Selling records and winning awards are the things that have always come easy to Phil Collins. He has sold 100 million solo records and another 150 million with Genesis, putting him in the same rarefied league as Madonna, Elton John and Pink Floyd. His numerous awards include seven Grammys, two Golden Globes and an Oscar (for You’ll Be In My Heart from Disney’s Tarzan).
Yet, by his own admission, the one thing that hasn’t come so easily to him is musical credibility. Until now, that is. Holding court in a sumptuous hotel suite close to his home in the Swiss municipality of Fechy, he shrugs and says, “For years I was selling millions of records but was regarded as a great musical evil by many people who wanted to stick pins in effigies of me. Now that’s changed. Living in Switzerland I’ve been unaware that there’s been this great sea change. Then, just recently, I was out in New York with Genesis where we were being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Iggy Pop came over to me to pay his respects and I’m thinking, ‘Iggy Pop!? The Godfather of Punk! This wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.’ I guess, after all this time, a lot of people are finally shaking off their prejudices about me and feeling OK about admitting they like my music. If so, that’s a wonderful thing. It doesn’t make me the coolest man on the planet. But it’s a start. Even so there’ll always be people out there like Noel Gallagher who firmly believe I’m the anti-Christ.”
It’s hard to be precise about when exactly it became socially acceptable to admit to a love of Phil Collins records. Quite possibly the critical rehabilitation began once it become common knowledge that he was a bona fide hero among the rap/hip hop community, with die-hard fans including Ice-T, Pharrell Williams, Wyclef Jean and Timbaland. In recent years, hip hop’s elite have generously sampled Collins’ solo records. An acclaimed 2001 album entitled Urban Renewal brought versions of Collins’ songs by the likes of Lil’ Kim and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
“The making of that album was an event in itself,” says Collins. “The record company would give the money to these rappers to record the track, then they’d promptly go out and get arrested. To me, it was amazing that my music was so respected by rappers. The first time I realised something was going on, I was watching a TV documentary about Ice-T who was showing a journalist around his house. The reporter started looking through his album collection and started taking the rise when he found all these Phil Collins records. Ice-T was incensed and said to the guy, ‘Don’t you fucking mess with my Phil.’ I fell off the sofa when I heard that. I was incredibly flattered that someone like Ice-T could see through all the nonsense that’s been written about me and allow my music to reach him like that.”
The cool re-branding of Phil Collins was helped along in all quarters of the media. Patrick Bateman, the anti-hero of the 2000 movie American Psycho, takes up a sizeable amount of screen time waxing lyrical about his love for Collins’ solo work. In 2006, Collins reprised his acting role in TV’s Miami Vice for the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. In 2007, In The Air Tonight was used in an instantly iconic TV advertisement for Dairy Milk chocolate, with an impatient gorilla waiting to drum along to Collins’ most famous song. The same song was used to equally memorable effect in last year’s hit comedy, The Hangover, with former champion boxer Mike Tyson hijacking the vocals to comic effect.
“All of it is a surprise,” says Collins. “The greatest surprise for me is how some of my songs have had this amazing after-life. Often, when I bump into strangers on the street, they won’t speak to me, they’ll just act out the drum sequence from In The Air Tonight. That song just won’t lie down. When the chocolate company first rang up about the advert, they asked whether I’d have any objections about a gorilla playing my drum parts. My attitude was, ‘If you can make that mad idea work, then good luck to you.’ Then it goes on to become one of the most popular ads of all time.
“I knew nothing about the song being used in The Hangover. Then a friend asked me, ‘Have you seen that movie where those guys steal Mike Tyson’s tiger during a stag night in Vegas and they all end up singing In The Air Tonight?” Eventually I got to see it and thought it was hilarious.”
During the 70s and 80s, Phil Collins was nigh on impossible to avoid. Having joined Genesis as a drummer and backing vocalist in 1970, he took over as frontman in 1975 following the departure of Peter Gabriel. Gradually he influenced the band’s transformation from artful prog rockers to smooth hit-making machine. Through the 80s, he worked relentlessly, with his mega-successful solo career running in tandem with Genesis’s global domination. Additionally he lend his talents to a mind-boggling variety of outside projects, working with artists as diverse as Brian Eno and ABBA’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad. His reputation as rock’s hardest-working musician was cemented with 1985’s Live Aid when he performed both at London and Philadelphia on the same day. He even found time to star in movies like Buster. Meanwhile his family life grew ever more complicated. He married his childhood sweetheart Andrea Bertorelli in 1975, the union producing a son. Collins also adopted Bertorelli’s daughter. The couple divorced in 1980 after Bertorelli started an affair with their painter and decorator. He was married to his second wife Jill Taverman from 1984 to 1996. Their daughter was born in 1989. He married his third wife Orianne in 1999 and had two sons before divorcing in 2007.
