Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Happy Birthday To A Musical Titan

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another edition of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – our occasional Campari and soda drenched probe into the rainbow and glitter world of artistes who are quite simply fabulous, darling.

This week, we shall extend (slightly belated) birthday greetings to a titan of the music industry: a much-loved Puffin favourite, all-round diamond geezer, Oscar winner and tub-thumper extraordinaire – Laydees and gentlebodies, Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays proudly presents, Mr. Phil Collins! YAAAAAY!!! Not ‘arf!

As the splendid Cromwell’s Codpiece and I alternate stewardship of Friday’s flamboyant festivities, this week’s missive is actually a week late. Nevertheless, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to mark this auspicious occasion. Our joyful celebration of the day that marks the birth of The Blessed Phil.

This article will not be a Phil Collins bio. If you want that sort of thing, I can recommend highly his honest (at times painfully honest) autobiography, Not Dead Yet. A splendid read, the ideal gift for all Puffins sound of mind and musical taste, widely available from all good book stores and, I suspect, a great many charity shops. Instead, this article will be a consideration of the times I witnessed the great man in action and a few musings on the rise, fall and second coming of The Blessed Phil.

Our Collins journey begins in Bristol, on the 30th of April in far off 1975. A bunch of us were off to see Genesis at what I believe is now known as the Beacon Theatre, but which in ’75 was still known as The Colston Hall, named of course for Edward Colston, Bristol’s best known philanthropist, slave trader and, one would imagine, the perfect example of the evils of wypipo. Bristol was chosen because tickets for the old Empire Pool in Wembley sold out faster than a politician sniffing a WEF cheque book, and we were all keen (well, some of us were) to see Genesis perform The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – their current album and that most pretentious of ’70’s beasts – a double LP, prog-rock, concept album: a meisterwerk, no less.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear – my heart was full of trepidation. You see, dear reader, I had already journeyed down this dark and treacherous path. I blame (unfairly, I know) Roger bloody Waters, Pink sodding Floyd and their epic Dark Side Of The Moon. Once that album became the planet-rogering monster that it did, every prog-rock band on the planet seemed determined to produce a pretentious concept album to inflict upon their long-suffering fans. As a result, I had already been severely traumatised by seeing Yes perform their very own prog-rock epic, Tales From Topographic Oceans. I sat through two hours of turgid noodling that instilled a pathological aversion to concept albums that has remained with me to this very day.

Well, Genesis exceeded my expectations and were utterly dreadful. Another progtastic two hours of turgid self-indulgence with Spinal Tap levels of pomposity thrown in for good measure. Peter Gabriel’s ludicrous costumes (complete with inflatable genitals) did add a touch of unplanned levity to the occasion, but after waiting years to see the mighty Genesis, it was a massive disappointment. I did however quickly realise that the beardy-weirdy on the drums was a bit bloody special. I was of course aware that Mr. Collins had already built a significant reputation as a damn fine drummer, but seeing him in concert really woke me up to the fact that he was a seriously talented sticksman.

The following year, ’76, was mightily busy for Mr. Collins. Genesis lost Peter Gabriel, failed miserably to find a replacement and eventually decided (almost as a last resort) to go with Phil on vocals. Thus, a legend was born and The Mighty Phil was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Genesis certainly didn’t hang about and released not one but two splendid albums in ’76, and Phil’s side project, Brand X, released Unorthodox Behaviour – one of my favourite albums of all time. In the blisteringly hot summer of ’76, I made my way to the Reading Festival to see Phil and Brand X perform. I was dead keen to see them in concert and my expectations were high; but even so, I was utterly unprepared for the magnificently magnificent magnificence of Phil’s performance that day. Quite simply, Brand X were jaw-droppingly good and – released from the shackles of Genesis – the astonishing drum prowess of Collins was a real eye-opener.

In retrospect, Collins was at the absolute peak of his powers during this period. His style, at that time, was very similar to that of the great Billy Cobham – and before Puffins of sound musical taste organise a lynching party for heresy, I’m not for a moment suggesting Collins was as gifted a percussionist as Mr. Cobham, merely that their styles at that time were very similar. Brand X were touring to support their debut album, the aforementioned Unorthodox Behaviour, and to this day it remains an absolute jazz-rock classic. If you ever wish to understand why Collins is held in such high regard by so many of his fellow tub-thumpers, that’s the album you need to check out.

And that, dear reader, is where we shall draw a line in the sand. Because that’s quite enough about Phil the Stick. It’s now time to examine his many crimes against good taste, explore the case for the prosecution and consider the rise of Phil the Naff, Phil the seriously bloody annoying, and establish when this transformation from a person of previous good character first began.

I saw Genesis in both ’77 and ’78. Mr. Collins did a very fine job fronting the band and there did not seem to be any hint of the horrors to come. However, in 1981, Face Value (his first solo album) and In The Air Tonight (his first solo single) were both released. Both, of course, became massive international hits and suddenly everything changed. He didn’t immediately become Phil the Naff, but he most certainly did become Phil the Ubiquitous.

Familiarity, as we know, will often breed a certain level of contempt, but this really didn’t seem to be the case with early 80’s Phil. He was everywhere, all the time – but the public lapped it up. Singer, songwriter, producer, actor, comedian – Phil became an international everyman; the ubiquitous chirpy, cheeky, chappie, darling of the chat show circuit, in the papers every day, on our screens every night, and in our lug’oles whether we wanted him or not.

In short, Phil was a hugely successful international star and maintained this status throughout the 1980s; but for me, he began to irritate almost immediately. In fact, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us consider Exhibit A from 1982. This was still very early in his solo career, but we can clearly see (witness his mincing, ‘dancing-to-the-dancefloor dance’ and the stage-school antics with his braces), that he was already operating in full-on Las Vegas cheesy cruise control.

