Music matters

It’s easy and cool to love Phil Collins

Few artists elicit as much as opprobrium as Phil Collins. The once-scampish Genesis drummer and mega-successful solo star is famed for his big swoony ballads that make stadiums vibrate – and send many people lurching for the sick bag. But why such enmity for the singing snare-thrasher?

Phil grew up lower middle-class near the Thames in West London. His extended family were river people, who loved messing around with music as much as in boats. Displaying early rhythmic chops, Phil’s uncles bought him a drum kit that fit in a suitcase, and he would play at family dos before going on to join local bands. A few years later, his Mum ran a casting agency and sent him to audition for the Artful Dodger role in Oliver Twist. By thirteen he was acting in the West End, but that was cut short when his voice broke while singing Consider Yourself. Puberty killed his thespian dreams, but would jettison him to getting paid for drumming. And in a short time, to join Genesis.

Beloved by earnest greatcoat-wearing lads in the early ’70s, the prog band were three Charterhouse poshos: Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel and Mike Rutherford. Their drummer auditions took place at Peter’s parents’ house and, as he waited his turn, Phil swam in the pool. Overhearing what his rivals were playing, he craftily learned the drum parts and aced it. Phil quickly became the class clown in this rather intense band. Whenever one of the others stormed out, Phil’s easy-going nature helped cool things down, while his jazz-inspired beats gave them a much-needed groove.

When he joined, the band were pushing for success in the US, but intensive touring is no aid to relationships, and would eventually undo Phil’s first marriage. The divorce, which he wryly calls “the Great Sorrow of 1980,” proved hugely creative as Phil began songwriting and “suddenly, I realised I could do this.” Then came In the Air Tonight. Millions would melt while others puked. Noel Gallagher is not a fan, claiming he was “scarred by You Can’t Hurry Love as a kid” – his Supremes cover was certainly played ad nauseam on early ’80s radio.

Another source of anti-Phil ire comes from Genesis fans who blame him for taking the band in a more mainstream direction. But in the beginning Phil had no intention of singing, preferring to stay safely behind the kit. He’d done backing vocals and duets with Gabriel, and people remarked how similar their “double-tracked choirboy” voices were. So, when Peter left for family reasons, and after unsuccessful singer auditions for his replacement, Phil was encouraged to take over. The band soon realised he had a great voice and could write emotive fan-favourite tracks. As Tony Banks cheerily admits on BBC documentary Sum of the Parts, “It was great to have hits.”

The 1980s didn’t help remove the target from Phil’s back. Not only due to his constant chart presence, but also for playing (super funky) drums on Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas and for being the only act to perform at both UK and US Live Aid shows. Whizzing across the Atlantic on Concorde for the latter worsened his cred and led to a roasting from bandmates-for-the-day Led Zeppelin, who blamed his drumming for their disastrous performance. Even though, as Phil says (and YouTube attests), they were a hot mess, with guitarist Jimmy Page openly “dribbling” on stage.

Into the ’90s, as we raved on E and moshed to Britpop, Phil kept knocking out those globe-conquering smashes, winning awards and generally getting on people’s tits. Admittedly, his anti-homelessness message Another Day in Paradise is an ill-judged cringe. Not to mention his alleged “divorce-by-fax-gate” and threats to leave the UK if Labour got in (both things he strenuously denies doing or saying).

If anything, Phil is perhaps a little disingenuous about his skill set. He’s such a versatile drummer that he can play jazz fusion with Brand X, funk with Earth Wind & Fire and heavy metal with Black Sabbath. And he’s accompanied everyone from Eric Clapton, Adam Ant, Thin Lizzy and Robert Plant to experimentalists like Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and ever-wayward John Martyn (whose rehab Phil organised gratis). But what he does best are those grandiose power-weepies, whether it’s Genesis tracks like Ripples, Many Too Many and Afterglow, or solo anthems Against All Odds, Take Me Home and One More Night.

Today Phil Collins is unwell. Spinal injuries and nerve damage have left him unable to hold his drumsticks, while a period of alcoholic self-destruction has given him pancreatitis. His son Nic now plays for Genesis, with Phil singing on the recent (and likely swansong) The Last Domino? tour. He might have been a bit competitive, smug at times and all too ubiquitous from the 1970s onwards, but Phil’s biggest crime seems to have been working non-stop. Like many successful artists, he caught got up making and touring music and, as he says, “I never went home.”

I doubt this will convert many haters, but I think we should cherish Phil. Stick on Easy Lover and let its pure feelgood joy EXPLODE over you. Phil Collins, he’s like no other.

Will Stubbs is a screenwriter and TV commercials writer. Music is his first love

Arts & Culture

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