Phil Collins was always skittish about leaving the drum stool. He was a drummer deep down in his very soul, one that would take on occasional backing vocal or songwriting duties only if he had to. Collins was perfectly happy to exist behind his large collection of toms and cymbals during Genesis’ Peter Gabriel-led heyday, and when Gabriel began dressing in increasing elaborate costume, Collins never worried about the spotlight being on anyone else.
But when Gabriel left the group in 1975, the rest of the band turned to Collins to fill in the frontman’s shoes. Originally, the plan was to find a new singer, with Collins teaching each new hopeful the proper melodies before auditioning. Without any real successes, the band encouraged Collins himself to step in, something that he did only after a fair amount of hesitation. While studio singing allowed him to continue providing drums, the live setting would be a completely different matter.
Collins found it difficult to handle the song’s vocal melodies simultaneously with his athletic drumming, and the rest of the band pointed out that their audiences had become accustomed to a frontman putting on a show during Genesis concerts. Collins never thought about replicating Gabriel’s dress-up routine, but still didn’t know how to be a frontman. Encouraged to simply adopt his goofy and amicable persona to a large crowd, Collins brought humanity and connection to Genesis’ live performances that replaced the theatrical spectacle of the Gabriel years. Collins was more personable, likely because he would be the first to admit how terrified he was to be out from behind the drum kit.
Collins became more comfortable out front, but there was still a problem: someone had to play the drums. Initially, prog icon Bill Bruford, who previously played with Yes and King Crimson, offered to step in for his pals on a temporary basis. When a more permanent replacement was required, Collins was befuddled until he listened to Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ live album Roxy & Elsewhere. He was so impressed that he cold-called the drummer, Chester Thompson, and offered him the Genesis drum spot without an audition. Despite offers from Santana and the Pointer Sisters, Thompson agreed, even though he had never met Collins before.
The pairing would end up being perfect. Collins and Thompson couldn’t have been more different: the former a white Englishman with a background in prog and the latter a black American with a background in jazz. Despite the obvious culture clash, the two got on well and had an undeniable chemistry when it came to a rhythm. Thompson was able to reinterpret Collins’ studio work for a live setting, while Collins was inspired by Thompson’s skill to improve his own technique. The battles that the two would have during concerts became legendary, and Collins continued to employ Thompson as his go-to drummer throughout his solo career in addition to his permanent place in the Genesis touring lineup.
These days, a nasty bit of nepotism keeps Thompson out of what is likely to be the final Genesis tour. Despite having logged 30 years as the band’s live drummer, Thompson was replaced by Collins’ son Nic for ‘The Last Domino?’ tour. That’s a shame, if only because Thompson’s playing has become fundamental to the live Genesis experience. He even makes some of Collins’ more lightweight solo work come alive, as evidenced by his impressive interpretation of ‘Take Me Home’ from Collins’ 1990 ‘Seriously, Live! World Tour’.
Check out that performance down below.