To be fair, the above video documents a tremendous arrangement of a very good Genesis tune, but the early warning signs were very clearly there. And, lest we forget, 1982 also saw the release of this cheesefest. I mean… c’mon – who else could possibly be worthy of accompanying the great man?

Unfortunately, much worse was to follow. Please bear witness to Phil (in ’83 and now back with Genesis) in full-on “brown-face” make-up, pontificating about immigration. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

However, it has to be said that absolutely none of this had any kind of detrimental effect on the popularity of the blessed Phil. In fact, his star was still very firmly in the ascendant. But in 1985, the first cracks began to appear. And at the centre of this first noticeable reversal in fortunes was the tedious Bob Geldof and his humongous transatlantic Live Aid extravaganza.

Unfortunately, as if Live Aid wasn’t already bad enough, some bright spark decided it would be a jolly good wheeze to turn the event into the Phil Collins show: in just one day we were treated to Phil performing at Wembley, Phil flying around in Noel Edmund’s helicopter, Phil flying on Concorde, Phil performing in Philadelphia and – catastrophically – Phil playing drums for Led Zeppelin. Oh, my days – what an utter bloody shambles that Led Zep performance was. I watched the horror unfold through my fingers, gaping in disbelief at what I was witnessing, and I honestly can’t bring myself to post a video of that wretched performance here. History records that Jimmy Page was quick to very publicly lay the blame firmly and squarely on the shoulders of one Phil Collins esq. At the time, it felt like the Collins backlash had been building up a head of steam for quite some time, and all that was required was a suitable event for those feelings to crystallise. Live Aid was that perfect point in time, and sure enough, after the hideous Led Zep performance and the subsequent barbed comments of Mr. Page, the floodgates opened and the mockery began.

I’m a massive critic of ’80’s Phil. However, in this particular case, I’m actually on his side. To blame him for that terrible performance was, IMHO, deeply unfair. The individual members of Led Zep were not necessarily in a good place at that time and as a band they were certainly not match fit. Additionally, Collins had absolutely no time to rehearse with the band and under those circumstances the outcome should not have come as any great surprise. Additionally, the Philadelphia leg of the Live Aid shindig had been plagued all day by technical issues and the Zep set was no different, with the all-important stage monitors apparently refusing to behave. However, whoever or whatever was to blame for the Live Aid car crash, the public were still very much aboard the Phil Collins bus. But from that point on, it felt like the music press and the industry in general began to view The Blessed Phil with a somewhat jaundiced and cynical eye.

The good ship Collins, however, sailed serenely on. Genesis could cheerfully sell out any stadium they wished, Phil picked up awards by the sackful (Gold & Platinum albums, Grammy Awards, Brits, Ivor Novellos, Golden Globes, honorary doctorates – even an Academy Award!) and became an established star of stage and screen with projects such as his staring role in the movie Buster.

Then in 1990, I witnessed peak Phil, and I finally understood the terrible depths of naffness to which the human soul can plumb. Genesis performed at Knebworth (the third and final Knebworth gig of their illustrious career, I believe), at a charity shindig to raise funds for the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Trust. It was a pretty decent line-up with some proper heavy hitters on the bill: Robert Plant, Status Quo, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Dire Straits and several others (including, I believe, the mighty Cliff Richard). However, Genesis, fronted by a self-indulgent Phil Collins, on a day that will live on in musical infamy, delivered one of the most toe-curlingly embarrassing, dad-dancing performances it has every been my misfortune to witness. Some stared in disbelief, others laughed uncomfortably, some mocked, some walked away. I put my head in my hands and, once again, watched the horror unfold through my fingers. The crowd of course lapped it up, but it was the final nail in the coffin for Phil’s credibility. He was officially as naff as naff could be. For those of a strong disposition, a mercifully small portion of that performance can be viewed here. Viewer discretion is advised.

The prosecution rests, m’lud…

The following year, with Grunge sweeping away much of the 80s music scene, Bret Ellis, the best-selling author of American Psycho, wanted to communicate the appalling moral depravity of his vicious serial killer. To do this he simply made his deranged character a gushing Phil Collins fan. Collins had become a figure of fun, mocked by the music press, mocked in comedy sketches, mocked in cartoons (the creators of South Park were particularly vicious) and even David Bowie referenced a creatively unproductive period of his own career as his “Phil Collins years” – and to be called a Phil Collins fan became quite the insult. His fall was complete. From lovable scamp to toe-curling embarrassment; his albums filed quietly and discreetly away, next to those of Barry Manilow and Kenny G.

However, three decades on, there has been quite a turnaround in the fortunes of The Blessed Phil. Despite his failing health, he once again fronted Genesis for a surprisingly sprightly farewell tour and even took his old song and dance routine back out on the road for one last successful limp around the block. Sadly, he ended his performing days looking frail, and he doesn’t drum any more, saying he struggles to even hold a drumstick these days. However, astonishingly – almost unbelievably, if I’m honest – his musical credibility has risen to the point where, apparently, The Blessed Phil is once again worthy of worship. Don’t take my word for it: video sites are chock-a-block with contemporary musicians, DJs and producers singing his praises. Such has been the rise in his musical stock that his “reconsecration” (that’s actually the term that’s been bandied about) has become the subject of academic research by a real professor at a proper university (well, the University of London) and – in a small measure of well deserved musical immortality – to successfully revive a career once deemed irretrievably lost (presumably after a suitable passage of time has healed the wounds and dimmed the horror) is now officially known as “the Phil Collins effect”. Well done The Blessed Phil. After all these years he’s been rightfully restored to the pantheon of musical gods and – cards on the table..? Yeah, I’m still a fan.

Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays.

TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Philippe Roos from Strasbourg, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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