The Unsung – the weirder end of the Phil Collins musical spectrum

If you think of Phil Collins, you probably think of him as the dude who sings bad Motown covers and schmaltzy love songs and big power pop, and that’s not wrong. He has done bad Motown covers, schmaltzy love songs, and more power pop than you can stand, and it’s made him a lot of money (let’s hope). That’s great for him. But there’s another Phil Collins, a Phil Collins whose career took off once he joined Genesis in 1970 as the drummer, eventually taking over as lead singer in 1975 when Peter Gabriel left the group. That Phil Collins has a weird side, and from that comes some stellar music, music that might not have dominated the charts, but is nevertheless worth hearing.

Collins joined Genesis after the band released their first two albums, From Genesis to Revelation and Trespass. The band’s first album is kind of a mess, but Trespass shows promise, as the band obviously began to stretch their musical wings. Nursery Cryme, their third album, is the first truly good album in their catalog, and it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the first with both Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett. Collins is one of the best and most underrated drummers in rock history, up there with Moon, Bonham, and Peart, and Genesis became a much more ambitious group with him on the skins. Genesis was a weird band, but that was more due to Gabriel than Collins, although Collins co-wrote (with Hackett) and sung “For Absent Friends,” which appears on Nursery Cryme, as well as “More Fool Me,” (which he wrote with Mike Rutherford), which is on Selling England By the Pound. Neither song is that strange, although “More Fool Me” might be the best love song Phil Collins ever wrote.

After Gabriel left, the members of Genesis made a conscious decision to turn more into a pop group, although it did take a while. With Collins at lead vocals, they released two albums in 1976, A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering, which kept some of the weird stuff from the past while also making strides toward becoming more poppy. The best song on the first album, “Entangled,” wasn’t written by Collins (although his airy tenor early in the song strikes the weird tone the song is going for), and on the second album, Collins only wrote “Blood on the Rooftops,” which is an excellent song but leans a bit more toward mainstream pop, although the lyrics are still quite odd. After Wind & Wuthering, Hackett left the group, which was really when the band left their “progressive” roots behind. They would trend more toward pop, but they would still create some bizarre music occasionally.

… And Then There Were Three …, the band’s first album as a trio (Collins, Rutherford, and Tony Banks), is definitely more poppy, with “Follow You Follow Me” their first real true mainstream single. That doesn’t mean the album is devoid of odd songs, just that the band was moving in a more pop direction. Rutherford and Banks get most of the writing credits, but Collins is co-writer on “Scenes From a Night’s Dream,” which is possibly the only song by a major rock band to reference Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. I don’t know how the writing was divvied up (Collins and Banks are the writers), but it’s a strange song. There’s an echo throughout, adding to the dreamlike nature of the tune, and the band adds a huffing, stalking line underneath the ethereal guitars to make the song a bit more dangerous. The lyrics basically describe Nemo’s dreams, with friendly dragons breathing fire and mushrooms tall as houses, a moving platform with ten-ton weights hanging overheard, a dance with a princess, an audience with King Morpheus. It’s a short, almost breezy song, but it still shows that Collins, even as he wandered closer to pop stardom, was still able to go to bizarre places.

Genesis’s next album, Duke, is probably the best Collins-era one, but it doesn’t showcase Collins’s odd side as much. It straddle a good line between pop and their progressive roots, and the opening triptych, “Behind the Lines/Duchess/Guide Vocal” is a masterpiece (it’s also part of an even bigger suite of music, with the two songs at the end of the album, “Duke’s Travels” and “Duke’s End,” originally forming a massive 25-minute “song”). Collins wrote two of the poppiest songs on the album, “Misunderstanding” and “Please Don’t Ask” and contributed to the other, “Turn It On Again.” The two strangest songs on the album – “Cul-de-Sac” and “Heathaze” (one of my favorite Genesis songs) were all Banks. Collins was also working on his first solo album, which would have some odd songs on it, as would the next Genesis album.

In 1981, Phil Collins released his first solo album, Face Value, in February, and then Genesis released Abacab in September. Face Value is famous, of course, for “In the Air Tonight,” the first track on the album and its first single. “In the Air Tonight” is one of the more unusual Top Ten hits in history, as it’s dark and moody, with not a lot of what we expect from top hits – you can’t dance to it, of course, but it’s also not a cheery song that you can sing at parties at the top of your lungs (well, you can, but that’s a weird party you’re attending). It speaks to the weird side of Collins, though – the song is ostensibly about his divorce, but of course it goes into some dark territory, lyrically. Meanwhile, it has the odd music – the long-held chords of both the keyboards and guitars, with the subtle drum machine beating along until one of the greatest drum breaks in musical history. The song was overplayed in the 1980s (partly thanks to Miami Vice), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s not a strange one.

