Phil Collins: In The Air Tonight
If Phil Collins had disappeared from the face of the earth at the end of 1981, this article would probably not be necessary. He would likely be remembered as a fine drummer who ably backed Peter Gabriel in Genesis, did a nice job succeeding Gabriel as a singer for a few solid albums, was an in-demand drummer for solo albums by other prog rockers, moonlighted in the fusion group Brand X and put out an excellent solo album, featuring one truly memorable track, featured above.
But Phil didn’t disappear, and after 1981, critical opinion of most of his work began to plummet in inverse proportion to his earnings, until he became sort of a punch line. And while it is hard to defend some of his more saccharine later efforts, on the whole, his entire body of work includes enough high points—including some after 1981—to support a claim for respect, not derision.
Collins joined Genesis in 1970, after the band had gone through a number of drummers. Unlike the other members of the band, who were from upper class families, Collins was a middle class kid, who had been a child actor and model (and an extra in A Hard Day’s Night.) After his first real band, Flaming Youth (in which he drummed, sang and played keyboards) broke up, Collins answered an ad, auditioned and joined Genesis, stabilizing the position as the band gained popularity. He quickly proved to be an excellent prog rock drummer, adept in both harder rocking styles and more atmospheric sounds, and able to handle unusual time signatures and patterns. I’ve previously written about “Supper’s Ready,” and you can go back and listen to it for Collins’ inventive drumming. Here’s a later song from the Gabriel era, “Cinema Show” that showcases his drumming (even if it is not quite as good as the Bill Bruford/Collins version from the Second’s Out album).
When Gabriel left, the band reportedly auditioned more than 400 wannabes before settling on Collins, and he proved to be a more than adequate replacement. Lacking Gabriel’s quirks and quirkiness, the Collins-fronted version of Genesis gradually simplified and poppified its sound until it reached massive popularity. Collins, however, was not the only one to “blame” for this change—his fellow band members, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks also wrote the songs, and were completely on board with the turn toward the mainstream. It would not have been possible, though, without Collins’ pleasant vocals, but he didn’t stop being a top drummer. Here’s a post-Gabriel Genesis song that again features Collins’ superb drumming.
At the same time, Collins played (and occasionally sang) with the jazz-rock group Brand X, in which he displayed a slightly different side to his drumming. Here’s a clip of a bearded and hairy Collins being interviewed on English television in 1979 before joining Brand X for a live performance.
Collins also provided drums (and vocals) on Steve Hackett’s first solo album, played on former Yes guitarist Peter Banks’ early solo works, contributed drum parts to tracks on Brian Eno’s albums, including “Sky Saw” from the classic Another Green World, and played on Robert Fripp’s Exposure.
Then came the 1980s. Asked by Gabriel to play on his third (and arguably best) solo album (often referred to as Melt), Collins, abetted by producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham, used a booming drum effect, called the “gated drum” sound, which they may or may not have invented, on the song “Intruder.” It proved to be one of the defining sounds of 1980s rock. When Collins decided to record his first solo album, Face Value, he brought in Padgham as co-producer, and the gated drum sound was used to great effect in, particularly, “In the Air Tonight,” which still holds up as a great song. The rest of Face Value is also pretty good and quirky, and Collins makes good use of a horn section and some old school R&B arrangements.
Face Value was a critical and commercial success. Later in 1981, Genesis released probably its last good album, Abacab, which used both the gated drum sound and horns. And while there were the occasional good songs on later Genesis albums, and Collins solo albums, at this point, the dross began to outweigh the quality. Collins’ involvement with Brand X also ended at about this time, and, for all intents and purposes, Collins became a smooth pop musician, with most of the rough and interesting edges gone.
In an article in the New Musical Express a few years ago, prompted by Collins’ (now-rescinded) announcement of his retirement from music, titled “Is it Time We All Stopped Hating Phil Collins?” Tim Chester noted that while Collins is “responsible for some of the cheesiest music ever committed to acetate,” this "obscures some of his most genius contributions to music.”
So, go listen to the pre-1981 Collins (and the occasional bit of latter-day quality), and enjoy some excellent, interesting drumming, fine singing, and pretty good songwriting. And let the haters hate.