Through the 90s Collins scaled back his recording and touring commitments with Genesis. Meanwhile his solo releases became more occasional. While albums like Both Sides (1993) and Dance Into The Light (1996) sold in their millions, they failed to scale the stratospheric heights of earlier works like Face Value and No Jacket Required.
For the last ten years he has been conspicuously quiet, at least by his standards. His last studio album, Testify, was released eight years ago. His forthcoming album, Going Back, is a collection of covers of his favourite soul classics.
His less prolific work rate is partly down to health reasons. Since 2000 he has suffered from loss of hearing in his right ear. More recently he was diagnosed with severe nerve damage to his hands, making drumming extremely challenging. During recording sessions for his new album, he was forced to tape his sticks to his hands.
Keen to accentuate the positive, he explains that his medical concerns have forced him to take stock of his life.
“I never used to think of myself as a workaholic,” he says. “I used to work non-stop because I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to do all these things that I loved. I was everywhere and I can see why that must have been annoying to some people. Then I reached a point where I no longer felt the need to go zooming around the world and attend the opening of every envelope. Basically I stopped. I’ve got a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I take them to football. I like to take them to school and pick them up. That’s my life now. I love doing the things that other people probably find tedious because they’ve been doing them for so long. I never did those things in the past as I was always working flat out. That was my loss. Now I’m able to do all that and also have time to indulge my passions.”
From Bill Wyman’s metal detecting to Alex James’s cheese-making, every self-respecting musician is obliged to cultivate a hobby to relieve the stresses of the rock star life. Collins is no exception, utilizing the basement of his Swiss home for his twin enthusiasms: building model railways and tending to his vast collection of Alamo memorabilia.
“I’ve been keen on model trains for years. When my son Simon was twelve we’d set up our Hornby rail-track on the carpet and play for hours. Then someone would inevitably walk into the room and trample all over it. When I moved to Switzerland in 1997, I boxed it up and it sat in a garage for fourteen years. Then my other kids reached the right age and I figured it was time to dust it off and put it back together again. My train layout is not in the league of Rod Stewart’s. Mine is more of a standard, bedroom-sized operation but it’s growing all the time. I don’t spend hours watching the trains huff and puff around the tracks. For me the fun lies in building my own scenery from scratch, making sure that all the mountains and bridges look realistic.
“The Alamo is a far greater passion for me. I’ve been fascinated with The Alamo since seeing the Disney movie about Davy Crockett as a kid. Now it’s an all-consuming thing for me. I spend as much time in San Antonio as I can. I rent a little property out there on the walls of The Alamo itself where I’ll dig for artefacts. I’m always looking for stuff to buy and the collection is growing fast. I’ve got a huge number of cannonballs, muskets and bowie knives that were used there, Lady Crockett’s pouch and many documents that were written by the main protagonists. One of my prized possessions is a receipt signed by Commander William B. Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.
“My kids are convinced that I was present at The Alamo in a previous life. Just recently I attended a convention out there and met a clairvoyant who is married to a man who’s attempting to restore the Alamo compound. She walked up to me and said, ‘’You’ve been here before. In a previous life you were John W. Smith, one of the major couriers who survived the Alamo and become one of San Antonio’s first mayors.’ Oddly enough one of the first documents I bought for my collection was the receipt for Smith’s saddle. So maybe my kids are on to something.”
Despite his health concerns, we find Collins in visibly upbeat mood. He arrives at the hotel fresh from dropping off his daughter at school. Unshaven and wearing a standard issue jeans-and-tee-shirt ensemble, he’s not exactly scruffy but, as ever, is the very antithesis of how you’d expect a member of rock’s aristocracy to look.
He knew that music was his life’s calling from the age of five when he was given a toy drum kit for Xmas. “I was obsessed with it,” he says. “Every spare minute I’d play along to whatever music was on the telly or radio.”
