Phil Collins Does Everything Better Than Everyone Else
Creem Magazine May 1983
Things seem to be going poorly for drummers of late, what with Buddy Rich undergoing bypass surgery earlier this year and a regular series of untimely deaths (Moon, Bonham, Carpenter) continuing unabated. It's nice to see that at least one of the fraternity -Phil Collins-has escaped the curse.
Collins, of course, is only a sometimes drummer. He's been thumping for Genesis since '71 (starting with their Nursery Cryme LP). Now that might be enough to satisfy most musicians, but our boy Phil's not one to let the grass grow under his bass pedal. He's diddled around with Brand X, a fusion group that's never toured, but has released 319 albums. He sings for Genesis. He played the skins for Plant on over half of Pictures At Eleven. He produced a John Martyn album. He produced a Frida Lyngstad (of Abba fame) disc. Obviously bored, he launched a tremendously successful solo career (Face Value and Hello, I Must Be Going). For fun, he's been touring as The Fabulous Jacuzzis and the One Neat Guy. The tour's been a smash.
OK, it's obvious that the guy's a workaholic. He's also what all the deejays at the Jacuzzis concert call "hot." (As in: "You interview Collins? Man, the guy's hot." I wanna tell you, these deejays have a truly extensive vocabulary, but that's another story). More interesting, perhaps, is that he's not only doing well for himself, he's more or less turned Genesis around, as a listen to Abacab will confirm. Sure, they're still boring, but at least it's not the scripted boredom of yore.
"It's apparent, I suppose, that I have a more commercial ear (than you-know-who) when I write music," Collins told me. "But that makes me sound like I'm sitting here shooting my mouth off."
Sure it does, but that's the stuff of great stories. I cajoled him: "Not when you have the #8 album in the whole country."
"Yeah, well, we all know that crap sells as well as the good stuff. What it is: The definition of the words 'commercial' and 'pop music' have always interested me. Commercial music is anything that sells. I don't necessarily mean this as derogatory. And pop music is whatever's popular, as opposed to something that's middle-of-the-road. So, really, I write commercial pop music and ...um...Genesis also writes commercial pop music..." Yeah, yeah? "...but maybe not so commercial!" he concluded with a laugh. You betcha, Phil.
Hang on, Gen fans, and let short stuff cover his bets here. "What has to be explained, as I said, is this definition of the word 'commercial.' 'Cause if some Genesis fans read that - if I was to read that I wrote -commercial pop music, I would feel as if I'm being undersold. The real definition is, it's something that sells because people like it." Well, there's some news they better get on the UPI ASAP. It's not that Phil's embarrassed about being a mega-success, I don't think, it's that he doesn't want to explain his success at the expense of Genesis. Or, as I like to say, shucks.
Phil's well-known for his interest in soul and R&B - at least he is now that he's, uh, hot. His hit 45, You Can't Hurry Love, attests to it by being such a pat cover. Phil explains: "I'm a big fan of the '60s. There's not enough of that vibe now, for my taste. There's not enough energy. I mean, the Beatles - when they did films of their songs, there was an energy. And the Police are the only other band - and I think that Genesis had this energy, although a lot of people don't (Who? Who??). Our videos that we've done recently try to capture just a little bit of the energy and humor.
"As for Can't Hurry Love, I like covering other people's songs. I was going to do Going To A Go-Go, but the Stones did it. (Actually, they came closer to undoing it, but don't let me shed too much light here.) And I could've done In My Lonely Room, Nothing's Too Good For My Baby, Needle In A Haystack ... there's hundreds of songs. I did You Can't Hurry Love in one of my school groups. It's the kind of song that you don't hear very often - you don't hear it on the radio, no one plays it as a golden oldie. So, when you suddenly hear it, you think: 'Christ, I used to like that song. Yeahhh.' So I did it, really, just to sort of jolt people's memories.
We did it as a direct replica because of the sound. I didn't want to do an updated version; I wanted to see if I could actually get sound like that. (All two of Phil's solo albums were done on an eight-track.) To try to get that Motown sound and the feel...you know, get the right echo on the tambourine. I wrote down all the backing vocal parts from the original version so that we actually sang the same thing. The only thing that's different is there's strings on my version and there isn't on the original. But then, I've got a friend who's a string arranger who wanted to do that, so I let him do it.
"But it's hard! It's hard to get that bad sound. When you've got 24 tracks with really sophisticated echo plates you can't go in there and get that same echo chamber sound they had, like with Spector. When I did Frida's (of Abba renown) album, we wanted to do a song on that album called Turn To Stone. We thought, let's get Phil Spector (just his sound, not his person) on it. So I went out and I bought the complete collection of Phil Spector albums. I went back to the studio and put it on the the system and we listened to it. And, you know, we tried to compare - they've got digital equipment in Abba's (of pop music notoriety) studio. I think they've got two or three of everything. Every modern effect you can get, they've got. And we were trying to get this bad echo sound - and it was a fantastic echo sound. It was all too good. It's dumb - it was the limitations of that equipment that was so good. And the way I look at recording, you use 24 track stuff because most studios have it, and you can't not use it, becuase that's all they have. But the reason I like the '60s so much, apart from that energy, is the sound of those records. You know, those Beatles' records made on three or four tracks - and I've got more equipment in my bedroom than they had when they did Sgt. Pepper." I know what you mean about having a lot of equipment in the bedroom, Phil, so I can tell where you're coming from.
