Talking to Phil Collins’s People

“So if you’re looking for your big, breakout single, you might wanna put a bid on this one tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Because we are talking to Phil Collins’s people, right? But then again . . . aren’t we all?”

As I mentioned in the notes that I wrote over on Tumblr to accompany my Best of 2013 mix, in recent years I’ve distanced myself from the Pitchfork-approved musical hype machine and have tried to reconnect with artists that genuinely bring me pleasure. And part of the pleasure of this shift has been to honor my instinct to privilege musical skill over enthusiastic ineptitude. (I am the daughter of a former music teacher, after all.)

The more and more of the indie stuff I listened to, the more and more I realized that no one really knows how to write songs anymore. Sure, it’s possible to isolate catchy hooks here and there, but I’m talking about legible, satisfying harmonic and melodic structure. (And yes, I realize that this puts me firmly in the crabby old lady realm of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”)

@maura, Maura Johnston

Nevertheless, one of the unexpected results of my refocusing on craft is my rediscovery of Phil Collins.

Phil Collins

I know that, post-American Psycho and in the hopefully waning days of hipsters’ kitschy obsession with so-called yacht rock, there’s almost no musician as ready-made for sneering punchlines as Phil Collins. And I would have been ready for a quick takedown myself in years past.

After my back went out for the second time in college, a dear friend made me a “get well soon” mix CD that unironically included “I Can’t Dance” on it, and I was secretly embarrassed for him about it for months. How hopelessly uncool, I thought.

Another friend of mine, who’d spent a couple summers during college painting houses, used to like to say that the best days were when, listening to the local soft rock radio station for hours on end, he would hear a Rod with a Phil chaser. I loved this anecdote because it exemplified exactly what kind of radio station that was and because, at the end of the ’90s, anything that smacked of ’80s culture was immediately suspect, immediately to be derided.

So, it’s been quite a shock to me in the last few years when I’ve heard a Phil Collins or Genesis song on the radio in a public space and realized, “wait a minute—this stuff actually sounds terrific.” As their former ubiquity has diminished and as we’ve now graduated to making fun of the popular sounds of the ’90s and ’00s (have you listened to Interpol lately? It sounds absurd), it’s finally possible to hear those Collins songs for the impeccable pop songcraft that they represent.


And yes, there appears to be a small groundswell currently advocating for a reappraisal of Collins’s work. A quick Google today turned up a couple pieces: “Is Phil Collins the Godfather of Popular Culture?”; “We Will Rock You: A Spirited Defense of Phil Collins, Part 2: The Reckoning”; “Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers.” I’m sure there will be others soon enough.

It’s safest, of course, to say “hey, his early stuff with Genesis is actually really cool and sonically challenging” or “do you realize that he played drums on a handful of Brian Eno’s legendary solo albums?” as a way of distancing oneself from the still-tainted ’80s pop hits. But, fuck it, I’ll speak up in favor of those pop hits.

Though at a certain level I understand that familiarity breeds contempt and that people (especially self-styled cultural critics) hate nothing so much as massive mainstream success, I’ll never understand why catchy pop songs get such a bad rap. Do people not realize how difficult it is to write something that sounds so simple and connects with so many people?

Take “That’s All,” for example.

For whatever reason, it’s the song that always comes to mind now when I want to build a case for Collins’s unique genius. (I know it’s a Genesis song, and was coauthored by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, but it’s clearly of a piece with the poppier direction that Collins was taking the band in the post-Peter Gabriel/prog rock days.) He’s mentioned that this song was an attempt to write something straightforward and Beatles-y, and it succeeds marvelously without sounding like a straightforward Beatles homage the way countless power pop acts do. Plus, the reference is not just sound; it’s not just relying on certain guitar effects or vocal processes to indicate its influences/inspirations. There’s an honest-to-God song in there, too, packed with satisfying hooks and hummable melodies.

The combination of the opening piano riff and the dead-simple kick drum/high hat combo sets the stage for the most immediately memorable part of the song, that “A” section. Collins sings the melody through the first time down one octave, giving a slow burn quality to a song that, intentionally, starts out with a lot of air in it. For a band that’s notorious for their complexity and precision (and, again, often mocked for it), there’s a looseness here that really makes you, as a listener, lean into the groove, seduced by where it could possible go next.

The B section of the song shifts to a major key, with a kind of oompah rhythm in the bass line and a calliope-esque keyboard part that establishes a neat tension with the minor-key A section sandwiched around it. And with the return of the A form that we heard at the top of the song, Collins takes the melody up an octave, which, as it strains the upper limit of his vocal range, lends that immediately identifiable, shouty intensity that he’s perhaps best known for as a singer. Snuck in underneath that signature sound, however, is, as Brian pointed out to me, the elaboration of an increasingly Ringo Starr-esque drum part (especially check out the fill before they go back into the major-key B part, and the fill that takes them back out of it).

The C section/bridge is perhaps the most ’80s-ish part of the song, with the slightly bigger drums fills between phrases and slightly more R&B-inflected vocal runs in the melody line. It whizzes by in a flash, though, bringing us to Banks’s keyboard solo over the chords from the A section. He embroiders the basic melody tastefully, never letting the filigree distract too long from the hooks. And the keyboard sound itself is delightfully, bizarrely reedy.

The rest of the song repeats the familiar form that’s been established—BACA—before letting Rutherford solo out over the remaining ABA fade. And though the form remains consistent, the accompaniment gets a little more frenetic with the addition of a tambourine, handclaps, more backing “oohs” and “aahs”, a repetition of the basic melody line on the keyboard, one startlingly big cymbal crash as the volume starts to cut out, and one last one for good measure right as it’s fading down to nothing.

The very clear structure here is incredibly satisfying, giving you as a listener just enough repetition without ever letting you feel bored or lulled into sing-songy sameness. It also takes incredible restraint to let a song build so incrementally over the course of four and a half minutes, without blowing its wad too soon or too dramatically. It’s just incredibly sophisticated musicianship all around.

So, I’m happy to be in a place personally where I don’t feel beholden to any cool factor when it comes to really grooving on the things that sound good to me at any given moment. I think a lot about something that Travis Morrison said in an interview with Vice last summer. When asked if there was ever a time when he felt self-conscious about his musical taste, he responded: “Not really, no. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t think musicians think like that. Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste, if that makes sense.”

I suppose that’s the conflict at the heart of what I guess I’d call the tourism I was participating in through music blogs ten years ago. I was trying to consume like a Music Person, rather than letting the bedrock of my own musicianship inform my ability to listen, appreciate, and fall in love with the sounds and songs that spoke to my heart.