Phil Collins: The Unmistakable Man
by Fred W. Gretsch
Considering the enormity of Phil Collins’ success as a solo artist in the 1980s and 90s, it might surprise some people to learn that he first came to musical prominence as the drummer in an equally successful band almost a decade earlier. That band was Genesis, and their unique brand of early progressive rock was powered by Phil’s innovative style and unmistakable sound.
Phil joined Genesis in 1970 for their third album, Nursery Cryme, and he went on to help catapult the band to international fame. His drumming combined a great feel (based heavily on his love for groove-based ’60s soul music) with quick footwork, uniquely effective accents, and burning fills that left drummers shaking their heads in amazement and admiration. When original lead singer Peter Gabriel left the group in 1975 Phil stepped out front to take Gabriel’s place. His drumming chores on live performances were taken over first by Bill Bruford and later by Chester Thompson, but Phil continued to provide the dynamic drumming on all Genesis recordings throughout the band’s lengthy career.
Phil also holds the distinction of having created and played what may be the most universally recognized drum fill in the history of popular music: the classic descending-toms break in his mega-hit “In The Air Tonight” (from his 1981 solo album Face Value). That fill alone—probably the most air-drummed of all time—sets Phil squarely in the pantheon of drumming greats. And although not many people know it, Phil played drums on the famous Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which spent the early weeks of 1985 at the top of the charts and has been a holiday staple ever since.
Throughout most of his career Phil performed his dynamic drumming on a Gretsch drumkit that was, to put it mildly, different from the kits of his contemporaries (and remains so to this day). First off, it was a “lefty” kit, owing to Phil’s left-handedness as a player. Next, it featured a bevy of single-headed rack and floor toms that produced the deep, powerful attack that contributed to Phil’s trademark sound. Phil tended to sit low, so the kit seemed to surround—and nearly obscure—him as he played. But his talent and creativity—and the kit’s Great Gretsch Sound—always commanded his audiences’ attention.
Sadly, health issues led Phil to retire from drumming in 2011. Fortunately, recordings and videos of his playing with Genesis, with other performers, and as a solo artist abound today. Those recordings serve as a testament to Phil’s personal drumming prowess—and his contribution to drum history itself.
Phil On Display
A full-concert clip from 1973 documents Genesis’s early incarnation as a progressive/“art” rock band, largely due to the theatrics of singer Peter Gabriel. But it also showcases Phil Collins’ contribution to the group’s seminal sound.
By 1987 Genesis was a very different group, with Phil out front on vocals. But he always returned to the drumkit at every show, as on this live concert from England’s Wembly stadium. Check out his drumming duet with Chester Thompson about 3/4ths of the way through the show.
The original “official” video for Phil’s 1981 super-hit “In The Air Tonight” seems a little dated today…but the classic drum fill sounds as powerful as ever.
An absolutely fabulous full-concert clip of Phil playing with a crack band in Paris at the height of his solo career. Phil opens the show on drums, and later participates in a terrific drum feature with second drummer Ricky Lawson and percussion great Luis Conte.
On Phil’s “First Farewell Concert” tour in 2004, Phil and Chester Thompson performed a dynamic drumming duet that must be seen and heard to be believed.