It’s easy to love Phil Collins but collections like this sometimes make it a little hard to defend him.
Phil Collins has undergone at least three major transformations in his musical life. He started as a hard-hitting drummer who had the power and finesse of John Bonham, the adventurous spirit of Cozy Powell and the chops of Bill Bruford. From there, he became a hit-maker who sometimes did more drum programming than actual drumming, and though he’d already stood out in front of the kit for much of the 1970s, he became an even more prominent frontman during the 1980s. In the ‘90s, there was little trace left of Collins’ hard-edged past. By then, he was a soft balladeer whose records sometimes sounded as though he’d recorded them at a level intended not to wake the children. The material, at its worsts, veered toward schmaltz. Then he kind of faded away.
Except he could never really be gone long. He’d crop here, there and wherever he damn well pleased because, well, he’s Phil Collins. But he has yet to recapture that mainstream cool he once exuded. Attempts to rehabilitate his image have come close. There are those who clamor for an unlikely Genesis reunion while others shout the star’s glories as a rhythm-maker, producer and singer who could write impossibly catchy songs. Plays Well with Others follows the arc of a career that begins with real danger and ends with songs familiar (and safe) you could play them for the Queen. Which is exactly the point: this is primarily Collins the Sideman (and producer).
The first disc, chronicling 1969-1982 gives some quick lip-service to turns with original Yes guitarist Peter Banks, scrambling over to one with late James Gang/Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin (the delicious “Savannah Woman”), before frolicking with Brian Eno (“Over Fire Island,” “No One Receiving” and “M386”) and getting down to some flash and fury with Brand X (“Nuclear Burn,” “…And So to F…”). There is also evidence of his relationship with Robert Plant (Collins and Cozy Powell were the former Led Zep man’s picks for drummers on his solo debut, Pictures at Eleven, represented via “Pledge Pin”) and one track culled from John Martyn’s achingly beautiful Grace & Danger (“Sweet Little Mystery”).
It’s Martyn who, maybe more than anyone else, Collins seems to fancy here. Collins lent his talents to Grace & Danger while tracking his own solo debut, Face Value. Both men were in the throes of divorce, swimming to the bottom of a bottle and finding great friendship with each other. It’s hard to say that their friendship maintained those heights. When Collins stepped in to produce his pal’s 1981 set, Glorious Fool, the results were less than Promethean. Their friendship and collaborations would endure all the way up to Martyn’s final hour, circa 2009, with results that are frequently delightful.
Elsewhere there are cuts from former ABBA member Frida (“I Know There’s Something Going On”), turns with Paul McCartney (“Angry”), two with Stephen Bishop and some time spent with Philip Bailey (alas, no “Easy Lover”). This marks the time when Collins was an in-demand producer, enough so that at one time Def Leppard reportedly pitched him the idea of producing the LP that became Hysteria. (For those who have been seeking some way to add Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” it’s here.)
By the time Disc Three enters the picture, we’re entering in era of decline. The final Collins-led Genesis LP, We Can’t Dance is represented via the middling “No Son of Mine,” which found the prog/pop titans sounding a little worse for the wear. By then, all sorts of extracurricular activities were competing for creative energies. The good but highly polished David Crosby cut “Hero” is a nice reminder of how good the pair sounded together and how good they might sound again, while “In the Air Tonite” with Lil’ Kim is largely unnecessary.
The set closes out with a series of live performances that span 1981-2011. Collins’ delivers a gorgeous “In the Air Tonight” for the Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (tracking that 1981 LP with performances from Sting, Donovan and Jeff Beck with Eric Clapton is well worth the effort). He sounds fine backing the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton and George Harrison on various well-worn numbers, including “Layla,” but by the end, the bloom is off the rose.
That’s not entirely Collins’ fault, but rather the tendencies of the company he kept. Hits can paint an artist into a corner and thus the one billionth airing of a Clapton classic seems as necessary as John Lydon mentioning that he was a Sex Pistol. The package never quite gets to the level of revelation, and one imagines that had it been split into two different comps—one examining the obscure turns, another exploring the mainstream—the results might be more satisfactory. It’s easy to love Phil Collins but collections like this sometimes make it a little hard to defend him.