Phil Collins has a new record out.
It’s a record of Motown covers; a passion so great that he felt compelled to do an entire album of the same material that prompted him to consider a career in music.
Smart decision: Collins has managed to sell well over 150 million records, he’s won seven Grammy Awards, two Golden Globe awards, one Academy Award, and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He captured more Top 40 hits during the 1980s than any other pop artist and helped other musicians chalk up hits during that decade in the role of producer.
There is no question that Mr. Collins chose well for his career path, so why does he sound so apologetic about it in recent interviews promoting Going Back?
Probably because he was such a dick when his popularity was at its peak.
I’ll confess that I don’t know him personally and, aside from a purchase of Genesis’ Duke spawned by a love of that FM radio hit “Turn It On Again” and a dubbed copy of Genesis spawned by his menacing laugh during the chorus of “Mama,” I don’t actually own a Phil Collins album. So when I call Phil Collins a “dick,” it’s based purely on perception and a very healthy fatigue of Phil thanks to all of the overexposure that he created for the good part of a decade.
His choices creatively toward the end of the 80s also suggest that he was more than willing to compromise his talents as a musician in exchange for a complete devotion to mainstream, commercial success.
The recent interviews also seem to relay that Phil Collins knows what you and I think about him, and he is taking some steps at trying to win back some of our good graces.
The question is, “Are we ready to welcome back Phil Collins?”
Why now? The man has sold enough records to warrant ambivalence to what you or I think about him. He’s also done and won almost anything that an artist could ever hope to achieve, so our good graces are useless to further his career.
The only reason I could think of why he still feels the need for some kind of validation from us is because fame cannot provide the creative acknowledgement that other peers are receiving, even the ones who weren’t as successful as he was.
He seems to understand why people laughed at that moment in American Psycho when Patrick Bateman declares how Collins’ lyrics “are as positive and affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock.” It’s because we put Phil Collins on the same level as that movie’s other dated relic – Huey Lewis – and Collins feels that he’s provided work that’s more deserving of praise than the man who helped inspire Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.”
We laughed at Bateman’s soliloquy because we understood that Collins’ moral affirmation on “In Too Deep” is just a bunch of nice words pieced together for commercial effect. That’s a far cry from the origin of his solo career that, ironically, began as a therapeutic wordplay concerning the misery of the dissolution of his first marriage (“In The Air Tonight“).
In fact, the more successful he became, the less he incorporated elements of his personal life into his melodies. Instead, Collins used cookie-cutter themes and gated reverb drums to advance his success.
He’d like you to ignore this blatant commercialization now.
Yes, the man who has over 150 million copies sold is no longer content with the girth of his sales total, choosing instead to remind you of his work as a session player, a shallow attempt at suggesting that his musicianship should be considered before his oversaturated pop leanings.
Admittedly, his name-dropping is impressive; Collins’ parlayed session work for such artists as Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, and Robert Plant. Speaking of: Collins was tapped as the drummer for Led Zeppelin on their first official reunion gig at Live Aid, the same event that featured the dopey “Phil Collins will be playing at both events on two separate continents” tag line, like it was some kind of noteworthy accomplishment.
Collins recently commented in Spin that the Zeppelin gig was awful, that it embarrassed him to the point where he considered jumping off the lead balloon, before recognizing how being the dude who thought he was too good to play with Led Zeppelin would be more of a career killer than Buster.
In case you think that it was Collins’ work with Genesis that provided him with all of these opportunities, consider that he was already well regarded even before joining Peter Gabriel and company—playing drums on a session with George Harrison at the tender age of nineteen.
That’s right: Phil Collins has many reasons to not give a shit about what you think, and one of them was that he was hanging out with a fucking Beatle while he was still a teenager.
Yet with all of these accomplishments and all of Collins’ recent half-hearted attempts to get back into my good graces, I’m still not ready to take Phil Collins’ olive branch on artistic integrity. There have been so many misfires in this man’s work for the last quarter-century that it’s hard to give him a pass like I have with Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, or Bruce Springsteen.
There’s still a lot that Phil needs to apologize for, and much of it stems from the sudden air of arrogance that appeared after Collins’ success, starting with …But Seriously and coming into full fruition during his work with Disney.
He positioned himself as a composer, beyond rock and roll—the bedrock of his existence. When the idea of a Genesis reunion tour began to take hold, he lobbied against a full-on schedule, declaring that his days of heavy touring were over.
Collins admitted as much in a recent Huffington Post article, stating that his career was “grinding down to a halt,” opting instead to stay at home with his two young boys.
But before he does, he wants to be well regarded. He senses that he’s turned into “a caricature,” and he may be acknowledging that caricatures don’t translate well beyond their shelf life. And with no further tours in the works, minimal recordings, and no hint that Buster is scheduled for a cult revival, Phil understands his own shelf life is nearing its expiration date.
