The thing that persuaded Phil Collins to come out of retirement wasn’t money but love. When I met him in London on a short promotional visit to discuss the imminent re-release of his back catalogue he admitted to me,"I will come back and do something, I’ve talked myself into it over the last few days." He confessed, "For a long time I’ve given the studio a wide berth. But I’ve bought myself a piano, it’s in my house, so I’ve got no excuses."
This is a major volte-face from the man who in 2011 looked like he had given up music for good, declaring "I look at the MTV Music Awards and I think: 'I can’t be in the same business as this.’" Strangely, all it really took was for Collins to feel wanted again. "It seems OK to say you like me now, which is nice," he says, welcoming the way everyone from journalists to people on the street have gone out of their way to tell him what his music has meant to them. "I really love it when someone says something as simple as 'I love that song.’ That’s all I want. It’s not important. But it’s nice." Regarding his comeback, he says "I’ve met a lot of people who said 'you should do it!’ I’m easily flattered."
Although he can no longer play drums due to problems with his back and hands, Collins has started thinking about how he might perform again. "Kate Bush did shows in London and people came to her, and Billy Joel plays once a month at Madison Square Garden, Bryan Adams does two or three weeks of touring with lots of breaks, so it can be done." He is even open to a Genesis reunion, though it would be unlikely to be the original five-piece with Peter Gabriel. "I’d love to do it but it puts a bit of a kibosh on it if I can’t play the drums. There is no reason why the three of us can’t get back together, though," he says, referring to the subsequent Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks line up. "We still get along, always have done." Collins convened three weeks of rehearsals last year, with bassist Leland Sklar and drummer John Bonham, just to find out if he could still cut it.
"The voice is alright, it hasn’t broken yet. That’s the main thing, considering a lot of people don’t even know I play drums, I could get away with it. It would piss me off because it’s the reason I started doing this in the first place but I’m not sure anyone else would care." Retirement doesn’t sound like it has been much fun anyway. "I felt I was owed the right to sit on a sofa and watch television, because I had never done that," says the 64-year-old. " I started to drink. I was a bit miserable but I was also enjoying it. But I hurt myself with the drinking, my health suffered, so I had to cut that out. I haven’t had a drink in three years. And here I am now." Completely bald, wrinkly, with white stubble and spectacles, Collins looks his age, but there is a bulky vigour about him, his T-shirt revealing massive arms. "I’ve always been strong but I’ve got to tone up," he shrugs.
"I don’t like working out. I was much fitter on the road, all that running about onstage." After a lifetime in showbusiness, as a child actor, drummer and later frontman with Genesis from the age of 19, solo superstardom in the Eighties, guesting with a huge array of musical artists from Led Zeppelin to The Four Tops, composing film scores and winning every award going (he’s got 6 Brits, 7 Grammys, 2 Golden Globes and an Oscar), Collins started winding down his career in 2004 with the aptly named First Final Farewell Tour. "It was like an oil tanker stopping, it took a while."
In 2011 he formally announced his retirement. "My life was messy and I kind of viewed my career as the enemy." In 2008, Collins third marriage ended in divorce. "I wanted to be there for the kids. Then the bloody woman leaves me and moves to Miami. It left a big hole." There were also health issues. He was deaf in one ear following a viral infection and had nerve problems which meant he could no longer grip with his left hand. In hindsight, though, it really sounds like he had fallen out of love with music. "It’s pathetic, but when this happened with my ear and hand, I felt 'well they can’t make me go out on tour now.’ The effect on my day to day life was a pain in the arse, trying to cut a loaf of bread or something. But not being able to play drums didn’t really bother me. It should do, shouldn’t it?"
Collins is an odd character, very low key, with a matter-of-fact dourness underpinned by humour so dry you can barely detect it. "You’re catching me at a funny time," he says, trying to explain his equivocations. "I’ve got a lot of questions myself and wish I had some better answers." Next year, Warner Music begin reissuing Collins back catalogue with previously unreleased material, starting with 1981 solo debut Face Value and 1993 one man album Both Sides. Collins frankly admits he has been treating the campaign as "a barometer, to find out if I have been missed." He seems genuinely surprised by the response so far, and has just signed with Penguin Random House to publish his autobiography next year.
A strange humility bordering on insecurity underpins Collins, especially when you consider that he has sold around 300 million albums (solo and with Genesis), making him one of the most commercially successful artists of all time. He admits that a perception of him as a purveyor of bland, middle-of-the-road music really hurt his feelings. "I used to get offended by it. I felt ostracised." Collins describes his thunderous drum fill from debut solo single In The Air Tonight as "one of the nooses around my neck.
He came, he played du-da-du-da-du-da-du-da-dum-dum and he left."
Yet 34 years on it remains an explosively thrilling interjection on a brooding, atmospheric classic. The gated drum sound Collins developed (using reverb, compression and no cymbals) was so widely imitated it became an Eighties cliché but remains fantastically effective nonetheless. "A guy came down to demonstrate a drum machine emulator, and it was full of my sounds. I’m quite flattered. If they still sound good enough to use, then great." Collins was a late developer as a songwriter, the material for Face Value "pouring out" during divorce from his first wife. "I wasn’t getting anywhere on the phone so I thought I’ll put it in song so she’ll understand how I feel."
Collins’ voice has a direct, emotional drive, and his elegantly melodic songs, soulful flourishes and fantastic production values possess timeless class. He is still regularly sampled by R’n’B and hip hop artists. In 2013, Adele got in touch to write with him. There was only one problem. "I’d never heard of her. Apparently I’m the only person in the world who can say that," Collins confesses. They met to discuss a collaboration but nothing came of it. "I’m not good at playing with other people on the piano," he says. "I’m very limited. I doodle around and play what I play." Given that Collins played everything on Both Sides, he is extremely modest about his abilities. "I make a nice noise. But I can only play drums and piano, everything else is just synthesizer samples that sound a bit like other instruments. I just put things where I hear them. I guess it’s the control freak side of me, but if I can handle it myself, I prefer to." He has begun gathering material for a new solo album. "Being away from it for a while, I’m not saying you get scared but you get used to not doing it.
I’ve got little ideas on my phone. Every time I think of something I write it down. It’s making that first move. It always has been, when you walk into a studio with a blank sheet, you think 'what am I going to do now?’ But I want to do this. Why not?"
Remastered and expanded editions of Face Value and Both Sides will be released by Warner Music on January 29th 2016.
© Telegraph, by Neil McCormick