The Very Guest of…Phil Collins

PC RSThere are two kinds of people in this world: those that say Phil Collins is a doughy, ineffectual frontman who ruined the prog-rock outfit Genesis (and then his own concurrent solo career) by introducing the broadest pop music ideas into their sound, and those who wish the first group would take a hike and acknowledge Collins – solo or in part of a group – as an underrated genius. The mealy-mouthed damnations of Collins as MOR demigod betray the fact that Collins could beat the hell out of a drum kit unlike anyone else and had a much more varied musical palate than anyone cares to admit, from some dizzying rhythms on early Brian Eno LPs (Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) and Another Green World) to the fusion of Brand X.

In honor of the man’s 62nd birthday, here’s a look back at eight of his best guest spots from the 1980s. In a time where you just could not get tunes like “In the Air Tonight,” “Sussudio” and “Invisible Touch” off the airwaves, it’s worth reconsidering these songs far away from the lens of world-conquering hype that focused on Collins throughout the decade. The guy really was the whole package, taken at more than just face value.

Peter Gabriel – Intruder (1980)

The strangest request Peter Gabriel made of his onetime Genesis bandmate for his third self-titled album (colloquially called Melt after the iconic altered photograph on the album sleeve) was to not bring any cymbals to the sessions. Adding further unorthodox technique to the album, Collins, producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham devised a very unusual way to record Phil’s drum parts for the record, processing all the percussion recordings through a noise gate, cutting off the natural reverb of the drum heads. It was a weird, artificial muscle that Collins first flexed on Melt‘s opening track, “Intruder”; the technique became part of his signature sound from that point forward.

Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On (1982)

Phil’s debut solo album, Face Value, was strongly influenced by the crumbling of his first marriage. This seemed to endear him to rock star divorcees: in 1980 he drummed on Grace and Danger, a “divorce album” by British rocker John Martyn, and in 1982 would produce Something’s Going On by Anni-Frid Lyngstad (better known as Frida, the blonde from ABBA). Sitting behind the drum kit for the title track (a No. 13 hit in America), Collins is a barely-contained force, piling gated snares and toms on top of Frida’s keening, dreading vocal.

Adam Ant – Puss’N Boots (1983)

It isn’t enough that Phil’s ability to keep a simple rock beat is always big and bold. Nope, he’s gotta add some extra garnishes to keep you coming back for more. On this, the last U.K. Top 10 single by ubiquitous New Wave god Adam Ant, the silly, syrupy string-led melody is amped up considerably by P.C.’s typically hardcore approach to drumming, replete with some of the best fills at the end of every verse and chorus. By the middle of the decade, the tumbling Phil – er, fill – would be standard issue on all of his guest work.

Philip Bailey – Easy Lover (1984)

A possibly apocryphal, incredibly stupid story maintains that a journalist once asked Collins, the producer of Philip Bailey’s Chinese Wall (which spun off this massive Top 5 hit), where he discovered such a talented vocalist – the answer apparently not having presented itself as “in Earth, Wind & Fire.” Collins would get his revenge on the writer by explaining how he discovered Bailey at a gas station and decided that the attendant with that smooth high tenor totally deserved a recording contract. That’s one of my favorite ridiculous pop music stories, but even it doesn’t bring me as much joy as “Easy Lover” itself, a track dominated by a stomping drum track and a surprising blend between Bailey’s and Collins’ vocals.

Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984)

Every holiday, this British charity single rises from the ashes of Christmas radio playlists – to the point where it’s more of a curio of ’80s pop than a serious reminder that People in Africa Have Problems. (That problem starts with Bono’s accidentally sanctimonious “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” verse.) But the next time the track warbles its way to Lite FM in November and December, have a listen to another typically unrelenting drum track by Phil. If you really want a treat, dig up the 12″ version, embedded above and enjoy Collins’ sick fills fighting for attention with a lot of sincere and cloying holiday greetings from the other personnel.

Howard Jones – No One is to Blame (1986)

Collins’ gift for dynamics not only elevated this single by brainy British pop tunesmith Howard Jones – it just about saved him from becoming a one-hit wonder in America. The bubbly “Things Can Only Get Better” was already a Top 5 hit when Collins sang, drummed on and co-produced a re-recording of this solemn tune from Dream Into Action. The brittleness of the original album version melts away in this version, thanks to some subtler keyboard work from Jones and great backing vocals from Phil. Peaking at No. 4, it became Jones’ most successful single, and solidified his reputation as a worthy New Wave balladeer.

Eric Clapton – Behind the Mask (1986)

Eric Clapton’s August (1986), co-produced by Collins with longtime Clapton collaborator Tom Dowd, is an odd duck of a record, one of Clapton’s last willing brushes with modern rock before the Crossroads box set and the Grammy-winning Unplugged pulled him firmly back into the blues. Collins was the drummer for the entire album, but to pop geeks the most intriguing track has got to be “Behind the Mask,” based on a tune by Ryuchi Sakamoto of The Yellow Magic Orchestra and featuring lyrics written by Michael Jackson. (Greg Phillinganes, who recorded it for his solo album Pulse, bought the tune to Clapton’s attention for the album. A Thriller-era demo version of the track was remixed and released on the otherwise-unsatisfying Michael, released the year after Jackson’s death.)

