Genesis Of A Drummer
By Bill Milkowski
Downbeat - July 1984
An impressionable Chiswick lad of 19 spots an advert in the British rock weekly Melody Maker. It reads: "Tony Stratton-Smith requires drummer sensitive to acoustic music." Intrigued and full of confidence after having achieved some local acclaim with an ill-fated combo known as Flaming Youth, he decides to ring up the founder of England's Charisma Records to arrange for an audition.
His skills immediately evident, young Phil Collins is hired on the spot, becoming the fourth drummer in the fledgling outfit known as Genesis. He makes his record debut with the band on its 1971 album, Nursery Cryme, their third as a unit.
With the departure of the theatrically inclined Peter Gabriel in 1975, Genesis suddenly finds itself minus a lead singer and frontman. Critics predict the band's demise. "Who can replace Gabriel?" they question. But Collins rises to the occasion, stepping out from behind his drum kit to take over center stage. He proves to be a versatile and expressive vocalist, and a superb showman to boot. The band stays together and indeed goes on to enjoy unprecedented success. And in the pivotal frontman role, Collins attains mega-stardom.
Parallel with the band's ascendancy to supergroup status, Collins takes a giant step forward in 1981 with the release of his debut solo album, Face Value. It's an unqualified smash, catapulting Collins to yet a higher plateau. His followup album in 1982, Hello, I Must Be Going!, sees similar commercial success, supported by Collins' first solo tour of the states.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a Genesis tour or my own tours is between songs," Collins says. "The best thing for me is the sound of an audience laughing. I love it. I think the audience enjoys the music more if they have a good time "
Because he is the focal point for both his own shows and the Genesis live tours, Collins only plays drums for about a quarter of the time in concert, relying on Chester Thompson to fill in on drum duty. He seems to enjoy this role as frontman, drawing on a theatrical background from his days as a child actor. (At 14 he starred as the Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver.) But apart from being the rakish entertainer with a penchant for puns, limericks, and other bawdy tales, Collins maintains that he is first and foremost a drummer.
"I only sing in Genesis because we don't have another singer," he says. "And I sing my own things because I write them. I don't really think of myself as a singer as such. I think of myself more as a drummer. It's much easier for me to slip into a different role as a drummer rather than as a singer. I can put on any hat you want. I can put on my John Bonham hat or my Keith Moon hat or my Ringo hat or even my Buddy Rich hat, if you like. Whatever else I am, I'm a drummer first. I've been playing since I was five, and my ambition was to be respected by other musicians who might say, 'I like what you're doing."'
As it turns out, a lot of people like what Phil Collins is doing. Especially with the distinctive huge drum sound he gets in the studio on tracks like Intruder from Peter Gabriel's third solo album or In The Air Tonight from his own solo debut.
He's also become a highly sought-after producer of late, putting together albums for Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, Adam Ant, ABBA's Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, and Scottish singer/composer/ guitarist John Martyn. One recent project that Collins undertook with fervor was a new album by Eric Clapton.
"What happened was, Eric's manager said to him, 'On the next album I think we should go for more of a Phil Collins type sound.' Well, Eric and I are neighbors, so he just sort of bypassed the third person and asked me would I produce the album for him. And I agreed. It's hard to say specifically what we'll do. I'm just going to try and make him-sound as new and modern as possible. We're going to try to give him back the edge that maybe the last two or three albums have lacked."
That new and modern sound, the Phil Collins sound, is achieved by playing with the natural ambiance of a live room putting microphones up in the corners of the room to capture the residual sound of the drums and then adding noise gates and compressors to create that huge sound.
"It sounds like synthesized drums, but they are just drums that were treated," explains Collins. "It came about on the Gabriel session I did in 1980. Peter and I were literally mucking about with the sound of the drums. I was just playing around, and the engineer, Hugh Padgham, was setting everything up. At one point, when the compression was set up, I hit a snare, and it elongated the decay. That's really how this so-called Phil Collins sound came about."
While Collins does enjoy playing with the natural acoustics of the drums, he is not averse to playing with drum machines as well. On-stage with Genesis he works with both a Linn and a Roland drum machine for different effects. "I think drummers shouldn't be threatened by the advent of these drum machines," he says. "They're only as good as the people who program them. And I don't think that drummers will ever be redundant. There's no way you can get around them. You'll always need drummers to program the machines to make them sound good."
