There 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.)