Seated between the epic tracks on Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound‘s was “More Fool Me,” a sickly sweet love song. If demonstrably lighter than the band’s typical songs of the time, it at least showcased Phil Collins’ delicate set of pipes. Yet his allegiance was to the drums, as he found himself less than eager to fill the mercurial Peter Gabriel’s position after Gabriel left in 1975.
Invariably though, Collins ended up singing on A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering when a more suitable replacement proved unavailable. In his own way, he aped Gabriel’s style, doubling as he did on drums and vocals. The starry-eyed acoustics on …And Then There Were Three… matched Collins’ “blokier” persona. “Many Too Many” and “Follow You, Follow Me” helped make Collins a popular frontman, especially among North American audiences. Gabriel proved one of Collins’ loudest admirers.
Inevitably, this rise in popularity proved taxing for Collins as he had to honor commitments both to his band and to his family. Granted a hiatus from Genesis, Collins flew to Vancouver to work through the problems in his marriage. “I went off for two months to try and sort things out” Collins admitted in 1979. “…I was never going to leave the band. It was just that if I was going to be living in Vancouver then we’d have had to organize ourselves differently.”
His bandmates buried themselves in work projects they’d spent years deferring. Bassist Mike Rutherford took Smallcreep’s Day as an opportunity to collaborate with former Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips, while Tony Banks chose to record A Curious Feeling virtually alone. Collins’ Canadian crusade, meanwhile, ended in failure and he flew back to England. Perched at his Surrey side piano, Collins looked inside himself to write, opening a lyrical valve he’d traditionally demurred to the other band members.
Reuniting with Genesis for the excellent Duke, Collins played his bandmates the demos he’d cobbled, from which “Please Don’t Ask” and “Misunderstanding” were elected for recording. What was leftover, he salvaged for a solo debut, Face Value, an epic album that mixed personal stress and a newly-urgent vocal style.
Returning to the 1979 tapes in January 1981, Collins confided in Hugh Padgham, a fiery engineer the drummer had met on Gabriel’s third album, that he didn’t wish to re-record the demos. Transferring the eight-track tapes to twenty-four track, Collins invited The Phoenix Horns for overdubs.
Distancing himself from the agrarian Englishness that formed Genesis’ output at the time, Collins turned to his love of American music. Inspired by The Jacksons, The Weather Report and Earth, Wind and Fire, the drummer played with soft rock pristine that softened his harrowed lyrics. “Behind The Lines” and “I Missed Again” danced with funk fusion, “The Roof Is Leaking” shook with blues ambiance. “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Collins timely tribute to John Lennon’s death, crashed with unnerving feeling. Collins was photographed on the cover in a tight closeup shot, symbolically inviting listeners into the dispirited head of its creator.
“If Leaving Me Is Easy”, a testimonial to Collins condensed rage, boasted lilting parts from Eric Clapton, while the slow-burning “In The Air Tonight” showcased one of rock’s most exciting drum shuffles. And yet the song’s greatest power came from Collins’ haunting vocal. His Top of The Pops performance raised eyebrows when a paint bucket set in the background seemed a thinly veiled insult at his wife’s involvement with a decorator.
“In The Air Tonight” has become the most enduring hit of his career. It started Collins on a trajectory, one he balanced with Genesis duties. Invisible Touch followed No Jacket Required into the Billboard Top Five and by the mid-eighties, Collins was so popular that he was invited to play at both the London and Philadelphia Live Aid shows.
Ubiquity came at a price. Hardened prog fans held Collins personally accountable for the diminishing qualities of the latter-day Genesis albums, job-hungry journalists fed off his personal lives. His louche lounge-style became the subject of Spitting Image parody as the Eighties wore on (although he was game to appear as one of their famed puppets in the Genesis video for “Land of Confusion.’) Whatever the qualities of his later work, there’s nothing to parody on Face Value, a marvelous display of stark introspection. It started him on a path, one he still leads to this day and it began with only the most basic of tools: three chords, a drum kit, and a broken heart.
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