DIVORCE. Loss. Heartbreak.
Themes behind some of the greatest music ever written.
And when folk hero John Martyn decided to lay bare the hurt of his break-up he teamed up with a new partner, this time of the percussive persuasion. He couldn’t have chosen better.
Phil Collins was the drumming superstar with Genesis and Brand X, the workaholic who by 1979 had already added Argent, Thin Lizzy and Brian Eno albums to his session resume, as well as working with Genesis alumni Anthony Phillips, Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel.
He was also going through the break-up of his own marriage. A perfect pairing for Martyn, a shoulder to cry on physically and emotionally, but musically a foil to play off, a drummer with the tender touch, alive to the music, the emotions racing through it and able to deliver a virtuoso performance.
Lyrically, Grace And Danger is bleak. Musically it’s delightful. Drum-wise, it’s a belter, but not belted out. Subtlety is the order of the day on the kit, as much as there is little subtle about the thrust of the album.
And some of Martyn’s ability to channel that depressing, dismal, drunken, dishevelled, destructive despair into music must have rubbed off on Collins, for he started his own cathartic music-writing spree. At that point he’d pretty much been a drummer first and foremost in Genesis, then adding in the lead vocal duties, but not writing much. From 1979, sharing his house with Martyn, he began the musical journey that would lead to Face Value. Some of the tracks he wrote during this period ended up on the next Genesis release, Duke, in Misunderstanding, Alone Tonight and Please Don’t Ask. The relationship was beneficial in both ways.
Grace And Danger is a landmark recording, but Island Records sat on it for months, uncertain that it had any commercial potential. According to Martyn, Island boss Chris Blackwell, a close friend to he and wife Beverley, found the album too difficult and distressing. Despite the driving force behind the writing, it was clear Martyn was still hopelessly in love.
It has since become a classic, and Collins brings a jazz and fusion feel to bear. His influence, based on his own later albums, is recognisable.
Melody Maker described Collins’ playing as ‘immaculate’ and the blend between it, John Giblin’s bass and Martyn’s guitar and voice as ‘simply breathtaking’.
Some People Are Crazy is a wonderful opener, relaxed, treading the thin edge of accepted pop structure and Collins is so in the pocket.
The title track is typical of the Collins to come; busy, hi-hat driven rock drumming, locking in with Giblin’s bassline.
Looking On is a masterpiece of drumming maturity. Yes, I know albums are mixed and it’s not always about the playing, but listen to the finished article on this song, with its plaintive vocals and all-too-sad words and Collins is supreme. Busy, complementing the emotion, the noodling bass and imbuing it all with ‘feel’.
Collins has proved a Marmite drummer, in much the same vein as Ringo. The list of people he’s played with suggests, like those top musos who rate the former Beatle as the best, that his playing needs no apology, no fake praise. Grace And Danger was so very different to his playing on anything before. And he nails it with style.
Johnny Too Bad and Sweet Little Mystery are simple fare drum-wise, simply dispensed by Collins. No need to be showy or flash when the music doesn’t demand it. It’s a similar approach on the achingly beautiful Hurt In Your Heart. No drums, to hats to a flourish, back to hats and gone.
Baby Please Come Home is an exercise in restraint, while Save Some (For Me) is controlled precision on hats and snare.
Our Love is the final track on the original pressing, a further example of how Collins is in his element, playing for the song. In terms of getting the balance right, he’s on the money.