Phil Collins: His Greatest (Drum) Hits

The prog and pop-rock giant is also an underrated rhythmist of power and panache. 

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Collins does his best Ringo in the mid-1960s. Credit: Ron Howard/Redferns.

Genesis went against all odds — and ended a decade-plus of rock-journalist pestering — by announcing a reunion tour with their multi-Platinum trio lineup. They just got the timing wrong: Precisely one week after Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks detailed their first shows since 2007, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, leading to inevitable postponements and mass disappointment. (Dates in Ireland and the U.K. have been pushed to begin mid-September.) Then Collins’ name trended for another bummer reason — a painfully public romantic split.

Some critics already love dragging the man’s name through the mud. Depending on your source, he’s either the face of prog-rock excess or a sellout more interested in Disney cash-grab balladry than genuine pathos. With Collins turning 70 on Jan. 30, it’s a perfect time to counteract those negative headlines and reframe Collins around musicianship, particularly his most essential skill: drumming with elite power and panache.

While few argue the merits of rock giants like John Bonham or Keith Moon, you rarely hear Collins mentioned in the same breath. Some writers, and even other musicians, have praised Collins’ playing defensively. “I love his drumming and I’m not afraid to admit it,” Mastodon’s Brann Dailor once noted, as if that opinion would be controversial. “As Genesis’ drummer I think he’s phenomenal and not really talked about enough. He’s just such a great, well-rounded drummer.”

That versatility — being as adept at symphonic prog (early Genesis) as he is breezy pop (solo), jazz-fusion (Brand X) or even ambient avant-garde (his multiple sessions for Brian Eno) — is rooted in Collins’ gleeful childhood love of all things rhythmic. As he recalls in his 2016 memoir, Not Dead Yet, he started bashing around on an “infant’s plastic drum” at age 3, and graduated two years later to a makeshift, homemade kit assembled from poles, biscuit tins, a triangle and a tambourine.

As a kid, Collins absorbed whatever music he encountered. In the evenings, he’d often play his ramshackle set along to variety shows, holding court in the living room of his family’s West London home. By age 12, hyped by the full bloom of Beatlemania, he convinced his mother to split the cost of his first proper kit — a purchase that changed the trajectory of his life. “[I would] sit there, endlessly, drumming and drumming and drumming, positioned in front of the mirror,” he wrote. “This is part vanity, for sure, but it’s also part learning. I’ve watched Ringo Starr with ardent fascination, and if I can’t sound like him, maybe I can try to look like him when he plays.”

Starr’s influence would prove crucial: While Collins was an exponentially better technical drummer, he clearly soaked in the Beatle’s knack for percussive hooks, adorning vocals and riffs with memorable fills. The most obvious example remains his monstrous, out-of-nowhere tom flourish on his atmospheric 1981 anthem “In the Air Tonight,” a pattern so ubiquitous it’s now a near-cliché. But that talent is even more evident when you dig deeper into his catalog, particularly the later Genesis years, as he prioritized tone and texture over bombast on arena-sized cuts like “Man of Our Times” and “Mama.” These are ultimate pound-your-steering-wheel songs — not as virtuoso-friendly as, say, Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” but equally memorable.

Collins’ jazz sensibility — most evident on his flashy, fusion-y early work with Brand X and mid-’70s Genesis epics like “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” — became more muted over the years. But most drummers, even his god-tier contemporaries, recognize the craftsmanship of even Collins’ simplest stuff. Rush’s late drummer, Neil Peart, was inspired by his sensitivity — how he reacted to the piece in front of him, instead of trying to press his thumbprint all over a track. “His rhythmic patterns were woven into the intricacy of the music, while lending a smooth, fluid pulse to the songs and extended instrumentals,” Peart wrote in a 2011 article for Rhythm magazine. “His fills were imaginative and exciting, alive with energy and variety, while the refined technique was always in the service of the music. Even within those fills, Phil applied a jazz drummer’s sense of dynamics.”

“Plus,” he wrote, “his drums sounded so good.”

And that’s a key point. Collins’ kit was always engineered with laser precision — from his booming toms and crisp ride cymbals on Genesis albums like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to the innovative gated-reverb style he employed on a variety of ’80s projects, including Peter Gabriel’s third LP. That latter sound was omnipresent in the decade, defining an entire generation of pop recordings; think of Max Weinberg’s cracking snare on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” or the pummeling toms in Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.”

These days, “gated” is an integral setting on recording software, and it remains a go-to sound for producers aiming for the uncanny. (Tegan and Sara’s “Faint of Heart” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “When I Needed You,” both conjuring the neon era, are two obvious examples.) You could even argue that same point for Collins’ drum-machine work: The stripped-down pulses on “In the Air Tonight” and “Take Me Home” are instantly recognizable, partly because they’re so pristine.

That’s part of the reason you can often spot a Collins cameo without checking the liner notes. He never forced these signature sounds — he came by them organically, much like a kit made of biscuit tins.

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