An appreciation of PHIL COLLINS: You’re not worthy

2642616by Allister Thompson

I retired from blogging about music in July of 2015, after many years of frequent posting. My fingers and brain were tired. However, I am coming out of retirement for this one special post, one which I feel compelled to write. Anyone with an ethical bone in his or her body knows that we have entered a really weird cultural period, dominated by the Internet’s insidious role in life, every fool’s newfound outlet to spew whatever crap he or she wants, no matter how idiotic or hurtful. Cyberbullying, cyberracism, cybersexism, hey, call whoever whatever names you like. No one can stop it. One thing making the rounds this week was some jerk’s petition to demand Phil Collins not make a comeback to music. While this is not on the same level as insulting people’s race or sexual orientation, it still says something about the catty, superficial nature of the online being. I also don’t know if it was meant to be some ironic joke, but ultimately, does that make a difference?

Never mind the object of this scorn — as a half-decent human being, I’d be offended by seeing this bullshit, no matter who the target might be, Chad Kroeger or some top-40 pop star, whoever. It’s mean-spirited crap that is really a neat little symbolic microcosm of the childish behaviour that characterizes online culture. But as a musician and appreciator of music, it especially offends me. The tool who came up with this idea probably has no idea of Collins’ achievements. The sad fact is, for people of my Gen X demographic and younger, Collins was something of a punch line, a symbol of the worst excesses and failings of eighties music. The attitude was no doubt propagated by the sad-sack indie hipster prototypes we remember from high school, sitting around with their spiky hair and dangly earrings, acting like there was some sort of transcendent artistic worth to be found in their college rock albums and dismissing anything “popular” (it moved some units, oh no!) as lowest-common-denominator commercial garbage.

Here’s one thing about real music fans, though: they appreciate LOTS of different things for different reasons. I have Phil Collins on my hard drive. I have The Cure, and Steve Roach, and Weather Report, and Tuvan throat singing, and The Hilliard Ensemble, blah blah, etc. etc. Does this mean I’m a better person than you? No, but it does mean I’m open-minded about music. You may not like Collins’ music or voice. Fine. I can’t stand James Taylor’s music, but I haven’t started a petition against him.

Making a joke or a punch line of a hard-working musician whose music has genuinely affected people’s lives in a positive way AND is a hell of a player to boot is stupid to start with, but OK, people are people. You’d think such ire would be best aimed at musicians who have turned out to be genuine scumbags. But now we have to have a petition against him, like stopping his intent to sing is on par with stopping seal-clubbing.

Why is that? Perhaps it’s because Collins was essentially an anti-rock star and thus an easier, earthier target. Oh sure, he made piles and piles of cash and has no doubt enjoyed the fruits of it in ways that would make us green with envy. There was a big kerfuffle way back about his supposed unwillingness to pay UK taxes. (Oh, and sure, he would have been the only filthy rich British rocker to act like that. Right.) Even back in the nineties, the guy was an easy target. But the appeal and the drawback of being Collins is that he’s a short, bald man, not particularly good-looking, who just loves music and makes it pretty well. He never had a sexy image or a mystique. He was actually quite silly and refused to take himself seriously. You couldn’t worship him, and that gets up the noses of the musically uneducated. Rock stardom is a lowbrow form of intellectual demagoguery, and you have to play the game to be loved for it. Like Bowie. Do you know how many absolute SHIT songs Bowie has recorded and released? You might be surprised. He probably isn’t. And he’s probably mates with Phil Collins, because it seemed like every cool muso in the UK was back in the day. For they knew what he was: a consummate musician, a good singer, and hey, even a pretty good songwriter.

But no, all I hear from you is, “Phil Collins sucks, he did ‘Illegal Alien’ and ‘I Can’t Dance’.” OK, so, while I shouldn’t have to do this, here’s some evidence to the contrary.

Phil_Collins_MusicianTHE MUSICIAN

Phil Collins is widely acknowledged to be one of rock’s finest drummers. Period. His style is jazz-influenced but with a controlled power on par with rock’s best. He combined at his peak the flair and inventiveness of Moon and Baker with the discipline of a Peart. His drumming was key to the sound of early Genesis. You know, what prog-rock snobs call the “real” Genesis. Check out the powerhouse drumming on tracks like “Firth of Fifth” and “The Musical Box”. Collins was also a member of a super-cool fusion band, Brand X, that released some pretty mind-bendingly funky LPs.

While translating Banks’ and Rutherford’s complex, lengthy pieces into dynamic rock, Collins was also the band’s primary backing vocalist, expertly adding harmonies in just the right timbre to match Peter Gabriel’s odd, reedy tones.

After Gabriel left, Collins reluctantly took over the lead singer’s position while still drumming on the albums, and live in thunderous drum duets with Chester Thompson. While not a particularly proficient keyboardist, he mastered the instrument well enough to write a number of memorable hits.

