While I attended college in the early ’90s, I once had a conversation with a particular classmate. Sporting the typical look of the time—flannel shirt, ripped-up long shorts, and Doc Martens—he fronted a grunge band and had a too-cool air about him. At one point he expressed admiration for Phil Collins. Now, this was the last person I’d ever expect to be a Collins fan—Collins had lost any “edge” he had by that time, and unsentimental rock dominated the charts. When I asked my fellow student why, he said, “Do you know how hard it is to write a good pop song? Phil Collins is a master at that. I respect the guy.”
This long-ago chat came roaring back to me after I read about Collins’ apparent retirement from the music business. Citing health issues, including nerve damage and hearing loss, he also expressed regret at his success. In a recent interview with FHM, excerpted in The Telegraph, he stated that he became “the pop star that nobody likes.”
“The music was being played so incessantly people wanted to strangle me,” he said “It’s hardly surprising that people grew to hate me. I’m sorry that it was all so successful. I honestly didn’t mean it to happen like that!” Collins also admitted that derogatory comments about his career hurt him, and that “I don’t think anyone’s going to miss me. I’m much happier just to write myself out of the script entirely.”
Well, here’s one person who will miss you.
Over the years, the term “pop music” has become a negative label that reeks of triviality. Yes, some pop songs are little more than novelty songs, like “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” or “Barbie Girl.” But ask legendary pop songwriters like Leiber and Stoller, Carole King, Neil Diamond, or Lionel Richie, and they will tell you: writing a memorable, tuneful song that lingers in the listener’s mind is a huge challenge. Imagine: as a songwriter, you have to compose a tune that will break through all of the noise on Top 40 radio. You have to tell a story in five minutes or less, using memorable lyrics that evoke powerful images. What will the subject be? What can you write about that will resonate with as much of the potential audience as possible? Finally, the songwriter must devise a melody, a riff, and a beat that stays with people for years to come. During a concert, how many times have audiences cheered a song after hearing just the first few notes? These difficult tasks all comprise the job of a successful pop composer.
When Collins joined Genesis in 1970, he served as a songwriter, occasional vocalist, and drummer. But when founding member Peter Gabriel left to embark on a solo career in 1975, Collins eventually took over lead vocal duties and became the dominant creative force in the band. He steered the former progressive rock group into a more mainstream direction, igniting the ire of longtime Genesis fans. Still, he did continue in the band’s prog-rock vein with 1976′s Trick of the Tail. His gift for writing memorable tunes began with “Follow You Follow Me” in 1978. The shift toward more accessible pop came with subsequent albums Duke and Abacab, filled with classic tracks like “Misunderstanding,” “Turn It On Again,” “Abacab,” “No Reply At All,” and “Man on the Corner.” All of these tracks have aged well in that they lack the overproduced, synthesizer-heavy quality of other ’80s music. In addition, songs like “No Reply at All” hinted at Collins’ obvious love of soul music, which he would explore further in his solo career. In fact, the horn section from Earth, Wind, and Fire played on “No Reply at All,” the (originally) Three Sides Live track “Paperlate,” and several of Collins’ solo albums. The excellent Three Sides Live album shows Genesis at a crossroads, acknowledging their progressive rock past while tentatively embracing their Top 40-friendly future. Anyone who doubts Collins’ singing and drumming skills should listen to his album in particular.
As he emerged as a dominant force in Genesis, Collins also began his solo career. His debut, 1981′s Face Value, has become known as the “divorce record,” as his first marriage was unraveling during its recording. Clearly he created something positive out of this situation, as Face Value’s songs remain intriguing and powerful. Less slick than No Jacket Required, the album sounds as if it could have been recorded at home, with little studio effects. That soul streak resurfaces in “I Missed Again,” but the majority of the songs deal with heartbreak and longing. “If Leaving Me Is Easy” remains one of Collins’ underrated ballads, with his sorrowful voice interweaving with the saxophone. The instrumental “Hand in Hand” became a staple of Collins’ concerts, with those horns and Collins’ furious drumming making for a joyous break from the album’s overall blue tone.
Of course, the most famous Face Value track, “In the Air Tonight,” has suffered from years of over-saturation on the radio airwaves. But listen to it again—the repetitive, gentle rhythm, along with eerie guitar lines cutting across the murkiness, draws the audience in. Collins’ vocals alter between sorrow (“oh lord” repeats throughout the song) and anger (“So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been/It’s all been a pack of lies”). As the song crescendos, Collins pounds on the drums as though driving out the rage, practically screaming the words. In about five-and-a-half minutes, Collins has lead the listener through an emotional hailstorm, impressing with his biting lyrics and incredible drumming.
His follow up album, 1982′s Hello, I Must be Going!, picks up where Face Value left off. A sequel of sorts to “In the Air Tonight,” “I Don’t Care Anymore” is driven by its forceful rhythm and Collins’ snarling delivery of the acidic lyrics (“Well you can tell everyone I’m a down disgrace/Drag my name all over the place/I don’t care anymore”). Feeling angry at someone? Put this song on and let Collins help you work through your ire. His second solo album also includes more R&B-tinged songs, such as “It Don’t Matter to Me,” “I Cannot Believe It’s True,” and, most obviously, his cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love.” One of the album’s strangest tracks, “Thru These Walls” is narrated from the perspective of a stalker. Collins’ tale of a seedy man, presumably at a rundown hotel, putting a glass up to the wall to overhear his neighbors, is a far cry from the cheeriness of “Sussudio.” He seems to delight in assuming the voice of this antisocial character, who begs for sympathy (“I’m feeling like I’m locked in a cage/No way in, no way out, and it gets so lonely/Am I really asking a lot?”) but still talks of “creeping behind you.” Although Collins may be known as a balladeer, his catalog definitely contains darker material such as that track.
