There was a time when it was hard to get through the day without hearing Phil Collins.
That wardrobe-falling-down-a-flight-of-stairs drum break on In the Air Tonight was an epidemic in 1981. It has rumbled through the airwaves, movies and television advertising ever after.
You Can’t Hurry Love, Easy Lover, Sussudio, Against All Odds … all of these hits and many others turned Collins, who only ever intended to be a working drummer, into the most bankable solo pop star since Michael Jackson. Just as successful for most of that reign was the prog/art-rock band he joined as a drummer when he was 19, Genesis, which morphed into a pop outfit when Collins replaced Peter Gabriel as frontman and chief songwriter in 1975. The singer had the Midas touch, but fame and fortune came at a price.
"I think my presence became annoying," he says. "I was always there. People were always playing my music on the radio. So there was too much of me, especially if you didn’t like me. You listen to Sussudio, One More Night or Against All Odds three or four times a day … you start to think ‘go away!’ "
Collins, who will be 65 next week, is under the weather, but not because people don’t like him. The singer had to cancel media commitments a few months ago when he had back surgery in Miami, where he now lives. That hasn’t been the only thing that has kept him off his feet. "After I got home I was trying to get around on a couple of sticks and I fell over," he says.
The fall damaged his foot, which also required surgery. When he got home from that, he fell over again.
"I’m on the mend now, though," he says. "It will just take some time."
Collins has had plenty of time to reflect on his extraordinary career in recent years. He has been in retirement since his last album, the Motown covers collection Going Back, in 2010, partly because he wanted to devote more time to his family. He’s about to enjoy a renaissance, however, through the reissue of all of the solo albums that made him famous, starting next week with the remastered versions of his first album, Face Value (1981) and his fifth, Both Sides (1993). Others in the series include landmark successes No Jacket Required (1985), …. But Seriously (1989) and Dance into the Light (1996). All of the packages come with never-released live recordings or demo versions of the songs.
Collins has spent months on the Take a Look at Me Now project, as the reissue package is called, along with long-serving producer Nick Davis. This collating of old material, as well as working on his memoirs, which are expected at the end of the year, has brought much of his glorious — and inglorious — past to the surface. It’s quite a story.
To date Collins has sold in the region of 150 million albums, up there with the greatest recording artists in history and, with Jackson and Paul McCartney, in the top three of artists who have reached those vast numbers as a solo act and as a member of a band. Whether in solo mode or in Genesis, Collins so saturated radio and TV in the 80s and early 90s that he became the poster boy in some people’s eyes for all that was wrong with music in the post-punk, grunge era. Soft rock, middle-of-the-road pop and easy listening were among the labels that stuck.
It was not unfashionable to hate Phil Collins, or at least the idea of him. Highly respected drummer, also with stage and screen experience as an actor, then suddenly revered singer and songwriter? And then in 1985 there was the Live Aid Concorde stunt, when he became the only artist to perform at Wembley Stadium in London as well as JFK Stadium in Philadelphia on the same day by taking a supersonic jet flight across the Atlantic. The media didn’t much like that either.
"Who the hell does he think he is?" is how Collins reflects on all of it. "I realise now how annoying my presence could have been," he says. "I’m serious. ‘Oh, he thinks he can act. Now he’s recording. Now he’s playing with someone else. He’s showing off.’ "
Eventually Collins did go away, but it took a while. In 2007, during a Genesis reunion tour, he found it difficult to hold a drumstick in his left hand. Surgery to repair damaged vertebrae in his neck followed, but while the operation was successful, the symptoms have remained and Collins, a drummer since he was five years old, has hardly played since the surgery. He doesn’t even own a drum kit.
"I had a course of operations to fix it and it’s better than it was," he says. "I say I can’t really grip a stick, but I haven’t really tried very hard recently. The strength in my left hand is different to my right. I had a nerve examination in Miami and [the doctor] said all the vital signs that I would need are there. It’s just a matter of physiotherapy and practice and wanting to do it. I’ve been meaning to get a little drum kit and start practising. That’s the only way I’m ever going to get back into it."
