Phil Collins had a rather unlikely solo career. Not just a solo career, a monster career apart from Genesis.
Taking over the microphone from Peter Gabriel in 1975 started Collins on this journey. It was just a matter of time until he left Genesis, which spelled the end of the band. The two decades Collins led Genesis were the most successful for the band, and when Collins left Genesis, his own career had peaked creatively.
In the late 1970’s, after he took over lead vocals, and Steve Hackett departed the band, Genesis and in particular Phil Collins, learned to write pop songs. Genesis was a progressive rock band, and while they never completely gave up the style, they focused on a shorter and more commercial sound. Their first pop song was “Follow Me, Follow You” from And Then There Were Three. Massive success ensued.
Once Collins got comfortable with the changing direction of Genesis, he began writing his own music. Collins was not a skilled piano player, but synthesizer technology evolved so that Collins began to write on the keyboard, and he had a lot to say, as he was going through a divorce. His first album, Face Value (1981), was a very personal statement, and ended up a massive hit with the signature single “In the Air Tonight.”
Much like Peter Gabriel, Collins developed a unique sound of echo and atmospherics that became the model for 1980’s production techniques. “In the Air Tonight” is a great introduction to his sound. Collins was quick to introduce horns to the mix and layers of processed keyboards and percussion.
In Genesis, Collins sang background and had the lead on one song, “More Fool Me” from Selling England By the Pound (1973). When Peter Gabriel left for a solo career, Collins wasn’t the immediate choice for a lead singer but it seemed like a good idea. A hundred plus million albums later, still a good idea in retrospect. A very different personality than Gabriel, Collins was more about the music, less theatrics, and making the music more accessible to audiences.
It was hard not to know about Phil Collins in the 1980’s as his popularity exploded. Collins followed Face Value with Hello, I Must Be Going (1982), No Jacket Required (1985), …But Seriously (1989), Serious Hits Live! (1990), Both Sides (1993), Dance in to the Light (1996), Testify (2002) and Going Back (2010).
Both Sides was his last strong album although his sales were slowing down considerably. He also found time to work on animated film soundtracks like Tarzan and Brother Bear.
In the 1980’s, Collins was everywhere. Solo albums, Genesis, albums produced for other artists (Philip Bailey, Eric Clapton, Frida, John Martyn), film roles, Live Aid, playing with Robert Plant, Howard Jones and others. When he wasn’t recording, he was touring. And MTV played him around the clock.
“Around the time that the music was being played so incessantly people wanted to strangle me. It’s hardly surprising that people grew to hate me. I’m sorry that it was all so successful. I honestly didn’t mean it to happen like that!” he said in an interview with The Telegraph.
By the time his solo career and Genesis cooled down in the mid 1990’s, people were sick of Phil Collins. He won every award possible, sold 150 million albums and was incredibly rich. Even he seemed aware of of the backlash of his exposure.
He disappeared for awhile, he raised a family and then got divorced again, had health issues, toured with Genesis one last time, reunited with his ex-wife, wrote his life story, re-released his solo albums with bonus songs, and went back on the road in 2017, solo. He’s not drumming anymore, age and degenerative issues ended that part of his career, but his son is behind the drum kit now. His body is so damaged that he sits and sings.
While he was in Genesis, Collins was also in a jazz-fusion band, Brand X. They released a series of very fine mostly instrumental albums, and the group is still active today.
In the mid 1980’s, Collins wrote a song used in a film, Against All Odds, which was a big hit and nominated for an Academy Award. Nominated songs are performed during the telecast, but Collins wasn’t asked perform it, not famous enough they said. So they asked a Broadway actress to sing it, who most people didn’t know and the performance was not good. Ironically, Collins was the most famous person of the 1980’s not named Prince or Bruce Springsteen.
David Bowie famously described some of this 1980’s life as his “Phil Collins years,” a derogatory reference to what Bowie identified as his do the work for the money and exposure, not the creative significance.
Another interesting tidbit about Collins, he has a deep interest in the Alamo. At one point, his personal collection of artifacts was in the hundreds of items. In fact, he wrote a book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey (2012) detailing his collection and the history behind those items. He eventually donated his entire collection to the State of Texas.
Pop star autobiographies are often difficult to read, the whining and self-adulation get sickening. Not Dead Yet, is a good read. Collins is fairly honest about his life and career, and admits to most of his failings. You get the feeling that fame and success came at a pretty high cost, and that he’s spending the last years of his life more humbled and free from the constrains of stardom, and he’s focused on trying to be a better person to those around him.