Returning to Genesis, the group released their stellar self-titled album in 1984. They experienced even greater success with this effort, scoring hits with “That’s All,” “Taking It All Too Hard,” and “Illegal Alien.” Although they tiptoed into prog-rock territory with the eerie “Mama” and lengthy “Home by the Sea,” Collins and Genesis focused primarily on crafting radio-ready rockers such as “Just A Job to Do” and the slow burning “It’s Gonna Get Better,” one of my favorite Genesis tracks. But Collins was just warming up: the following year he released No Jacket Required, which quickly became the must-own album of 1985. Here all his pop songwriting skills came to fruition, and he crafted solid material that still sounds catchy today. Virtually every track is a winner, from the beautifully simple “One More Night” to the bouncy “Don’t Lose My Number.” One of the best No Jacket Required cuts appeared only on later album remasters: “We Said Hello, Goodbye (Don’t Look Back)” represents the ultimate Collins ballad, which starts off soft, with his voice accompanied by a piano. After the first verse, the drums kick in, with Collins crooning the memorable chorus: “Turn your head, and don’t look back/Just set your sails for a new horizon/Don’t turn around, don’t look down.” The track contains the darkness of his earlier material, but refines it with polished production.
During the latter half of 1980s, it seemed as though Phil Collins was everywhere. He contributed songs to soundtracks, most notably “Against All Odds” and “Separate Lives,” and they rose to the top of the charts. He produced material for other artists, including Eric Clapton; Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Philip Bailey (with whom he performed the hit “Easy Lover”); and even Frida, formerly of ABBA. In addition, Collins tried his hand at acting with an appearance on Miami Vice; later he played the lead role in the film Buster. His musical golden touch surfaced again, scoring two top-selling singles from the Buster soundtrack (his cover of “Groovy Kind of Love” and the Motown-kissed “Two Hearts”). He turned up at all-star concerts, most notably Live Aid, the Prince’s Trust, and Knebworth ’90. Every artist wanted to work with the man who held the magic touch.
Once again he returned to Genesis, their work culminating in the 1986 release Invisible Touch. The album spawned an impressive five singles, all with memorable hooks: the title track, “Throwing It All Away,” “In Too Deep,” “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight,” and “Land of Confusion.” More than ever, Collins exerted his pop influence on the group, as each Invisible Touch song seemed crafted specifically for radio, MTV, and the new VH1. While the album contains some songs that linger—just try not to sing the chorus to “Invisible Touch”—overall it suffers from the aforementioned ’80s overproduction, with its synthesizers and drum machines instantly dating the record.
Collins’ last solo effort of the 80s, …But Seriously, attempts to reveal his more pensive side. Indeed, he tackles current problems such as poverty and homelessness on such tracks as “Another Day in Paradise” or the lilting “That’s the Way It Is,” a lovely duet with David Crosby. Knowing what his audience expects, Collins delivers solid ballads such as “Do You Remember?” and soul-tinged cuts like “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven.” But “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” featuring Eric Clapton on guitar, remains the major highlight. Collins delivers a passionate vocal performance, with a chorus adding a gospel feel to the song. Quite simply, “I Wish It Would Rain Down” departs from his typical sound, resulting in a most memorable pop-rock single.
While Collins did achieve success with the 1991 Genesis album We Can’t Dance, scoring hits with “Jesus He Knows Me,” “I Can’t Dance,” “No Son of Mine,” and “Hold on My Heart,” his solo album sales began to decline. 1993′s Both Sides spawned the single “Everyday,” a typical Collins ballad, but otherwise sold fewer copies than his previous efforts. Most significantly, the music scene underwent a major change in the early 1990s—a new crop of artists began to emerge, ones who rejected overly slick pop. Grunge eschewed feel-good pop for unpolished and gritty music, combined with brutally honest, often depressing lyrics. The ’80s superstars seemed out of step with this new attitude, and soon found themselves being replaced with the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and other such groups. For the first time, Collins simply fell out of fashion with music buyers.
Admittedly, I lost track of his career after 1993. He continued recording albums, achieving success on the adult contemporary charts. For me, his music became overly sanitized, too safe, and bordered on the “smooth jazz” genre. His cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” failed to add anything new to the song, while his soundtrack for Disney’s Tarzan seemed oddly generic, with songs like “You’ll Be in My Heart” being interchangeable for virtually any Disney movie. 1996′s Dance into the Light failed to generate much excitement, and more recent albums such as Testify and 2010′s Going Back, a collection of R&B classics, received little airplay. Contributing to the turmoil were professional and health issues—Collins exited Genesis in 1996, only to rejoin the group for a reunion tour in 2007. He experienced a painful, expensive divorce, and, as previously mentioned, health issues related to his years in the studio and on the road.
Now that Collins has officially retired, what will his legacy be? At the very least, he should be considered one of the great pop songwriters. He touched many lives with his often honest lyrics and exerted a great influence on rock drummers. In the rock world, he returned the drums to their rightful place as a lead instrument. His first two solo albums should serve as a case study for anyone wanting to establish a successful solo career. As part of Genesis and on his own, he evolved into a dynamic live performer who could mesmerize the audience with his commanding drumming style and confident vocals. At times his live versions rivaled the studio recordings—“Sussudio” actually plays even better live than on record. In general, his extensive catalog should teach up and coming songwriters how to write a compelling, memorable pop song that stands out from the crowd.
Mr. Collins, your music served as the soundtrack for 1980s kids like me, people who still crank up the volume when “In the Air Tonight” comes on. For all these reasons, you have nothing to apologize for, and you will definitely be missed.