Andy Royston takes a look at the other Phil Collins, the hipster who played on some of the most artful records of the 1970s.
“And, you know, I never wanted to be a singer.” Phil Collins
Think Phil Collins and it’s hard not to run away with your hands over your ears. He’s been out of the public eye recently, so there was no danger of him popping up on the TV getting all angst ridden with Against all Odds or She’s An Easy Lover. But a rumor surfaced the other day that he was about to come out of retirement. An online petition has been opened in protest.
He released some of the most anodyne corporate pop music of the last century, and did it while dressed like a off duty tax inspector. How he became such a critical punch bag is a puzzle. Well, perhaps not, when you remember he was one of those smug rich celebs who threatened to leave Great Britain if Tony Blair was elected – the epitome of Uncool Britannia.
His very public divorces haven’t helped matters. Never in the history of music did a falling out with the other half result in such a career upswing. One minute he’s leaping around the stage at Knebworth singing about The Eleventh Earl of Mar, a Giant Hogweed and dancing around a volcano. The next he’s onto his umpteenth divorce ballad and having number ones around the globe. His second marriage was reported to have ended when he sent her a fax announcing he wanted a divorce. She went on to scoop £17million in the alimony deal.
His music’s faux self-consciousness has seen his work vilified as the start of the Disnification of rock music. There he is again, Fairlight, fretless and fancy free. All MTV mullet, Armani jacket, and Miami Vice.
But what I want to talk about today is the hipster Phil Collins, before he discovered the Phillishave. Before all that she done me wrong power smuggery .
Back in the 1970s Phil was a whole different character than the one we know today. If you saw his old band Genesis back in the seventies he was the hyperactive one behind the drum kit with the wild hair and worzel beard. His vocal style was complementary to lead singer Peter Gabriel and he was the guy supplying the harmonies at live shows.
An alternative career as drummer to the uber cool began in 1974 at the Island Studios, a converted church near the Portobello Road Market. Genesis were there mixing down their new album Lamb Lies Down on Broadway while in the studio upstairs Brian Eno was putting together his followup to his solo debut, Here Come The Warm Jets.
During breaks in the recordings Peter Gabriel brought Eno in to add some effects and production to some of the tracks (like this one). The story goes that the other members of Genesis didn’t like the idea of giving Eno a full credit, so Phil Collins was “sent upstairs as payment” – to provide the drums on some of Eno’s tracks.
This Island Studios connection started a series of guest appearances with a wide range of artists, culminating in Collins taking up a production role. He also credits conversations with Eno as starting thoughts about writing his for his own solo recordings.
Ten Cool Collins Cuts
John Cale – Helen of Troy
Brian Eno, when he wasn’t producing his second solo album in Island’s Studio 2, was already in demand as a producer/collaborator, and John Cale proved to be someone he had much in common with. Prior to Cale’s influential years working with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground he’d worked on several avant garde projects in London and in New York. In Eno, soon to start his own avant grade/experimental music record label, he’d found a kindred spirit on his return to London from California.
Phil Collins was no stranger to the ever-busy Island Studios set up. Genesis had recorded their previous two albums there – Foxtrot and Selling England By The Pound. The band had recorded their current one out in the wilds of South Wales, with the help of the Island Mobile. On the first Eno gig things were a little fraught – Genesis were running marathon 24 hour mix-down sessions prior to their UK tour and Collins was working the night shift.
Helen of Troy is one of Phil Collins most impressive session albums, where he played alongside Eno, Chris Spedding and guys from Cale’s touring band.
Cale himself wasn’t happy with the state of the record – he’d laid down the basic tracks during three eighteen-hour sessions before leaving for a European tour, the record finished off by his engineer John Wood. Cale considered the album as little more than demos, but there was more than enough ennosification and typically Collins heavy tom fills to make it a great listen. The extended Jimmy Reed blues jam Baby What You Want Me To Do is especially impressive.
Within months Phil Collins was back in the studio with Genesis, who had confirmed that Collins would be their new singer.
Brian Eno No One Receiving
Phil was back helping out Eno on several occasions over the next year or so, a couple of tracks on Another Green World with his Brand X bass player Percy Jones in tow with more later on Before and After Science.
Collins said. “Eno used to love me and Percy; we’d go in and run through our dictionary licks and he’d record them and make a loop of them,” Collins said. “It’s the spirit: never mind the quality, feel the width. I liked his idea of getting people together and working off the top of your head… I used to go in there without any idea of what to expect”
No One Receiving opens Eno’s layered and considered Before and After Science album of 1977.
John Martyn Johnny Too Bad
This amazing music dates from a rough point in both John Martyn and Phil Collins’ life. Both men were going through messy divorces and for a time ended up sharing a house together. The whole album, thematically is a good comparison to Collin’s own Face Value album, written around the same time.
