Between his work with Genesis, his contributions to other artists’ albums, and the eight studio albums he’s done on his own, Phil Collins is one of the most successful musicians of all time.
But in the wake of his 2010 album Going Back, Collins stepped away from the world of music, confirming in March 2011 that he was retiring "so I can be a full-time father to my two young sons on a daily basis." Ironically, it was those very sons who helped spur him to return to music: In May 2014, at their behest, he performed "In The Air Tonight" and "Land Of Confusion" with some of the students at their school (the Miami County Day School). By October 2015, he’d announced that he was officially un-retired.
Collins recently began the process of releasing deluxe editions of all of his studio albums, each of which features a second disc of bonus material as well as new cover art featuring present-day Collins reproducing the original photos. The A.V. Club spoke with Collins in conjunction with the reissue campaign, discussing the experience of trawling through his back catalog as well as a variety of other topics, including his acting career, performing at Live Aid, and tussling with The Ultimate Warrior.
The A.V. Club: Was it the 35th anniversary of Face Value that inspired you to go back and revisit your solo catalog, or was that just a happy coincidence?
Phil Collins: Well, 35 years, I don’t think that’s a particularly significant anniversary, is it? [Laughs.] No, it’s just an opportunity to revisit the old material and remaster it and bring it to some new ears, I hope.
AVC: How long had it been since you’d actually gone back and listened to all of these albums yourself?
PC: Well, I’d kind of been revisiting them throughout my career, because every time we’d do a tour, I’d go back and listen to the albums to see if there was any new songs that we could play on the road. So I kind of feel like I’ve been living with them. It’s not like I haven’t seen them for a long time or heard them for a long time.
AVC: What was the process involved in putting together the second discs of the reissues? Do you maintain an archive that you dipped into for bonus tracks?
PC: Well, this whole thing could’ve been just a straight reissue by the record company, but I said, "No, no, no, no, no. I want to do something special if we’re going to do it." So I said, "Let’s have a second disc, and I want to put some live material and some demos, to show how the songs have developed. By the way, I think it’s a good idea to shoot the album covers again." You know, it was kind of a very simple idea which has worked fantastically well. Everybody loves it. And it shows that I am involved, that my fingerprints are on the project, and also it kind of fits me now. You know, I’m still pleased and proud of the music.
AVC: Is there an album in the bunch that you think of as particularly underrated?
PC: Oh, I think Both Sides is underrated. That’s one of the reasons why it was brought out—along with Face Value—first. But, you know, there’s a few albums. I mean, Testify, I think, is an underrated album. And I think I underrated myself: I kind of found some stuff on Hello, I Must Be Going! which I had forgotten about, and that’s a better album than I remember it being. But certainly with stuff like Testify and Going Back, I think they’re better albums than they were received.
AVC: What stood out to you when you revisited Hello, I Must Be Going!?
PC: Well, "I Don’t Care Anymore" and "Do You Know, Do You Care?" in particular. And "The West Side." Up until recently—up until literally last week—I had kind of overlooked it and put it in a certain place. But exposure to those songs made me think about them more, and I actually think they’re better than I was remembering.
AVC: In regard to your secret origin as a musician, is it indeed true that you got your first drum kit—a toy, but even so—when you were 5?
PC: Yep, that’s true.
AVC: Did you always have a feeling that you wanted to pursue music?
PC: Yeah! Drums were not—and music wasn’t—particularly in the family. But I was drawn to it, certainly, by the time I was 12, and The Beatles had emerged. That was all I wanted to do. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a pop star. Actually, I just wanted to play the drums. The whole having records and selling records and being on TV, that was something that I didn’t ever think would be for me. I thought that would be for other people. All I wanted to do was make a living playing the drums.
AVC: Speaking of The Beatles, you managed to sneak into A Hard Day’s Night, at least sort of.
PC: Yeah! I’m not in the finished film, but… I don’t know if you know the DVD about the making of A Hard Day’s Night, but that’s where I found myself. But it’s nice to have the story to tell the kids.
AVC: Did you actually get to interact with The Beatles at all that day?
PC: No, we were just put in our seats and told to scream. [Laughs.] We didn’t have to be told, frankly: Everybody just went bananas. But you can see on the making of A Hard Day’s Night, when I finally find me, I’m just sitting there, listening. That’s not what they wanted.
AVC: At that time, you seemed to be actively pursuing an acting career, playing the Artful Dodger onstage in Oliver! and turning up in a few other films and TV series.
PC: Yeah, I mean, I did that throughout the teenage years. Then as soon as I could leave school, I got into sort of a very semi-pro band until I joined Genesis in 1970. So, yeah, I was doing some acting, but I didn’t really want to go back there. But then Miami Vice asked me to be in an episode, and I found that I quite liked it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Because you made reference to your pre-Genesis band, how do you look back at Flaming Youth?
