[blog topic by request of John Beyer]
When most people think of Phil Collins, they think of the schmaltzy balladeer who ruled the airwaves (and VH1) throughout the latter half of the ’90s. If they’re being charitable, they’ll call to mind “In the Air Tonight,” that eerie, atmospheric radio staple that still manages to be kind of cool (that drum break!) 30 years later. But in fact, Collins was with the band Genesis for a good decade before “In the Air Tonight” propelled him into legitimate pop-rock stardom. And for most of that time, Genesis sounded nothing at all like “Invisible Touch.” On the contrary, they frequently found themselves being name-dropped alongside the likes of Yes.
Collins began his career as the drummer for Genesis with 1971’s Nursery Cryme, but he was singing from the beginning: He harmonized with lead singer Peter Gabriel on Cryme‘s opening track, “The Musical Box” (every bit as somber and atmospheric a tune as “In the Air Tonight,” though at 10 minutes long considerably less radio-friendly), and he sang lead on the second track, “For Absent Friends.” When Gabriel left the band to climb Solsbury Hill a few years later, Collins was the natural choice to replace him as front man. Thus began the Collins era.
In fact, though, the Collins era wasn’t radically different from the Gabriel era. It was a little harder-edged, perhaps, but Genesis remained predominantly a band about instrumental chops and great song-writing. Collins’ first album as lead vocalist, A Trick of the Tail, benefited from the improved production values that began to take form in the recording industry circa 1975 and certainly sounds much cleaner and sharper than any of Gabriel’s records, but its compositions remain just as challenging and interesting, if less esoteric. I remember listening to the local AOR/classic rock station in the mid-’90s when they threw Trick into their weekly “Sunday night six-pack” (in which they would play six classic albums in their entirety). The DJ seemed at a loss when the station was flooded by calls demanding to know more about this amazing new Genesis album. It sounded that good.
However, things changed considerably after their next album, Wind and Wuthering, when their talented guitarist Steve Hackett left to go solo, frustrated that the band wouldn’t commit to recording a set percentage of the material he’d written (the band’s true guiding influence had always been keyboardist Tony Banks). Reduced to three members, the band went for a leaner, more radio-friendly sound that didn’t quite work; And Then There Were Three lacked the complexity to appeal to older fans (due in large part to the loss of Hackett, who had was far more capable on the guitar than bassist-turned-guitarist Mike Rutherford), but aside from minor radio hit Follow You Follow Me it wasn’t accessible enough to pull in a larger audience.
The band took a couple of years to regroup and came back with a much better mix for 1980’s Duke. Rather than penning every tune in a sort of compromise — shorter pieces with a dense sound — the band instead went for a mix. Duke had a handful of shorter, more pop-accessible tracks (including “Misunderstanding,” a very successful radio favorite inspired in part by Collins’ love for ’50s Motown without actually veering into the fake R&B sound Collins’ solo material often went for) as well as a number of lengthier compositions with a heavy emphasis on instrumental arrangements. Duke even told a story of sorts: The 10-minute finale, “Duke’s Travels/Duke’s End,” reprised themes from the equally lengthy opening suite, “Behind The Lines/Duchess/Guide Vocal,” with the brief vocal break in “Duke’s End” bringing closure to the half-completed lyric of “Guide Vocal.” It was the band’s final callback to their Gabriel-era art rock roots.
I’d go so far as to say Duke is Collins’ finest work, or at least right up there with A Trick of the Tale (although Genesis’ best album, period, is the Collins-era live interpretation of Gabriel tunes, Seconds Out). It shows the band looking forward and trying new ideas and new musical technology, resulting in an incredible mix of musical styles. On one hand, you have the lengthy opening and closing art-rock workouts, but on the other you have “Misunderstanding” and Collins’ spare, soulful divorce-fueled ballad of regret and loss, “Please Don’t Ask.” At the other end of the spectrum altogether is the blistering, expansive synthesizer workout “Man of Our Times,” which sounds like nothing else in the band’s oeuvre, though it undoubtedly paved the way for their later drum machine-driven hits like “Mama” and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.”
The band tipped over a little too far into hit-chasing after that. Abacab had some fantastic moments — in fact, all their albums did — but little by little their sound evolved from experimental works created for the love of musical expression to carefully calculated constructs designed for maximum radio impact. They continued producing a couple of lengthy musical workouts for each album, but these sounded increasingly obligatory with each passing year. Still, they did manage to rally for the finale to their last album together, the fittingly named “Fading Lights,” which rounded out Collins’ career with Genesis in a perfectly appropriate fashion: Quiet vocals over a drum machine built up to an extended instrumental break punctuated by Collins’ gunshot live drums, eventually fading down into a reprise of the opening passages.
Collins gets a lot of flack for his work, and some of it deservedly so. But the man was an integral part of some absolutely amazing music. It wasn’t until he tasted true success with his solo work that he more or less abandoned all pretense of legitimacy in favor of lots and lots of money — and, hell, it’s hard to blame him. Unlike so many flash in the pan artists, Collins spent a decade toiling in the musical coal mines, performing his band’s (and Brand X’s!) tunes to small audiences. He proved his chops, and I can’t begrudge a man for playing to the crowd… though I wish he hadn’t completely turned his back on his prog heritage.
There’s a bit of tragedy to Collins’ career, honestly. He venerated Motown with such sincerity and tried so hard to grasp hold of and recreate the music he grew up listening to, but his work lacked the heart and truth to pull it off. Perhaps not surprisingly, his best writing happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s as he reeled with the pain of his divorce and fed that sorrow into his art. At some point, he lost the ability to channel that kind of authenticity into music and settled for writing boilerplate ballads — primarily in his solo work, but it crept into Genesis as well.
Sure, he’s a schmaltzy balladeer, but he’s much more than that.