When composing a song, Phil Collins usually doesn't start with a particular theme in mind--he just lets the ideas and words flow freely as he's working out the melody. "If you go right back to Face Value, I never sat down and wrote anything for that record," Collins says in the band's 2007 book Genesis: Chapter and Verse. "In The Air Tonight was totally improvised. I sang what came out of my head and wrote it down afterwards. And because it worked for that first record, that's what I've always done. When I'm singing along the phrases come out."
For Driving The Last Spike, from the 1991 Genesis album We Can't Dance, Collins went the extra step of doing some research. The song takes an epic look at the dangers and hardships that went into the construction of the British railway system during the 19th century, told from the point of view of a workman who took part in that process. "To write 'Driving the Last Spike,' I ended up getting hold of a book about the navvies," Collins said. ["Navvy" is a British term for an unskilled manual laborer, particularly someone who builds roads, canals, and railroads.] He elaborated in an interview with Music Express Magazine [via genesis-path.net]:
The song's working title was "Irish," and that came from me making up words and phrases as I listened to the music...There's an Irish-sounding bit in the arrangement, so I thought about labourers and the working class. And then as I browsed through a book called The Railway Navvies, I formulated this idea about the Irish workers who helped build the British railway system at the turn of the century. I mean, when you're on a train and you're looking out of the window, you don't think about being 150 feet up in the air on a viaduct between two hills and how the track actually got there!
"I don't know why but I just thought there was a story to be told there," Collins says of the song in Genesis: Chapter and Verse. "And that was one of only a few story lyrics I ever wrote."