Music

Phil Collins: Singles

The main question with Singles is this: does Phil Collins really deserve all the critical revilement he's gotten for decades?


Phil Collins

Singles

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2016-10-14
UK Release Date: 2016-10-14
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"I don't understand it," he says, looking pained. "I've become a target for no apparent reason. I only make the records once; it's the radio that plays them all the time. I mean, the Antichrist? But it's too late. The die is cast as to what I am.”

-- Phil Collins, 2011, Rolling Stone Interview.

Phil Collins was once one of the most hated figures in all of pop music. Everyone from David Bowie to Roger Waters to Noel and Liam Gallagher has aired grievances against him. Even Sir Paul McCartney reportedly slighted him when Collins asked him to sign a biography of the Beatles, saying to his then wife, “Oh, Heather, our little Phil is a bit of a Beatles fan.” The hate for Collins comes largely from his middle-of-the-road megahits in the 1980s — the aural equivalent of Thatcher’s England and Reagan’s America in our shared cultural memory. There were some suspect personal issues as well. Collins was perceived as an unfortunate conservative because he went on record saying that he’d leave England if the Labour Party got into power because he didn’t want to pay taxes. There was also the ever-persistent rumor that he divorced one of his wives over a fax.

But 2016 has marked a resurgence for Phil Collins. Not only has he seemingly come out of retirement, but he’s published a memoir, reissued his albums, and collected all 45 of his singles into this release. And it seems too that Phil Collins is finally cool. Whether it be kinder appraisals in the press, co-signs from various hip-hop artists, or performing a gripping version of “In the Air Tonight” with the Roots on the Tonight Show, Collins is enjoying some rewards for his labor. Critical approval is an ever fickle thing, and it seems more and more that pop culture treats its perceived villains with some levity if they hang around long enough. The question now, for us, is: was Phil Collins’s critical revilement appropriate? Was his music subpar? Or, was the vitriol directed against him misguided antiestablishment anger because he was one of the 1980s most commercially successful and ubiquitous artists?

Phil Collins is an undeniably talented musician with a gifted and distinctive singing voice. At his best moments, he creates something that feels identifiably new, like with “In The Air Tonight” or its stranger, more sinister sequel “Thru These Walls”. He reaches near-greatness cribbing Motown's sturdy songwriting with his effervescent cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love”. And he can make pretty transcendent if schmaltzy ballads like “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”. There are also some interesting songwriting quirks, such as his propensity to introduce a chorus as a motif at the beginning of a song, before the first verse, as some truly Beatlesque melodies are sprinkled in a good number of the songs.

But apart from two singular songs and some other fine moments, Singles represents some of the most fabricated pop music of any era. Let's make some contemporary comparisons: Collins feels as hamfisted as Katy Perry in his bombast and about as sincere as Chainsmokers or Calvin Harris. These songs were not created to stand the test of time: their rigid formula, trendy sonic textures, and often monolithic lengths firmly entrench them in the 1980s. Collins’s lyrics too often operate within stock pop music verbiage that, paired too often with his overwrought anthems and painful cribbing of soul singing, become an endless slog to get through with back to back listening.

Another disappointing feature is how Collins was wholly comfortable being a ripoff artist. His huge hit,“ Sussudio”, openly takes from Prince’s “1999” in melody and instrumentation. Same goes for the later single “Wear My Hat”, which is a terrible impression of Graceland era Paul Simon, even down to his vocal phrasing, 10 years too late. The main criticism that Collins earns here is that his potential, espoused on early singles like “In The Air Tonight” or “Thru These Walls”, was never fully met elsewhere in his catalog. And that's either due to his apprehension at revealing himself as he did in these two songs or because of his clear interest in chasing trends and making hits. Or both.

If Collins had announced a formal retirement after “In the Air Tonight”, his legacy would have been cemented forever, such is the power of the song. It’s a progenitor for so much great music -- from Tears for Fears to Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak. “In the Air Tonight” is Collins's most experimental song, with a drifting synth palette, unconventional vocal layering, and a deep understanding of dynamics. It also contains one of the most legendary drum fills in the rock canon. Its lyrics are of particular note, as they describe someone that Collins hates so much that he wouldn’t save them from drowning. It’s powerful sincerity -- —the kind of thing that was not only influential for West, but very much the antecedent to someone like Drake, whose 2011 classic “Marvin’s Room” is hard to imagine without the kind of seething emotion Collins expresses here. “In the Air Tonight” is no doubt one of the most famous songs of the ‘80s, but it’s also one of its most formidable. Total greatness.

The other notable song here, “Thru These Walls”, is clearly a self-conscious sequel to “In the Air Tonight”. Its synthesis of electronic percussion with live instrumentation is maybe even more sophisticated as “Tonight”’s epic drum fills become the pulse for the song’s incredible verses. The lyrics are even darker, jumping into the perspective of a man who listens to his neighbors having sex and desires to have sex of his own. As the song resolves itself, it humanizes the protagonist and becomes a brilliant portrait of toxic masculinity. The song has a creative structure, often calling Collins to switch up his vocal phrasing and singing style per section. “Thru These Walls” and “In the Air Tonight” illustrate a deft hand that isn't present on the other 43 songs collected here. They point to an artistically rewarding direction that Collins could have gone on, if only he wanted to.

But he didn’t. More than maybe any other pop star of the era, aside from perhaps Madonna, who by her very nature was much more disruptive, Collins wanted to be a star. He took Genesis to sellout status whereas the more mercurial Peter Gabriel once tried to synthesize English literature and rock music. He went from playing drums on Brian Eno records to stealing the gated reverb drum effect that sprang up prominently on the Eno-assisted classic Low by David Bowie. He chose to chase fads and crib tricks from any artist that had Top 10 hits whether it be the Supremes, the Beatles, Prince, or Paul Simon. He wanted to be loved. And he got that love. It was given to him in record sales. The underground and the Culture of "Cool" threw Collins out the window as the decades ensued, but, after listening to these 45 songs, it’s pretty clear that they were right. Phil Collins certainly faces gripes and slights on an epic level, but he does so in his Swiss fortress filled with his Civil War memorabilia, all paid for by his relentless chart chasing. He's gotten what he's deserved.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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