Monday, March 23, 2015

It Don't Matter to Me

I'd already liked Phil Collins—if you were a fan of mainstream rock in the early 80s, that was almost inevitable, to some extent, and if you were also a fan of pop, it was a foregone conclusion. Genesis was hip but not too popular or poppy yet; they had a handful of hits on both Top 40 and classic rock radio, although probably nothing that went back more than four or five years, so the overkill and backlash was still quite a ways off.

What's more, I was a drummer, so while I was sorta kinda offended by a drummer who left his post to prowl enemy territory (i.e., the front of the stage), and was not nearly as blown away as seemingly everyone else by "In the Air Tonight"—drum machine? heresy!—I loved his style and his chops. His voice was likeble, maybe a bit slight but with a bit of soul, and his self-deprecating humor delightful. Not to mention he had a way with melody, and I'm a sucker for melody. Boiled down, Collins wanted to be a funkier Beatles, like the Fabs + Stevie Wonder, with maybe just a hint of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and damn if that doesn't sound like one hell of a great recipe to me.

So I liked him. I liked his first solo album and I liked the Genesis albums Duke and Abacab. But what really pushed me over the edge into full-fledged fandom was this song.

First, the horns. I loved horns. I loved horns. I was already a huge fan of Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton and other guitar-oriented musics, but horns in a pop song? Guitars were the nouns, drums the verbs, bass the adjectives, but horns were the punctuation. Question marks, commas, exclamation points, m-dashes, ellipses, even the oh so often misunderstood semicolon. Necessary, sure, but even more than that, they made the sentence, the song, come alive.

But even more, in this case, was Collins' drumming. I already heard him play more complex stuff, songs in 7/8 and 9/8, and later I'd hear much more technically impressive stuff from his stint in the fusion band Brand X. But his use of syncopation here blew my little white suburban mind. So casual, so assured. His use of ghost notes and moving the expected 1st note on the snare forward from the 2 of the measure to the e of the 1 just thrilled me. I had no idea you could do that!

Now, if I'd listened to more funk, I'd already have known that, of course. And while cultural appropriation is something of a hot topic these days, I give props to Debussy for introducing the gamelan to a wider audience, rather than criticizing him for not inventing Balinese music. I applaud David Bowie's efforts to spread the gospel of the Velvet Underground, both through covers and from utilizing their advances in his own songs.

Either way, the drums blew me away, both the syncopation and the musical stings and stabs—the way his drums play with, in and around, the vocal and the horns is just delightful. The snare is the most obvious, but his hi-hat work is fantastic, subtle and ever changing, using different shades, opening it, sometimes only slightly, in unexpected places.

It was amusing to later find out that the Phenix Horns, the horn section of the mighty Earth, Wind & Fire, found Collins' music some of the most challenging they'd ever played, largely due to his unconventional use of horns and odd phrasing, as well as his inability to write or read notated music, but listening to him put them through their paces here it shouldn't have been a surprise.

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