Hawaiian shirt, balding mullet, the sales rep’s CD of choice, the man on all of those car boot 50p records, writing songs for Disney…and then all those awful Motown covers, Phil Collins is, on the face of it, a deeply uncool man. But is that right? No. It’s wrong. Very wrong.
Firstly, his work in Genesis is simply extraordinary.
Their first efforts (From Genesis To Revolution) had been pleasant enough, folk-influenced, mild psychedelic rock, but they were neither heavy enough for some nor poppy enough for others. Trespass (1970) was a stronger record and gave a hint of the prog beat to come, but it was the arrival of Collins (along with Steve Hackett on guitar) that gave the band the new lease of life and new urgency to drive their songs forward.
On Nursery Cryme – on which Collins sang one lead vocal – the band really found their feet, with a dark and expansive, almost concept, album, about childhood and murder. Their stage shows, lead by Peter Gabriel’s exquisite taste for the bizarrely theatrical, were really starting to happen, as well, and the release of Foxtrot in 1972 established them as a major force.
A Live album the next year – check out Watcher Of The Skies – captured some of their stage glory. Pete glorious in a red dress and foxes head.
Selling England By The Pound was an excellent record, many would say their best, and a quintessential Genesis mix of the pastoral rock and folk. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway divided opinion, some loving the journey Rael goes on, others thinking it was overblown even by Gabriel’s own brilliantly opulent standards.
Throughout this whole period, Collins grew into being one of UK’s finest drummers- capable of powerhouse playing up there with the best of them, but also showing a jazzers head for wonky time sigs and clever embellishment. You couldn’t survive in Genesis unless you had serious chops.
It was after Gabriel’s exit that Collins really came into his own as the lead singer, and the defacto leader, of Genesis.
The Trick Of The Tail album marked his debut out front and it is one of the bands most satisfying performances. His vocals on gorgeous ballads such as Ripples brought a whole new audience to the band – women! And yet when it came to the fables and story telling on things such as the title track or the staggering achievement that is Dance On A Volcano, he proved he could handle that very well too. Musically, he was on top form – just listen to his playing on Los Endos man, bloody hell!
It was also around this time that he hooked up with jazz rock musos Brand X and played on some of their albums – the best of which Livestock – a brilliant live album and Moroccan Roll, are some of the finest in that genre. Here he got a chance to really play technically brilliant, difficult music. It was a counter weight to Genesis because as the band evolved away from their trench coat and beard core, his vocal talents and performance skills drove the band to new heights of commerciality.
A string of strong records and huge tours followed, until eventually Collins solo efforts, as well as his attempts to save his marriage by spending time in her native Canada with his then-wife, saw the band take a back seat. He released his first solo LP in 1981, and the solo career path that would carry him to superstardom began. His drum sound was no instantly identifiable. A massive, reverby, cavernous sound it was too. It defined that era.
So, yeah, he was a key figure in an awesome band. But what about the second half his career?
Hit after hit, movies – oi, we thought Buster was alright – propelled Phil Collins to the star stratosphere, and he lived the dream. Even charidee was an opportunity for Phil to show off his awesomeness, flying as he did from Philadelphia to Wembley in order to be the only performer to play at both 1985 Live Aids. That Special Concorde flight he took to play at both morning and evening gigs because this is before the environment was invented, okay?
Bob Geldof reckoned that “Phil is a magnificent soul, he has touched the world through his music and he continues to fight against world poverty. He is one of life’s true heroes.”
Phil has, of course, become an unlikely hero to the rap singers, who have sampled his drums left, right and centre. Indeed, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony remade ‘Take Me Home’ from his No Jacket Required album. So enamoured were the Bone boys of Phil, they named him an honorary member of the band, bestowing on him the nom-de-bone ‘Chrome Bone’.
Reaching out even further to a younger, and presumably slightly mystified, generation, Phil featured quite substantially on one of the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ computer games, in which the player had to defend Phil from murder (assassination?) at a concert, shooting away baddies while Phil bashed out ‘In The Air Tonight’. Very, very weird. And who doesn’t love the drum sound in that song? Epic.
He’s even had a recurring role in Miami Vice – as a conman called Phil The Shill – for God’s sake, while respect is due to Phil for his long-time work with PETA, notably in their long-running feud with KFC. Phil donated drumsticks (seriously) to be auctioned for the charity. Then there’s his collection of Alamo artefacts (i’m not making this up, honest)
From prog pioneer to rap legend to chicken saviour, Collins has had a career of doing it his own way, and has produced some great tunes along the journey. A career as long and varied as his has been is bound to vary in quality but what other player can point to such a huge breadth of music, such huge global sales and such influence? It is a sad testimony to our image and trend obsessed country that a man of his class and achievements is spoken of, in some circles, in such derogatory tones by those who have achieved but a small fraction of what Mr Phil has done.
One of Britain’s great prog rock drummers and a quintessentially English sort of star. He’s not cool at all, and of course, that’s exactly why he’s cool.