Features / July 9, 2018
GRASSO: One of the best parts of starting We Are The Mutants (nearly two years ago now) has been becoming friends with my co-editors and learning about all the things that they find interesting. So when Richard and I first started talking about our shared, unabashed mutual love of Phil Collins, it was like I’d finally found a kindred spirit. It became very easy (and, in my opinion, very lazy) to bag on Phil in the ’90s and beyond, as he became even more painfully un-hip than he was in his hit-making 1980s. And Lord knows, I probably even joined in on the Phil-bashing at the time.
But let’s be absolutely clear: probably more than any other pop artist of the 1980s, Phil Collins’s voice is the soundtrack to my childhood. Whether it was his ubiquity on pop radio, his videos on MTV, his appearances on television and in movies, or his showy Concorde-enabled dual performance at both Wembley and Philadelphia for Live Aid in 1985, Phil Collins is, in a lot of ways, 1980s pop music culture personified. It’s hard to put it in words, because, like several other artists I love who haven’t received any artistic respect since their heyday, Phil has gotten the shaft by historians of pop music and the guardians of what is considered artistically worthwhile and cool. But, unlike some of those artists, Phil seems to deserve better, to deserve a sincere career reappraisal.
I have a lot to say about Phil, and I was even more gratified to see, Richard, that you’d written an entire piece about him before we even got a chance to talk about him! So tell us a little bit about what makes Phil unique in pop history.
MCKENNA: Mike, after a lifetime of being mocked by all and sundry for my Philophilia—after spending years hiding my cassette of Face Value from my fellow punks—you have no idea what a relief it’s been to find a sibling-in-Collins. Even though, given that the world we live in is heaving with issues much more deserving of attention, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit how much time I dedicate to dwelling on the slights Phil Collins has endured.
In the post-everything reality we inhabit, wry reappraisals of stuff previously considered dross are almost as common as derision, but I want to try and understand what the fuck it was about Collins that made him so compelling to me between my first infatuation with Genesis in the early ’80s and the end of No Jacket Required that, for a period, I actually affected to imitate his style, with predictably bruising results. And why does he still have this effect on me?
Call me superficial, but the first issue to tackle with Collins has to be that face: it’s no coincidence that that puckish, contrite mug featured so prominently on the covers of his solo records—Collins’s face was an aesthetic and political manifesto. The nick at the corner of his mouth—actually the result of his face hitting the dashboard of the family car when his father braked suddenly to avoid sheep on the road—lent a peculiarly ambiguous, vaguely disreputable cast to his whole appearance. Collins is always accused of being blokeish, but that’s to deny his odd beauty—because Collins was beautiful, with a kind of ultra-national prole grace: he was beautiful in his Henge/beard/footie wristbands days, and he remained (at times) beautiful throughout his soul-spiv days—mercurial, impish, compelling. Come on, I’m not the only person on the planet who thinks Phil Collins was a beautiful ersatz polystyrene-soul druid, right?
GRASSO: He’s a classic spiv, Richard; that puckish visage you mention was used to such great effect as he played the role of game show host and petty conman “Phil the Shill” on Miami Vice in 1985 (a role likely influenced by the career of fellow English spiv import Richard Dawson), and Buster Edwards of Great Train Robbery fame in the 1988 film Buster. There’s definite charm behind Phil’s disreputable look and pose, maybe the smirk of a guy who knows you’re underestimating him.
It’s funny that I’m talking about Phil as an actor before I even tackle his musical career. But that’s how I first encountered Phil Collins: as a charismatic mainstay in the early days of MTV. In that decennium mirabile between Genesis’s transitional …And Then There Were Three/Duke/Abacab period and the monster international smash Invisible Touch in 1986, Phil Collins became an international superstar, and I argue it’s largely thanks to those music videos, both with Genesis and solo. The cheesy Southern California romance of “Misunderstanding“; the silly low-concept “I Missed Again“; the stunning and bleak abstraction of “In The Air Tonight” (I firmly believe this video helped propel the song’s recondite murder-ballad legendarium); the groovy Motown tribute of “You Can’t Hurry Love“; the “behind-the-scenes” faux-intimacy of Phil’s duet with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, “Easy Lover“; hell, even the bizarre nightmare-scape of Invisible Touch‘s “Land of Confusion” (provided thanks to the puppets of ’80s British TV institution the Spitting Image): at the center of each of these is Phil’s gurning, grinning, winning face. (The pure “here I am Lord, I can do no other” power of Phil rereleasing his solo albums in 2016 with his present-day, un-retouched face is something I can imagine literally no other pop star who’s pushing 70 years of age doing.)
