Saturday, 23 February 2013

Phil COLLINS: Face Value



(#244: 21 February 1981, 3 weeks)

Track listing: In The Air Tonight/This Must Be Love/Behind The Lines/The Roof Is Leaking/Droned/Hand In Hand/I Missed Again/You Know What I Mean/Thunder And Lightning/I’m Not Moving/If Leaving Me Is Easy/Tomorrow Never Knows

When I wrote about Duke I mentioned that Collins was going to be this decade’s Rod Stewart, in that he is going to be present right through it and his artistic trajectory moves in a not dissimilar fashion. In the eighties alone he appears three times on his own, four times with Genesis and on any number of compilations in either capacity. He is Then Play Long’s top eighties rep reliable.

This being the case, Face Value, his solo debut, must count as his Every Picture Tells A Story; it is his best and most adventurous record and conveys the feeling of being put together for tuppence. Then again, that’s only a feeling; the gatefold inner sleeve may picture a desktop filled with workaday paraphernalia – track credits appearing as Post-It notes, numerous snapshots, including one of his two children, scribbled and crossed out rough notes that look like TPL drafts – but most of the pictures are of him hanging out in LA with or without his co-producer Hugh Padgham, and some are of his musical mates. If you’re able to hire Eric Clapton or the Earth, Wind and Fire horns then it’s presumed that Face Value, half recorded in LA and half in Goldhawk Road – the latter not far from Chiswick, where he grew up – cost rather more than tuppence to make.

Still, the album received excellent reviews at the time, and can best be viewed, as was part of the original impression, as a sort of magazine; flick through its pages and read features on widely differing subjects. Taking Fripp’s Exposure - on some of which Collins played – as a template, Face Value is laid out as a politely eclectic showreel; here, its author seems to say, is what I’m capable of doing outside Genesis, here’s what I have to offer.

The album was actually put together over a period of some eighteen months, beginning in late 1979. Collins had gone through divorce with his first wife and the moods this engendered are pretty evident on most of the record, though not all of it; the exacting slo-mo torture of “You Know What I Mean” and “If Leaving Me Is Easy” is offset by brighter portraits – inspired by his new partner – in “This Must Be Love” and “Thunder And Lightning.” There is no real attempt, as such, to tell a story; the aim is…well, that’s a good question.

In his 1982 NME interview with a sceptical Morley – reproduced in Ask: The Chatter Of Pop - Collins is eager to emphasise that he is not merely “commercial” or “trite” but is far too cagey yet at the same time too quick to jump to defend perceived attacks on his music and character. Thus no common ground is found, and a lot of mutual frustration is left in its place. He struggles to explain exactly what his audience would find so attractive and compelling about his music, but I think he might have been aiming at something like this: Face Value, although no one in 1981 knows it, will help define the sound, texture and gestures of what we might call the rest of the decade’s “hip MoR,” or “technologically advanced AoR” if that’s a little less ambiguous. It is a record of its time, yet made by and for people whose time stretches back beyond the eighties, possibly even back towards the sixties; those who believed, somewhere, that something was going to change, and when it didn’t, blamed themselves, and grew to hate the new stuff that came up and appeared to sneer at what they had believed and possibly still believed, and so needed something that sounded new but was also hugely reliable.

Likewise, the record’s main subject matter is quite unambiguously an adult one, a theme designed to be understood by adults of a certain age who had gone through something similar and could empathise with it. This was music for people who had, more or less, “grown up” with Collins’ music and now needed music that echoed the way they felt, given that their lives hadn’t perhaps turned out to be as good as they thought they would do back in 1968 or 1975.

It was a masterstroke to commence the album with its most extreme piece of music, and also have it be the album’s lead (and biggest-selling) single. As the 45 of “In The Air Tonight” peaked at #2 in Britain, I will again leave a more in-depth analysis of the record to Lena; suffice it to say that in the context of its album, it immediately sets an overall gloomy and suspicious tone, shows how well and how much Collins had learned from working with both drum programs and drumkit on Peter Gabriel 3 and is probably the best white soul lament masquerading as obfuscatory art-rock since “Whiter Shade Of Pale.” On Twitter, Rizzle Kicks recently compared the sudden drum onslaught midsong – still a shock, if you’ve never heard it before – to him coming downstairs in the morning (I thought of the equally startling drum avalanche that resuscitates the Raspberries’ “Overnite Sensation (Hit Record)”). Credit must also be given to the expressive guitar of Daryl Steurmer and, buried almost subliminally in the mix, L Shankar’s violins, as well as to Collins’ own drumming; on this song alone you can hear how and why he would appeal to hip-hop heads, from Ice-T downwards – not only are his beats big, but they are also non-obvious; on the album there is virtually no straight 4/4 playing – Collins listens and plays like a jazz drummer, always subdividing the rhythm or carefully playing away from the centre.

