Tag Archives: Peter Gabriel

Collins, Phil

A few years ago, I wrote about some of my musical guilty pleasures. Included on that list was the band Genesis. I’ve had Phil Collins on the brain for a few weeks now, and I’m not sure why. Then last week I read an article about how he’s planning on playing at the opening ceremonies of the US Open at the end of this month. It’s a big deal because Collins has all but dropped off the face of the Earth these past few years. The reason for this has varied, depending on who you ask: Collins can’t hold drumsticks anymore due to a crippling back/nerve issue, he wants to spend more time with his family, he’s near death after years of substance abuse, and he’s so rich he doesn’t need to perform or record music anymore. But the biggest reason given for his extended absence from the spotlight–he got sick and tired of all the criticism.

This leads me back to my post from 2012 on my Top 5 Guiltiest Musical Pleasures. Genesis made the list, but why? It’s wasn’t because of their bizarre and sometimes beautiful early prog-records with Peter Gabriel. It was because of Phil Collins. I grew up on classic rock radio and Collins’ work with Genesis and his first few solo albums were in heavy rotation back in the 1990’s. Even today, his biggest songs like “In The Air Tonight” are played almost as often as FM staples like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California.” Growing up, Collins and Genesis never struck me as particularly cool nor did they strike me as uncool. This was not the case among my peers. I had a friend in Junior High who used to get teased mercilessly because his mother was a very, very big Phil Collins fan. I liked this guy a lot, but there were so many other things about him people could make fun of, so why was his mom being a Phil Collins fan such an issue?

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Is this the face of the most hated man in popular music?

I have two theories about why people hate Phil Collins so much. The first is that Collins was simply just too damn successful. The ubiquitous nature of his music during the 1980’s and early 1990’s made people sick of him. The same reasoning can be applied to The Eagles, who also have gone from beloved to hated by the culture at large. Getting over-played on the radio isn’t the band’s fault, but the listening public can only take so much before a backlash begins. Modern radio with its limited song rotation certainly did nothing to help either Collins or The Eagles. By playing “Life In The Fast Lane” 50 to 100 times a day, people got sick of The Eagles. Likewise, Collins was overplayed both as a successful solo artist and as a member of Genesis. Collins was a double-threat releasing hit songs by himself and with Genesis, though many people might have trouble telling them apart, especially near the end of both his solo career and his life with the band. Collins became a symbol of the old guard, his success was so great he became locked in an ivory tower. This made him the perfect target for the younger bands emerging in the 1990’s who showed real disdain for him (specifically Oasis, who were merciless in their public criticism of Collins).

The second reason Collins has become so hated has to do with Collins the artist. Phil Collins has two modes: mindless pop and painfully earnest sincerity. People can handle one or the other, but when an artist tries to exist in both worlds people start having problems. A good example of this is “Another Day In Paradise.” The song was written by Collins at the end of the 1980’s and tackles the issue of homelessness. It’s a serious subject, one that is undercut by the fact that it’s being done by a millionaire who made his fortune off of bubblegum pop like “Sussudio.” Collins tried to make both serious art and product, essentially trying to exist in two different boxes. This was something that people simply couldn’t reconcile. Making matters worse, a large swath of the listening public finds earnest sincerity fake when it’s attached to a smarmy-looking millionaire.

But none of this is very fair to Collins, is it? After all, it’s not his fault that he was so successful. And it’s not his fault that he’s able to make simple pop music and music with a bit more weight behind it. I don’t think the man’s career is unblemished (it isn’t) or that he hasn’t recorded more than a few stinkers (he has), but I do think the level of hate for Collins is simply disproportionate to his contribution to popular culture. Even if you don’t particularly like him or his music, you can’t help but admit that “In The Air Tonight” is an interesting, cool, song. In fact, I can’t think of another song that’s like “In The Air Tonight” that became a massive hit.