The rest of the album is pretty much what became expected from Collins on his solo albums – somewhat treacly love songs and boppy pop … except for the fourth track, “The Roof Is Leaking.” This is another strange song, as Collins takes on the persona of a back-country, probably 19th-century man with lots of issues – his daughter left for the coast and they hope she writes soon, his wife is pregnant in the middle of what looks to be a bad winter, and, of course, there’s a damned leak in the damned roof. It’s a tragic song, with eerie guitars, solemn banjo, and a piano that struggles to become happy when Collins sings about getting stronger, but then fades when he worries that the spring might come late. It’s not really something you expect from Collins, but its strangeness helps make it great.

Meanwhile, Abacab is a fine album, but one that seemed to be a bit less pop-oriented than Duke or even … And Then There Were Three …, which means it has plenty of opportunities for oddball music. Each member contributed one song to the album, while the rest were collaborative efforts, and Collins’s was “Man on the Corner,” which is another example of his penchant for ambiguity which can lead to strange songs, despite their pop appeal. The song is about homelessness and society’s indifference to it, and while that’s not a strange subject and the lyrics are fairly straight-forward, we still get Banks’s eerie keyboard and the bubbling drum machine leading into another powerful percussion part. The collaborative songs, though, get a bit odd. The title track, which begins the album, is a bit strange, but not too much so, and then comes “No Reply At All,” which is a pop song through and through (a very good one, though). Then Banks’s solo contribution, “Me and Sarah Jane,” which is a very good tune. Then we get “Keep it Dark,” which takes a turn for the bizarre. It’s a fairly standard-sounding pop song, but it’s in 6/4 time signature, and it’s about a guy who gets abducted by aliens but has to lie about it. So it’s a tad weird. Then we move to “Dodo/Lurker,” which is very odd. Banks has a great keyboard part in the song, Collins gives us his usual excellent drumming, and he effects a deep, slightly distorted vocal inflection for some of the song. It’s about extinction, another strange topic, and then it shifts to the “Lurker” part of the song, which is about a weird creature just outside of human perception, but Banks shines on the keyboards. Not content with that, we then go to “Who Dunnit?”, which is basically an instrumental, as Collins simply repeats some brief lyrics over and over, but he uses a Cockney accent to heighten the oddity of the song, and the music is almost metallic backing up the vocals. After “Man on the Corner,” we get Rutherford’s “Like It or Not,” which is a solid but standard pop song, and the album ends with “Another Record,” an excellent song but not one that’s particularly weird. Clearly, Genesis wanted to write pop songs, but it was also clear they still could break out the strange stuff when they felt like it.

In 1982, Collins released his second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going!, which was another big hit for him. It features another single that’s somewhat dark in tone, “I Don’t Care Anymore,” as opposed to his cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” which is one of the reasons many people don’t respect Collins too much (I mean, he’s remaking Supremes songs, so I can see why some people might look a bit askance at him). The first single on the album, though, is one of the strangest songs Collins ever recorded, and while it didn’t chart very well at all (and never in the States), it’s still one of the more bizarre singles by a major star in history – “Thru These Walls,” a song about, basically, a peeping Tom. And possibly a pedophile. In the first verse, Phil is singing about listening to people fuck on the other side of his wall. In the second verse, he checks out the kids playing outside. He creeps up on them, but thankfully, the parents keep the “windows locked and the door shut tight,” so Phil can’t do much. It’s a great song, actually, and tragic as it unfolds, as he’s almost paralyzed by fear of the outside world and has no human interaction, which can mess with your mind, but it’s still creepy. Plus, Phil is never going to be confused for a model, so he really sells the weird-looking dude being weird in the video. It’s the height of Collins’s strangeness, and while he did some odd stuff after it, he never surpassed it.

Genesis released their self-titled album in 1983, and while it veered even more into pop-friendly territory (“That’s All” is a great song, yo!), it did begin with “Mama,” one of my favorite Genesis songs and another venture into the odd. Collins is singing about a prostitute, which isn’t that weird, but of course in this song, it’s the terrific atmospheric music that does it, as well as Collin’s harsh laugh in the middle of the song. It’s not actually Collins on drums, but a drum machine programmed by Rutherford, but the great reverb in Collins’s vocals and Banks’s stellar keyboards make this a classic. The rest of the album is more pop-oriented, but Genesis still wanted to bring the weird when they wanted to.

