Free songs.
The experience of Genesis with Ray Wilson as lead vocalist was a different story. Ray Wilson was in over his head as the front man of Genesis. Wilson is a talented singer with a distinct voice. However, he was asked to cover the vocal stylings of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. That is a lot to ask of any singer. On stage Gabriel and Collins had different, yet successful, approaches to fronting the band. Unfortunately for Wilson, during his time with Genesis, he lacked a compelling presence on stage. At the end of the day the band asked far too much of him. They were trying to promote a brand new album, while simultaneously attempting to appease fans of the Collins era and the Gabriel era. This was an impossible task for anyone. I am sure that over time Wilson would have grown into the role and fans would have accepted him. However the band pulled the plug after one tour, so we will never know.
The two studio albums produced by both bands, from a sales standpoint, were disappointments. The reaction from the public was indifferent. The reactions from the fanbases were, and continue to be, mixed. Some fans adore the albums, some abhor the albums while other have either dismissed them or ignored them.
Queen + Paul Rodgers had the benefit of doing a tour together before writing and recording an album. The three came together to write and co-produce The Cosmos Rocks. All of the instruments where played by the trio. The operatic bombastic and highly eclectic musical stylings of prior releases is absent. The trio produced a solid, rock album that sounds like a stripped down version of Queen fronted by Paul Rodgers.
Overall The Cosmos Rocks is an effective, but safe, album slightly marred by inconsistent songwriting. A few of the songs suffer from generic rock and roll lyrics. Paul Rodgers handles the bulk of the lead vocals. There is nothing wrong with the band taking this approach. Rodgers is one of the all time great rock singers. At the time of the recording Rodgers’ voice sounded better than in his heyday with Bad Company. However, it would have benefited the album had May and Taylor contributed lead vocals, on at least one full song each. One of the strengths of the band’s albums from the 1970’s was the songwriting and vocal contributions of May and Taylor. Having different members behind the microphone added so much variety and personality to the early Queen albums.
The band opted to write and record as a three piece. There is nothing wrong with this approach as each member is a multi-instrumentalist. Rodgers and May competently share the bass playing duties. However, bringing in a dedicated bassist would have helped improve the album. It would have freed up May and Rodgers to focus more on their strengths. Secondly the pair stepped into the very large shoes of retired Queen bassist John Deacon. His nimble style of bass playing is missed on the album. During their tours Queen + Paul Rodgers utilized the very capable bassist Danny Miranda. Bringing him into the studio would have greatly improved the album.
The Cosmos Rocks is a successful album that sees the band compromise enough to make it work. Each member has their moments to shine throughout. Comparing this album to the albums of Queen is a mistake. Enjoy The Cosmos Rocks for what it is, a fun collaboration between some of rock and roll highest profile veterans. At the time I was hopeful for a follow-up album, but that was not to be. The band did give fans two fantastic tours as they helped to keep the legacy of Queen alive.
Calling All Stations is the lone studio album produced by Genesis after Phil Collins’ departure. Banks and Rutherford continued the songwriting approach utilized by the band over the last few Genesis albums. The pair went into the studio and jammed to flesh out song ideas. The bulk of the album was written before the band hired Ray Wilson.
In hindsight Banks and Rutherford could have done several things differently. The pair should have waited until they put a band together before any songwriting began. Long time Genesis touring drummer Chester Thompson expressed interest in joining the band as a full member. From a business standpoint I do understand Rutherford and Banks’ reluctance in adding Thompson. But Thompson knew the swing and groove of Genesis music. His presence behind the drum kit would have elevated the album enormously.
Many fans have questioned the choice of Ray Wilson as the lead singer. I enjoy what Ray Wilson accomplished in his brief time with Genesis. But was he the best choice? Nick Van Eede, the lead singer from The Cutting Crew, was one of the finalists in the auditions. I do believe that he would have been a great choice. It is highly probable that he was better equipped to sing the band’s more mainstream songs. For a long time I have felt that a dual lead vocalist approach would have worked better for the new Genesis. Asking one vocalist to handle songs by two of popular music’s greatest singers is a huge task. Perhaps the band did not want comparisons to Mike + The Mechanics. Two vocalist, live and in studio, would have yielded better results.
Initially the biggest issue with Calling All Stations was not the album itself, but fan expectations. Many were expecting the new Phil Collins free lineup to produced a progressive rock album. Too the surprise of many they produced an album that tried to bridge the gap between Abacab (1981) and We Can’t Dance (1991). Overall the songs are less radio friendly and more serious. I can understand the appeal of Ray Wilson as a singer. He has a heavy voice that leans more towards the voice of Peter Gabriel. However, Wilson’s performances on the album showcase a singer with a limited range.
Musically Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks have nothing to be ashamed of. Their performances are fantastic throughout the album. More so than any other Genesis album Calling All Stations allows Rutherford to play a great deal of guitar. Banks confidently plays with a variety of new and different keyboard sounds throughout the album. Musically the weak point of the album is the drumming. Banks and Rutherford brought in Nir Zidkyahu and Nick D’Virgilio to handle the drumming in the studio. Both drummers delivered solid performances, however the distinctive drumming of Phil Collins is greatly missed. Collins was always far more than just a timekeeper behind the drum kit. He was an extremely musical drummer. Zidkyahu and D’Virgilio are highly skilled drummers. However, they lack the touch, feel and groove of Collins.
Of the two albums The Cosmos Rocks is a more consistent album. It may be a safe album that falls into clichéd territory at times, but it is a strong album. Calling All Stations took more risks, some paid off and some did not. Queen had the advantage of having an extremely seasoned veteran behind the microphone stand. Ray Wilson was not a new comer to the music scene. However, he was new to fronting an iconic band filled with much history. Genesis had the unenviable task of attempting to please a divided fanbase. With one album they attempted to please fans of their 1980’s mainstream output as well as fans of their 1970’s progressive rock sounds. That said, Calling All Stations showcases a band attempting to move their sound to the next chapter. Unfortunately much of their fanbase was unwilling to go along with the band.
Phil Collins and Freddie Mercury are extremely tough acts to follow. With Calling All Stations and The Cosmos Rocks, Genesis and Queen attempted to carry on without their iconic front men. Is one album better than the other? It truly is hard to say, so perhaps it is best left to the individual fans.