Both have come to stand as the holiday season’s starting pistol. Now, we’re knee-deep in the December action, full of days and nights we’ll exhaustedly troll through shopping malls and sidewalk shops to buy wool sweaters, crime novels or Star Wars Lego sets. But, since I don’t ever purposely partake in either of the aforementioned days, I don’t recognize them as the entrance to the season. I actually wait for a specific sound, one that’s scored Christmas shopping trips since 1984. What noise?
It's the thud of Phil Collins’s foot on the bass drum pedal to introduce Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”
Every year, that thunderous stomp earns another point for the vexing legacy of Phillip David Charles Collins. No recording artist over the past forty years may be more polarizing than ol' PC. By some, he’s recognized as a triple-threat: not only one of the most successful solo artists in pop history, but a scratch prog-rock drummer and legendary frontman. By Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, he’s considered the Antichrist. On one hand, he unexpectedly saved Genesis after the departure of Peter Gabriel. On the other, he made the movie Buster. For every “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” “Abacab” and “In The Air Tonight,” there’s an “Easy Lover” and “Jesus He Knows Me.” His tremendous multi-tasking on Gretsch drums and signature vocals? The Herculean confidence he’s instilled in the male pattern baldness community? It’s all been swallowed by the video for “I Can’t Dance” and Christian Bale’s maniacal fandom in American Psycho.
This is an absolute injustice, and it’s one we’re all reminded of every year—right before Paul Young creeps to the mic for Africa.
Should there even be a debate about the accomplishments of a guy who, if you type “Phil” into Google, is automatically your first search option? Debate about a gentleman who, along with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, is the only recording artist to ever have sold over 100 million albums as a band member and a solo artist? Should I have to rush to the defense of a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member who unleashed such classic songs as “Misunderstanding,” “I Missed Again” and “No Reply At All” on the world? And, should there be even a sliver of conflict concerning a guy who unintentionally provided eighties theme music for sleek dudes sporting the t-shirt-suit combo?
Defending Collins’s case is frustrating—and personal—for me. For one, I proudly own multiple Phil Collins and Genesis albums. I also used to own a 32-ounce red plastic mug from his solo But, Seriously World Tour. It featured Phil's face and autograph under the rim, and dutifully served as my keg cup at St. Bonaventure University in the late nineties. (I found the cup in my parents’ basement in 1996. To this day, no one can vouch for where it came from, thus leading me to assume it was a gift from God.) Finally, I tried to convince my wife to choose Genesis’s “Follow You, Follow Me” for our wedding song. This didn’t happen. Her reasoning? She thought that our wedding guests would assume we chose the song as a joke.
Did Collins bring this heat on himself, or is the unraveling of his credibility completely unjust? History would indicate a little of both.
No one held Phil Collins at gunpoint and made him record “Sussudio.” I assume he was at least partially involved in the decision to fill most of Genesis’s late catalogue with mandatory keyboard solos. Though he was not contractually obligated to do so, he still agreed to the freaky, rubber puppets used in the Genesis video for “Land of Confusion”, as well as a solo career filled with dramatic, weepy numbers about rain or divorce. And, in looking back at his past fashion choices, he probably didn’t need to treat the eighties like every day was a country club's dress-down day. Those pictures and bits of film of him rocking the sweater vest-khaki combo haven’t aged too well.
But, is it fair for the guy’s indispensable musical contributions to be buried under artistic sins that pale in comparison to ones that haven’t foiled other accomplished artists? Absolutely not. Paul McCartney’s feathered mullet, fashion vests and “Silly Love Songs” didn’t unravel his work with The Beatles. Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery and sleepovers didn’t erase the greatness of Off the Wall or Thriller. Elton John spent nearly the entire eighties and nineties burying his incendiary seventies work under a pile of adult contemporary and Lion King songs, yet he now boasts knighthood. Phil Collins? He records the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Tarzan and he’s publicly (and acceptably) raked over the media coals by the writers of South Park.
No matter what makes sense, this subjective treatment will continue because, for some reason, it’s fashionable. Alec Baldwin-led television shows will land hilarious Collins-related jokes, albeit at Phil's expense. Wiry hipsters will make uninformed, humorless jokes inside record shops and subway cars. Frat brothers will drunkenly flail about to mimic the epic snare break of “In The Air Tonight.” After, they’ll high-five, laugh, quote lines from The Hangover, then vomit into a kitchen sink.
Unfortunately, the man whose genius is behind these drunken imitations isn’t coming back to defend himself. Due to a combination of frustration, suicidal thoughts and a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, he’ll never get behind a drum kit again. His legacy will continue to stir debates in which both sides think their opinion should stand uncontested. But, no matter what side you’re on this holiday season, at least respect the role Phil Collins serves for so many fans of the greatest Jesus-themed, Bono-hijacked holiday effort ever recorded.
Every year, his percussive brilliance lets us all know it’s Christmas time.