Since incorporating drum machines into their act, beginning with the Duke album of 1980, Genesis has taken a decidedly different course with its material. Their writing got more spacious, while the individual tunes got shorter and tighter and catchier; a far cry from the ponderous, portentious suites that typified their style with early albums like From Genesis To Revelation (1969), Trespass (1970), Nursery Cryme (1971), Foxtrot (1972), and Selling England By The Pound (1973).
Those albums were often full of church organ flourishes, triumphant processional passsages, unorthodox rhythmic constructions, and genteel medieval inflections. It was highly synchronized, tightly orchestrated music full of shifting time signatures and sophisticated harmonies, complemented by highly literate story-images. In other words, a lot to swallow. Gabriel's poet- medieval tendencies seemed to hover over the band, and when he left in 1975 he took those pretensions with him.
Today Collins and his Genesis colleagues (Mike Rutherford, guitar/ bass; Tony Banks, keyboards) have mastered the pop idiom. Their writing and playing have become simpler, relying less on flourishes and fills, putting more emphasis on the overall sound and the production elements. Their hook-oriented material today owes more to Prince and Michael Jackson and Steely Dan than any of the art-rock bands that predominated at its inception some 18 years ago.
They've become slicker in their old age. They're putting up the funk now. And that influence can be directly traced to Collins' solo debut, Face Value. Utilizing the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section for that LP, Collins cut a lively remake of Behind The Lines (from Duke) that skips along with sassy confidence while staying strictly in-the-pocket. It has a kind of punch and verve that Genesis had been lacking, and it's this energy that Collins brought back to the mother band for their next outing, the funk-inflected Abacab album of 1981. It was the beginning of a new era for the band that many said had become a dinosaur.
Collins supplied a much-needed funk injection into the pompous art-rock outfit, and the payoff came in even greater record sales. On their latest album, simply titled Genesis, the synth-pulse is prevalent and the move toward minimalism is apparent. Plus, they have packaged more hooks than they had played in the previous decade. Its Gonna Get Better, Just A Job To Do, That's All, Mama, and Illegal Alien are all killer pop hits.
Of their recent conversion to the wonderful world of funk, Collins says, "Well, I guess I'm a little blacker than the Genesis boys. So left to my own devices, I'll bring in the horns. It all goes back to my youth, really. I was raised on the Beatles and was very much influenced by the Shadows, which was a British equivalent of the Ventures here in America. But at the same time I listened to all the old Motown and Stax records. That's as much a part of my background as anything else. And it's only now coming to the surface."
Phil's favorite drummers at the moment are Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio, and Alex Acuna. And, believe it or not, Ringo Starr. "The fills he did on Strawberry Fields Forever are just phenomenal. Nobody can do that. Ringo did some incredibly subtle things that people didn't appreciate." Not to be left off this list is his hi-concert drumming partner Chester Thompson. "The high points of the show for me are when we're both playing together. We've developed such telepathy over the years that it's become very synchronized and incredibly strong. It's become more orchestrated now. We try to avoid the old cliche drum-battle idea in favor of getting it to sound like a perfectly synchronized machine."
Naturally, as Genesis' writing gets sparser, Collins plays less drums. Rather than going in for lots of busy fills and Cobhamesque bombast (as he did frequently in the early days on tunes like The Fountain Of Salmacis, The Battle Of Epping Forest, or The Waiting Room), Collins is now playing groove-oriented drums.
"I think the turning point for me was in 1976 with the Trick Of The Tail album," he notes. "That's really when I began understanding the old adage that less is more; that it's not what you play, it's what you don't play." Coincidentally, that was also the first album Genesis produced without the services of Gabriel. The band had hit an all-time peak for pretension in 1974 with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, a full-blown operatic concept double-album to rival Pete Townshend's Tommy. That album was clearly The Peter Gabriel Show, with the mime-oriented frontman adapting the role of the hero Rael, a Puerto Rican outcast struggling to survive in the cold, cruel world of New York City. The album liner notes featured a verbose, self-indulgent diatribe by Gabriel, including special thanks to the poet Keats for offering inspiration.
Gabriel announced that he was leaving the band shortly after the tour in 1974, which was fine with Genesis. They were none too pleased with the direction that things had taken during this Gabriel catharsis period. The music was more orchestrated than ever, which was especially annoying to Collins.
