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Groovy Kind of Love: On Phil Collins’ Retirement, Legacy

March 8, 2011

The rumour has been floating around cyberspace for a few months now, but it now seems like it’s been verified: the Phil Collins we all knew–and possibly did not love–is going away soon. Just this week, the extremely successful solo artist and one-time co-leader of prog/art-rock-turned-pop-behemoth Genesis confirmed his imminent retirement from the spotlight, having released his final album for Warner (a contractual necessity that features no new material and draws from his favorite R&B and soul material [sounds too much like something from the Rod Stewart playbook, but at least Phil aims to be liberated from a seemingly interminable contract]).

According to Collins, years of frustration with critical and pop-cultural vilification, along with recent health problems involving his hearing and vertebral damage, have culminated in him abdicating both the drum throne and turning his back on his status as the second-most successful pop star of the 80’s, after a little-known singer from Gary, Indiana, name of Michael. In short, he can’t really play drums any more and, even if he could, he wouldn’t. Why open himself up to more scorn by those who’ve created “I Hate Phil Collins” sites and risk more mockery? He’s been skewered on South Park and mocked in The Hangover; this critical drubbing bewilders “Mr. Nice Guy,” so he finds the best solution to be willfully falling off the pop-cultural radar entirely.

What a sad, ill-wrought capstone for an otherwise interesting, occasionally thrilling career. Sure, I laughed at the portrayal of Collins in South Park, and I snickered with everybody else at use of his music in American Psycho and The Hangover. I wasn’t a huge fan of his 80’s music, but it’s a testament to his vast popularity in that decade that I know the words to nearly all of his biggest hits. And there were some strong songs in there.

But, if you’re looking for Collins at his most interesting and meaningful, as opposed to his most lucrative, you should look to the 70’s. That’s where he did his best work, as an expressive singer and especially as a drummer.

Make fun of Collins’ solo work all you want; deride what he did to them later, but Collins was at his artistic and instrumental peak in Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. And, this incarnation of Genesis reached its zenith in 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. If you only know the pop-oriented Genesis fronted soley by Collins, then you’ll be blown away by the arty, progressive and forceful rock by the Genesis of TLLDOB.

Peter Garbriel may have been the driving creative force behind this concept album, ostensibly but somewhat indecipherably about a young Puerto Rican man, Rael, hustling his way amid the din of New York City. But, from a performance perspective, the band, and particularly Collins, shines. Collins’ thunderous–yet dexterous–drumming underpins it all, and his lead-vocal turns are no less effective or affecting than Gabriels’. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell if Collins is singing or if it’s Gabriel.

I’m not sure I can go on explaining Phil Collins’ virtues in early Genesis without feeling like I’m stealing lines from Patrick Bateman about later Genesis, so this self-consciousness draws this to a close.

I’ll wrap up with this: if you love prog rock, you owe it to yourself to buy this album. If you think Genesis means light 80’s pop, you’ve missed out on something special. And, if you think 80’s pop is the only thing Collins is capable of, check out his solid work on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Given the recent popularity of bands reuniting to play entire classic albums, I’d held out hope that the band would reform and do all of Lamb; reading of Collin’s physical and emotional pain saddened me in its implications that that will never happen.

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