Tears for Fears – Woman in Chains (1989)

By now, you’d be forgiven if you knew a Phil Collins-associated track by those thunking gated drums. Leave it to Phil, then, to end his decade of ubiquitous collaborations by sitting at a kit with a more organic sound – a surprise to not only fans of his work but to those expecting a direct sequel to the brilliant sequencers and drum loops of Tears for Fears’ last LP, Songs from the Big Chair. Collins’ ability to pull back a bit, combined with the surprising lack of New Wave conventions from Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, made The Seeds of Love not only a must-listen disc for 1989, but a powerful step forward in the TFF canon. (The sweaty bearded guy in the above video, of course, is not Phil Collins. Few people are.)

  • Matt

    I hate that version of “No One Is To Blame” with the heat of a thousand suns. Love this list though. Good stuff, Mike!

  • Chuck M Miller

    minor correction: Agnetha Faltskog was the blonde in ABBA…

  • Mordalo

    “The guy really was the whole package, taken at more than just face value.”

    I see what you did there.

    And I must disagree. No One is to Blame is one of my favorite songs from the 80’s. I think it held up well.

  • Jules

    I was going to say, “Wait, you forgot Frida!” But you didn’t. :)

  • Curt Alliaume

    What about Phil *and* Eric Clapton on Stephen Bishop’s “Sex Kittens Go to College”?

  • Rob Nichols

    I’m from the Petty/Springsteen/Seger school of rock, but have to commend Mike for hitting a home run here. Phil was too visible (because he had lots-o-freakin’-hits; funny how that works) to be heard without prejudice. His noise gate drums were the sound of radio for more than a few years. Great, great rock drummer who is unduly relegated to less than that by many, I would guess.

  • Cpt.

    You might not have known this, but he was also in Genesis! You can find it on Wikipedia, if you don’t believe me: Type that into your browser bar (without the period), then type “Phil Collins” into the search field. It’s a fascinating read.

  • Chris Holmes

    You might not have read the first paragraph of this post, but thanks for playing along.

  • Cpt.

    Thanks! For anyone interested, Phil also had an extensive solo career not noted here. He was the guy that sang the Tarzan song for Disney! If you’ve never hear them, you should pick up his records called “About Face” and “No Jacket Requested.”

  • arensb

    I tried that, but it didn’t work. Do I need one of those modems with the megabytes on it? Or maybe a computer, with an on-ramp to the Information Superhighway?

  • Cpt.

    If you’re like me, your web browser (Internet Explorer, mostly likely) will open to what is called a “splash page” — typically, AOL. You can leave that page by typing in different “addresses” in your browser bar. There’s a lot out there, so explore! It’s how I found this website, and a few others. There is some great Phil Collins fan stuff online — I encourage you to enjoy!

  • mfeldman

    Phil is often credited / blamed for the mainstream direction that Genesis took, but I’ve always thought that was just as much Mike Rutherford’s call as it was Phil. Case and point: the first two post-Gabriel Genesis LPs are no more ‘commercial’ than anything in the Gabriel era, just different. It’s only when Steve Hackett left the band and Rutherford became the band’s only studio guitarist that the songs became shorter and the prog-fest started to get toned down. Plus, Rutherford’s ’80s Mechanics albums were every bit as ‘mainstream’ as Phil’s. Probably even more.
    But regardless, great column – Phil Collins is one of rock’s 10 finest and most innovative drummers ever, and I’ll stand by that to my grave.

  • Ted

    I really liked the stuff he did with Robert Plant on “Pictures at Eleven.” Okay, really the song “Pledge Pin” is my favorite.

  • Caribou

    Hmmm…when I type in (without the period as you suggested), it links to a Rick Astley video – did Phil Collins play on that song too? Maybe I need a modem like arensb suggested.

  • Chris Holmes

    Don’t forget The Principle of Moments. Fantastic record.

  • Sean Orcutt
  • Ted

    Agreed. It’s very different from Pictures at Eleven, but that’s what makes it such a great follow up.

  • BellBino

    He had his moments. But “genius”? Nope.

  • mfeldman

    Ah, OK, here’s one you forgot, but alas, most people have forgotten this song: “Hero” with David Crosby, from 1993. Great harmonies, beautiful sad lyrics, and of course Phil’s unmistakeable drumming. You never hear this one much anymore, but it’s a classic, and I still maintain would’ve been a much bigger hit if it had come out 10 years earlier when members of great ’70s bands weren’t yet relegated to being “adult” artists.

  • Neil From the Prince’s Trust (even has Midge Ure on guitar) I actually like this performance