So I’m removing both Genesis and Phil Collins from my list of Guilty Pleasures and instead owning the fact that I like a large portion of the music he’s created. There’s been a sort of ironic appreciation of his career over the past few years, but I want it to be known that there is not a drop of irony in my love for Phil Collins. Human beings are petty, sometimes jealous creatures, and my guess is we needed a whipping boy. I’m sorry that person had to be Collins, but at least he seems to have been able to take it. Imagine someone like poor Morrissey saddled with a Phil Collins-level of public malice! He’d have thrown himself under a bus or train decades ago. I suspect that there are more than a few people placed in that awkward situation of secretly liking something that’s seemingly universally despised. If you’re such a person, my recommendation to you is to cast off the shackles of conformity and own your opinion. Unless you like Nickelback, in which case you’re not right in the head.

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“Home By The Sea” Is A TWILIGHT ZONE Episode Written By Genesis

Genesis has always been a guilty pleasure for me, but a pleasure nonetheless. I’m not sure how you feel about Genesis, but I have an odd fascination with the band. In fact, I think I love them. It’s not like I really had a choice in the matter, I grew up in the 1980s thus the band is encoded in my DNA. My love for the sappy, syrupy Phil Collins-era eventually led me to the darker, stranger stuff generated in the 1970s when the band was led by Peter “Shock the Monkey” Gabriel. I can (and do) defend a lot of bands, but Genesis has always seemed indefensible, even to me.  Having one of the periods most famous drummers and then using the then-fashionable drum machine on your records? Egregious.

But amid the  puppet music videos, the drum machines, and embarrassingly earnest love ballads, Genesis never really stopped being a prog-band at heart. Even long after Gabriel had vanished from the band Genesis would tuck weird (and lengthy) progressive rock songs onto their albums. These songs no doubt confused the average pop fan who bought their records for the radio singles. Worse, however, these progressive artifacts always seemed to bring the band’s albums grinding to a halt (even though many of these songs are quite good). I find it interesting that a faction within Genesis fought the good fight to keep the band weird even as they were churning out mega-pop hits like “Invisible Touch.”

"Spoooky"

“Spoooky”

As the 1980s wore on, Genesis evolved away further and further from Gabriel’s version of the band replacing his cold theatricality for Collins’ affable charm. And yet, even as they basked in the neon glow of the mainstream (read: MTV), the band continued to make strange music that the public enjoyed.  I’m not 100% sure, but I have the feeling that the majority of people consuming Genesis’ music were oblivious to the darker nature of some of the bands output. I am no exception. The best Genesis songs, in both the Gabriel and the Collins era, are the ones that strike a balance and perfectly merge the band’s bizarre oddball sensibilities with more mainstream pop music. For my money, the best peanut butter and chocolate mix of the two sides of Genesis is the 1976 album A TRICK OF THE TAIL, which was the band’s first post-Gabriel album. If you find the Phil Collins stuff to be too poppy and the Gabriel stuff to be too stuffy/overblown, I implore you give A TRICK OF THE TAIL a listen. It’s the best album the band ever released, mostly because Gabriel was gone and Collins had yet to fully commit to being a pop idol.

Anyway, a few months back, I became obsessed with “Home By The Sea” off the band’s 1983 album GENESIS. For most people, myself included, GENESIS is the record where pop finally won out over the progressive side of the band.  I always remembered if for it’s pop hooks.  It was these same hooks that led me back to reevaluate the album. After hearing “That’s All” on the radio for the 10,000th time, I gave GENESIS another listen.

It was just as I remembered. The album is loaded with hooks, but among the tracks one stood out. “Home By The Sea” isn’t just a good song for this period of Genesis, it’s a good song period.  It’s so good, I found myself humming it all day long. I hummed it while brushing my teeth, driving to work, making a cup of coffee, riding in an elevator, and staring up at the ceiling while I waited to fall asleep. In short, I was haunted by the song.

