Saturday, November 14, 2009

"In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (1981)

We’ve got a bit of a double-feature this week, looking at the same artist at his very best and at his very worst.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Phil Collins isn’t one of the greats. In many ways he’s exactly what’s wrong with the music industry, in fact. Genesis in the 70’s, meh. And it wasn’t his band, anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s been Phil Collins’s dream to muck up R&B into chicken-dance music for retired old ladies ever since trying our for the Monkees, but spending the 70s in a band that had certain powers to ‘evoke’ led him in the 80s to intermittently feel obliged to continue putting out mood music, amongst the cheese. Both under the name “Genesis” and under the name “Phil Collins”. Let’s be frank: in the 80s it didn’t make a bit of difference which name was on the label, did it? The contents were interchangeable.

Apparently, Phil was getting a divorce. He was depressed. He was experimenting with his new studio. He was making demos. He improvised the lyrics and most definitely did not see a man drowning another man and most definitely did not train a spotlight upon said killer during a concert. Actually I can report to you a lot about what Phil Collins has said concerning this song. The reason, of course, why Phil’s spoken at such great length about this song is that it’s the only song reporters have ever wanted to discuss with him.

What, they were going to ask about that great horn line in “Sussudio”?

Have you ever heard of the phrase “suspension of disbelief”? This is, I believe, the correct way to listen to this song. Convince yourself that this is not the guy who slaughtered “You Can’t Hurry Love” or did that “I Can’t Dance” song. This is not a dodgy balding Conservative with one freak moment of glory. This is an absolute frickin’ genius. Lie to yourself. It’ll make it all better.

Concentrate on that amazing mood he constructs. The sparseness – the chainsaw guitars somewhere in the background, the drum machine casually trotting along like a person aimlessly tapping his pencil on a desk, the array of weird sounds over top. Concentrate on, get this, the majesty of Phil the vocalist: the thespian way he moves from quiet rage to white-hot rage. The way subtle effects like echo and vocoder come in and out of Phil’s vocal line to spice things up.

It continues that way for several minutes: tension, followed by more tension, followed by more tension still. Then, of course, like a famous story often told or movie often watched, we know what’s going to happen yet it still knocks us off our feet.

Phil, bathed in vocoder, grunts out the line, “it’s no stranger to you and me”, and then suddenly it happens. At exactly 3:39, the world temporarily comes to a stop for the single most glorious drum break in the history of recorded sond. It starts at 3:39 and is over by 3:42. Phil Collins earned his place in music history with precisely three seconds of music. But there’s no way to overstate it. No human can resist air-drumming at this point, as Phil Collins invents the best advertisement ever for drumming as a professional career.

But like I give a damn about technically impressive instrumentation. You won’t find any Yngwie Malmsteen on this list, and for good reason. The thing is that the drum break, and the eternal drum fill that follows, makes perfect sense in terms of the emotional weight of the song: it’s the explosive summit of a three-minute crescendo, a gradual increase of tension until it shatters stupendously into relief. Shakespeare could not have scripted it better.

Forgetting boring discussion involving Ahmet Ertegun and overdubs, Phil was dead brave to release this as a single. Radio was brave to play it. The public was brave to love it. It was an amazing moment when Phil suddenly looked like the Genesis member to beat, artistically.

And in history’s most lunk-headed move, he proceeded to follow it up with the faux-cheery “I Missed Again”, the first in a long string of grandma-rock ‘classics’.

But if you close your eyes and just wait for that drum break, you can picture Phil Collins as the coolest man in history.
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