Friday, March 11, 2016

Phil Collins And His "In The Air Tonight" Legacy

Does Anybody Still Loathe Phil Collins? (Even ‘In the Air Tonight’?)

For many who were blessed to enter adulthood during the 1980s, it seems as if that decade will hover over us forever, its synth-pop bleats and recycled doomsday sound bites accompanying us into the twilight. Today, that feels truer than ever, as we all welcome back a familiar face: Phil Collins, the amiable sprite of pre-Internet pop. (Both the fairy-tale and computer-graphics definitions of “sprite” apply.) Emerging from semiretirement, Collins is launching a multimonth campaign of remembrance. He’s reissuing eight of his solo albums, including the four blockbusters — “Face Value”; “Hello, I Must Be Going!”; “No Jacket Required”; and “ … But Seriously” — that blanketed the 1980s, selling a combined 24 million copies in the United States alone and generating seven No. 1 singles. He has announced that he’ll record new music and launch a tour. Come October, he’ll publish his autobiography.

Phil Collins in 1986. CreditTony Mottram/Getty Images
It’s good timing. For many, many years, Collins was pegged as the embodiment of bloated, Boomer dad-rock, with waning album sales, a jazz big band and weak covers of Cyndi Lauper and Leo Sayer songs. Lately, though, he’s been the subject of countless revisionist think pieces in which writers valorize his technical gifts as a drummer for the prog-rock pilgrims Genesis, emphasize his collaborations with Brian Eno, identify him as the secret patriarch of hip modern trends or express their incredulity that older generations ever denigrated the man’s output in the first place. How did this successful, gifted musician ever become such a whipping boy? Why were his treacly ballads and mild toe-tappers picked out as the ultimate symbols of consumerist vapidity? Was it just the cheap envy of older critics — so unlike today’s enlightened listeners, with our democratic embrace of pop that surgically strikes the pleasure centers of the masses? These windmill-tilting arguments have been trickling out steadily in recent years, following the lead of hip-hop tastemakers and Collins fanboys like Questlove and Kanye West. These days, you speak ill of Phil at your own risk.

Of course, there are specks of truth and falsehood on all sides of the argument. The image of Collins as an innocuous Everyman — a modest, even self-deprecating sort — is an especially interesting myth; the fact is that Collins has been, and continues to be, a combative, attention-seeking dude with an A-list ego. After earning an Oscar nomination for the title song from the 1984 film “Against All Odds,” he complained loudly that he wasn’t asked to perform during the awards ceremony, and told a Rolling Stone reporter that Stevie Wonder, the eventual winner, received positive consideration “because he’s blind, black, lives in L.A. and does a lot for human rights.” (Collins went on to compare himself favorably to Bruce Springsteen, saying that everything Springsteen does “is typical of him. … But I think I have too many styles to single one out.”) And during the Live Aid benefit concerts in 1985, he managed to pull the most privileged-celebrity move in a field crowded with them, crossing the Atlantic by Concorde so he could perform twice — as well as duet with Sting, sit in with Eric Clapton and play drums for a reunited Led Zeppelin. After the Zeppelin show, which everyone involved seemed to consider a disaster, the guitarist Jimmy Page trashed Collins for being unprepared while Collins implied that Page was drunk and that Robert Plant wasn’t able to sing his parts.

Plenty of stars make such petty, indulgent displays, though. The bigger problem, for Collins, was an undercurrent of sentiment that began to grow during the ’80s: the perception that Collins was a rock star who couldn’t rock, and a pop star who was far too happy idling in the middle of the road. Catchy but contained, his music was beloved by people who didn’t actually listen to much music. And as a result, his songs were everywhere — along with close-up photos of his expressionless mug, which featured prominently on all his albums, posters and ads. It was hard to avoid hits like “I Missed Again,” which made feeble use of the legendary horn section from Earth, Wind & Fire. Or Collins’s slickly goofy version of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” which came off like well-intentioned glee-club karaoke. Even during the ’90s, his ’80s tracks remained a constant radio presence.

Some Collins-loathing went beyond the pale. The punk-era critic Julie Burchill is alleged to have called him “the ugliest man since George Orwell” and suggested that he looked like he had a stocking mask permanently pulled over his head. (Unfair — though it is notable that a balding, unfashionable chap with character-actor looks rode a music-industry push to stardom in the video era.) After Collins won an Academy Award for best original song for his work on the 1999 Disney film “Tarzan,” “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone aired a rudely hilarious spoof of the singer. (It may have been relevant that his song beat out “Blame Canada,” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”) And when Collins moved to Switzerland in the late 1990s — ostensibly to live with his Swiss-born wife — the Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher criticized him as a tax exile.

That’s where a 2011 Rolling Stone article found him: depressed, divorced and alone in Switzerland, his wife and kids having left him for Florida. He showed off a vast collection of memorabilia from the Alamo while ruminating on absentee fatherhood, alcohol abuse and his three failed marriages. (A report that he had ditched his first wife via fax, which he has strongly denied, still gnawed at him.) “I sometimes think I’m going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story,” he told the magazine. “Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom, and people will say, ‘What happened to Phil?’ And the answer will be, ‘He got murdered, but, yeah, anyway, let’s carry on.’” He added: “I’ve had enough of being me.” I distinctly remember paging through the story one night while taking a late-night subway home from work, and thinking: “Man, this is one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever read. Poor guy, maybe he did deserve better.”

