Phil Collins: How I learned to love the Dad of Dad-rock

This is the story of how, against all odds, I learned to love Phil Collins, the Dad of Dad-Rock and the Norm of Normcore. Alternatively: how I found myself dancing like a loon to Su-Su-sudio, one of the most evil earworms of its benighted era – a song which I had valiantly tried to purge from my memory shortly after its release in 1985, now stuck in my head again, this time for all eternity. Oh no!

Whether you missed Collins or not during his brief retirement, one thing is for sure: it’s quite a shock to see him. His first Australian show in more than 20 years, in Brisbane, sees him near the end of his wryly titled Not Dead Yet tour, named after his 2016 autobiography. He hobbles slowly on stage with the aid of a cane. It’s no act. Collins is 68, and frankly he looks in rougher shape than several older rock & rollers who are far more fortunate to still be walking among us.

In conditions somewhere between steamy and equatorial (definitely no jacket required), Collins is dressed in a half-zipped-up sweater over a crew-necked shirt. He sits down awkwardly on an ordinary swivel desk chair, next to a side table carrying a bottle of water and a folder full of lyrics. “I had a back operation a few years ago,” he tells the crowd in greeting. “My foot’s fucked, but that’s not going to stop us having some fun.”

And the opening chords for Against All Odds start. I stopped believing in guilty pleasures a long time ago – what you like is, well, just what you like – but even so, I’m a little disturbed to find myself misting up to this definitive power ballad/karaoke classic. The crowd, which is demographically narrow but numerically enormous, roars. Collins begins to sing: “How can I just let you walk away?” He needn’t worry. We are all so very here for this.

It’s immediately obvious that Collins’ voice, weathered by booze (which he’s given up), age and multiple divorces, is smaller. On Against All Odds, he doesn’t have the lungs to reach for its massive final chorus, and doesn’t try. He’s within himself, measured – and smart. Fear not: Collins can still sing, and mostly he sings beautifully, albeit within his slightly diminished range and capacity. It’s life-affirming, even moving, to watch.

From there, Collins and his 14-piece band (aided by four backup singers, a four-piece horn section and two drummers, including his 17-year-old son Nicholas) bust out a string of MOR ballads and white funk hits, starting with Another Day In Paradise, from 1989’s …But Seriously, and I Missed Again, from 1981’s Face Value. There are also quite a few songs which I’d long since forgotten, and which I am afraid to say I have instantly forgotten again.

Those moments aside, the gig is immensely enjoyable. Collins’s band is cooking, especially the Dumbledore-like figure of bassist Leland Sklar, even if it’s hard to tell where his beard stops and his face begins. Collins introduces them all via a few unsubtle dick jokes about the size of each brass player’s instrument, at which point a female fan screams: “YOU CAN BLOW MY HORN ANYTIME!”

Off the stage, it’s the best people-watching gig I’ve ever attended. Those who have paid for the Easy Lover VIP gift package ($743.65; the top-tier Not Dead Yet package was valued at $973.05) receive, among other souvenirs, a complimentary set of drumsticks. At one point, between songs, an excitable fellow turns to the crowd and bellows “COME ON PEOPLE!!! GET YOUR STICKS OUT!!! STICKS IN THE AIR!!!”

It’s all quite mad.

“About 400 years ago I was in a band called Genesis,” Collins says, the cue for Throwing It All Away and Follow You, Follow Me, accompanied by a video montage of vintage Phil. On Who Said I Would, he plays air-drums and nods along gnomically. During a long double-drum solo, he watches his young son (who’s every bit as good as his dad was) with pride – though, silhouetted from behind as he is, it’s hard to be sure Phil hasn’t actually nodded off.

Then there’s a rumble of thunder, and it’s not a product of the relentless Brisbane humidity. We know what’s coming. Collins is out of his seat at last, and he stands and delivers In The Air Tonight with magisterial authority. He hasn’t been waiting for this moment all his life, so much as saving his voice to strike this night’s knockout blow. Nicholas enters with that enormous drum sound Collins made famous. All that’s missing is the gorilla suit.

Hit after hit follows. The Supremes’ classic You Can’t Hurry Love is performed with due reverence, with Collins’ backing singers covering for his voice. It’s beginning to flag a little, especially on the following Invisible Touch. But it doesn’t matter. Easy Lover has us winding up for the big finish. Sure enough, Sussudio kicks in, and streamers and confetti rain down, and I’m out of my seat with everybody else. I can’t help it.

Take Me Home is the single encore, and it’s the only choice, really. Phil looks knackered. He gets to his feet once more and hobbles off stage again, back-slapped by his bandmates, with a broad grin on his face. Everyone else is wearing one too – everyone, that is, except for the poor kid, maybe five years old, who is crying and complaining to his mother: “TOO MUCH! TOO LOUD!!!”

If you remain sceptical, consider this: Collins is one of two artists to have sold 100 million records both as a solo artist and as a principal member of a band. The other is Paul McCartney. And if 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong – as the title of an RCA compilation of The King asserted – I am not going to be the one arrogant enough to assert that 200 million Phil Collins fans are.

First published in The Guardian, 20 January 2019

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