“This Must Be Love” is relatively upbeat, and yes, may sound like Steve Winwood beer commercials in years to come – but in 1981, this sound was not yet a cliché, was in many ways rather new. Nonetheless, I’m sure that the song’s cautious optimism wouldn’t have worked so well if it hadn’t been for Collins’ close collaboration with John Martyn on the latter’s Grace And Danger album in 1980; another record chiefly inspired by a messy and painful divorce – songs like “Some People Are Crazy” and “Hurt In Your Heart” make explicit what Face Value only, for the most part, implies – and there’s more than a touch of the Martyns about Collins’ own vocal (despite breezy back-up singing from Stephen Bishop, of “On And On” fame); witness the gulped, caught in his throat, “I’d” in the line “Happiness is something I thought I’d never feel again.”

“Behind The Lines” reappears, overhauled and completely reworked, from Duke, and the EWF horns and Alphonso Johnson’s bass help Collins achieve a certain swing that the original doesn’t quite reach, hence bringing out the song’s underlying exasperation more effectively. But “The Roof Is Leaking” is remarkable, this record’s “Mandolin Wind.” It’s winter, he’s stuck in a freezing house with cold kids; somebody else, “Our Mary,” has gone off with “her young man” to “the coast” (if they ever made it there), and “my wife’s expecting.” This house has been in the family forever, and the protagonist is dimly aware that they may die in it, but its windy emptiness puts me in mind of a fusion of the two manifestations of young misery of Dell Parsons in Richard Ford’s Canada; lonely in Great Falls, Montana, with a family that is about to pull itself apart – and with a twin sister who will go off with her young man to the coast – and lonely again in some godforsaken backwater of a no-horse town in Saskatchewan, freezing in his unwelcoming, unlit shack, still avoiding death. The song is dominated by Collins’ dour piano, although the middle eight perks up a little (“I’m getting stronger by the minute”) with the addition of Steurmer’s banjo and Jo Partridge’s slide guitar before being placed back into misery. Collins’ “But spring will soon be here” is met by a sudden stop, followed by a fear-filled whisper of “Oh God, I hope it’s not too late.” Throughout the song, crickets chirp in the background.

Collins knows that this song cannot really be followed, and so the rest of side one is given over to two linked instrumentals which take us on a pleasant whirlwind tour of the world; there the bayou, here African percussion and chants, now some Eno ambience, a touch of Orientalism, the horns of EWF, and as a culmination of sorts, an assemblage of children from various church choirs in Los Angeles – Lena assures me that this part sounds VERY LA – joined by Collins’ bright marimbas. Soundtrack music? British Airways commercial? Possibly, but Collins does convey some element of catharsis and release – although the careful listener will note that “Hand In Hand” ends with the same drum program, and indeed the same key, as “In The Air Tonight.”

Side two kicks off with the terrific “I Missed Again,” far more Motown than EWF (we decided that from that perspective, it would have to be done by Jimmy Ruffin, he of the Detroit School of Hard Knocks), and the seamless fusion of “black and white” or post-prog and soul, that Collins has maybe been aiming for all along. Brian Case had the misfortune to review the single for Melody Maker and crossly attributed the tenor solo to “some Gato Barbieri disciple”; it was Ronnie Scott. But this is the record’s most driving and exciting – and genuinely angry – song.

After that comes the brief but shattering “You Know What I Mean,” with the Martyn Ford Orchestra strings and Arif Mardin’s arrangement, a sort of “I Will Survive” in reverse, she comes back (“Just when I’d learned to be lonely” he muses), and he’s too tired and hurt to deal with it, or her. But he quickly blasts himself out of his corner again with “Thunder And Lightning,” complete with two Maurice White impressions in the intro. Steurmer does the guitar solo; Collins maintains “I never did believe in guiding lights” but really can’t believe his luck.

In the next two songs, though, he’s just been left on his own again; “I’m Not Moving” plays like a chirpy US sitcom theme (though that “if it hurts, don’t do it” cuts, as it was surely meant to do) – go on then, he says, go if you’re going, I can’t boss you around. With its vocoder doubling-up of Collins’ lead vocal, the song could have dropped off the end of McCartney II.

