Lit and Crit
Phil Collins and
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It was a turning point for the band. Without Peter Gabriel, there was no there there. In other words, the band had no real lyrical or stylistic thrust to propel them. Sure, they could play Supper's Ready in concert and stick to the stuff that rewarded their loyalists, but eventually they would have to write new songs that took them out of the fantasy rock realm and into the modern world.
Enter Phil Collins. At the start, it often seemed that the drummer of the band and Gabriel's replacement might not really have it in him. Sure he was a very good musician, that had been established. But could he be a true front-man? Here was this slightly balding little dude thrust into the spotlight with a demeanor of slight unwillingness about him. I will follow you, if you follow me, he sang in his breakout hit.
That was not leadership material in the coming Van Halen big-hair rock world of the 80s, especially since he would have to do it from behind a kit. Still, the story goes that the band auditioned many different singers and each time Phil would have to sing for them the part they needed to learn.
In the end, the band went with Phil due to his similarity to Peter in tone and timbre. He had a good voice, if a little reedy. Perhaps they were destined to be a touring prog band and that's all.
Genesis worked the rock seam after that, little by little carving into the cragged mountain looking for the elusive major vein of gold with those tools. Problem was, of course, that Phil Collins was not flashy, his lyrics had no particular thrust or theme per se, and he wasn't interested in charismatic performances in a costume. But it was good enough to continue a career touring and playing shows with a touring drummer while Phil went up front. In the pre-MTV video era, image was not as important and a receding hairline might have been harder to see from the distant seats of a sports arena.
They put out one good rock album (Trick of the Tale, especially) and one directionless one (And Then There Were Three). The lyrics were a hodgepodge but acceptable in their ability to provide scaffolding for Collins to practice his growing skill at emoting, even if the true import of it all was generally underwhelming.
However, pushed in this new direction, Collins was developing an ear for hooks and songs which he would soon put to use at a home studio he set up. There have been others in rock and roll who have figured out how to quaver with some beta male tenderness: Roy Orbison, etc. And there were a few still working the territory at the time, such as Bob Seger etc, but the more they tried the more it crossed over into trying to sound like black soul music instead of the implied male aggression of rock and roll in the 1970s.
The 80s was busy giving way to disco emo femmes and metalheads as competing styles for men at the mall by then, so many 70's folk rock heroes would either have to go with the techno nu wave flow and challenge heterodoxy, or quit.
Somehow, Phil found a third way-- call it white beta male RnB. Collins was somehow enough of a cuck (in today's parlance) that his whimperings could never have been mistaken for a sexy come-on pleading for just a little taste of your sweet love. Instead, he learned to sound like he was anguished, uncertain, a little twisted up inside and embarrassingly needy.That is why, by his peak, he was able to turn practically every little short yelp or plea for love that he had in him into musical gold, almost at will.
Nonetheless, in the summer of 1977 he wasn't there yet. What Phil Collins really needed was something to give him a little push in the right direction, something that would ignite his timbre and talent for vocal expression.
When the band boiled down to three members by 1978, perhaps they found a certain urgency to make one last go at having a real career. Keyboardist and songwriter Mike Rutherford (the other alchemist who should be credited with contributing a large part of the band's final formula) decided to try taking the band pop and wrote a single: Follow You, Follow Me. It was indeed acceptable as a song for commercial broadcasters coast to coast, and it worked.
The band had spent a decade building their brand name-recognition, such that 'Follow You' got them regularly on the radio in America including some pop stations. It didn't hurt that 'Solsbury Hill' and 'Games Without Frontiers' were already breaking out on US rock radio by 1977, paving the way for an entire cockeyed British blue eyed soul pop rock invasion in the '80s. (See: Gabriel, Peter. Also: Adam Ant, Duran Duran, Bowie, David, etc).
Yet the band still did not have a real hook into the world of popular consciousness in '78. Genesis could have been mistaken for any number of other rock bands of the time. One of their previous releases, a small EP called Spot the Pigeon, is evidence that they clearly didn’t know where they were going in that era. It's a mess. It features Phil's voice buried behind banjos and songs about English football (always a sign you are so bereft of ideas that you are willing to pander to anyone, including those who like to buy local sports team-themed music). See also Elton, Prince, etc.
Then finally, lightning struck! The alchemy that makes for true greatness or genius, that thing which had heretofore been missing for Phil and Genesis, suddenly arrived. Sadly, this was a blessing by way of a tragedy: Phil Collin's divorce. Without a doubt, it was his real life personal heartbreak, openly confessed to on record, which transformed him into a superstar.
He had found a subject worthy of his ability to inject ardor into his vocals: his own self-pitying disaster of a sex life.
(My thesis is that, indeed, the farther in time he was from that seminal event the less genuine he was able to be, such that he eventually wore out his welcome in the public's heart. He retained the ability to manufacture the timbre, but it slowly became more and more ersatz to our ears.)
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