Afterward, though, Collins decamped to Florida to be near his kids, moving into Jennifer Lopez’s old mansion and, eventually, reconciling with his ex-wife. These days, he’s even feeling spry enough to include new artwork with his album reissues: Each one features him recreating his cover pose from the original. What happened to the “I’ve had enough of me” bloke? Despite the ongoing debates among music geeks — Is he an adroit drummer but banal songwriter? A puny singer but master melodicist? — the truth, as usual, lies between the extremes. And though it may get lost in the chatter, there’s one very good reason we care in the first place.

Ba DA ba DUM ba DOM ba DOM BOOM BOOM — that’s why. Track 1, first solo album: “In the Air Tonight,” and the drum fill that spilled through arenas for decades with its 21-gun salute of despair and defiance. The song’s cavernous, brooding atmospherics somehow encapsulated and suffused the ’80s: druggy mania and comedown; sex laced with fear and death; capitalism tickling your fancy and burying you up to your neck; the almost cartoonish specter of global annihilation; technological unease; white suits; fluorescent everything; and an unquenchable, cinematic emptiness that either evoked the end of history or a dodgy batch of cocaine. It was sublimely disorienting, a mirror image of the times.

Virtually everything you need to know about Phil Collins’s importance and his persistence within pop culture — how he managed to influence music from M83 to Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” to chillwave to tropical house to Rihanna’s “Anti” — can be found within “In the Air Tonight.” The man nailed a moment precisely: the ’70s’ transmogrification into the ’80s, and the bewilderment that ensued. And he teased us with something more, somewhere in the murk.

The sound is ingenious, nodding to Collins’s work with Brian Eno. A Roland CR-78 drum machine burbles out a pillowy, plip-plop rhythm under an ominous wash of analog synth chords. We wander through a blighted dreadscape with the singer, a man bitterly betrayed by love’s “pack of lies” — in this case, Collins is writing about first wife, Andrea, who left him in 1979. He glares into the void, chanting — “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord” — sounding both adrift and methodical, and nearly possessed. But what’s coming? He says that he has “been waiting for this moment” for all his life, but what moment is he talking about? Is he seeking revenge, or just to be released from the spiritual anguish of abandonment? It all remains elusive.

That showstopping tom-tom detonation — now known as the “magic break” — derives its impact not just from brute force, but also, like most pop-music revolutions, from a mistake. When Collins accidentally played his reverbed drums through the microphone that producers use to talk back to musicians in a studio, the result was a startling ka-pow, which the producer Hugh Padgham heightened by suddenly “gating” (cutting off) the sound to achieve a dizzying effect; it’s like being rocked by a jab that flicks out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. There’s technological invention all over the track: Collins’s voice was run through a gizmo called a limiter, its parameters carefully set so his words seemed to slide in and out of focus. He also used a vocoder, at times, to sound even more like an unearthly soul.

Just as crucial, the magic break gets its power from arriving more than three minutes into the song — right around the point when we would typically be subjected to a clichĂ©d sax-solo lap dance. Seemingly out of nowhere, the drums hit like a hail of plastic bullets, and the chorus is cut free to ascend to yet another stage of emotionally wrecked spectacle. Considering the era, it’s hard not to imagine millions of wayward wastrels inhaling their last bits of powdery lint in an attempt to join the swelling wave. In the video, Collins’s face distorts into glowing, jagged yellow, pink and green shapes on a teal background, as if passing through a hazy neon portal; it’s no surprise that the song has played over more than one film scene set in the decadent ooze of a strip club or the queasy blur of streetlights at night.

“In the Air Tonight” was a power ballad in a fresh and different sense. There were no screaming guitars or baroque piano or swooning strings, like in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Instead, the song sneaks up and overwhelms you with a rippling emotional force guided by synthesized, alien sounds. Perhaps people make fun of it reflexively so they don’t have to endure that process — see, for instance, the air-drumming shtick so often adopted by fans, and memorably spoofed by a guy in a gorilla suit for a 2007 Cadbury ad.

Granted, Collins dined out on this creative breakthrough for the rest of the decade, occasionally recapturing the same bleakly dramatic magic. There was the desolate stadium cry of “Against All Odds.” The mournful, pulsating resignation of “Take Me Home.” The dark, soul-pounding empathy of “Man on the Corner” (with Genesis), or the twinkling, almost baleful meditation “Long Long Way to Go” (featuring Sting). His pop hits could contain hints of the same cleverness — as on “Sussudio,” when he remade a sharp, up-tempo Prince groove with his own dorky bravado. But none of it makes a case for his career like that single track, or even that single drum fill.

Collins clearly went after stardom full-bore, but even he could tell when he had become overexposed — his management eventually asked MTV to play his videos less. Still, this guy who could’ve passed for a pleasant-enough cabdriver infiltrated our mass consciousness forever, as the unlikely ’80s reference point for decadent temptation and gnawing regret. Maybe he didn’t find that feeling he’d been waiting for all his life, but it’s still lingering in the air, 35 years later. — Charles Aaron | NY Times

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