Both Collins and Genesis became much more pop-oriented as the decade moved on, and the weirdness kind of got left behind. Collins became more schmaltzy (despite something like “Take Me Home,” which is a superb song), and Genesis became smoother as well, although they never became maudlin like Collins on his own. Invisible Touch from 1986 is pretty clearly their worst album (the debut album is the only one that comes close), but even it’s not too bad, and it has some solid songs on it. Their return to form in 1991 with We Can’t Dance (the last album with Collins and the band’s penultimate album, but I don’t count their last album) eases up a bit on the pop sensibilities and even has some nice prog songs on it (“Driving the Last Spike,” “Dreaming While You Sleep,” and “Fading Lights” hearken back to an earlier Genesis era), but none of the songs are what you would call weird.

There are always musicians who want to make lots of money playing music, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I have no idea how much money Phil Collins has made in his career, but good for him if he’s made a lot. I don’t love a lot of purely pop music, but I do like some of it, and there’s something undeniable about a great musical hook and simple lyrics that turn into earworms. But if pop musicians can also do other things, it makes them far more interesting. Phil Collins, it seems, always wanted to be a pop star, but he took a long route to get there, and he took a long time to shake the odd sensibilities that he picked up from playing in the late 1960s and then playing in a progressive band like Genesis. Despite Peter Gabriel controlling the musical direction of Genesis early on and then Tony Banks taking a more active role once Steve Hackett left, Collins had a ton of input, and he was always good for some strange, slightly off-kilter music that showed the world that he might enjoy pop, but he still has some weird recesses of his mind. So check out some of the stranger parts of his catalog, because you might like what you find!

6 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Re: “In the Air Tonight,” i.e., “(…) you can’t dance to it (…)”
    Very true. Yet, at one high school dance (during my junior year, I think), the guy who was DJ-ing put that one on. Everyone treated it like a slow dance, but I (and my dance partner) decided to try sort of half-fast dancing after that slight transition at about the 3-minute point, when the bass kicks in. That didn’t quite work out, either, but we didn’t look any sillier than all of the other kids still trying to slow dance.

    Otherwise, for a while back in the early ’80s, I *really* liked the Abacab album and played my cassette to death. Since then, though, I don’t think I’ve listened to anything but the title track occasionally. Those links brought back some memories.

    And I never thought of it before, but based on the “Thru’ These Walls” video (which I’d never seen before), I totally agree that Collins looks like one of those creepsters who sits on a park bench near a playground and tries (and fails) to non-chalantly stare at the little kids while pretending to read a newspaper…

  2. John King

    I want to hear your version of “Keep it dark” – the version I heard had nothing to do with aliens “it seems he met a gang of thieves, who mistook him for a man of means, they locked him up and found he had no money, so.. they let him go again” and goes on about not depressing the guy further by telling him how happy other people are but instead pretending that everyone else has crappy lives too

    1. Greg Burgas

      John: I’m just quoting the guys in the band, who say that’s what it’s about. I never knew what it was about, but they claim that’s it, and he needs to keep quiet about it. So while I agree with your interpretation, I can’t argue with the guys who wrote the song! (Well, I can, but I’d look foolish.)

  3. Dredd

    I find it odd that your mentions of weird Genesis songs omits the ones that first made me aware of their potential for weirdness during the height of their popularity.

    Genesis – Home by the Sea/Second Home by the Sea

    “Coming out the woodwork, through the open door
    Pushing from above and below
    Shadows without substance, in the shape of men
    Round and down and sideways they go
    Adrift without direction, eyes that hold despair
    Then as one they sigh and they moan

    Help us someone, let us out of here
    Living here so long undisturbed
    Dreaming of the time we were free
    So many years ago
    Before the time when we first heard
    Welcome to the Home by the Sea”

    Invisible Touch – Domino

    “Blood on the windows
    Millions of ordinary people are there
    They gaze at the scenery
    They act as if it is perfectly clear
    Take a look at the mountains
    Take a look at the beautiful river of blood

    The liquid surrounds me
    I fight to rise from this river of hell
    I stare round about me
    Children are swimming and playing with boats
    Their features are changing
    Their bodies dissolve and I am alone”

    1. Greg Burgas

      Dredd: I don’t find Domino all that odd. I mean, the lyrics are a bit weird, but they also feel prosaic, and I can’t really describe why. It feels like the band is trying to write a sequel to In the Cage, and they really shouldn’t. Plus, the music isn’t odd at all.

      I think I don’t consider Home by the Sea all that strange because Genesis was the first album I ever bought, and I’ve listened to it so much that the strangeness is lessened. I think the lyrics are a bit too oblique, but also not bizarre enough to be a really strange song, and the music, while very good, isn’t all that weird.

      Those aren’t bad choices, but I guess they didn’t make as much of an impression on my weird sense as they did on yours! 🙂

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