But yes, let’s talk about the music. As you mention, Phil Collins’s membership in Genesis is how the world got to know him (pace his career as a child actor, out of which he managed to transition cleanly and professionally). And here’s the new drummer coming onboard in 1970—competent, game for any of Genesis’s prog explorations but also resolutely not an upper-middle-class Charterhouse lad like Peter, Michael, and Tony—propelled to the front of the band by 1975 and asked to replace one of the most iconic frontmen in prog when Peter Gabriel leaves the band. And what does Phil do? He very appropriately remakes the band in his image (“Genesis,” get it, ha ha), adds a dash of the pop and soul he loved from his childhood, and turns them from—let’s be brutally honest, Richard—plodding prog rockers into an honest-to-God pop band. There’s some hubris there, no?
MCKENNA: It’s probably apposite that I confess here to having been a massive Gabriel-period Genesis fan too, and that—like shingles—stays in your system for life. Back then, I don’t think I knew Phil Collins had anything to do with them. There may have been some vague awareness, but to be honest, the writing on the fucking two-for-the-price-of-one Foxtrot/Trespass double cassette that comprised my initial Genesis collection was so small, you’d have had a job working out what the songs were called, much less who the drummer was.
The difference between Collins and his predecessor on the Genesis microphone is all there in one line from “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”: “Sunday night Mr. Farmer called, he said, ‘Listen son, you’re wasting time, there’s a future for you in the fire-escape trade, come up to town’.” Gabriel’s reading of it is the arch detachment of someone watching the doings of the tradesman, but in his performance of it at Knebworth Festival in 1978 (where Devo also played, incredibly), Collins lives it, from the inside. It’s him. So who knows whether there was hubris in Phil’s bending of the Genesis whimsy of yore into something else, or whether it was simply a more powerful aesthetic prevailing.
I didn’t know anything about all this the first time I heard “In the Air Tonight,” obviously. As was often the case, initial exposure occurred thanks to Britain’s Thursday-night church, Top of the Pops. His Prophet-5 synth set up on a Black & Decker workbench, his Roland CompuRhythm drum machine on a tea chest by his side, it was the Collins-as-unnerving-outsider I saw there—equal parts irked TV repairman and paranoid futurist savant—that would be forever registered in my memory. I would continue to see traces of it and superimpose over even his most awful incarnations. Oddly dressed—in a tank top of all fucking things (which perhaps explains my own predilection for them)—and ever-so-slightly unshaven, his appearance hovered somewhere between minor Napoleonic functionary and guy running the music department in a provincial Woolworth’s. The performance, like the song, crackles with suppressed anger and incomprehension. Even though it ought to be hard to hear it fresh now, it still sounds distinctly alien, but it might be difficult to imagine just how remarkable “In the Air Tonight” sounded then. In 1981, a man dressed like that sat at a keyboard on Top of the Pops was going to sound like Gilbert O’Sullivan or something, not like someone whose brain was being eaten by a computer.
Never the sharpest of crowds, the ToTP audience stands looking on in stunned incomprehension while Collins’ coiled tension begins to manifest and unnerving video effects seem to imply that his personality is fragmenting. How could I have imagined that this avatar of strange modernity had anything to do with his day job?
And then there was that masterstroke of stagecraft, as memorable as it was pettily (and by the sound of it, very unfairly) vindictive—the tin of paint that elicited an uncomprehending roar of “What’s ‘e gorra bloody tin o’ paint for?” from McKenna senior.