PC: Um, well… With a smile, you know? [Laughs.] Ronnie Caryl, who was in the band playing bass, he’s one of my oldest and closest friends. We’ve known each other 50 years. In fact, this year is the 50th anniversary that we’ve been together. He’s in my band now, and we’ve stayed great friends throughout that whole time. So I look at it with a smile, really. I don’t think much of the music, I’ve got to say. I mean, someone occasionally sends me a link to a YouTube clip, and I’ll listen to it, and it’s, like, "Oh, God." A time and a place…
AVC: When you broke out from Genesis to do your first solo album, was that something that you’d had imagined for a while, or was it just a case where the time was available?
PC: It was a circumstance of my life at the time. I just had a lot of time on my hands, because I was on my own, and I started to fool around in my little home studio, and what I wrote and fooled around with started to develop into songs. I mean, I spent a year doing those demos and just kept writing, and eventually I stopped what I was doing because we had started to write [Genesis’s] Duke, or what was to become Duke.
When that album was finished—so quite a long time later—I went up to London with the finished version of Duke to play it to [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun, who was in London. We got on very well, you know. Ahmet was a great friend of mine, and I knew him very well at this point. So I played him that and he liked it, and then he asked how I was. So I brought the cassette out of what I’d been doing, and when he heard it, he just said, "Wow, this is fantastic! We’ve got to make it a record, man! Anything you want!" So at that point I realized I had a record. But it wasn’t until he said that that I kind of felt it was a record.
AVC: Was it ever difficult to figure out what was a Genesis song or what was to be a solo song?
PC: No, I let the guys choose on that particular time. With Duke, we had two songs each, and they chose the two songs of my stuff that they liked, and then the rest of it I kept for Face Value. But later on, once we all had solo careers, I think it became a separate thing. We kept the solo songs for our own career, and then we got together for Genesis with nothing prepared and just wrote and improvised and did things together that we couldn’t do on our own.
AVC: How did you first cross paths with Philip Bailey?
PC: Well, I’d met Earth, Wind & Fire. Face Value was written and finished but wasn’t out, and I met them a few times. I didn’t really get to know Philip too well, actually, until we did the album. I’d met the Earth, Wind & Fire guys because I’d used the horns, so I went to a few shows as their guest. But Philip, like a lot of people, heard "In The Air Tonight," I guess, and just thought—because he knew of me through the horn players—that I would be someone interesting to record with and produce. So that’s how I met him, and we ended up getting very close, of course, because when you’re making an album, you live in each other’s pocket.
AVC: The video for "Easy Lover" still brings a smile whenever it turns up. You guys just look like you’re having such a great time.
PC: Yeah, that was great fun. I mean, what you see on the video is what happened that day. We just had fun with it.
AVC: At the time No Jacket Required was released, critics were saying, "Oh, it’s too commercial," and given that it’s the best-selling of your albums, it clearly was commercial, but was that your intent? Or were you just trying to make a good album?
PC: No, I was just… I don’t try to be anything, you know? Apart from on No Jacket where I did say to myself, "You know, it’d be interesting to try writing a couple of dance songs, to change the tempo of what I do a bit, just to mix it up." So I think we’re talking, really, about "Sussudio." I think the rest of it is standard what you’d expect from Phil Collins. But "Sussudio" was a huge hit, and what you just said, this is an example of people glossing across the surface of a career and actually summing it up by a couple of songs.
I’m kind of thought of as an MOR kind of balladeer because the singles—"Separate Lives," "One More Night," "Against All Odds," "A Groovy Kind Of Love"—have set that kind of taste. That is not all I do. That’s just one particular tip of the iceberg, you know? The rest of what I do is very unlike that. Like, on that album, No Jacket Required, you’ve got "Long Long Way to Go," "Take Me Home," "Who Said I Would." There’s different stuff rather than "Sussudio," which of course drove everybody crazy, and everybody thought I was doing commercial songs, when we’re really just talking about the one.
AVC: Speaking of "Take Me Home," Peter Gabriel is one of the backing vocalists on that song. That was the first time he’d appeared on one of your solo albums, but you’d already appeared on one of his.
PC: Yeah, there’s a missing period in music history with me and Genesis and Peter. In the late ’70s, early ’80s, he didn’t have a band. When he was thinking about his third album [1980’s Peter Gabriel], he didn’t have a band to play with, to rehearse it, to spitballs ideas off. So I said to him, "I’m doing nothing, so I’ll be your drummer, if you want." We got on great, so I went down to his house in Bath, along with a few other musicians that we all knew, and stayed there for a month or so, jamming every day and playing through some of the ideas that he had, and those ideas became his third album.
