Saturday, March 5, 2011

Phil Collins That's All: how the musical retirement of Phil Collins matters

Is he actually "retiring" at all? Hell, I don't know. Enjoyed writing the pieces, but is the update.

Let me tell you about the safe boyfriend who got dumped.

He met a girl who used to come into the corny restaurant where he worked. She came in with her family and their friends, who all found him charming and tipped him off to flirt with her for her birthday.

He got her number, they started seeing each other, doing football games and generally stuff you'd do as friends, or young boyfriend and girlfriend---even the cousins' Christmas get together. Anytime he can get her alone, he likes the kissing and...things. To him this quickly becomes "love."

But she's the kind of girl who likes to steal cars and go joy riding with her friends in the middle of the night. This is part of what makes her appealing, but it's treated as a big as not to frighten off the guy, or encourage the girl? The parents like the guy, adore him, find him respectful but funny and fairly mature and composed: a guy who's going somewhere. He even got her the gold herring bone necklace for Christmas.

You guessed it: this is the nail in the coffin for this relationship. Directly after a delicious ribeye dinner with the fam, she takes him into the next room and dumps him.

This is the story of fame, too: the story of Phil Collins, the guy who's going somewhere, whose music pops up in the homecoming dances and nice new Beamers. Then one day, the young girl just finds it all too predictable. No rebellion, no hellion.

But that's the end of the Phil Collins story. It may seem a bit unfair; the guy really had something going on. He even left a nice gift with his "Both Sides Now" record digging deeper than the commercial veneer. But now he imagines "hardly anyone will miss me." In fact, I've read a couple of interviews, and here is his own take: Feel free to paste into your browser.

His retrospective really has set off an article I wanted to write along with much "cooler" music, as I was exploring what shaped us as we go into our demo recording phase any day now. I started here:
I was sorely divided: the day I bought Invisible Touch, I was on the fence. Peter Gabriel's SO or this? SO divided. For better or worse, I gave the Genesis the nod. Yes, my life was so country and slow-paced that this was like a window into so many worlds: some world beat, some outlandish and sometimes haunted cinema scapes, some stories of addictions and madness and fear and running, as if in a dream.

I knew I was looking for and beginning to understand something profound. As we are wont to do, I extracted these serious feelings and political leanings from the hints dropped within. Great pop music, hard rock touches from Mike's guitar, moody and sometimes humorous keyboard vamps from Tony, and a beat that set me moving my uncoordinated adolescent body in Phil's drums. There was nothing like the paranoia, menace and drunken hope of "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight."
At the time, I loved the DC Follies puppets that ran after Saturday morning cartoon, already finding myself at home with political and celebrity satire---now here it was, set to a compelling beat! (The Disturbed version is very badass, too.)

Man, I had to find more!

So one by one, I get the three solo tapes and another four Genesis tapes, also borrowing my friend David's live album. If anything, Gabriel's Genesis seemed impenetrable, attuned as I was to post-Beatles/ post-Motown / post-Beach Boys pop sounds. If boy was meeting girl and losing girl, it was all couched in truly bizarre music that suggested Alien meets Ancient race, Alien has nightmare, alien explores new dimension. Over the next couple of years, the Collins Genesis I found had a masterful blend of serious progressive rock composition chops and pop/rock sensibilities.

"Duke" and "Mama" and "Home By the Sea" had catchy hooks and surreal storylines, mind-blowing and perfectly suited for reading a weird story late at night. As for the love songs...well, it's easy to square yourself with adult-sized loss, even if you can never bring yourself to put it on the line and TELL the girl how you feel.

You sit there behind your idiot smile knowing if you're caught being too nice you'll become the gossip, the butt of stupid jokes that make all those puppy love sensations foolish by the cynical light of day. And you feel this maybe for one girl, but probably are feeling out your non-chances with anyone who won't scowl or ignore you. Suddenly you need to be able to write off the FAIL, "making me feel like I want too much" with girls you should never have, much less ever live with, and "That's All" is like a psychic armor. Not to mention, it sounds cool and takes your mind off all that. There are so many of us budding romantics out there, and Phil Collins is writing our soundtrack.

Over time I found Genesis more stunning, though it too went the way of "none of this was working, so I'm ditching it all" too. In college, our dorm mailman Chuck was the one person who understood the fascination; Chuck's walls were plastered with lots of prog rock greats like Pink Floyd and heavy metal titans Zeppelin, but there was uncool Phil Collins, looking edgy in some heavily saturated light, drumming and singing.

No Jacket Required was the solo Phil where I found everything equally to my taste, one blast of fun after another with just enough schmaltz, something I could play on the bus to football games and turn up loud enough for several rows to enjoy.

One hopeless attraction ending in friendship after another was keyed to those other solo records. I got a bit better at trying my hand at expressing these crushes, but really, it was too serious for the kinds of girls I liked...or, they were taken. But Phil's melancholy pop/jazz and occasional attitude & drum driven screeds fit right in with my thought-balloon filled introspection, overthinking everything, awaiting the moment to try a funny wisecrack, ever open to the press of sweet lady flesh against my desperate, hormone-filled body.

The last time I utterly identified with his work---not counting the English paper I wrote on "Dreaming While You Sleep"---was the stunning "No Son of Mine." Despite my warm but honest recollections, he and I had a lot trouble expressing our feelings without constant argument---me, too know-it-all and independent, he too provincial and grumpy. No guilt trip ever came across quite so unfairly as the one aimed in the song, but man, did I identify with the feeling of being misunderstood, wondering where could I go, because running away was almost always close to my mind. I never knew how much I'd miss him one day.

