February 19, 2018

From the Vaults: Phil Collins


     For some strange reason, I can’t for the life of me pass up a book or an article about a fellow drummer.   The music trade magazines specifically aimed at drummers (Drummers World, Modern Drummer) will occasionally catch my eye, but after beating the skins for more than a half century, a lot of their ‘how to’ features are more technical than I need to read at this point.  Don’t take this to mean “he thinks he is so good, he doesn’t need to get better”.  One can always improve, but later in this piece, you will get a better answer as to why I am not big on learning new techniques.  Biographies by drummers (ghost written or self penned) like Peter Rivera (Rare Earth, Classic Rock All-stars), Woody Woodmansey (Spiders From Mars, U-Boat), and John Densmore (The Doors) were a fun read because no matter how famous a drummer may become, they all pretty much start off in the same place.  My latest read about Phil Collins (Not Dead Yet – The Memoir Three Rivers Press 2016) underscores my previous statement.

    Now, one could read, “The egotistical jerk is now saying that he is in the same league as Phil Collins,” into this, but that isn’t my intent.  Although we are similar in age and both nearing retirement (actually, Phil retired in 2010 and only recently returned to performing on a very limited basis, but more on that later), it isn’t the end of our careers where I found similarities.  As I said above, drummers all pretty much start off in the same place.  The path one takes to forge a life and a career has many twists, turns and forks in the road.  What fascinates me the most is how some careers are stumbled upon in a most random way and others are almost predetermined by the drummer himself.  Oh yes, we are also mostly deaf in one ear from the same type of viral ailment.

    We better start with a brief checklist of our differences just to make sure you don’t get us confused.  Phil Collins:  A left handed British drummer who dropped out of public school and played the Artful Dodger in the musical Oliver! before cycling through a number of bands.   He decided he was good enough to make a living as a jobbing drummer, but only if he could get in the right band.  Me:  A right handed American drummer who got started playing drums in elementary school with the idea of joining the marching band before convincing my parents that I needed a full drum set to be able to play in a band.  I eventually realized I was good enough to work my way through college as a working drummer but probably not good enough to make it a career.  We certainly didn’t take the same fork in the road or end up working in similar vocations,  We are separated by a cultural void, yet have made it to this age with fifty years of playing music in common.   I can understand exactly the thoughts and emotions PC was experiencing as his career unfolded even though his career nearly killed him.  

    Phil was given a toy drum at age three and his uncles made him a set out of a wood frame, some cans,  a tambourine and other assorted things he could pound on.  He spent a lot of time playing along with the musical bits on the telly.  His mother ended up working as a talent agent for child actors, eventually helping found a school for the performing arts that allowed young Phil to escape regular school while pursuing acting.  His first band was formed with fellow students at the Barbara Speakes Theatrical school.  He went on one call and ended up as an extra in the Beatles’ first movie A Hard Day’s Night, only to end up with his scenes during the Beatles concert footage cut (perhaps he didn’t scream enough?).  His first major part in Oliver! (also played by future Monkee Davy Jones who took his part all the way to Broadway) lasted until his pre-teen voice broke and he was unceremoniously dumped from the show.  He did some minor acting turns, even returning to a more adult role in Oliver! much later, but he began to lose interest in acting while plotting how to become a full time drummer.

    By the time he had cycled through a few different groups, he managed to gain a foothold in a group that would be taken under the wing of two successful songwriter-producers by the names of

Howard and Blaikley.  They changed the band’s name from Hickory to Flaming Youth and assigned them to record a futuristic rock opera about people having to leave Earth called The Ark.  It did modestly well and the band was well received, but as the album sank from sight, so did their prospects.  At age 19, he was called to a session at the fabled Abbey Road studio based on a limo driver he knew mentioning his name to someone looking for a percussionist for a session.  Getting a call to work at the same Abbey Road studio that the Beatles had made famous was just too good to be true, so Phil Collins, jobbing drummer, jumped at the chance.

    As luck would have it, the session was with George Harrison and producer Phil Spector who were in the midst of George’s first non-Beatle album All Things Must Pass.  With Ringo drumming on his right and Billy Preston playing keys on his left, Collins did his level best to play the conga drums for the tract The Art of Dying.  When the session evaporated, the limo driver was left to tell Phil they had gone to watch football.   Phil was left wondering how he did.  When All Things Must Pass came out as a triple album, Collins couldn’t wait to hear his contribution.  Not realizing that the recording process often involves many takes and variations of tracks, he was disappointed that The Art of Dying track include on the now triple album was not the one he worked on.  Not only that, his name was nowhere to be found in the credits.  He spent many years trying to convince himself that he wasn’t cut out of the album because his playing wasn’t up to par.  

