Another Side of Phil Collins

Phil CollinsThe 2016 expanded reissues of Phil Collins’ solo back catalogue and his tentative return from rock retirement seem finally to have prompted something of a reassessment of the man and the music. He has perhaps profited from being largely out of the limelight this last decade; in the Eighties he seemed to provoke hostility through his sheer workaholic ubiquity, with a constant stream of solo and Genesis hits, acting roles with spinoff soundtracks, and radio-friendly duets. Then in the Nineties his nice guy persona was badly tarnished amid an alleged whinge regarding future Labour governments and tax (misreported, he maintains), and highly publicised recriminations around the demise of his second marriage.

“They say that time is a healer”, sang Phil on a Genesis hit, and it seems that now he is coming to be appreciated as one of the finest drummers ever to pick up sticks, as an innovative and influential producer and pioneering exponent of the drum machine, and a man with high-grade pop melodies and hooks effortlessly coming out of his (now drum-damaged) ears. His first solo album, 1981’s Face Value, has long been regarded as a classic, not least for ‘In the Air Tonight’, unquestionably one of rock music’s key tracks. Though his omnipresent, ballad-heavy output acquired an increasingly slick, mainstream sound, there are moments to admire on the titanic multi-million sellers, 1985’s No Jacket Required, and …But Seriously from 1989. But if, by his own admission, brand Phil Collins had by then become a freewheeling juggernaut and the product somewhat bloated, the album which followed draws a line under those peak years while simultaneously offering his most compelling material since the debut.

I was a youthful fan of Phil Collins’ music, drawn in by its unforgettable, atmospheric use in the TV show of the decade, Miami Vice. The Collins-fronted Genesis at Knebworth in 1992 was the first big live show I went to as a young teen. Yet I passed on the album Both Sides when it appeared the next year, having now turned to classic, vintage, more “credible” acts in my adolescent musical self-education. But like an old football team you still keep an eye on, I followed its prospects and covertly enjoyed the extracted singles. As it happened, the story around Both Sides became impossible to ignore the following year when news broke of the extra-marital passions which had inspired its key songs. The attendant media feeding frenzy whipped up something of a public backlash against Collins, who paradoxically had previously been judged rather too affable – no wonder he took to resurrecting early classic ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ (“You won’t catch me crying cos I just can’t win”) in live shows of the time.

There are several angles, indeed, sides, to Both Sides which made, and make it, an intriguing artefact. The first is the image of Virgin Records execs at its first corporate airing with their heads in their hands as they realise their golden goose has just made his very own Tusk, his Nebraska, even (we’re talking relatively) his Metal Machine Music . The second is – I hold my hand up – a natural, prurient curiosity about the personal turmoil which it records. And the third, more happily, is the nature of the music itself; this is, with a few upgrades, in essence an album of Phil Collins demos, and is all the better for it. Sticking with the 12-track home recordings which had previously been a jumping off point, its arrangements are unusually modest, keyboard-based (largely using the same few synth pad, fretless bass and lead sounds) and with a preponderance of his trademark drum machine programs. There’s not a horn section, or an Eric Clapton, in sight. It is – if you will – Phil Collins naked, and the result is actually rather beguiling.

Indeed, the title Both Sides is an allusion to his dual role here as writer-singer and one-man band. But it also fits with an intent to address both personal and political concerns. The two examples of the latter, the lead single ‘Both Sides of the Story’, and ‘We Wait and We Wonder’, are perhaps the least convincing lyrically. ‘Both Sides of the Story’ paints a series of scenarios; a down-at-heel vagrant needing a hand up, a set of warring parents disregarding their small children, a Balkans-type inter-communal conflict and so on, only to offer in each case the rather lame insight, “we always need to hear both sides of the story”. It’s hardly Noam Chomsky. Meanwhile ‘We Wait and We Wonder’ is an impassioned condemnation of the recent IRA bombing of Warrington which had left two small children dead. But here Collins fails to heed his own advice; the other side of the story, namely hundreds of years of malign British policies which had fanned the ongoing Irish troubles, is not considered. Nevertheless the sentiments are sincere, and, frankly, at least he’s trying – who nowadays even seeks to address anything that goes on outside the boutique or the boudoir? And in any case, the music’s good; ‘Both Sides of the Story’ is a somewhat stripped-down take on Collins familiar mellow-synth-chords-meets-clattering-drums formula, with a nicely tumbling verse melody and rousing harmonized bridge vocals. (This opening track and much of what follows also recalls the stylings of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album, a similarly pared-back and reflective work.)  And ‘We Wait and We Wonder’ opens with a suitably martial drumbeat and weirdly catchy bagpipes motif, leading into a uptempo, stately yet sparse epic built on dramatically unresolved piano chords, with an insistent sequencer pulse driving the tension where once a session rhythm guitarist might have been. To this listener at least, it’s unfathomably stirring, invigorating even.