GRASSO: SO PUNK. And that gets to my next point: say what you want about Phil, but you can’t say his music doesn’t fairly throb with emotional intensity, both positive and negative! Putting together a playlist to listen to while writing this piece, I found myself stunned at how often you hear Phil’s heart and soul bleeding on these tracks. Take, for example, “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now),” from the soundtrack of the fairly forgettable 1984 Jeff Bridges/James Woods/Rachel Ward neo-noir of the same name. The first minute and a half of the song you’re thinking, “Oh, typical sappy soundtrack ballad, nothing much to this,” and then boom!, a drum break (Phil, if nothing else, knows the dramatic impact of a drum break to announce his intentions), and then that Voice starts channeling real emotion, real heartbreak, almost breaking itself on every refrain of “nothing left here/to remind me” as the instrumental backing builds to a crescendo. “Take.A.Good.Look.At.Me.Nooooooow,” Phil announces in the penultimate repeat of the lyrical hook, crowding his syllables to telegraph the emotional impact of a man left bereft. I can confidently say that the best karaoke performance of my life was thanks to singing “Against All Odds”; how could it not be? All the profundity of love, heartbreak, and its concomitant despair is packed into its three-and-a-half minutes.
The darkness of Phil’s early ’80s output is commonly ascribed to his 1979 separation and eventual divorce from his first wife Andrea. Genesis was on the verge of making it big, Collins sensed it, and in the process he spent too much time away from home. Pretty much the entirety of his output from this time period, both solo and Genesis, reflects his ache over his lost marriage (and, in some small part, his budding romance with second wife Jill Tavelman). The folks over at the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast brilliantly christened Phil as the patron saint of “Divorcecore,” that genre of brightly-polished, highly-produced 1980s music that was really all about the artists’ separations, both personal and professional, and their loss of faith in love and in their own generation. Phil hits all the spaces on the Divorcecore bingo card: divorce, (trial) separation from his band, songs aching with disillusionment and regret, and that sparkling studio production putting a gloss on songs full of barely-concealed pain.
How can Phil bounce so effortlessly from lovelorn ballad to upbeat pop to enigmatic prog, sometimes in the course of a single four-minute song? I think on some level Phil Collins understands what makes soul music soul; the ineluctable pain and complementary miracle of being, of loving, of the contradictions of a life lived in full. Phil Collins was never afraid to break down those barriers—of musical genre, race, class, gender expectations, the lot—he’s a pure chimera and I think at the center of that mutability, that near-alchemical fluidity, is his own sensitivity to life in all its pleasure and pain. And not just the pain, but the strange places that pain can take you.
Take that duet with Philip Bailey from 1985, “Easy Lover.” Probably one of my favorite Phil tracks (my devotion to Earth, Wind & Fire, another signal band of my early childhood, is well-known), its chorus sounds like a bog-standard mid-’80s R&B single: She’s an easy lover, she’ll get a hold on you, before you know it you’ll be on your knees. But that instrumental synth string opening! It’s like a fucking minor-key Bach fugue, full of foreboding and real uncannyness. And it re-enters the song as an instrumental break at the three-minute mark, reminding us of the turmoil bubbling under the surface of this tale of jilted love. And boring old Phil from Chiswick, holding his own against the one-in-a-billion, four-octave vocal prodigy, Philip Bailey… really, it’s a pop tour-de-force. But at the same time, it bleeds somehow with real menace and foreboding, which was used darkly and memorably this year in a scene from The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (inspired, of course, by a similar use of Collins in both the novel and film versions of American Psycho). These directors sense that darkness, pain, and implicit threat in Collins’s music, and use it to great effect.
MCKENNA: The columns holding up my personal Collins temple would begin, obviously, with “In the Air Tonight”—a song that not even ubiquity (and its use in twatface po-mo advertising) has managed to de-fang, and would then go on to include songs that represent the various facets of Phil’s voice; “Follow You Follow Me,” “Turn it On Again,” “Mama,” “Blood on the Rooftops,” “Man on the Corner,” “Paperlate” (which, as we were commenting the other day, Mike, sounds like a fucking Smiths song), “Abacab,” “Keep it Dark,” “Dance on a Volcano,” “Ripples,” “I Missed Again” (the excruciating video for which almost makes me see the Collins-loathers point), “I’m Not Moving,” “I Don’t Care Anymore,” “Long Way to Go” (Sting notwithstanding), “You Can’t Hurry Love.” I could go on.
