Phil Collins – Face Value

Genesis drummer stands on his own two feet

A lot of Phil Collins’ music has been much maligned over the years, to the extent that many critics have taken a somewhat scorched earth policy when it comes to his albums, which might seem a little unfair if one considers that Phil is actually a pretty nice bloke.

Collins’ work in the Peter Gabriel era of Genesis established him as a drummer’s drummer, one of those genuine quiet achievers, happy to allow lead singer Gabriel to dominate the limelight as the group’s flamboyant frontman.

But when Gabriel departed from the band in 1976, in the aftermath of what could be described as their most accomplished and ambitious album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the remaining members, rather than call it a day, decided to carry on, with Phil eventually, and reluctantly adopting role as lead singer in the process.

But he didn’t limit his talents to Genesis alone, turning up on albums by Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, John Martyn, Peter Gabriel, and most interestingly, jazz-fusion outfit Brand X. With such a busy schedule, unsurprisingly it wasn’t until 1981 that Collins finally got around to issuing his first solo LP, the eclectic, and now, somewhat dated, Face Value.

In 1979 Collins’ wife filed for divorce, which is around the time when sessions for the album began, before ending in 1981. Initially the last thing on his mind was the idea of embarking on a solo career, since Genesis was all he really knew. That is until Virgin offered him a recording contract, convincing the drummer to begin sifting through the various tapes he felt were perhaps too personal for public consumption.

The LP opens with “In The Air Tonight,” arguably Collins most well-known composition. What makes it work so well is the sense of tension, broken only when Collins hammers the skins in a moment of cathartic glory, allowing his drums to say what his voice cannot. Ballad “This Must Be Love,” with its soft synthetic textures, a la Eno’s Another Green World, reveals Collins willingness to break with tradition.

Both “Behind The Lines” and “The Roof Is Leaking” might not have seemed out of place on a Peter Gabriel album from the same period, with whom Collins’ vocals bear a remarkable resemblance. “Droned” is another Enoesque number, and a delightful one at that – all flickering piano and showy violin courtesy of Shankar. It’s certainly unique, as far as Collins’ canon is concerned.

Side one closes out with the rousing, synth-driven “Hand On Hand,” featuring the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section nonetheless, who manage to give the tune a joyous, tropical holiday flavour, as if the listener had just landed in the Caribbean, or some other sun-drenched, carefree location.

The downward slope begins on side two, where Collins tends to go into cruise control. The Earth, Wind & Fire horn players are once again employed on the radio-friendly “I Missed Again” (also featuring Ronnie Scott on Tenor sax) and “Thunder And Lightning,” another bit of banal AOR, as is super ballad “You Know What I Mean,” a song, despite the earnest sentiment, is practically decimated by Arif Mardin’s overcooked string arrangement.

The melodically funky “I’m Not Moving” is little more than lightweight filler, while “If Leaving Me Is Easy” is easily the side’s best song, and serves as a sort of bridge between early Genesis and the then nascent new wave. But it’s his cover of John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which closes the album that will perhaps confuse most listeners. Where the original charged along like some Buddhist Monk being harangued by a swathe of hungry seagulls, Collins’ version merely lingers amidst a sluggish whirlpool of synths, horns, voices and other extraneous noises.

Despite the seemingly indulgent cover, Face Value remains an extremely personal document by someone clearly staring into the abyss, at least on the first half of the record. And while not exactly a masterpiece, Collins’ debut allowed him to establish an identity beyond that of Genesis, in ways perhaps not even he could have imagined.

While Peter Gabriel pushed ahead like the Sir Walter Raleigh of progressive-rock, exploring new worlds and foreign cultures, Collins was far more humble in his ambitions, though no less brave when it came to adventure.