So I was his drummer. We did gigs. We did duets on stage. I mean, we sang "The Lamb [Lies Down On Broadway]" together, we sang "Mother Of Violence" together… So it was great fun to do it. Me and Peter spent a lot of time together on that. So, yeah, "Take Me Home" wasn’t the first time we’d worked together since Genesis, just the first time on one of my records.
AVC: Just to venture back into your acting briefly, how do you look back at the experience of doing Buster?
PC: Buster was great fun to make. You know, it was early ’60s, and I remember the event—the train robbery—very well, so it was fun recreating the ’60s. We kept coming up with things that we used to do in the ’60s, the kind of ice cream you ate, the kind of sweets you bought, and the kind of clothes we all wore. And Julie Walters, of course, was fantastic. I was a big fan of Julie Walters, and to work so closely with her was such great fun, because she’s so funny, as well as being a great actress. So that was a magical piece of the ’80s for me. I think the film could’ve been a bit better if we’d have stopped and asked a few questions about the script. But it was my first film, so I didn’t do that. I just did what I was told. But it’s hugely popular in England. It’s viewed as a huge hit in England. I think in Germany, too, because they seem to be train robbery fanatics. [Laughs.] I don’t know why, but it captured their imagination, so it was a huge hit. But it was good fun to make, that’s all I know.
AVC: Anyone who watched Live Aid in 1985 likely remembers how you played in Wembley, caught the Concorde, and flew to the States to play in Philadelphia as well.
PC: Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to be the only person. Duran Duran were supposed to play in England and Power Station were supposed to play in America—they shared members—but for some reason that didn’t happen. I don’t know if someone didn’t play somewhere. I can’t remember now. But I ended up going on the plane on my own. So that became something else. That became a far bigger exercise than was originally intended. All I said at the beginning of the thing was, "I’d like to play drums with someone." And Eric Clapton and Robert Plant I had worked with, and they were both playing in Philadelphia, so someone said to me, "If you get the Concorde, you can do that." So I said, "Okay, I’ll do it." [Laughs.] It didn’t seem to be a big thing. But obviously in retrospect you can see why it was made into a big thing.
AVC: Was the Led Zeppelin reunion, such as it was, a big deal for you?
PC: Well, of course! You know, I saw their first gig in London, and I was a huge John Bonham fan way before Zeppelin. But the Zeppelin thing was not a happy time. I think everybody knows that now, because they refused to put their performance on the [Live Aid] DVD. And it wasn’t great. Originally I was on tour, on the No Jacket Required tour, and I went through Dallas, and Robert Plant was there. We’re great friends, so we met up, and he said, "What about doing something together at Live Aid?" And I said, "Sure, that’d be great." And he said, "Yeah, you, me, and Jimmy [Page], we could do something together. It’d be great fun." I said, "Yeah!" And I walked away thinking that was what it was going to be… and then by the time it came around, it was Led Zeppelin! But it wasn’t… I mean, they were not ready. Jimmy was dribbling, and Robert was not in great voice, and it was a mess. But I stuck it out! [Laughs.] I stuck it out! Otherwise, I think your question would’ve been, "Why did you walk off during the Zeppelin set?"
AVC: Here’s a question you probably don’t get asked much: What do you remember about your match against The Ultimate Warrior?
PC: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah, well, I remember that very well. He just died recently, didn’t he?
AVC: Not too long ago, yes.
PC: [Sadly.] Yeah. Well, [my son] Simon was very happy to meet him. It’s funny, just thinking about it now, Simon was 12 or 13 when "Two Hearts" came out, or something like that. You can work that out, thinking of the dates. But he was very keen to meet The Ultimate Warrior. He was very into wrestling. And my other two sons Nicholas and Matthew went through that phase, too. We went to see the wrestlers in Geneva when they came through. We saw them a couple of times, and we got to know some of them very well. They’ve grown out of it now, though, so I don’t go around watching scantily-clad men so much anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, the clip of you and the Warrior continues to float around YouTube. You put up a hell of a fight.
PC: Yeah, and he was a good guy. But it hurt. [Laughs.] Those ropes, they hurt if you’re thrown against them. I mean, you’ve have to be pretty tough to do that stuff. It was a surprise just how much they hurt.
AVC: Is your autobiography still on target for release later this year?
PC: I hope so. They’re gunning for October, so I’ve got to finish it. But I’m doing it with someone, just to help me through it, because it is a complicated process, you know. But I’ve got a great memory, and I’m really actively involved in it—as obviously I should be, because it’s my life. But I’m enjoying reading it… and I’m looking forward to finishing it, actually. [Laughs.]
AVC: And what are the chances that there could be new music on the horizon?
PC: Well, you know, we’ll see what happens when I get into my new studio. It’s up and running now, so I’ll go and turn it on, put my hands on the piano, and see what happens.
© avclub, by Will Harris