RockSpite: Taking Phil Collins Day at Face Value

The Talking Time kids kicked off a thread yesterday to announce the celebration of Phil Collins Day, an event that some random people in some random place have been observing on February 15 for six years now in a fashion dripping with irony. Well, screw that. Phil Collins doesn’t have to be appreciated ironically. He’s a talented musician, and despite the fact that he has a gift for composing schlocky pop tunes and making obscene gobs of money for doing so, he’s had his hand in some excellent music over the past 40 years. People dismiss his work out of hand because they have no real sense of how much great work he’s recorded over the course of his career, or because they’re lazy and content to let satirists like Seanbaby dictate their opinions. But the man deserves better.

Well, let me learn you. In addition to his hit-driven solo career, Collins served as Genesis’ drummer for nearly 30 years, not only co-writing and performing some stunningly intricate (and often epic) tunes but also stepping out from behind the kit when Peter Gabriel went solo in 1975 to front the band, leading Genesis to greater success than it had ever known before. He also co-founded (and performed with) a jazz fusion group called Brand X throughout the late ’70s, because being frontman of a burgeoning prog-rock supergroup didn’t eat enough of his time. He spent much of the ’80s producing and collaborating on albums by his bandmates (Mike Rutherford’s Mike + The Mechanics) and friends (Eric Clapton); he had a huge part in creating the mid-’80s “sound” for that brief era wedged between the decline of new wave and the rise of all-digital production. He was also in some really bad movies, and recorded pretty much every song you remember from the ’80s, earning all the money in the process with his own solo albums, his work with Genesis, and numerous collaborations. He also wrestled with the Ultimate Warrior (!?) and did some other weird stuff. Basically, he was a machine.

Most of all, though, Collins is interesting for the way he brought an affection for classic American music — jazz, bluegrass, folk, Motown — into the prim, pompous, British realm of progressive rock. His 1980 solo debut album Face Value deserves its own lengthy write-up, but suffice to say it was like nothing that had come before it. Where his prog peers liked to name-drop obscure European composers like Modest Mussorgsky and Bela Bartok (and where Yes opened its concerts with a Stravinsky recording), Collins’ work was informed by an unpretentious affection for the popular music he grew up listening to. “In the Air Tonight” and, to a lesser degree, “I Missed Again” are what people know of Face Value, but it has far more to offer than those two radio cuts. Over the years, the following suite has evolved from a “What the hell is this?” mystery to my favorite part of the album:

This is actually three separate tracks, but they all segue into one another and work together incredibly well. “The Roof is Leaking” is a spare, mournful story piece drawing on early 20th century American folk, with a touch of bluegrass in the banjo and slide guitar — definitely not the kind of thing you expect from the man behind “Sussudio,” but all the more powerful for how unexpected its raw emotion is. Its message of feigned optimism in the face of impossible hardship gives way to “Droned,” which begins as a motley whorl of instrument phrases before coalescing into a simple percussive rhythm augmented by “talking drums.” Eventually the tension breaks, and the lighter, more upbeat instrumental “Hand in Hand” begins, driven by Collin’s incisive drum work to a crescendo of Motown-style horns and wordless vocalizations by a children’s choir — all backed by a then-revolutionary drum machine.

A lot happens in the span of this 10 minutes of music, and it manages to encapsulate both the best of Collins’ work and his personal influences and styles all at once. From a bleak and soulful dirge, to experimental production and percussion, to pure feel-good rock-and-soul, this suite is absolutely masterful. You could argue that Collins never managed to reach this height of artistry again, which would be a fair accusation. But you can’t honestly listen to this and claim the man is a no-talent hack. This is wonderful music.

So happy Phil Collins day, dammit.

11 thoughts on “RockSpite: Taking Phil Collins Day at Face Value

  1. Every so often I try and convince my close friends that Phil Collins has a great body of work. I don’t think I’m getting any closer to succeeding but those periods allow me to revisit his career.

    I’m not hugely into prog and prefer the post-Gabriel Genesis stuff (although The Lamb Lies is a nice piece of work) so PC is definitely a-okay with me.

  2. As a Peter Gabriel guy, I am not yet as sold on Phil Collins as you, but your ideas intrigue me. I certainly don’t see him as a hack though.

    • Yeah, this is my camp. I never really HATED Collins, but Gabriel got to me more.

      This post/the thread linked out of it have convinced me to spend a bit of my next check giving the former a shot.

  3. Happy Phil Collins day. Always had a soft spot for the stocky little man.

    And I have to admit, I never considered those influences as part of his kit until you pointed them out in those three songs. Granted, I wasn’t all that much into them, since I’m more fond of ‘In the Air Tonight’, and his later stuff. (I.e. Both Sides, Dance into the Light, and Testify)

    When last I heard, his back was starting to give him problems and it seems that he’s more or less retired. Which is a shame, since I still enjoy listening to his music.

    And finally, the only, I repeat, ONLY reason why I would ever want to get Vice City Stories was because it had an ingame rendition of Phil performing ‘In the Air Tonight’. Thank goodness for youtube, since I’m not a GTA fan in the least. :p

  4. Wait, people hate Phil Collins?

    At worst, he made some classic 80s cheese. But even then, that’s some damn good cheese. At best, well…you said better than I could, being only a casual music person at best.

  5. I think people hate/mock the popular idea of the work Phil Collins did, rather than what he actually put out there.

    Even the pop-cheese he wrote, stripped of that awfully dated 80’s production, are pretty decent songs.

    I think much has to do with his appearance. People just can’t believe that a short, pudgy, balding little British man was at one time one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Collins so didn’t fit the mold, that there is an almost instinctual push back to try and pretend he never was as incredibly popular as the charts and sales show him to have been.

  6. Well, someone has to play the philistine: I enjoyed Nas’ sampling of ‘In the Air Tonight’ on his track ‘One Mic’ more than anything Phil Collins has done solo.

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