Long after I'd moved away, he goes on to score the biggest hit in Adult Contemporary chart history, "You'll Be in My Heart" from the Tarzan soundtrack. So even after the albums stopped charting huge, he still had some hit songs left to write---just not the kind of music to which I listen.

Being a teenager is the only way I can describe Phil's music. The Phenix Horns he brought in against advice ---and horn charts were really "out" as far as the music of the day---fill the tunes with exuberance, and they fill the day with motion, with a boat on which thought can drift through the mundane setting of the day, be it our job or school. It fits fine with someone aspiring to just a bit more maturity, an affinity for more sophisticated and adult things to reflect the capacity of one's reserves.

We listen to a fairly bourgeosie account, songs shorn of detail for the sake of becoming universal, because love isn't really something we know yet, and the alienation that comes with adolescence means a bitter, sorrowful, sarcastic, even upbeat and creative divorce account isn't a bridge too far at all. The point is: does the SOUND grab you?

Not even Phil denies "Sussuedio" sounds like a nonsensical remix of "1999", with some adjustments to fill each corner with danceable groove and apparently improvised lyrics and melodic turns. But the one episode of Miami Vice I made sure I sat through guest starred "Phil the Shill," and "Billy Don't Lose My Number" was like a revelation, another Collins character on the run in some vague dreamy setting.

His timing was to die for. "Take Me Home," for a melancholy kid like me, was an anthem for something I felt every day, as if the "home" in the song was some much deeper, more meaningful state of being, inside the trail of emotional ravages I propped up with melodrama. Best yet, thanks to Westwood One Radio Network's Sunday night documentaries/ old concert footage, I got to hear an interview with him, probably taped it, that took me just far enough behind the scenes to make me grab a tiny keyboard and start writing my own pretentious music (with titles like, "No One Left to Be Right").

"Long, Long Way to Go" spoke to the awakening political sensibilities in me, identifying sincerely with the occasionally self-satisfied stances that come with pop stardom, with the bald truth that fairness was an ongoing struggle with desperate consequences---as only Phil could deliver, backed ably by Gabriel and Sting. two very involved political activists and patrons of the third world, where manipulated and robbed provinces still did indeed have "a long, long way to go."

But more than anything else, "In the Air Tonight" has become the definition of Phil's solo career. The Wiki entry on this song interested and involved me with it in a new way.
"Musically, it's an extraordinarily striking record, because almost nothing happens in it ... It's the drum sound in particular that's amazing. You don't hear it at all for the first two minutes of the song ... then there's that great doo-dom doo-dom doo-dom comes in, and the drums come in half way through the song, setting the template for all the Eighties drum songs after that" - Stuart Maconie

The means by which Collins attained the drum sound on this recording was long a source of mystery. The exact process was, as happens so often, a result of serendipity: an unintended use of studio technology giving unexpectedly useful results.

In this case, the Solid State Logic 4000 mixing board had a "reverse talk-back" circuit (labeled on the board as "Listen Mic"). Normal "talkback" is a button that the mixing engineer has to press in order to talk to the recording musicians (the recording and the mixing parts of a studio are completely sonically isolated otherwise). Reverse talkback is a circuit (also button-activated) for the engineer to listen to musicians in the studio. In order to compensate for sound level differences — people can be close to the reverse talkback microphone or far off — this circuit has a compressor on it, which minimizes the differences between loud and soft sounds. While recording "Intruder" for his ex-bandmate Peter Gabriel's solo album, at some point Collins started playing the drums while the reverse talkback was activated.

Engineer Hugh Padgham and his friend Jeffrey were amazed at the sound achieved. Overnight, they rewired the board so that the reverse talkback could be recorded in a more formal manner. Later models of the SSL 4000 allowed the listen mic to be recorded with the touch of a button.

When recording engineer Hugh Padgham was brought in to help develop Collins' demos that would become Face Value they recreated the "Intruder" sound using the reverse talkback microphone as well as heavily compressed and gated ambient mics. Hugh Padgham continued working with Genesis for Abacab later in 1981 and the same technique (generally referred to as gated reverb) was used, and the powerful drum sound has become synonymous with later Genesis projects and Collins' solo career ever since."

So other artists may be more closely identified with revolution; Bob Marley ended up giving his life for one. The Clash did it with memorable depth and cleverness, as well as through eclectic rock-infused styles. But however much he may have become identified with yuppie commodities and intrusive PR campaigns, there was a time when Phil Collins was my hero---my symbol for the fire and humor and darkness and twists and creativity locked inside my lack of poseur cool. He worked with the great Billy Cobham, one of the most listenable jazz/fusion drummers I've ever enjoyed on vinyl (thanks Joe), he helped invent a mystifying drum technique. He sang with a radio-friendly, unique voice I never successfully imitated. He displayed a lot more panache and humor than his critics.

All these millions and concerts later, he's still vulnerable to comparing himself to something as silly as the MTV Music Awards, all symbols for limitations with which he can no longer come to terms artistically. Worse, the simple act of writing a song on his beloved piano, or playing drums for one, has become almost impossible. What's he to do: pick up right handed painting?

He entertained a largely selfish, materialistic, narcissistic populace, which may have set off his own irony sense about those aspects within himself. But they never knew him. You have to play something while trying to get your groove on, after all.

He aimed with his best shot right at the heart of mainstream radio, but when the beast fell dead it landed right on top of him. He simply climbed somewhere higher than he dreamed, and misses that summit more than he ever knew he could. He just did what any capable career musician typically does---much better than he ever expected.

It's Just a Shame. That's All.

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