Much has been made of the purported story behind “In the Air Tonight,” but Collins has been candid that it’s not about anything except feeling like that. A few years ago, I saw an interview on Italian TV where he was trying to explain his songwriting process and even he ended up looking embarrassed about how the words were just basically the first ones that came into his head while he was sketching out the music. Collins’s inability—or unwillingness—to elaborate his thoughts into metaphor or poesy or anything even resembling “art” feels like a kind of miniature class war: the freedom to express yourself in the language of erudition or whimsy is the privilege of the middle-classes—the Gabriels, the Rutherfords, the private schoolboys used to couching themselves in metaphor after summers spent reading bloody Tolkien. It’s no coincidence that Collins’s chosen means of expression are animal skins stretched over amplifying tubes, the oldest form of long-distance communication known to man after smoke and screams. And fucking hell can he hit the bastards, somehow managing to imbue them with his own emotivity and personality, his backward-Motorik repetition punctuated with tumbling, incoherent tom-heavy meltdowns.
To my mind, the best example of his grappling with this inability to communicate is a song he didn’t write, but—ever the consummate actor—inhabits with a violence that makes the idea of his two remaining bandmates having anything to do with it seem ludicrous. You can tell Phil’s into “Turn It On Again” right from the chippy “One two three four” that leads in the synths. What Rutherford’s trite lyrics were originally meant to mean ceases to matter: this is about Collins. The Collins in the “Turn It On Again” video is the Ur-Collins for me: clad in thrown-on clothes like Brett from Alien or some nutter from down the market, and with a traumatized amphetamine energy, there’s something fraught and slightly worrying beneath that veneer of desperate-to-please geniality.
That Collins himself is wholly ignorant of the reasons why contingency chose to pluck him out of nowhere and give him a voice—or force one upon him—is evident, but it often feels like there’s a misapprehension about him that comes from confusing blandness and blankness: Phil’s blank, not bland. He should probably have adopted a punk moniker to make this clear—Phil Vacuum, or something. Or maybe Phil Empty, if we want to get a pun in there. Collins has no style, no “class”—he’s not an everyman, he’s a no-man, the way we all are deep down, and that’s why he’s so honest. His only act is trying to act human, a feeling that I know a lot of us share and which, I think, is why his version of “Can’t Hurry Love” actually works. That, and that he has never affected to have a different voice from his own—the voice he sings in is the same one he talks in. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, the key to understanding Phil Collins is that Phil Collins is alienation incarnate. Not cool alienation—the unglamorous kind, the kind that drives you to seek out things that are bright, vibrant, and straightforward because the complications and confusion inherent in everything are too much for you to handle. That’s the line Collins sits astride—desperate blankness at the overwhelming complexity and unknowability of existence and a need to mitigate that horror with a sweetness that his more refined critics see as saccharine and trite.
Everything Collins is there in the “Sussudio” video—his aggressively cheerful resentment, masked with the aggressive show-must-go-on music hall good cheer of the hoofer; the backing band that looks like the computerized talent booking system for the Catskills crashed during the night; the boozy pub milieu that would have had Banks and Rutherford gagging on their Chablis in their converted barns; and the Collins fundamental—the use of triteness and gibberish to communicate a feeling of deep alienation. The song’s a monster.
The thing about Collinsophobia that pisses me off the most is that he’s always judged on the least flattering aspects of his output, his aesthetic and his public persona. The tax avoidance, the oft-repeated bollocks about him saying he’d leave the UK if Labour got in (Tracy Emin didn’t receive quite the same amount of opprobrium for actually saying that a decade or so later, for some reason; neither did dozens of other tax-shirking artists and rock’n’poppers). I dislike tax avoiders as much as the next person, but the singling out of Collins was nothing to do with his taxes; otherwise there wouldn’t be a UK pop and rock star left standing. Collins was that ’80s personage most loathed by both the middle- and upper-classes and by the university-educated children of the working class: the bloke. The guy you decide is a dead-eyed dullard because he doesn’t speak the verbal or aesthetic hyperlect you require in order for you to admit someone’s actually human. And as others have pointed out, even Collins’s choice of R&B over nominally more sophisticated forms of muse like Jazz and world music smacks of classism. I think it would be disingenuous to ignore the class animosity that moves a lot of the dislike of Collins: working and lower-middle-class people are either supposed to invent themselves as something more exciting (and unlike their origins) or shut up and fuck off.