He also knows that his peers don’t seem to be suffering from an expiration date as rapidly as he is. Fewer youngsters are saying the word “Sussudio” and nobody gives a shit about the Pump Room dress code that spawned an album title No Jacket Required.
And from what do young music fans recognize Collins?
I’m curious myself.
Do they only know him from Tarzan soundtracks and Disney DVD special feature material? Is their only reference Mike Tyson’s love of the dramatic drum part from “In The Air Tonight” in The Hangover? Do they even know that there was a time when Phil Collins was more than a punch line?
For a moment, Phil Collins was highly respected, and his celebrity opened the door to numerous production opportunities, ventures that proved to be just as questionable as his own sugary decline.
There’s no better example of this than his work on Eric Clapton’s mid-80s records. They’re criminal, unlistenable to the point where they now sound tepid and woefully dated. And since good rock and roll music should be timeless, Collins needs to be vilified for painting Clapton in a weird, pastel-colored straightjacket that had Eric barking, “Had enough! Bad love!” over white funk keyboards and session guitar flange.
Admittedly, it takes two to tango with those production complaints, and if everything would have just ended there, the offenses wouldn’t have even been so great that we needed to even consider forgiving him now.
Perhaps the real crime on top of Collins’ overexposure and over-production is the material released under the Genesis moniker, ironically beginning with their eponymous 1983 release.
Although I have no quarrel with that particular record, I do take issue with what came in its wake: a blurred line between Phil Collins solo artist and Genesis the band.
On Genesis, the band turns a corner from progressive rock to straight-on pop rock. While there’s no law about wanting to make a decent living, there is a sense of duty to the fans that gave you the opportunity to tinker with the formula.
What Collins did with asserting his fame over the band that once auditioned him was not just get them to change their direction. He convinced them to change vehicles entirely.
He now sees how there’s not much of a market for anemic 80s sedans. Collins wants you to remember the muscle car of his progressive youth. He wants to cherry-pick his support resume, and he’d like you to remember that before cartoon characters like Brother Bear inspired him, he found creativity through personal turmoil.
The restoration of Collins’ image began with the episode of “The Making of Face Value” on VH1 Classic’s Classic Albums show. I’m not entirely sure on what grounds Face Value gets such a liberal tag that it qualifies as “classic,” but Phil seems content with its inflated opinion and offers a bit of his own ego in the process, lamenting how he no longer plays “If Leaving Me Is Easy” live, because fans wouldn’t stay quiet during the performances.
It’s moments like this bit of aristocratic snobbery towards his own ticket-buyers, combined with a tenure of soft-rock schmaltz that now take up a larger portion of his career output than the credible work that he’s helped create, that make me question if his heart was even in rock and roll at all.
It was easy to be affectionate toward the everyman drummer who floated from the drum riser directly into the spotlight. And it was easy to tolerate his everywhere-at-once work ethic, mainly because of his cheeky humor and homely looks.
But the fame seemed to do something to his headspace, and in turn, his creative output. It became less challenging, and when he combined that safety with an almost contemptuous view of his previous work (and genre), that has me questioning why he’s become so cozy with it lately.
Not only do I question his sincerity, I can’t find any validity in his more recent work either. In fact, the new record that got him back in front of the press to ask forgiveness sounds like an exercise in self-righteous pandering. Going Back is a record that’s too lazy at attempting to be a late-career resurgence because it’s too busy lecturing us on how they just don’t make ’em like they used to and how Phil Collins is the only musician that can accurately recreate the vibe that triggered his love affair of music.
In nearly every interview promoting the record, Collins tosses around the “authentic” tag a lot. He argues how his quest to make it sound like a legitimate Motown record somehow makes it credible. It isn’t, and shame on Collins for not coming out and saying that potential buyers should begin with the same master recordings that inspired him.
Going Back exists because Phil Collins wanted it to and he can afford to do whatever he pleases without worrying about the sales tally. Meanwhile, his longtime label (Atlantic) is betting on the possibility that it will find an audience. They logically assume that it would fit nicely next to Rod Stewart’s American Songbook series and any other Boomer-friendly compilation that matches their roster of superstars in decline with familiar repertoire, hoping that the aging audience will dig in their wallet for one more aluminum disc.
Going Back does nothing to reaffirm Collins’ place in rock’s echelon, and as a result, will do nothing to appease his personal quest to gain our appreciation. Rather than an album that was prompted by his passion for the music, why not make music that instills a passion within us?
It’s clear that Collins is discovering the one thing his money couldn’t buy is self-respect. And with no hint of it anywhere on Going Back, the lack of interest from the pop shoppers should remind him that his quest for artistic redemption is something that is truly against all odds.
Video: Phil Collins – “Going Back”