Home By The Sea cover front

The more I thought about the song and the lyrics (the ones I could remember) I realized that despite being catchy, “Home By The Sea” is a dark, strange song. I decided to read the lyrics and re-listen to the song. When did, I was immediately struck by something incredible: “Home By The Sea” is a fucking Twilight Zone episode! Well, not really…but kinda. The song is about someone sneaking into a house, presumably with ill intent, and getting accosted by ghosts!

“Coming out the woodwork, through the open door

pushing from above and below

shadows but no substance, in the shape of men

round and down and sideways they go

adrift without direction, eyes that hold despair

then as one they sigh and moan”

These ghosts are lonely and force this person to stay with them as they relive their lives. The song talks about pictures coming to life and while it all could be a metaphor for holding onto the past (or growing old), on the surface this is a creepy ghost story of a song.

“Images of sorrow, pictures of delight

things that go to make up a life

endless days of summer longer nights of gloom

waiting for the morning light

scenes of unimportance, photos in a frame

things that go to make up a life.”

I’d heard this song on the radio countless times over the years growing up and none of this had ever occurred to me. During my re-listen of GENESIS, I discovered that the song is actually part one of a two-part suite of songs, the other being “Second Home By The Sea.” That second half is a fantastic near-instrumental (Collins sings a bit of “Home By The Sea” at the very end) that adds a sense of grandeur to the ghostly tale. Combined into one, “Home By The Sea/Second Home By The Sea” is over 11 minutes long which probably explains why it is broken apart (which feels like label interference). But taken as a whole I find these songs to be incredibly powerful.

It’s important to remember that this song(s) appears on the same album as “Taking It All Too Hard.” I can’t think of a greater tonal shift than the leap from “Home By The Sea” to “Taking It All Too Hard.” Sure, the songs don’t appear back-to-back, but the fact that they inhabit the same album is very strange. Not ghosts coming out of the walls strange, but strange nonetheless. That GENESIS reaches such sublime heights while also spiraling so low seems like proof that the band isn’t very good. However, I actually think the opposite. I think it takes real talent and chutzpah to be both on both ends of the creative spectrum on the same record. Straightforward radio pop and a mini-prog suite about ghosts? Amazing. Like something from The Twilight Zone. 

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Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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“Who” by David Byrne & St. Vincent

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I heard that David Byrne and St. Vincent had gotten together and made an album.  I just knew that I had to hear it.  A few months back I got on a Talking Heads-kick, so I was interested to find out if Byrne still had it.  And my it I mean: a propensity for the tasteful, the odd, and the tastefully-odd.

The Talking Heads were cultural anthropologists masquerading as a strange-sounding band.  It’s kind of a miracle to me that they were even popular in the 1980’s.  When I was revisiting their hits like “Burning Down The House,” “Wild Wild Life,” and the sublimely weird “Once In A Lifetime*,” I was struck by how un-pop The Talking Heads were. That they played on the radio along side Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen is utterly amazing to me.

Surely, I thought to myself before listening to “Who,” old-man Byrne has mellowed with age. Well fear not purveyors of all things freaky, David Byrne is still really strange.  I don’t really know much about St. Vincent except that she’s an indie-darling with a weird name who’s supposedly a really good guitar player.  Instead of being the chirpy song-bird I thought she was, I discovered that St. Vincent is more of a mysterious siren (color me curious about her solo-work).

Byrne and St. Vincent’s future so bright…they gotta wear shades.

The first song on LOVE THIS GIANT, “Who” is also the lead single.  It’s a daft and loopy number,  built almost entirely around horns and thumping drums (so much for St. Vincent’s guitar work).  Lyrically, “Who” is a series of semi-profound questions posed by Byrne, which is beautifully answered a single chorus from St. Vincent: “Who is an honest man?” It’s brilliant, catchy, auteur-pop that reminds me of fellow 80’s-freak Peter Gabriel’s solo-work.  LOVE THIS GIANT is a fantastic collaborative effort between the two artists, but “Who” is Bryne’s baby.  This one wormed it’s way into my heart, give it a listen and see if it doesn’t do the same to you.

Turns out Byrne still has it.  

*A song that I desperately need to analyze in a post all-to itself.

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