    As Collins worked on his musical career, his family more or less slid out from under him.  His father was disappointed that he didn’t want to get a real job in at the Assurance company where he worked just as he had done at his father’s direction.  Oh, the elder Collins had run away and joined the Merchant Marine for a short while, but Phil’s grandfather had to talk some sense into him and put him on the track to a career in Assurance.  Phil’s parents drifted apart and his older brother and sister eventually moved on with their own families, leaving Phil on his own at the family home in Hounslow.  Hounslow was at the end of the line, literally, in terms of train travel so going to the West End of London was a chore yet he worked the circuit and kept his ear to the ground looking for the next opportunity to be a drummer.  The rest of the family was supportive, but Collins was only 21 when his father passed away.  Young Phil would never know if his father came around to thinking that being a drummer could be a proper job.

    Once I convinced my folks that I was going to be a more dedicated (drum) student than I had been as a piano student, they got me a plastic red sparkle snare drum.  Satisfied that I could now play a drum to my hearts content, they must have been horrified as they watched me watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and declare that I would need a drum set to play in a band.  Having started banging on the bottom of an upturned waste paper basket to accompany my dad’s harmonica playing, the red plastic drum was supposed to be the next and last step.  Both mom and dad were supportive and eventually agreed that if they found the right deal, a drum set would be a possibility.

In April of 1966, at age 12, I found myself sitting behind a silver sparkle set of Ludwig drums that were just like Ringo’s, save the finish on his kit was Black Oyster Shell.  Dad decided we needed a new stereo with an extension speaker in the basement so I could practice along with records.  Dad suggested I needed to grow my hair longer so I wouldn’t look like the drummer on Lawrence Welk.  The two years Dad worked for NMU security, he would bring home notices off the campus bulletin boards for bands looking for drummers.  Unlike Phil, I had plenty of parental support from both my mother and my father.

    Phil discusses his attempts to learn how to read music.  In his grand plan to become a jobbing drummer, he was eyeing work in pit orchestras on the West End theater district.  To do that, he would have to learn to read music but he kept putting it off.  It turns out, he had ‘quick ears’, meaning when he heard a piece of music, he could pick it up instinctively.  Once he picked up the part, he wouldn’t have to follow the score.  When he tinkered with the piano in his early songwriting days, he found he was somewhat limited by not being able to read music, but yet it somehow left him free to break the rules because he didn’t really know what they were.  He never did learn to read music, but then again, he was able to forge ahead and did fine without it even when scoring Disney productions like the Broadway musical Tarzan.

    When I read this, it kind of put into perspective why I failed as a piano student.  I was slow  sight reading piano pieces, but once I hashed through them, replicating the songs could be done from memory.  Playing from memory meant I really didn’t dig into getting better at reading music.  When I transitioned to drum lessons in fourth grade, the same thing held true.  Once I heard a piece, I could play it by ear.  The rudiments (the way certain drum strokes are supposed to be played) would not be correct, but the sound of the piece would be correct, more or less freeing me from the tedious task of getting better at reading ‘real music’.  The piano definitely helped me reading the drum scores, but things like marimba and tubular bells were not percussion parts that

I was comfortable tackling.  Fortunately for Phil Collins, he was able to use his limitations to his advantage as a songwriter. Me, not so much, but it never stopped me from enjoying playing music a long time after my high school band career ended.  When I was asked to play in several versions of our community band, it took some woodshedding to get my drum score reading chops back, but it was also fun to go back and remember my high school band days.

    Where Phil Collins and I really separate is on the homefront.  I have been happily married to my wife Christine for some thirty eight years.  We have enjoyed living the small town life and seeing our kids grow up in an environment that let them experience a lot of music, art and culture, in spite of living at the ‘end of the road’.  Phil Collins’ marital road has been somewhat rockier.  His life on the road left him with three failed marriages, five children and an girl friend of eight years after he and his third wife divorced.  He found himself trying to hide in the bottom of a bottle, a problem compounded by mixing some heavy duty meds as he fought several serious health problems .  He finally came to the sobering conclusion that he was killing himself and that his children would soon be deprived of their father.  The longer version would take another segment to tell, so we will wrap this up by with a few bullet points:  Phil Collins did indeed sober up, reunited with his third wife while keeping the peace with his other ex-wives and he has retained a good relationship with his five children.  He physically does not have the stamina to play the drums at this point and he really isn’t interested in getting back on the road.  Happily, he is fine with his current state of affairs as stated in the sub-title of his memoir:  “Not Dead Yet.”  Luckily, I haven’t had the health problems that have dogged Phil in recent years, but I have a similar answer when asked “how are you doing?”  My reply is always, “Well, I’m still here.”

Top Piece Video:  One of the most recognizable Phil Collins songs taken live from his First Farewell Tour in 2009.  It also represents one of his first attempts to write solo material and has been used a great deal in films, TV, commercials and so on for the last decade.