"Taking things at Face Value" - The recently isssues Phil Collins remasters reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? As someone once said and indeed with the remastering trend already well entrenched within the record industry it did seem that perhaps Phil was like one of those silent movie stars who was holding out against the arrival of the “talkie”. Nothing could be further from the truth however, in Phil’s case. It isn’t as if he has not been busy over the years as his catalogue of work with Genesis, and his production work demonstrates.
However, it is his solo work that is the focus of the current round of activity with the release of the first two albums of the planned re-issues series. Wisely, in my opinion, the albums are not being released in chronological order but instead in pairs which serve to illustrate the variety of music which Phil has produced over the years. Hence, we have the coupling of Phil’s groundbreaking debut album: 1981’s Face Value, with the equally groundbreaking Both Sides from 1993 - a true solo album as Phil wrote and recorded it all himself!
But before we get ahead of ourselves, back to 1981 and Face Value. What can I say about the album’s opening track that hasn’t been said before? It is hard to imagine now just how much impact In The Air Tonight made back then but once again it makes a deep and immediate impression here with even more detail evident in the mix making it every bit as impressive now as it was back then.
This Must be Love and Behind The Lines are a delightful exercise in contrasts; the former a simple acoustic driven ballad with some beautiful harmony vocals from Phil and Stephen Bishop, while the latter made many a Genesis fan tear their hair out! Phil was right though, there IS a great dance tune in this Genesis classic - perhaps they could dance after all, eh?
The Roof Is Leaking is probably the album’s most underrated song. Is it prog? Well, I would argue the case for it being classified as such if only for the fact that it tells a story and does so damn well with one of Phil’s most plaintive vocal performances ever to be heard here. Prog with banjos? Well, prog is a very broad church so why not? Either way I simply love this one and it just gets better with the passage of time - I just wish Phil had performed it more often.
Droned and Hand In Hand have always been favourites - the influence of Brand X is writ large all over the former with its incessant rhythm and eerie violin work from Shankar leading into a much more sedate and tranquil Hand In Hand replete with the magnificent work of the Phoenix Horns proving that Phil was every bit as good at instrumentalisation as he was at song writing.
I Missed Again and You Know What I Mean once again demonstrate two different “sides” to Phil. The former an out and out homage to the great Motown sounds which were such an influence on him and here the horn section simply sound superb! The latter is the kind of poignant lost love song which only someone as masterful as Phil can make work lyrically without descending too far into bathos. Simple but effective piano playing from Phil give this one a true poignancy while the tasteful string arrangement of Arif Mardin takes the song to another level.
Thunder And Lightning is one of those tracks that simply doesn’t seem to fit on the album and even after all these years I still don’t really know why. There is nothing inherently wrong with the track, vocally and musically it is fine but there is an intangible feeling of incompleteness about it although it has to be said that the new mix brings even more detail to Daryl’s marvellous guitar solo!
I’m Not Moving and If Leaving Me Is Easy are two more prime examples of Phil’s understated writing style, the former is more than a passing nod to The Beatles, well it is to my ears anyway and that is no bad thing but If Leaving Me Is Easy is pure Collins all the way - a masterpiece of the songwriter’s art and a track which remains one of my favourites from Phil’s catalogue all these years later - no one says it quite like Mr Collins!
Closing the album with a Lennon and McCartney track was a surprise to us who heard it back in 1981 and the track still has the power to surprise all these years later. Not the obvious choice but then again,. Phil releasing a solo album in 1981 was something few of us expected but I for one am immensely glad that Phil did take the bold step to step out of the shadows and become his own man and if nothing else, this album will force a re-evaluation of Phil’s contribution to music something that is LONG overdue in my opinion!
For the anoraks among us, the bonus disc to this edition rounds up several live versions of tracks which demonstrate that the songs did indeed take on a life of their own in the live context. The demos here too serve to show just how far songs come from the initial spark that creates them. It is particularly interesting to have the chance to hear the original demos to Please Don’t Ask and Misunderstanding here and then contrasting them to their recorded counterparts on Genesis’ Duke album.
Twelve years separate Face Value from Both Sides and if a week is a long time in politics, then twelve years is a veritable lifetime. By the time this album was released, Phil was one of the UK’s most well known entertainers both with Genesis whose star was also firmly in the ascendant and as a solo artist.
The album’s opener: Both Sides Of The Story, is Phil at his most strident and his most angry but also at his most brilliant. Phil’s anguished vocal is every bit as emotive today as it was back in 1993. Lyrically too, this is an extremely effective song and proved once and for all that Phil was prepared to address subjects that many would have regarded as taboo.
Love and loss and regret are the big themes of this album and we all know the environment in which the album was put together but there are songs here which resonate on altogether different levels such as We’re Sons Of Our Fathers and We Wait And We Wonder The former in particular taking an evocative look at relationships between parents and children and examines the breakdown of family values something which is very much a fact of life these days sadly while the latter is a brilliant indictment of terrorism and once again, its lyrics are every bit as pertinent in today’s world of Al Quaeda and ISL as they were when originally written about the IRA and similar organisations - a brave thing for a musician to stick his head above the parapet and actually SAY something!
In between these are songs of a much more personal nature and I think now, with the benefit of hindsight, what made this album so much more hard to listen to back in 1993 was the sheer personal nature of its content. Somehow it felt like I was intruding in the confessional box at church! And it is that very intimacy of the songs which makes them so much stronger now.
Once again, the bonus disc to this edition gives us a healthy selection of live readings from the album which once again serve to show just how much power and majesty the songs gained in the live context as well as a handful of demos and here it is a delight to hear the previously unreleased Take Me With You, and I agree with Phil’s comments in the sleeve notes; this should have been on the album it is a classic! It is great too to have the chance to hear the unplugged version of Both Sides and Phil’s homage to the late great Curtis Mayfield with a respectful reading of I’ve Been Trying.
So there you have it, the first tranche of Collins material. For those of us who were “there” so to speak,the excellence of these albums will not come as any great surprise. Their magnificence and importance to UK music is already a given. That said, the new mixes have brought unexpected detail to light making the listening experience a genuinely new one once again which is always difficult to do with music with which one has such a degree of familiarity. There are a couple of caveats however. Fans and collectors know that there is a veritable treasure trove of demo versions in Phil’s archive and the selection here whilst fascinating, appears a mite stingy. The live side of Phil’s work is better represented although a real niggle for an anorak such as I is the lack of detail about the location and date for the performances that appear. In the words of Mr Collins himself.. Picky, picky, picky! And indeed, neither of these quibbles is sufficient to spoil the inherent enjoyment of these albums.
For new fans I am sure these albums will be a genuine revelation but either way, these albums and the rest of those yet to be re-issued will confirm Phil Collins’ position as one of the UK’s most important and influential musicians and songwriters of this or any other century!