GRASSO: I alluded to him near the start of our discussion, but Billy Joel is, I think, one of Collins’s most relevant pop icon analogues. A working/middle class lad from the suburbs, started his career off prog, but slowly and gradually adopted the pop idiom of his youth as his career exploded; created huge crossover pop hits during the ’70s and ’80s, and took a sad detour into schmaltz late in his career. (I come here not to defend Phil’s 1990s Disney-adjacent output; neither do I wish to spend too much time advocating for Joel from about The Bridge onwards.) Both of them also have a reputation personally as being a bit needy, a bit emotionally stunted, with a trail of poor personal relationships left strewn behind them. But what Phil has that Billy never did, I feel, is self-confidence. Billy Joel, as Chuck Klosterman memorably wrote in 2002, was never quite cool. But when Phil turns on the music hall, song-and-dance routine in his body language and performance, you feel it’s someone with real assertiveness and showmanship in his blood. Cool? Maybe, maybe not. But dedicated to being an entertainer? Absolutely. Billy always seemed slightly put out at having to perform; Phil lives on it, as much pain as there might be behind the grin and the patter.
But yeah, the hostility to Phil: it’s fairly widespread, including our very own editor-in-chief. (If you readers could see the conversations that happened in Mutant chat prior to this piece going up… but anyway.) And I’d argue that the backlash started right around the release of Buster and Phil’s pair of pure Boomer/Motown nostalgia singles “Two Hearts” (co-written by Motown legend Lamont Dozier) and “Groovy Kind of Love.” In the late ’80s, the pop landscape began to shift inexorably away from white Boomers (both American and British) and towards, well, white Gen-Xers for the most part. Hair metal and eventually grunge (and, let’s be fair, a resurgent R&B propelled by the dynamism and fire of hip hop) would sweep the Phil Collinses of the world from the Top 40, pretty much permanently. Yes, Genesis released the execrable We Can’t Dance in 1991 with those plodding singles “I Can’t Dance” and “Jesus He Knows Me” (Phil really missed the boat taking on televangelists a good half a decade after most of them had their spectacular falls), and then it was onto the Disney gravy train for Phil.
But even apart from these larger career trends, people (and especially the critics) just tended to really hate Phil, especially during his Invisible Touch-era ubiquity. I just look back now at the heights of his career and say to myself, “Who could hate this guy?” Plenty of other ’80s superstars have had just as lackluster later careers without the personal opprobrium. I think you’re right, Richard: it’s that sense that Phil had gotten slightly above his station, that he didn’t deserve the fame and fortune, the weird stylistic niche he worked incredibly hard to carve out in the 1980s! All the eccentricities Phil’s exhibited during the twilight of his career—the aforementioned tax exile, the weird Alamo obsession, the model railways—they’re positively inoffensive compared to some of the awful revelations we’ve seen from his contemporaries in the 21st century! (Also, as a museum professional, I wholeheartedly approve of and praise his recent decision to share his Alamo collection with the world rather than hoarding it for himself. As a socialist, I’ll just say the jury is still out on Phil realizing his tax duty to his fellow Britons.)
However much I love the songs from the Buster soundtrack as pure Boomer R&B/pop confections, I consider the last gasp of classic Phil really to be the No Jacket Required and Invisible Touch era between ’85 and ’87 or so. “Sussudio,” as you say, is still a monster: those almost parodically-punchy synth drums, the muscular and Gabriel-esque (archangel, not Peter) annunciation of the Phenix Horns, the aggressive Collinsian nonsense of the lyrics (if you’d like a more detailed breakdown of the song, again, check out the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast’s “Sussudio” episode, where they also dive into the psychology of Phil). And the video (which you mentioned above), where Phil is just trying to entertain the nice people who’ve sat through a presumably turgid couple of hours of free-form jazz, well, it’s Phil’s career narrative in a nutshell, isn’t it?
Invisible Touch is the album that made Genesis worldwide superstars. God, I know at this point it’s fucking impossible to talk about it without sounding like Patrick Bateman, but how can you deny the insane catchiness of every single one of the album’s singles? “In Too Deep” is a masterpiece, using every single one of the Phil trademarks we’ve talked about: intense, naked emotionality (but never sentimentality), unexpected chord changes, and a devastating knowledge of how to use instrumentation, especially drums, to create drama. And more importantly, it was written for the underrated Bob Hoskins film Mona Lisa (1986). If there was ever a cinematic Phil Collins, it was Hoskins. Pace their physical resemblance, Hoskins’s characters in the 1980s were absolutely Collinsian: London schlubs and spivs who end up taking up arms against a corrupt system and, more often than not, eventually losing.