But it is the candid, confessional ballads which are the heart of the album. As anyone who has sought to vent or wallow over some bad breakup or unrequited love surely knows, few people do love and heartbreak like Phil Collins. (Even the unimpeachably authentic indie troubadour Elliott Smith reportedly relished commiserating to the unabashed melodrama of ‘Against All Odds’.)  But if ‘One More Night’, ‘Do You Remember’ and the like offer the generalised sentiments of a standard, these ballads are of a different stripe. In interviews around the album’s release, no doubt to head off the inevitable speculation, Collins was insisting that his marriage remained solid. But within months the truth was out; he had fallen hard for an old flame he’d encountered again during the recent Genesis tour. If then-wife Jill hadn’t already had her suspicions, a cursory listen to her hubby’s latest batch of songs should have had her on the phone to the lawyers. What could Phil possibly be hinting at when he sings, “The perfect love was all you wanted from me, but I cannot turn back the years”?  Or, “Still I love you, but this fire inside will never see the light of day”? Or, most tellingly of all, “There are places that you know you should not go, but some bridges just won’t burn”? This guy had clearly fallen off the happily married wagon.

In this context, the minimal sound of the second track, ‘Can’t Turn Back the Years’, its intimate, uninhibited home-recorded vocal, its rawness of execution and emotion, is captivating. “People are hurting and they’re looking to me, and I look at you, there’s nothing more to say, it’s too bad I love you” laments Phil resignedly, with only a synth wash and slow-ticking drumbox for company. Then comes ‘Everyday’, opening with a beautiful, seemingly improvised piano meditation, dissolving into what might appear to be a slushy Collins ballad of old. But it’s still that bit more subtly and sparingly rendered, more authentically lovelorn, and the sentiments that bit darker:  “It seems my life’s worth nothing without you”. Still, its irresistible lullaby-like chorus made it an obvious choice of single. I hazard a guess that Collins had been admiring label mates The Blue Nile’s masterpiece Hats when conceiving Both Sides; the slow, elegiac ‘I’ve Forgotten Everything’ certainly echoes its yearning, bittersweet romanticism, its slowly soaring dynamics and cinematic synth textures. Never the most flowery of lyricists, Collins’ simple lines here have been improvised in the moment, a foggy stream-of-consciousness musing on love and memory; they are effective and affecting. Elsewhere, ‘We Fly So Close’ flies rather close to being a retread of ‘In The Air Tonight’ but is distinguished by evocative classical guitar figures, atmospheric sounds of wind and rain, and (it now appears) a warning-to-self on the looming danger of infidelity: “Sometimes we fly too close”.

Not all of Both Sides is ballads, though most tracks are slow-to-mid tempo, and defiantly drawn out. ‘Can’t Find My Way’, which as befits its title is a track not so much dark as pitch black, is laden with dry, slow-grooving percussion and recalls the eerie ‘Thru These Walls’, from before the bigger production values set in. ‘We’re Sons of Our Fathers’ begins with a charming Hillbilly romp of banjo and brass, before morphing into a leisurely, poignant reflection on an ageing man’s bemusement at the contemporary world. Its sentiments sometimes come close to those reactionary anecdotes of when coppers gave kids a clip round the ear and you could leave your doors unlocked, and twenty years ago I might have dismissed it in such terms, but in my late thirties its depiction of a new and unknowable generation amid changed times begins, regrettably, to have resonance. “We’re all sons of our fathers”, sings Phil, “Sometimes I feel like mine, and I can hear him say the things I say, seems all things come around in time”.

With its disavowal of short pop tracks and glossy arrangements, it’s no wonder Both Sides met with a cooler reception from the music industry and, in turn, the public. Collins had been a fixture at the high end of the US Billboard chart, but ‘Both Sides of the Story’ and ‘Everyday’ stalled in the mid-20’s, while in Britain the third single ‘We Wait and We Wonder’ failed to make the Top 40 (though it was still to be heard on commercial radio, suggesting that, like Phil, its programmers couldn’t quite give up an old love). These things are, of course, relative; the album still sold several million around the world and would have represented a career high for many artists. And regarding its perceived inaccessibility, we are, after all, still talking about Phil Collins – a man who couldn’t write a tune that didn’t have a tune if his proverbial life depended on it. Songs which at first appear listless and meandering, such as two other, more conventionally romantic ballads, the jazzy ‘There’s a Place For Us’ and closing ‘Please Come Out Tonight’,  reveal their hooks in time; it just takes a few more listens.

Both Sides initiated a commercial decline for Phil Collins, but one which ironically may have served him in the long term. Always the avowedly un-guilty pleasure of the US R&B and Hip-Hop fraternities, he is now being namechecked by lo-fi, hipster indie acts too, while sympathetic media coverage of his reappearance suggests some media handwringing over past treatment. Amid this resurgence Both Sides, understandably a personal favourite of Collins himself, is being recognised in some quarters as a high point, a heartfelt, unvarnished (in all senses) and rather bold album. For me personally, it was a mixture of angst and nostalgia – the themes of many of its songs – which drew me to it in time, and I attest that it reaches parts other Phil Collins albums don’t reach. To paraphrase the man, you really need to hear Both Sides.