Phil Collins’ career gets a new view on Plays Well With Others
For those who’ve spent decades tirelessly defending Phil Collins’ musicality against his detractors, the box set Plays Well With Others offers the opportunity to definitively declare, “This is what I’m talking about.” But it does so by taking a unique approach to chronicling Collins’ history.
It’s difficult to go on at length about the bum rap Collins’ early solo albums perennially receive from those desperate to dismiss the former Genesis frontman as eternally unhip without starting to sound too much like the “Sussudio”-loving yuppie from American Psycho. But over the course of its four CDs, Plays Well With Others circumvents that argument entirely, by focusing on Collins the drummer instead of Collins the singer/songwriter, and spotlighting his supporting work for other artists instead of his own albums.
The set includes only a handful of tracks Collins cut under his own name, and he doesn’t even step up for a vocal until the last song of the second disc. By emphasizing Collins’ woefully under-appreciated instrumental prowess, Plays Well With Others makes it briefly possible to forget his reign as one of the premier pop stars of the ‘80s. And while his solo albums (not to mention Genesis’s post-Peter Gabriel records) could well be cherry-picked for a convincing anthology, there’s something more interesting and unexpected about examining Collins through this particular lens.
A crucial part of Collins’ musical identity is his status as a prog pioneer. In his long tenure as Genesis’ drummer and eventual vocalist he did as much to advance the cause of progressive rock as anybody. But as the first disc of Plays Well shows, his achievements in that regard weren’t limited to his Genesis output. He was already on that track with the post-psych/proto-prog sound of his pre-Genesis band Flaming Youth, as heard here on the 1969 single “Guide Me, Orion.”
On cuts by founding Yes guitarist Peter Banks, Argent, and Robert Fripp, Collins’ command of odd meters, drastic dynamic shifts, and complex polyrhythms proves him to be on a par with Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, or any other first-gen prog drummer. And the finesse of his jazzy side begins to emerge on fusion tracks by British jazz-rockers Brand X, with whom Collins took an extended busman’s holiday in the second half of the ‘70s.
Collins was on hand for the shift from straight-up prog to idiosyncratic art rock as well, as evidenced by his presence on groundbreaking cuts by Brian Eno, John Cale, and Peter Gabriel. And on the Gabriel tune “Intruder” and Frida’s 1982 hit “There’s Something Going On,” we witness the birth of another Collins signature, the distinctive, larger-than-life sound of the gated-reverb snare that was an innovation before it became an ‘80s cliché in others’ hands.
Everybody knows Collins’ R&B influences came to the fore in the early ‘80s both in Genesis and on his early solo outings, but here his soulful side comes out on ‘80s tunes by Chaka Khan, The Isley Brothers, The Four Tops, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey. Meanwhile, 1986’s “Angry” finds Collins’ manic beat pushing Paul McCartney into impressively unhinged-sounding new wave territory at a time when Macca was mostly mired in typical ’80s overproduction.
It would be disingenuous to deny that things start to get a little iffy by the third disc of Plays Well With Others. Part of it was simply the times — in the ’90s, even legends like David Crosby and Quincy Jones were sometimes mired in soupy MOR production, and Collins’ collaborations with the aforementioned titans reflect that unfortunate circumstance. Nobody walks away clean from a session with smooth-jazz stars Fourplay or Italian pop crooner Laura Pausini. And Collins’ team-up with Lil’ Kim for an update on “In the Air Tonight” is exactly as appealing as you’d guess.
Happily, things pick up on the set’s fourth and final disc, which concentrates on live cuts. Though it’s peppered by performances with classic rock gods like Eric Clapton and George Harrison, it offers a generous taste of Collins’ jazzier inclinations, as he ably accompanies Tony Bennett on “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” and lays into effective big-band adaptations of “Stormy Weather” (with Quincy Jones) and Weather Report’s “Birdland” (stepping into some big shoes with the Buddy Rich Big Band). And playing against his typecasting, Collins puts down an impressively funky groove on an extended big-band version of The Average White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces.”
Admittedly, those who’ve already established their prejudices against Collins as a purveyor of saccharine pop — and there’s no denying he’s produced his share of that — will probably be unwilling to have their perceptions of his career expanded. But for anybody else, Plays Well With Others is a fascinating alternate history of a superstar whose greatest gifts have sometimes been hidden in plain sight.