MCKENNA: Mike, I’m afraid we’re going to have to part Collins ways here. Phil saturation had got to me by 1986, helped by the false-consciousness double life I was living—alternating listening to Crass and Rudimentary Peni with No Jacket Required and Hello I Must Be Going, copies of which I kept in blank cassette cases when out and about with my Saisho personal stereo.
The Collins aesthetic itself had started to become overly burdensome post-“Sussudio.” I’d had my flirtation with it, getting a shiny grey and pink suit from Fosters Menswear in around 1984 as one of my many attempts to try and weld a personality onto myself—but though seemingly ’80s, that spiv look was not actually as widespread as might be imagined. Though the grim streets of provincial towns crawled with the various excrescences through which young people manifested their aesthetic pugnaciousness in the face of an increasingly worrying future, many of which were far more grotesque than anything Collins himself ever modelled—the front-permed Glen Hoddle mullet, the sub-mod stonewash-and-overpriced-low-end continental football paraphernalia thug—the Collins look was at once too aspirational and too desperate for low-end discos. Its art/retail overlap was disturbing because it smacked of failure in both spheres: your real bumpkin DJ was more showy; your real hick second-hand car salesman actually more smooth.
The Miami Vice appearance was the final nail in the coffin—he seemed to be peddling the image of himself his detractors saw, and which I couldn’t help seeing either. I felt as though the scales of denial had fallen from my eyes—Phil had sold me out. I never even listened to Invisible Touch for free in W.H. Smiths.
I can certainly see what you’re saying about Billy Joel, but I’m going to have to differ slightly about Bob Hoskins, even though I do definitely take your point. Much as I love Hoskins (who many of us Brits first encountered as Alf the removals man in adult literacy TV program On the Move, its memorable title song composed by Bruton Music Library regular Alan Hawkshaw), I tend to see Collins physically somewhere on a spectrum that runs through Jah Wobble, Lesley Manville, and Colin Newman: other faces that glow with the feral weirdness of the south of England and look like they’ve stepped out of the sculleries of a Norman castle.
Anyway, I fell out of love with Phil Collins and ended up part-trading most of his works for Coil and Diamanda Galas LPs, but Collins continued to lurk inside, like some kind of ghost twin. I kept Face Value. I can buy all the bloody Diamanda Galas LPs I want, but, for better or worse, my real representative is Phil. I know that now. I don’t know if it’s because I feel as though I recognize in him and in the themes that pop up in his songs aspects of myself: a blankness, a constant repressed rage, an inability to communicate. Collins is, yes, like that slightly crappy shiny suit—but a crappy suit laid out over a collection of strange polygons. That’s why it’s fitting that my love of Phil concludes with a song that sums all that up pretty perfectly.
GRASSO: The only Collins-identification I’ve ever allowed myself, as I alluded to above, is the occasional grasp at karaoke glory. But if we’re ending this odyssey through the life and times of Phil Collins, I will say I’ve always loved the lyrics and Phil’s delivery to this Genesis song, “Turn It On Again,” off Duke, best. Phil here flawlessly explores the postmodern condition, embodied by his narrator’s fixation on that most postmodern of media: the television. The people on the TV are “like a friend,” the narrator’s only solace against a howling and maddening outside world. It’s this precise period, in the aftermath of Collins’s failed jazz fusion project Brand X and the collapse of his first marriage, that Phil managed to perfectly recount his own alienation: music that helps act as a distraction to help him forget how he gets “so lonely when she’s not there.” A fragmented identity—caught between two bands, one nascent solo career, and a failed marriage—hides the genius at the center of it all. The refrain in the outro to “Turn It On Again” longingly chants, “I can see another face,” and in the dark reflection of the television’s tube, we realize it’s the face that we began this very journey with: Phil’s own. The medium of song is the real mirror crack’d, the one that lets Phil Collins gaze at himself, Narcissus-like: scars, smirks, sadness and all.