But on “If Leaving Me Is Easy,” he has indeed been left on his own, had his bluff called, and although there is a touch of Smokey Robinson about the lyric’s central conceit (“Oh sure all my friends come round, but I’m in a crowd on my own”), there is now only emptiness, and memories, and crushing, squashing guilt. He knew it was coming to an end and perhaps still refuses to believe it – he sings the song in the puzzled but emptied tone of the recently abruptly bereaved – and meanwhile, behind him, everything is quiescent, or in stasis; Clapton turns up on guitar, though you’d never know it, while the two warm EWF flugelhorns conjure up the old “That’s The Way Of The World” feeling; but, although both songs share an alto sax solo by Don Myrick, this song is very different from “After The Love Has Gone” – it seems more…terminal, as Mardin’s strings hang suspended in space, the nothing that ensues in the deathly pause after Collins’ “Just remember” signoff. Multitracked, high-pitched Collins voices reappear for the final fadeout – is he trying to do the Bee Gees, and if so, why do the sudden tempo displacements and use of echo make him sound like the immediate ancestor of “Moments In Love,” not to mention the songs that Jam and Lewis will be inspired, in part by this, to write, whether “If You Were Here Tonight” or “Come Back To Me”?

And so the record ends with a cover of a song by…John Lennon.

It wasn’t deliberate; the album was planned long before 8 December 1980. Yet its placing and tone suggest a tribute – one of the most difficult of Lennon songs to pull off as a cover (the Chameleons had a game go at it on 1986’s Strange Times, and the Eno/Manzanera/Monkman re-reading on 801 Live is mandatory listening) – and Collins is canny by playing it, effectively, at half the speed of the original, so the whirling monastic dervish is succeeded by a patient meditation. The effects of the original are retained – the EWF horns lurch in and out of the picture, backwards and forwards, in a way that pre-empts Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-A-Boo” by over seven years – but they are like debris orbiting around a central satellite. And where exactly have we heard that beat before, recently? As the kids from LA rejoin Collins at the song’s climax – “Of the beginning, of the beginning” – it suddenly becomes clear, even more so than John Giblin’s bass in the introduction, which presages his own work with Simple Minds a few years later – that Collins is remaking the song as an ancestor to, and double of, “Biko.” If the theme of weather patterns which has permeated through the whole record has been sustained, then this “Tomorrow Never Knows” suggests that the storm has been passed through, that the sun will now shine again – a feeling underlined by Collins’ own final, hesitant rendition of the first verse of “Over The Rainbow.” It is a feeling of hope, and one day, in the not-too-distant future, Collins will work with both Adam Ant and one of Abba, but Face Value, in its shoulder-shrugging “well, this is what I do, what do you think?” persona, suggests that Collins was, at least in 1981, still greatly capable of doing quite a lot and getting somewhere. How he manages to get through the eighties may be an adventure in itself; but I remember saying something similar about Rod, and at such a time.

Next: you thought we’d finished with the George Mitchell Minstrels?

2 comments:

MikeMCSG said...

Great piece especially the paragraph nailing his appeal. I think he was also helped by the fact some purchasers thought he was a new artist and didn't immediately connect the guy sat at a keyboard with his paintpot and the singer on a couple of well-spaced hit singles for Genesis.

My response to him has always been mixed. I like a lot of the dark ballads but the uptempo pop-soul stuff leaves me utterly cold. Unfortunately you'll be discussing quite a lot of that kind of thing in this decade.

Tom Albrighton said...

Brilliant as ever. I’ve already ‘shared’ my distaste for Rod and my regard for Phil, so this ‘Phil as 80s Rod’ theme leaves me deeply conflicted. In terms of audience, public profile, being consistently to the right of everything interesting going on musically, and a tiresome ‘what you see is what you get’ brand of southern blokeishness, there’s absolutely no argument. In Phil’s defence I submit his musical talent and range, his (relative) sincerity and his merciful lack of chauvinism.

‘In The Air Tonight’ sees Phil dipping his toe into the still pool of anxiety and paranoia that lies beneath all the best pop of this decade. It’s a lyric of unnameable ‘it’s: deeds committed and yet to be committed, or truths that turned out to be ‘a pack of lies’. Fitting, therefore, that the song should feature at length in that paean to eighties hollowness and dark-heartedness, Miami Vice.

For me, a key comparison for this album is Peter Gabriel 1 (‘Car’). Both are the urgent, eclectic unburdenings of men who, as yet, have yet to decide quite what sort of solo artist they will be. Another key Gabriel link is from ‘The Roof Is Leaking’ to ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Indigo’ on PG2 – two more acoustic laments from morose family men. Pete showed Phil how to break free from Genesis, but Phil showed Pete that, in terms of lyrical emotion, top solo artists had to play with real money.