It could have been the single to launch Phil Collins’ multi-platinum solo career, but it was way back when he was still a long-haired and bearded progressive rock drummer with Genesis. The song’s author, original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips – who had quit Genesis years before due to stage fright and exhaustion – would have had his name on a record again for the first time since leaving the band. The track, “Silver Song,” was recorded and slotted for release in the summer of 1974, but mysteriously never appeared, for reasons unknown to Collins and Phillips to this day.
Yet, it’s the song that wouldn’t die, as Phillips has attempted more than 12 studio and demo recordings of the song over the years since, not able to find one he was satisfied enough with to warrant proper release, though a small few have seen the light of day as bonus tracks on reissues of his albums.
Even more strangely, “Silver Song” was initially written by Phillips in 1969, with help from Genesis bandmate Mike Rutherford as a fond goodbye to early band drummer John Silver. So Collins, who was the second successor to Silver, was going to debut his first single with a wistful ode celebrating the guy he ultimately replaced in the band! “Dear friend when you have gone / There’ll always be this song / To remind you of where you once belonged.”
Original unreleased single:
Musically, “Silver Song” is bright and hopeful, full of shimmering acoustic guitars and akin to some of Phillips’ later works such as “Lucy Will,” “Sistine,” and “Paperchase.” Yet it also has an undercurrent of sadness. Collins would say in a 1974 radio interview “…it was a bit of a depression around that time because it was the first Genesis and then one of them split, hence the melancholy words. But it’s a nice song.”
As it is, the song predates Collins taking over lead vocals for Genesis and prefigures the more streamlined, pop direction Genesis would go in years later, as well as giving us a small insight into what the band might have sounded like had Phillips never left.
The now out-of-print Anthony Phillips fanzine The Pavilion included a thorough run-down by Jonathan Dann in issue #18 on the different recording sessions for “Silver Song” up to about the year 2002. Even with no knowledge of the song, it’s a fascinating account of a song that just wouldn’t die and one artist’s dogged determination to keep trying to get it right.
To summarize, with some additional info:
Sept. 1969: The first demo of “Silver Song.” An instrumental version including Phillips and Rutherford on acoustic guitars and band friend/tour manager Richard Macphail on tambourine. Phillips was still in Genesis and the song was indeed offered to the band, and even features on the handwritten setlist for the band’s very first gig. Phillips recalls though, “Genesis never played it as far as I am aware. I really don’t think that they were interested in it at all.” He continues “…it was probably too countrified for the group and was probably too simple. The group didn’t make a virtue out of being obtuse or complex but it probably didn’t seem to add up to very much. It was slightly out of character to what Mike and I did, let alone to what Genesis did but ironically it fitted Phil a lot better as he was a bit looser in terms of some of the things that he did.”
Aug. 6, 1970: A now lost Anthony Phillips demo of the track recorded soon after his Genesis departure, with various guests, featuring Phillips approximating trumpet and trombones using guitar effects.
Summer 1972: Solo Phillips demo
June/July 1973: First demo with Phil Collins, including Mike Rutherford. Anthony Phillips in Alan Hewitt’s Genesis Revisited: “That summer, Genesis had a bit of a lull writing Selling England by the Pound. Mike and I were talking about possible solo things. We heard about the Charisma album of modern hymns (Beyond an Empty Dream) and ‘Silver Song’ came to light at the same time. Phil came down and sang on the demo of the hymn (‘Take This Heart’) with a few friends. Then the ‘Silver Song’ idea came up–I can’t remember how we played it to him, but he loved the idea…”
Nov. 1973: Recording of master version at Island Studios in London with Phillips, Rutherford and Collins for a single release. Also recorded was another Phillips song with Collins vocals, “Only Your Love”, slotted for the b-side (included on the 2015 The Geese and the Ghost Anthony Phillips album reissue). In the summer of ’74, Collins appeared on a radio show and spoke about the song (quoted above) before it was played from a tape he’d brought with him. Yet, the record was never released.
It’s been speculated that Charisma Records felt it was too early for Genesis to have solo projects. In fact, when guitarist Steve Hackett put out his own Voyage of the Acolyte in 1975, it’s success was reportedly not particularly welcomed by band or management.
Phillips later said, “The only thing I can think of is that the release was put on indefinite hold and the idea of releasing it eventually just petered out. I don’t remember feeling hurt or anything like that which suggests there was no definite ‘no’ involved. The only thing I recall is hearing Tony Stratton-Smith [Genesis manager] didn’t think the finished version had the magic of the demo and I remember that as a slight disappointment. It’s possible that over time that could be translated as a no.”
Oct. 1974: Not deterred, and still believing in the song, Phillips and Rutherford recorded yet a new version (instrumental) of “Silver Song” for possible inclusion on Phillips’ first solo album The Geese and the Ghost. Yet, it didn’t make the cut for that one either. It was, however, released as a bonus track on the 2008 The Geese and the Ghost reissue.
Summer 1977 and Oct. 27, 1977: More demos of the track recorded for possible inclusion on second album Wise After the Event. Didn’t happen.
Summer 1978: Attempt to record another one-off single of the song resulted in a new demo and a studio track session with band. The single was never pressed. “…as Silver Song is quite laid back it seemed to make sense to go into the studio and get a groove but the trouble was that we couldn’t find the groove!” (Anthony Phillips)
April/May 1981: Demos of the song recorded for inclusion in unrealized musical Masquerade written with Richard Scott. New lyrics, calypso/reggae feel. Later, parts of “Silver Song” incorporated under the title “Catechism” as part of Phillips/Scott musical Alice.
1986: Reworked demo recorded as a potential track for Eric Clapton when Phil Collins was producing Clapton. Didn’t happen, though this version was eventually released as a bonus track on a reissue of Phillips’ Private Parts & Pieces I, wherein Phillips writes “Countless attempts to recreate the magic that Phil applied to the song having failed, I’ve decided to include my own version.”
“Silver Song” gets a well deserved rest until…
May 1997: Live in studio recording made as a duo piece with guitarist Guillermo Cazenave for inclusion on Live Radio Sessions.
This is where The Pavilion “Silver Song” chronology stops, as the issue was published in 2002. Phillips may have given up at this point, but just as easily he could be working on version #173 at this very moment.
And what of John Silver? He became a TV producer for a time and appeared with most of the Genesis guys from the different band iterations in 1998 for some reunion photos. [Wikipedia entry]
So there you have it – the long, winding history of “Silver Song.” Why do we care? Ha, good question! I say because it’s these “what if’s” and detours and oddities in popular music history that keep it all interesting!
(Thanks go to Dann’s article in The Pavilion for leading me down this rabbit hole.)