When news broke yesterday that Phil Collins was returning to live performance, some Guardian commenters reacted with utter horror.
“As if we haven’t suffered enough this year,” wrote a miffed chrisf242. Lbonifacio also pulled no punches: “I thought it could not get worse.”
Other commenters were more positive, but it’s clear that Collins’s return will be met in many musical quarters like the election of Donald Trump. You see, it’s hard to remember a time when Collins wasn’t a figure of rabble-rousing revulsion to a certain kind of music fan. That was truest in the 1980s and 90s, when he was selling a mind-boggling 100m records (one of only three artists to do so) and wearing some very bad jackets.
Back then, he was painfully unavoidable. Across the world, no chart was safe from his mushy AOR. No back seat of a taxi or supermarket aisle offered sanctuary from a sudden unexpected assault by Easy Lover or One More Night. For the multitudes of non-believers – who easily numbered as many the fans – Collins made “BMW music”.
When Bret Easton Ellis created the serial-killing stockbroker Patrick Bateman for American Psycho, his final horror de resistance was making the sharp-suited, sex-crazed sociopath an obsessive Phil fan: “Do you like Phil Collins? I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that, I really didn’t understand any of their work. Too artsy, too intellectual. It was on Duke where Phil Collins’ presence became more apparent. I think Invisible Touch is the group’s undisputed masterpiece. It’s an epic meditation on intangibility. At the same time, it deepens and enriches the meaning of the preceding three albums. Christy, take off your robe.”
Nevertheless, these also serve as reasons why Phil Collins’ return is unutterably, wonderfully, brilliant news. In fact, it might be the best thing to happen to music this year. It’s been aeons since we had such a convincing musical bete noire. Even before Collins retired in 2011, pop had become mostly crushingly mediocre. Everything is nice, perfectly produced and marketed. We are all cool. But there’s been nothing to rail against.
Only last week, when I asked some music journalism students if they had any desire to “barbecue the dinosaurs” (as the gunslinging NME critics of the 70s and 80s were fond of saying of the likes of Collins and Rod Stewart), the room fell strangely silent. Perhaps that reflects the fact that the dinosaurs were never cooked at all, and in fact most of them are still touring, and being fawned over in the monthlies and by young and old alike. “I’d quite like to destroy Coldplay,” someone offered eventually, but while poor Chris Martin’s quartet have replaced Phil as go-to name for anyone seeking an instant example of what’s wrong with music, their output and critical reputation is like that of the Sex Pistols compared with Phil Collins a couple of decades ago.
On a human level, it’s hard to begrudge the man, now 65, a final day in the sun after what sound like some seriously dark times: a third divorce, all manner of drumming-related injuries, which left him unable to drum at all, a public image nosedive following the tabloid depiction of him as a Tory tax exile who dumped his wife by fax (which he has since explained was all untrue) and a descent into alcoholism.
At least he seems to have regained his sense of humour – and desire to get back at the critics – with the title of the forthcoming tour, Not Dead Yet.
And then there’s the not-so-small matter of his contribution to British music. Yes, we may sneer at the mopey divorce ballads (although Kiss’s face-painted, hard-rocking frontman Paul Stanley, of all people, has been known to praise the ostensibly gooey Against All Odds for its “stunning, desperate vulnerability”) but we shouldn’t forget that Collins, as drummer-turned-vocalist, powered Genesis through four decades, from cult prog rock band to stadium-filling adult pop sophisticates. He played on Brian Eno’s brilliantly trailblazing albums in the 70s, and with the likes of Robert Wyatt. He pioneered the innovative gated drum sound that can still be heard throughout pop. American R&B types consider him pop royalty. I even play Phil Collins drum fills in my post-punk band (giving the killer drum motif from In the Air Tonight a new home in an intense, Joy Division-like angular rock stomper).
Granted, none of Phil’s influence on obscure Yorkshire trios, or indeed any of his contributions to the more avant garde end of pop, are likely to feature in his five nights at the Royal Albert Hall, but maybe some of that much-derided solo material is due a reappraisal. One could argue – and I will – that If Leaving Me Is Easy’s moving electronic minimalism paved the way for James Blake, that Sussudio audibly reveals a Prince influence, and that few mainstream pop smashes are as inventive as In the Air Tonight.
Collins will always divide opinion, but there’s every chance that his copper-bottomed hits – freed from the shackles of Magic FM ubiquity – will make next year’s gigs a final triumph. And if not? Perhaps somewhere, whether in Surbiton or Scunthorpe, some kid will be infuriated enough by the return of the Great Satan to reach for the nearest instruments and invent the angry, new future of rock’n’roll. At face value, we’re all winners here. But seriously … Welcome back, Phil.
This article was written by Dave Simpson, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 18th October 2016 11.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010