Collins not only played on the album, he would sit in on Martyn’s live shows (see the Old Grey Whistle Test performance further down the page). Despite the sombre subject matter, Martyn is on top of his game. From the avant-garde end of the British folk scene Martyn too benefitted from the musical melange around the Island Records scene. Martyn’s love of reggae wasn’t simply touristy. On an extended trip to Jamaica he went into the studio with folks like Lee Perry, Max Romeo and Burning Spear.
“I did sessions with every motherfucker and nobody told me that I’d done them,” Martyn said afterwards. “I would hear records later and then all of a sudden a fuzz solo with a touch of phased echo would come and I would think, fuck me, that’s me! It was very cool I didn’t mind it at all.”
Johnny Too Bad was originally a Jamaican classic, familiar from the Jimmy Cliff movie The Harder They Come – covered later by UB40.
John Martyn Sweet Little Mystery
John Martyn’s appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test shows just what a tight band Martyn and Collins had created at the time. Yep, that’s Phil back there in the engine room…
Peter Gabriel Intruder
The song is justly famous for the invention of Phil Collins’ signature ‘gated’ reverb drum sound, which came from this recording session. The roots of the song came from experiments by engineer Hugh Padgham, after the installation of a new studio console in the famous stone room in Townhouse 2 Studio. The deck had a compressor built into each channel, and Padgham fed an ambient studio mic directly into the desk. Collin’s drum bursts did the rest.
Six months later, when Collins started work on his Face Value album Padgham got the call. The work on Intruder showed up once again on the worldwide hit “In The Air Tonight’
Brand X And So To F
Brand X were another band to emerge from the Island Records stable. Collins joined the jazz fusion band as they recorded their debut album Moroccan Roll. Collins rhythmic relationship with fretless bass virtuoso Percy Jones was a big feature of the band’s output between 1974 and 1980.
Thin Lizzy Johnny The Fox
Lizzy were post-producing the album, having not been happy with it – particularly the drum sound, which is where Collins was brought in to help. Typically for this hard drinking hard rock act none of the surviving members can quite remember which tracks on album saw Phil Collins step behind the kit.
The furious thunder of final track ‘Boogie Woogie Dance’ is the most likely cut, but it could just as easily be the fills on Borderline or the rollocking the title track.
Disengage Robert Fripp
From ex-King Crimson virtuoso Robert Fripp comes this off-kilter jam with Phil Collins and John Wetton. Something of a supergroup, on an album filled with experiments and collaborations. Unhinged vocals on the track are by Peter Hamill, who, reportedly improvised from lyrics given to him at the time.
Collins also played drums on the ballad North Star, sung by Daryl Hall and written by Joanna Walton, who was killed in the Lockerbie disaster.
Robert Plant Big Log
Phil Collins plays on this and five other tracks on Robert Plant’s album The Principle of Moments. He worked with Plant quite extensively around this time, touring with Plant on his north American tour.
John Cale Pablo Picasso
Before the gorilla plays us out I have to bring on one of my favourite cover versions of all time, John Cale’s anti-cover of the Modern Lovers’ faux naif Pablo Picasso, featuring Phil Collins’ drums and rocker Chris Spedding on guitar.
“He could walk down your street
Girls could not resist his stare
Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole…
Not like you…”
The Cadbury’s Gorilla
Collins first solo appearance on British TV was on the popular chart round up show, Top of the Pops. There he was with a RolandCR-78 and a keyboard propped up by a black and decker Workmate. A paint pot strategically placed was – it turned out – a sly reference to his estranged wife’s new lover. This was the song and the sound that changed everything and propelled this unassuming drumming sidekick to megastardom.
“It was the defining of an era, especially with the drum sound. We’d touched on it with Intruder and a couple of other things. I always get miffed when people say I’d nicked the drum sound. It was my drum sound.” Phil Collins, Mojo Magazine.
Phil Collin’s abilities, not just a drummer, vocalist and producer, but as a collaborator and experimenter have been underplayed, or perhaps overwhelmed by the pop hits. In Genesis he’d worked with a young, hungry and experimental band, who wrote intricate time signatures, and complex instrumentals.
Collins not only kept up with that, but also picked up on the tricks of the production trade, working with engineers to find ways to enhance his drum sound. He proved a studio drum guru, and his flutter-pulse jazz-funk style made him a natural fit for the Island boys. David Crosby would observe: “He’s a talented recording guy, old school, like me… When he works he’s very confident. You put him in a studio he’s a master and he acts like it.”
The sad thing about his comeback is that it won’t be behind the skins.
“My vertebrae has been crushing my spinal cord because of the position I drum in. It comes from years of playing. I can’t even hold the sticks properly without it being painful… The first time I picked up the drumsticks after my neck surgery, they flew across the room because I couldn’t grip them. When I play, I’ve had to tape the sticks to my hand… I’m having an operation soon and there’s a good chance of it improving over time.” Phil Collins, Rolling Stone Magazine
Me? I spent two years in rehab for my Phil Collins addiction and I did it against all odds. Just take a look at me now. 🙂
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