Having enrolled at stage school at the age of fourteen he enjoyed a brief but successful career as a child actor, starring as The Artful Dodger in the London stage production of Oliver!, and landing the part of an extra in The Beatles’ 1964 film, A Hard Day’s Night. “Even when I started acting I’d mapped out that music was going to be my career but being in a proper band didn’t occur to me at all. Even when I was filming with The Beatles I wasn’t thinking I could be like them some day.”
After drumming with a number of long-forgotten bands he successfully auditioned for Genesis in 1970. The other band members had all attended the exclusive Charthouse School in Godalming, Surrey, making Collins an outsider figure from the start.
“It wasn’t that the others made me feel different. But, because they’d had this Charterhouse background, they would finish each other’s sentences and share the same sense of humour. Because my background was different I was able to deflate the pomp when it crept into the music. Looking back we were an unusual group. Unlike most bands we didn’t go in for rock’n’roll excess. We weren’t celibate and we weren’t always straight in terms of illegal substances, but it never went to extremes. We’d look into the audience and see all these guys completely out of it. They were probably looking at us thinking that we had to be equally out of it to play this music. In actual fact we needed to have our wits about us to do what we did. Having a crafty spliff before a show wasn’t the ideal way of getting focussed. But I had to experiment a bit before I reached that conclusion.
I remember doing Robbery, Assault & Battery from Trick Of The Tail in 1976. I recall the first verse coming at me like a train out of a tunnel and I stood there thinking, ‘What the fuck is the first line?’ That’s when I realised it wasn’t too smart to have a smoke before the show.”
By the late 70s, with the runaway success of albums like Wind & Wuthering, Genesis were in such demand that most of their time was spent on gruelling world tours. As Collins was to discover, there was a hefty price to pay for being away from home so frequently.
“Basically I came back off tour to find my marriage gone. I suppose I expected my wife to understand that going on tour was part of my job but she hated being left on her own. If my missus hadn’t left me I suppose I’d have gone off and made an obscure jazz album that nobody would have bought and that’s the last you’d have heard from me. Instead I started writing the songs that ended up on Face Value. Nobody was more amazed by my solo success than I was. It took me completely by surprise. Everything I touched turned to gold at that time. Looking back, the only mistake I made was getting trapped in a persona. Maybe I became a parody of myself. A lot of people saw me as this middle-of-the-road kind of guy, a family entertainer like Cliff Richard. They judged me on a handful of songs that were played to death on the radio.
“In the 80s there was an awful lot of vitriol coming my way. Some of the criticism hurt and I would respond by writing letters and telephoning journalists to have it out with them. With hindsight I can see that I was over-sensitive. But I felt I was being disliked for the wrong reasons, reasons that had often nothing to do with the music. There are still people who hate me for reasons that have nothing to do with the truth.”
Mainly he’s referring to the breakdown of his second marriage to Jill Taverman, which he was widely reported to have ended by fax. “Complete nonsense,” he snaps. “There might have been a few faxes exchanged about access to my daughter, but that’s not how the marriage was ended. But it doesn’t matter what I say. That untruth will still be carved on my headstone. Same goes for the idea that I’m a Tory rocker who threatened to leave the country in 1997 if Labour got in and raised my taxes. It’s all garbage. I’ve only voted once in my life. In the late 60s I voted Tory only because my dad had been a life-long Conservative. Nobody ever asked me if I was Tory or Labour. The truth is that I don’t believe in any of them. As for my threat to leave the country, I moved to Switzerland because I’d fallen in love with a woman who lived on Lake Geneva. As I said at the time I’d have moved to Grimsby is she happened to live there. Inevitably everyone in Grimsby turned around and said, “Why’s he having a pop at Grimsby?” If you’re Phil Collins it seems you just can’t win.”
As he admits though, there’s not too much too grumble about these days. Despite paying out a total of £42m to his second and third wives, he’s left with an estimated fortune of £200m which allows him to lead an enviable lifestyle with homes in Switzerland, England and America. Among musicians he enjoys a rare freedom, able to make the records he wants to make when he chooses to make them. And, after years spent fending off criticisms of his music, he’s finally found almost universal acceptance.
“If that’s true,” he laughs, “I can now leave the house without wearing a disguise. Even my kids have started telling me they think I’m cool. I’m not sure about that myself. I think the jury will be out on that one for a good while yet.