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Lessons Learned From Phil Collins

Updated: Jun 23, 2023


The Cliff Notes Version

There was a time in the 1980s where you couldn’t get away from Phil Collins. He was everywhere—on the radio, MTV, in concert, and in movies. Not only was he the lead singer and drummer for one of the biggest band at the time (Genesis), his solo albums, songs, and movie soundtracks were also hugely successful. Part of the attraction (other than his obvious talent) was his aw shucks, ordinary guy persona. He didn’t seek the spotlight, either. Peter Gabriel quit Genesis and Phil was thrust into the role of frontman after auditioning dozens of different singers. His solo success came from the isolation and pain of his first divorce. This short, balding, heart-on-his sleeve, hard working chap who was liked by all—until he wasn’t—was as an unlikely superstar. In these following short vignettes we will explore how Phil Collins became the second richest drummer (behind Ringo Starr) with a net worth of $300 million dollars and ended up as one of the unhappiest and derided rock stars of his time—and that’s not hyperbole.


Against All Odds

There’s a lot of super successful musicians who can’t read music—count Phil Collins one of them. Keep in mind he is a multi-Grammy-winning artist who scored the entire soundtrack for the movie Tarzan, and is one of only three recording artists to sell over 100 million records as part of a band, and on his own. Could it be that as a lefty, Phil had to find workarounds to do things more suited to his way of working? The answer is yes. When recording his first solo album Collins wrote out what he wanted from the horn section using a series of dots and dashes. When you hear the songs, it makes perfect sense as the EWF horn section plays the pads and stabs perfectly in the “huffy puffy” parts.

After his solo success, Collins steered Genesis toward his strengths as a singer and songwriter and the band reached new heights in popularity. Many people forget what a powerful performer Peter Gabriel was as the leader of Genesis—in a way Collins would never have been able to duplicate, so Phil did it his way and people appreciated and approved it.

Find a way to get things done even if it’s not the way everyone else is doing it and don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.



It Takes a Minute to Ruin a Reputation

Phil Collins was known for years as one of the nicest guys in the music business. Not only did he know everyone, he worked with everyone—from Eric Clapton and Robert Plant to Adele and Lil’ Kim. For years, onstage and off, he was always smiling, joking, and having fun. Later in life he became somewhat of a hermit and a heavy drinker (by his own admission). He started calling up music journalists to complain about their negative reviews. He sued his horn section to strip them of royalties. Maybe worst of all, he faxed his second wife to let her know he wanted a divorce. Not a good look. It takes years to build a brand and develop a good reputation, and minutes to destroy it. Be careful what you say and do on social media and elsewhere.


The Most Famous Drum Fill of All Time

When Mike Tyson sings and does air drums to the famous fill from “In The Air Tonight” in the movie The Hangover, it could be said the song had Jumped the Shark. I see it differently. The Phill Collins signature drum sound, co-created by engineer Hugh Padgham—created when Phil played on Peter Gabriel’s solo album—put the drums front and center in the song. Padgham also co-produced Phil’s first solo album and the distinctive gated reverb drum sound the two created became the “it” thing in the industry and was copied on dozens of different songs including, “Jack and Diane” and when others asked Collins to play on their records. The lesson here is when you are the best, original, or unique, people seek you out.

Believe it or not, in 1980 it was semi-groundbreaking that Phil used an all-black horn section on a rock record. (Years later he would record an entire album of Motown songs.) Collins was also an early proponent of the drum machine, featuring it in his songs and inspiring others to do so, too. Lastly, Phil played drums in a progressive-rock group called Brand X and his fame made this genre of music more mainstream. You do you. There may be more people who like what you like than you realize.



A Shortcut to Success?

When I bought my first drum kit I created a poor man’s Phil Collins imitation set. I bought a standard Gretsch five-piece, but because my idol used so many additional drums in his set, I bought a pseudo rack of toms called RotoToms. It (sort of) sounded the same. As a bassist and (sort of) keyboard player I always loved that Collins played in a melodic way. He didn’t just support the song, he was a part of the song. Much to the chagrin of my bandmates, I emulated that style in my own playing. I also loved that Phil commanded the stage and interacted with the audience and I’ve incorporated that into my speeches. The fact he was born the same month I was, we are roughly the same height, and we are both drummers and writers made him my model for success as a speaker and author.

Somewhere along the way I decided that as much as I idolized Phil Collins as a musician and performer, I lost some of my respect for him as a person. I know that sounds harsh, but I’m a family man who loves his wife and kids and puts them above everything else. I probably could have reached higher heights in my career had I pursued success above all else, but that’s not me. Success and happiness doesn’t always mean fame and fortune. Find someone who has done what you want to do and look for clues—knowing that you can follow in their wake but you may have to veer to the left or right to find your own way.



Yes Can Be a Trap

When you step back and look at Phil Collins’ career you could applaud him for saying, “Yes” to every and all opportunities. When you’re at the top of your game like Collins was, opportunities abound. To his credit (and dismay) he said, “Yes” to everything.

I will be the first to say his collaborations with Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Philip Bailey, and Eric Clapton, as well as Band Aid and the Policeman’s Ball made sense. Seeing him fly across the country in a private jet to perform (marginally) with Led Zeppelin was less than stellar.

Sometimes the things we decide NOT to do are the things we feel good about later on. We are what we do, and what we decide not to do. I (personally) wish Phil Collins didn’t do that last Genesis tour seated on a stool. I love that his son played drums (and really well at that) but seeing my idol limp on stage with a cane and sit and sing was hard to watch. It turns out that after several surgeries, Phil pushed the envelope and played drums on the 2007 Genesis tour, which led to serious issues requiring several surgeries. These surgeries led to complications making it impossible to hold a drum stick and stand for any length of time. Years of pushing the envelope and the demands of playing the drums live led to a series of complications that hastened Collins’ decline.

Sometimes less is more. Meaning; The undoing of Phil Collins in many peoples’ eyes was his overexposure and some of his musical choices. (Not everyone loved his later hits and use of drum machines. They preferred his earlier music which was more rock and less pop.) Plus, it’s hard to have a relationship with your family when you’re never there. (His son Nic Collins has joined him on tour as a drummer—and he’s fantastic, but Phil was gone a great deal of the time.) I guess what I’m saying is we all think we want fame and fortune, but often those who have it wish they led normal lives.



Genesis Sells Music Catalog

Despite divorce settlements that set (at the time) records for how much Collins paid out, he is still a very wealthy man—and just got a lot richer. The members of Genesis sold their back catalog to Concord Music for $300 million dollars.



The Best of Phil Collins

My favorite songs from Phil Collins are some of the more obscure ones, but I think Phil was at his best on his 1997 tour, captured on film in, Live and Loose in Paris. The show can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

I still love Phil Collins, but instead of seeing him in his current condition, I prefer to go back to the days when we was healthy, happy, and at the top of his game.


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