Anyway, you can see that Col's a pretty knowledgeable producer-type. plus, he more or less feels the same way I do, aesthetically, so you know he's right. Not only that, he's so...heck, what's the word...oh, yeah, hot that he's been asked to produce everyone from Kim Carnes to Bad News Barnes. What with his slack schedule and all, he's had to pass on most (regarding Martyn, he said: "I did that because I didn't want anyone else to fuck it up," which means that he wanted to fuck it up himself, I guess). He's been asked to produce Pete Townshend's next solo epic, which he won't pass on, but he says "I find it awkward to talk about, because I don't like announcing things about people's plans until they're ready to do it." I, on the other hand, don't mind at all; they'll start working on the thing next spring. "I've always had the greatest respect for (Townshend) as a bloke. As a spokesman. He's never just sat back; he's always had something to say," Phil remarked. Yes, I think we can all agree that Pete Townshend's a very interesting person.
Other interesting people include Robert Plant, who Knows-Em-All Phil has also been working with. "I'm just a guy who can't say no," he ruefully admitted. "Plant was supposed to do his album in December, but he couldn't find a drummer. So when I finish this tour I'm going to do his album (as a drummer) and then we start a new Genesis album. And then Plant's probably coming out on the road - probably in September - and I'll go out with him, just as a drummer. That's great, y'see, 'cause I don't have to do nothing. I can have a drink, I can have a smoke, I can do anything I want. All I'll have to do is play drums, which is what I used to do, which I haven't done for a long time."
Listen, he's not kidding. You might've seen the video for You Can't Hurry Love which features three Phils as what the Supremes would've certainly looked like had they been short, balding, 32-year-old Englishmen. I don't think that was trick photography or anything; I think there really are three of these guys running around. Maybe more.
"I think if you start looking at it as work, then you start to try to escape from it," he noted. "And I don't really see it as work. I mean, it's hard, but a job, it's not. It's what you enjoy doing."
Getting back to Genesis, Phil thinks the group's loosened up considerably in recent years. "I think it's noticeable on stage, too. We actually deliberately don't wear - we used to go onstage in outfits - we don't dress like that anymore. It sounds like a small thing, but believe me, when you're talking about Genesis: Mike (Rutherford, of Charterhouse School note) wears jeans onstage. Three or four years ago, that was unheard of...it was always, like, put on the white trousers and white shirt." Yeah, I remember, kinda scary. However: "We've never been as dressy as bands like Yes, for instance. Tassels - outfits like Asia now wears. We've never been guilty of that, but at the same time there was a mood of dressing like you're something to be looked at. Whereas, nowadays, we're much looser. It shows in the music. Still, some people think we're doing now what we did then.
"But I know how we make our records, and I can't convey it because very few people would believe it. (Naw.) There's an awful lot of spirit in Genesis that people don't believe is there. I think a lot of people think of us as still the art-rock group that we might've been eight or nine years ago. Maybe six years ago. We don't do that kind of stuff anymore. We pull on it - we use it as a tool. If one of us writes a piece of music that sounds like it should be really pompous, then we use that tool that we've managed to perfect over the years of sounding very large and grandiose. But, at the same time, we write a lot of stuff that's very simple. And I think Abacab is obviously the best example of that because it's the last example of that. The next album will be a better example of that.
"But there's too much 'automatic pilot.' I'm the same with the Grateful Dead, for instance. Now I've never really heard a Grateful Dead album, but I think of them as being a certain type of group. The poor old Grateful Dead will never break out of that, as far as I'm concerned. And too many people think Genesis is like that. So when they hear something like No Reply At All with horns on it, they suddenly think, 'Hang on, hang on.' It shakes them off automatic pilot and they have to reassess the band and find that they do like Genesis now, whereas they didn't like us then."
I know I sure feel a whole lot better. Phil's Jacuzzi tour (which was relatively brief as far as tours go) gave him the chance to run the whole show without Genesis casting huge shadows all about...the set included a grand total of no Genesis tunes. "There was no need to do them. That invites people to draw comparisons and I really didn't want that."
Myself, I'd rather draw a bath than a conclusion, but there is simply no doubt that Phil Collins has transcended Genesis. His albums are better (and he's only got two versus, what, 14?), the Jacuzzis are better (featuring the horn section from Earth, Wind, and Fire), and he's clearly the best writer of the bunch. Plus, who do you think started all this big drum sound that's TKO'd rock lately?
Don't get me wrong, I think Genesis is really something. But Phil Collins...Jesus, he's hot.