"Right around this same time, I had been listening a lot to the Mahavishou Orchestra. And I was really inspired by that. So I was heading in that direction while our show was becoming more staged and orchestrated. And people were beginning to comment more on what Peter would be wearing than on the music, so that got a bit frustrating as well. I wasjust yearning to bust loose and play, so that's when I formed Brand X"
That group, with Percy Jones on fretless bass, John Goodsall on guitar, and Robin Lumley oh keyboards, released its debut album, Unorthodox Behavior, in October of 1975 and instantly became an overnight sensation, virtually the only jazz-rock instrumental band in the United Kingdom. "We just wanted to blow," recalls Collins. "It was like having a mistress on the side. It was very exciting, and the other guys in Genesis were very much alienated by it"
Live appearances proved more difficult to arrange. Phil had his Genesis commitments, and the others were often tied to studio sessions. Brand X did manage a successful two-week engagement at Ronnie Scott's club in London in 1976. Their second album, Moroccan Roll, came in 1976, followed by two extensive U.S. tours, which yielded the 1977 live album, Livestock, and 1978 saw the release of Masques, with Chuck Bergi filling in the drum position for Collins. The following year brought Product and another U.S. jaunt. Meanwhile, Genesis continued its surge toward widespread popularity. Time for Brand X was getting harder to come by, either live or in the studio.
Collins says there were actually two separate Brand X units at that time. He explained a unique platooning system that they used for the recording of Product: "We had two weeks booked at Ringo's studio, Startling. We had two engineers and two lineups: John Goodsall, myself, Jon Giblin, and Robin Lumley would work together on one shift while Percy Jones, Peter Robinson, Mike Clark, and John Goodsall would work together on the other shift. So we had two separate groups, one working during the day and the other through the night. We'd be having dinner while the others were getting up for breakfast. It was total lunacy.'
They used the same system for 1980's Do They Hurt?, their sixth LP. The band went into hibernation but emerged in the summer of 1982 to record Is There Anything About', which Collins maintains is the final Brand X album. "I originally joined Brand X because I was feeling stifled in Genesis. l wanted to play more. I was frustrated with not being able to get that side of me out. Being in both bands at the same time was very appetizing to me. But eventually Brand X started to get more formated in the fusion thing while Genesis started getting a bit looser. They began to overlap after a time. They were meeting in the middle. Brand X was getting tighter, and Genesis was becoming less rigid. There was no real reason for me to continue doing both.'
Especially not after emerging as a successful solo artist in his own right. Of that side, Collins says, "My songs are very, very personal songs, lyrically, and I feel so close to them. It seems to me that that is what I really do. Me on my tour and my albums . . . that's really me. What I do with Genesis is really an interesting experiment in seeing if the three of us can write together and get on. So really, the most important thing for me is my own career. l had a great time on my last tour, and now I can't wait to go out again. You know, it's that whole thing of being on your own and being totally responsible for everything that happens. That's a great feeling."
And the side projects continue to pour in. Recently he wrote the title tune for the movie Against All Odds, directed by Taylor (An Officer And A Gentleman) Hackford. He was also called upon to film the video clip of that tune for future MTV-play. Other producing projects on the horizon include a new album by Philip Bailey, the vocalist for Earth, Wind & Fire, and a new album by singer/ songwriter Stephen Bishop. And if that weren't enough, he's also considering a part in a comedy film being scripted by a close friend of his.
In light of all these separate projects, Collins is quick to point out, "There's always rumors about Genesis splitting up. But we're not. We're very, very tight as a three-piece band. We get on wonderfully. There's friction alright, but good friction. We get on better now than we ever have. It's just that to keep the band together for so long, we always have to do other things to keep ourselves fresh. And we are constantly bringing these new, fresh ideas back to the band when we get together."
That won't be for a while, it seems, at least until March of 1985, when the three members of Genesis meet again in the studio. Until then, you can rest assured that Phil Collins will keep busy. He's got plenty of projects in the works, and a few fantasy collaborations that he sometimes dreams about: "I would love to be involved somewhere down the line with the Weather Report lineup. l especially loved their Sweetnighter l Mysterious Traveller period, that more spacious kind of sound they had. And I would love to get involved with Earth, Wind & Fire. I'd like to sit in - two drummers, me and Freddie White. I think that would sound great. And one other thing, I'd like to produce a record with Tina Turner. That would be interesting, to say the least."