Collins, born in London in 1951, began learning drums just as he started school and was an accomplished player by the time he was a teenager. He was inspired by Motown, by Ringo Starr and Buddy Rich, to name a few. At 14 he entered the Barbara Speake Stage School in west London and acting became a discipline to which he was equally devoted. He scored the role of the Artful Dodger in Oliver in London’s West End and featured as an extra in the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night and in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His future as an actor was full of promise, but drumming was his true calling.
"My father hoped I was going to be an actor," Collins says. "But I had been playing drums all my life, so that’s where I wanted to go. You just couldn’t do that until you left school. I was fortunate in some respects in that I went to drama school and did the Artful Dodger and all that. I did a fair bit of it, but really I wanted to be a jobbing drummer. I didn’t read too much past that."
He cut his teeth in a moderately successful London band, Flaming Youth, then when he answered an advert in British music bible Melody Maker in 1970 for "a drummer sensitive to acoustic music", he impressed Gabriel and fellow Genesis members Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks. So began his rapid rise as a musician, although he didn’t see Genesis as a long-term prospect. "I didn’t know where things were going," he says. "I didn’t know we were going to be together for 40 years."
Adding to his resume and heavy schedule were commitments as a session drummer that included working with Robert Plant and Eric Clapton, and producing albums for ABBA’s Frida Lyngstad and British folk artist John Martyn. Nor did he forgo acting altogether. In 1988 he starred as British criminal Buster Edwards in the movie Buster and was the voice of several characters in Disney film productions. He wrote and sang Against All Odds for the 1984 film of the same name and penned the soundtrack to Disney’s Brother Bear.
His career more recently, leading up to his retirement, included a world tour performing big-band versions of his hits in 1998, the album Testify in 2002 and that Genesis reunion tour.
Six months ago Collins moved to Miami, into a lavish house once owned by actress and singer Jennifer Lopez. Long before the move Collins and his third wife, Orianne (Cevey) Collins, lived in her native Switzerland, in a house overlooking Lake Geneva. When they separated in 2008 (divorced 2010), she moved to Miami with their two sons, Nicholas and Matthew. Last year, following an operation on a slipped disc in Switzerland, she developed Brown-Sequard Syndrome, a rare spinal disorder that has left her paralysed. Collins moved to Miami to be closer to the children, who now live with him.
He describes his son Nicholas, 15, as "a really great drummer". He’s equally complimentary about the drumming attributes of his adult son Simon, from his first marriage to Andrea Bertorelli. He also has a daughter, Lily, from his second marriage, to American Jill Tavelman.
Collins’s failed marriages, certainly the first two, have had a substantial bearing on his songwriting output, not least because at the height of his success in Genesis and solo he was hardly ever at home. He immersed himself in work, to the detriment of all else, something he now regrets.
"Of course I do," he says, "especially looking back and seeing how many tours I did. They were long and intense. I went from one thing to the other. It’s all very fresh in my mind. I’m surprised at how much I did without asking enough questions. I never stopped. There was me or there was Genesis or Robert Plant or Clapton or Frida. It’s endless. It didn’t surprise me when I look at it now that people got sick of me."
He admits that his retirement after Going Back was prompted not only by a desire to spend more time with his family but also because he was burned out after so many years of constant work.
"I went cold on the idea of doing much," he says. "Having done it constantly for most of my life, never doing anything else, I kind of lost the taste for it. So my priority became much more family oriented. That’s why I moved to Miami, because the boys live there and they’re living with me now. That’s great. I’m catching up on what I should have done."
The Take a Look at Me Now work has renewed his enthusiasm for music. Collins has just had a recording studio installed in his home and is planning new material, if only to accompany an upcoming singles collection. He’s happy also that after many years as a target for scorn he is enjoying praise, in retrospect, for his skills as a singer, drummer and songwriter.
"There’s a movement now where it’s not such a bad thing to be a closet fan," he says. "That’s why I decided to do the albums. It did seem logical to do and put the material out there for rediscovery."
Phil Collins’s Face Value and Both Sides are reissued on January 29.
© The Australian, by Iain Shedden