February 1981: Face Value by Phil Collins

Blasts from the Past

The eighties were here.


We were on the cusp of some staggering cultural and technological changes.  The Sault seemed to be ready for anything — our population was 86, 962, according to Statistics Canada.  We embraced home video technology in a big way, with video rental stores popping up all over town to meet the growing demand for VHS and Betamax movies for home viewing.  “Clubbing” was taking hold, substituting disco beats for techo-pop, new wave and rap.  Pastel colours and Swatches would soon make their appearances.  Eyewitness, starring Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt, was playing at the Algoma Theater that February.  We’d have to wait until that summer to see Raiders of the Lost Ark and For Your Eyes Only.


I was 19, ready to finish my time at the Dunn,  ready for a new phase in my life.


And one day, on one of my frequent trips to Records on Wheels on Queen Street I saw for the first time, on the store’s wall display of albums, the face that would launch a thousand hits in this new decade and beyond.


Phil Collins was no stranger to me.  I had discovered Genesis the year before and had fallen in love with their 1980 album Duke.  I assumed that Phil’s solo album would be much like the Genesis albums I had become familiar with by that point.


Not even close.


Face Value was an extravaganza — a record with strong Motown roots and a funk sensibility that would lay the blueprint for much of the pop music to come.  When I heard the brilliant album opener “In the Air Tonight,” I thought I was in for a moody, cutting-edge electronic masterpiece a la Peter Gabriel, gated drums and all.    But by the time the EWF horns punched in on the reworking of the Genesis song “Behind the Lines,” I wasn’t sure what I was listening to.   I must confess that I didn’t like it at first.  I felt a bit, well, betrayed — this was not Genesis: this was an unabashed, catchy top-40 album.


But say what you want about Phil  —  he writes sad love songs like nobody’s business.  Face Value is, in fact, a musical chronicle of the messy and painful divorce from his first wife.  And it was clear that the man knew that kind of pain.  The early 1980s just happened to be the years  when I ventured forth and attempted to find myself the perfect relationship.  Close, (a couple of times) but no cigar there.  But there was always Phil with his aching, lovesick ballads, ready to help me purge my sorrows and then dry my eyes.  I hate to admit it, but I don’t think I could have survived those lovelorn early ‘80s without him.


Even today, hearing “If Leaving Me Is Easy” and “You Know What I Mean” can still turn on the tears, but I can smile now at how fragile love  seemed back then in my university years.  I can listen to Face Value now and truly appreciate its range of styles and its solid musicianship.  It has as many cheerful and playful moments as sad ones.  “Hand in Hand”, “Thunder and Lightning” and “I Missed Again” are highlights that  need to be played loud to truly appreciate the horn arrangements.  Even the lone progressive-rock moment “The Roof Is Leaking/Droned” is still a thrilling listen.  The closing track, Phil’s brilliant cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (along with a melancholy wisp of “Over the Rainbow”), puts a wonderful finishing touch on this preeminent introduction to his solo career.


Hard to believe that it’s been nearly 40 years since that face first looked back at me from its perch on the wall of Records on Wheels.   Phil had a thing for close-ups of his face on his album covers; interestingly, when he remastered and rereleased his back catalogue a few years ago, he replaced the original face shots with contemporary ones, showing us an older, craggier and more world-worn Phil Collins.  His health is fragile these days, suffering from many of the orthopedic maladies that life-long drummers suffer.  At nearly 70, he’s taken to sitting down during his concerts, singing from a comfortable chair in the middle of the stage, the crowd still cheering loudly and adoringly, the arenas still selling out.


Not a bad gig at all.


Thanks for being there, Phil.  Godspeed.