Oh, and those drumming skills? They were good enough for Gabriel, John Martyn, and Brian fucking Eno to use on their super-awesome albums, among others. Yes, that Brian Eno, the one you all think is the coolest musician ever to live. Worked with Phil.

THE SINGER

Yes, another never-ending source of scorn. A wee little bald man with a big voice who gives ‘er every time. No, he’s not Smokey Robinson, and maybe a little wee bald English fellow trying to sing Motown injures your ears or your sensibilities. Fine, I’m not that fond of that part of his discography either. But you simply can’t argue that he’s not a great singer. After finding his feet around 1978 (he did a pretty fair Gabriel imitation on the first couple of post-Gabriel Genesis albums), Collins forged his own path as a powerful vocalist with giant lungs and the ability to sell a song with those soulful touches. Yes, I said soulful. You don’t think his vocals on “Turn it On Again” or “Land of Confusion” or “Mama” are powerful, soulful, and melodic? Fine, go back to your Joy Division albums. I like things to be on-key.

Now, I’m not suggesting Phil Collins is a super-great singer; could he sell me on singing a melancholy ballad of the type Richard Thompson writes? No. But he’s good at singing the material he writes and has written for him. He loves to sing and he’s got a distinctive voice.

THE SONGS

The knock on Collins generally centres around his solo material and later Genesis albums. But it doesn’t hold water. The eighties and nineties were full of garbage music. You telling me that “No Son of Mine” is a worse song than the output of most grunge bands? And that’s not even a great song. Just clear your mind and take a listen to “In the Air Tonight” (which was so great from the inception that they basically used his demo for the backing track). The slow burn of mysterious synths, the dark lyrics, the understated vocal…the famous massive drum fill and outro. Oh yeah, that totally sucks. OK, I get why you don’t like “Invisible Touch”. You don’t like innocuously fun pop songs. “Mama” is damn scary, though. “I Don’t Care Anymore” is downright psycho. And are you really telling me that “Take Me Home” is not one of the best inspirational pop songs you’ve ever heard? But noooo, you give Sting and Bono a pass on their indiscretions. You reserve your venom for Phil.

Was he involved with “Sussudio”? “Illegal Alien”? “I Can’t Dance”? Yes. Those songs have many detractors. But if you stack his catalogue up against just about any pop star of his era, you’ll be surprised. Gabriel? “Big Time.” “Kiss that Frog”. Ew. Bowie? Anything on Never Let Me Down. Yuck. Sting? Don’t get me started, but “We’ll Be Together”? God, that is fucking awful. You even give Phil a hard time for writing a song in which he attempts to empathize with the homeless! Like you’ve done anything better with your sad life.

THE MAN

Oh, according to some people, Phil’s the devil himself, the neo-Fascist capitalist icon made into a joke and symbol by American Psycho. (How fucking glib was that nonsense? You may as well put Journey or Toto in the same place in the narrative — it would serve the purpose just as well.) He doesn’t want to pay his taxes, he’s a bad husband, blah blah. Well, we’ve all heard hair-raising stories about REALLY weird musicians. You ever read about what Chuck Berry got up to? It would curl your toes. About Dennis Wilson marrying Mike Love’s daughter just to spite him? About the pedophilic musicians? About the physically abusive ones?

When John Martyn’s career and life were declining, Phil helped him get a new record deal and was a good pal to him when he was depressed. What a monster! Oh, you think you’re really ethical? Collins has been an active supporter of PETA. For real. Bet you didn’t know that. He loves fuzzy bunnies that are being tortured and he wants to save them,  and you like making fun of people on the Internet. Who’s the jerk here? He donates all kinds of money to various causes and foundations (look it up) but never asks to pose with world leaders in return. Nope, just a regular bloke who got lucky and does his bit to help out.

I think we’ve heard enough now, right? I don’t worship Phil Collins; I listen to some of his music and enjoy it very much. I admire his musicianship, his measured approach to music-making and his down-to-earth personality.

Some people don’t like those things. Fine. But —

I REALLY don’t like trolls trying to get their two seconds of fame online by taking shots at a man with more talent than they could ever dream of possessing. He’s trying to come back to doing what he loves after serious physical setbacks, only to find that pond scum is actively rallying a campaign against him.

So if you’re an irrational Phil-hater, crawl back under your rock and take your delightfully ironic worldview with you, please.

[UPDATE: It’s now well established, probably, that the petition was a “joke.” Well, duh. Of course it was. If you understand my points about troll-culture at the beginning, you’ll get that the “joke” isn’t funny because it’s not a nice one. There are lots of real pricks to make fun of. If you think I lack a sense of humour and you are interested in music, you’ll find dry humour all over this site as well as drooling over awesome prog-rock and ambient albums, which you may or may not enjoy.]

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