For anyone who lived through the ’80s, the unlikely figure of a small, bald Englishman is still a trigger for a whole lot of musical trauma. The ’90s found Phil Collins banished to outer darkness, seemingly forever — but for the last decade or so, he’s been slowly, creepily inveigling his way back into the world of music, like a sort of gated snare Voldemort. Earlier this week the New York Daily News suggested that Collins has “gone from reviled to revered,” and this revisionism has even spread to the halcyon pixels of The Awl, which yesterday ran a post by Alex Balk about the continuing Collins renaissance that concluded, “Grit your teeth or clench your fists, haters, but it doesn’t matter: Everything’s coming up Collins.” Enough of this. It’s time to fight back. Phil Collins must be stopped. Again.
This latest round of articles isn’t the first call for a Collins re-evaluation, but even a couple of years back, a serious defense of him would be seen as a sort of musical #slatepitch, the sort of adventurous contrarianism beloved of writers trying to Make An Impression. Take Gary Mills’ “In Defense of Phil Collins” piece from The Quietus a couple of years back, for instance, which argued that “the disgrace of a career bogged entirely in the determined dross of No Jacket Required … is simply not justified, regardless of how Collins gained either his fortune, or his public image.” (The lede also gave us what’s still the single greatest description of the man: “drumming Tory homunculus Phil Collins.”)
These days, an unabashed enjoyment of Collins is verging on orthodoxy, which is indicative of a worrying trend: the continuing critical rehabilitation of a man who pretty much embodied everything that was arse about the ’80s. No, it wasn’t always thus — as Mills points out, Collins contributed to some of the best records of the 1970s: Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway may or may not qualify for that description, depending on your tolerance for prog-rock, but it’s hard to argue against Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and John Cale’s Helen of Troy, both of which feature drums by, yes, Phil Collins. The thing is, though, no one’s arguing against his prowess as a drummer. And in any case, it’s not ’70s-era Collins who’s been undergoing a mystifying renaissance for the last decade or so.
No, it’s the Collins of the ’80s that the world seems doomed to experience over and over, tracing our way around the flat circle of a hellish 1989 FM radio playlist. The truth is that there are essentially two Phil Collinses — the subtle, artistic drummer and the no-jacket-required, non-dancing avatar of AOR who sold a bazillion records to the Patrick Batemans of the ’80s, providing a smooth corporate soundtrack to the Thatcher/Reagan era. And it’s the latter who won’t go away.
Why? The Daily News article cites the reason for this as “an increasing number of top-line pop stars, from Beyoncé to Lorde to Alicia Keys, [who] have been drawing on Collins’ work with clear and present awe.” In truth, though, this has been going on for years, largely because Collins has always commanded the attention of hip hop producers the world over. And, well, yeah, to an extent you can see why: the man had an ear for production. Even skeptics like your correspondent will admit that “In the Air Tonight” is one of the most impressively atmospheric pieces of music the ’80s has to offer us, which explains why it’s been sampled a whopping 37 times over the years.
But dear god, the fact that the likes of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony managed to extract usable samples from Collins’ tracks doesn’t mean that it needs to be a bona fide Collins free-for-all. It doesn’t mean that a string of risible Collins hits like this and this and this suddenly cease to exist. And it certainly doesn’t excuse things like Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s reinterpretation of “Sussudio,” a track that seems to exist only to prove that, yes, cocaine really is a hell of a drug. (And it’s still better than the original.)
The thing about this “Hey, Phil was OK” narrative is that it’s very, very selective in its recall. Balk quotes his own six-year-old suggestion that “the horror that was ‘Another Day in Paradise’ has long since faded from memory,” but that ain’t true, or not for all of us, anyway. I can’t imagine that many of us who lived through the ’80s the first time around have forgotten the pre-grunge ubiquity of smug pricks in white suits and Bateman rock all too well. If we’re going to revisit Collins’ career, then let’s be honest and revisit all of it.
And look, the idea that he’s been mistreated by history doesn’t at all hold water when you look at his back catalog in its entirety. Collins had his moments, sure, but they were largely small islands in a sea of beige. In his Quietus piece, Mills argues that “we’re happy in the main however to forgive true visionaries like Eno and Bowie for their misfiring output… but Collins will never be so fortunate.” Well, no. The difference is that Eno and Bowie are two of the most consistently innovative and influential musicians of the 20th (and 21st) century. Phil Collins wrote “Sussudio.”
At the risk of taking this anti-Collins argument a bit too seriously, this is a point that’s applicable to a great deal of the ’80s revisionism that seems to be going on at the moment. Clearly, newer generations are always going to have a penchant for selectively reviving aspects of previous decades that appeal to them — the rockabilly types who worship ’50s fashion, the Mad Men-led resurgence of interest in the ’60s, the veteran burners who seem to have left most of their cognitive faculties somewhere back in the ’70s.
But the ’80s? They were the crucible of much of what continues to plague the world today, stuff we can’t get rid of no matter how hard we might try: the hyper-individualism, the materialism, the financial lunacy. Do we really need to add Phil Collins to this list of our own free will? No. No we don’t. A plague on this revisionist history. Just say no to Phil Collins.