The Guardian wanted someone to speak up for Phil Collins, whose Australian tour starts this weekend. Could there be saving graces to a man so often mocked, so often loathed, so often put in the “what were you people on in the ‘80s to like this?” basket? Well if we ignore that terrible Stephan Elliott film, it turns out there may be.
(A version of this story appeared in Guardian Australia Online earlier this week)
It’s not as if he recorded Say Say Say and The Girl Is Mine is it? He didn’t co-write either Do They Know It’s Christmas? or We Are The World, marry and beat up Madonna, fiddle with kids having a “slumber party” with him and his pet snake, or at any point step in as a replacement lead singer in Queen, Deep Purple or INXS.
So why the near-universal disdain, if not outright loathing, for Phil Collins? Not to mention the collective groans and outright mockery that accompanied his 2016 announcement of a tour – his first in 13 years – which began as a few shows in the UK and has ended up encompassing large portions of the world, including Australia this year.
In some circles – for which read: almost anywhere music critics gather to sacrifice young bass players and dance naked around a copy of Pet Sounds – Collins is the apotheosis of blandness and ubiquity, the byword for the bleaching of soul music, the man who killed Genesis and gave American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman a reason, and a soundtrack, to screw and kill.
For a musician who can count - somehow, perplexingly, but nonetheless quite seriously - the likes of Kanye West, Tupac, Nas and Ol’ Dirty Bastard as fans, could this be the ultimate case of the (short, balding) white man’s burden to be considered almost terminally uncool?
Since I come, if not exactly to praise then at least not to bury him, let us consider the sins attributed to Philip David Charles Collins, once of West London and Begnins, Switzerland, who at the end of this month turns 68. And let’s see who can cast the first stone.
When chief writer and singer Peter Gabriel left, and lower middle-class drummer boy Collins stepped up to the microphone, the long haired, costume-and-makeup-wearing, concept album-making, middling selling, public schoolboys with a reading list, Genesis, went from being darlings of the sort of people who said “darlings of the cognoscenti” to hitmakers for the sort of people the cognoscenti looked down on.
OK, it’s not like Invisible Touch need ever be heard again, nor those baggy suits revived, the synths in Abacab grate more than a Parmesan factory, and there was something unbearably smug about it all. But the hundred million-odd albums Genesis have sold principally came post-Gabriel. So, guilty as charged, he made them popular. How very dare he.
It didn’t stop him playing on often little-heard albums by Brian Eno and John Cale, Robert Plant and John Martyn, and Peter Gabriel. Sure, they mostly didn’t let him sing or write, but can’t you gain some cool by association?
He made two post-divorce albums that were bitter, a bit twisted and very bloody angry about his ex, who supposedly heard about the impending divorce via fax (which he denies). What a bastard, right?
Two names for you: Marvin Gaye (Here, My Dear – the contractually obligated, here’s your damn settlement, 1978 fuck you, whose song Anger was not kidding); and Bob Dylan (1975’s Blood On The Tracks whose Idiot Wind was not a weather forecast). Next to them Collins is a mere bantamweight in bastardy.
What about his cover of You Can’t Hurry Love: note perfect and reviving Motown’s profile for a new generation, but accused of draining any remnant of blackness from it? Hey, he was hardly alone in the traducing of ‘60s classics through the ‘80s: Michael Bolton anyone? Naked Eyes?
But yeah, fair cop, it’s as bland as boarding school tapioca pudding and a perfect companion to his blancmange take on Groovy Kind Of Love. And the filmclip where he plays both Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard to his blue-suited Diana Ross can still scar.
He sold too much – around 150 million albums - was around too much, played everywhere, including both sides of the Atlantic for Live Aid, and produced too much. Even he admits his presence in seemingly anything that happened in the 1980s would have got up his nose too if he had been watching.
Here’s the thing though, he didn’t force millions of us to buy his records. It wasn’t his fault film producers thought St Elmo’s Fire didn’t need to be the bottom of the barrel when it came to soundtracks. He didn’t demand we love him and his funny comb-forward.
You might argue he actively worked against the notion, what with his filmclips (don’t, I beg you, look up Two Hearts – no, I mean it, don’t), his feature films, his suits, his songs …
Anyway, remember, Collins didn’t release anything as bad as Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s atrocious duets, and their musical reputations were eventually redeemed. Give the bloke a chance.
A version of this story appeared in Guardian Australia Online earlier this week - read it HERE.