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Music

Five isolated drums tracks to prove Phil Collins is a genius

Although you might know him as one of the crooners from the 1980s, Phil Collins is first and foremost a drummer. “I’m not a singer who plays a bit of drums,” he famously quipped. “I’m a drummer that sings a bit”.

Indeed, he’s played with everyone from Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath, but it’s his role as Genesis sideman that serves as his finest work. He joined Genesis as their drummer in 1971 and remained their drummer for the next 20 years. Sure, he left the drums on stage for the microphone, but he always returned to the instrument whenever the prog giants wanted to record an album. 

Collins is a deeply chameleonic character, pivoting from densely dexterous drums, to more solid backbeats that allow pop and funk singers the chance to sing freely. He’s also utilised the drums to great effect on his records. 

We could go on about his contributions to prog, rock, and free-style jazz, but to him, it’s all part of the same package. Music is music, and Collins is definitely a musician par excellence. 

Phil Collins’ five best isolated drum patterns:

5. ‘Firth of Fifth’ (1973)

Notoriously critical of drummers, Peter Gabriel was never happy with the standard of drumming with the three men who played on the first two Genesis albums. Suddenly Collins appeared, and Gabriel realised he was in steady hands. 

An out-and-out prog number, ‘Firth of Fifth’ focuses most of its attention on the piano, keyboards and astonishing guitar effects, so it’s easy to think that the drummer was taking it easy. Not so. Even in his quieter moments, he was performing impressively and with great power. 

“I had this sort of arpeggio idea that I was working with,” composer Tony Banks said. “I’d written another piece which used a similar feel, which we never ended up using, and I just had this section of it, which I then developed and made this piece of. I thought it worked really well as a piano piece on its own, and then it worked well with an arrangement, as well. So, it’s just one of those things. With Genesis, we just did what appealed to us, really. We didn’t worry too much how other people were going to respond to it.”

4. ‘Los Endos’ (1976)

Gabriel quit Genesis in 1975, leading many inside and outside the band to think that was it for the group. And contrary to popular opinion, Collins was incredibly reluctant to leave the drum kit behind him but agreed to sing for Genesis when they couldn’t find a replacement. 

‘Los Endos’ offered him an excuse to return to the drums for an instrumental suite, allowing him the chance to play off stage percussionist, Chester Thompson. Spurned by the competition, Collins acquits himself nicely to the purging tempo changes and propulsive instrumental segments. 

Thompson admired Collins as a sticksman: “Phil was all for it. Oh, and this blew my mind. Those early prog-rock records? Phil double-tracked all the drum parts. He actually went over everything and duplicated it, put everything down twice. And he put down some intense, complicated stuff. He actually double-tracked all that stuff.”

“That blew me away,” Thompson continued. “He said, ‘I double-track everything anyway, so it would be great if we could just do it together.’ But they all live very close together and they always had a set writing period where they’d be like, ‘Okay, from blank to blank, we’re writing.’ They would each do that, come back with what they had and basically it was just too easy to go, ‘OK, let’s put this down.’ And that’s what they did.”

3. ‘Eleventh Earl of Mar’ (1976)

Wind & Wuthering is Genesis’ finest work, embodying all the propensities, polish and poise that the band were renowned for. It’s notable for holding some of the band’s most expressive melodies, most yearning guitar solos, and for boasting a series of extraordinary drum patterns. 

‘Eleventh Earl of Mar’ is one of Collins steeliest works, and he was beginning to loosen up to allow some of his Motown influences to coat the work. He was also growing in confidence as a rock singer, boasting a vocal that grows from whispered purr to libidinous growl. 

Eleventh Earl Of Mar had a tremendous energy,” bassist Mike Rutherford recalled. “It was always good on stage. I was in Edinburgh last week. As a tourist, you realise just how much bloodshed there has been in their history.”

2. ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1980)

There was no way we were going to leave this little beauty off the list. The only thing more extraordinary about the song is that Genesis declined the opportunity to record it, although Tony Banks claims Collins never played it to him. 

Considering the ubiquity of the track, it’s probably playing in the background as you read this piece, there’s no need to describe the writing of Collins’ signature song, but it’s fitting that his most popular work is one of his more drum-heavy.  

“The whole sound really was discovered when Phil was in playing drums on a song called ‘Intruder’,” producer Hugh Padgham explained. “Phil was a guest player on the album and he was mucking around with a drum sound. The Solid State Logic console was quite new then and it had a compressor/noise gate on every single channel which before that had never happened. [Before] you had external compressors or external noise gates but you had to patch them in, whereas with the SSL it was in every single channel. All you had to do was press a button and it was on.”

1. ‘Easy Lover’ (1984)

By the mid-1980s, Collins needed Genesis as much as Tina needed Ike, so it’s saying something about his commitment to the group that he decided to continue singing for the band while performing drums for a selection of clients long enough to make a list unto itself. 

Drumming behind Philip Bailey on ‘Easy Lover’, Collins avoids the temptation to roll all over the kit to deliver a steady, more sophisticated-sounding beat, padding out the ground from which Bailey can bounce off. 

The drummer was involved in the songwriting process. “So we just started having a jam one night,” he told Rolling Stone, “And went round and round and turned it into a verse and a chorus. We recorded it that night so we wouldn’t forget it. That song doesn’t sound like any particular era. It’s just fantastic.”