Despite making a new album, Testify, that uses digital technology to produce a collection of smoothly accessible hum-along numbers, and despite no longer touring because he is going deaf, Phil Collins hasn't forgotten the rougher roots from which he grew. The band that started it all for the most normal bloke in pop was the mid-1960s mod band the Action. "They were big heroes of mine, especially their drummer, who I copied all the time - I even bought a jacket like his," says Collins. "I got to play drums for them a couple of years ago at the 100 Club, and although the edge had gone and it was nostalgia, for me it was like playing with the Beatles."The Action, along with the Who, were the band that the real London mods went to see - not the Small Faces, who were considered too pop, despite their well-tailored image. But the Action never made it big. The Who had a writer in Pete Townshend and a glamour that was created by their early manager Pete Meaden, while the Action were just average guys playing their favourite American soul songs. Perhaps that was why they appealed to Collins so much. "It was through them that I discovered Motown and Stax. I would go and see them at the Marquee all the time. Roger [Daltrey] gave me a coffee-table book about the 60s mod scene and there are shots of gigs at the Marquee I know I was at."
Folk-blues stalwart John Martyn is a much more rootsy musical proposition than Collins, but the two are friends and collaborators, and Martyn's No Little Boy is one of his favourite albums. "It's difficult to play songs with only two or three chords as you rely entirely on the atmosphere you create within them, but he manages it. He's totally unique, and he makes an almost lazy sound while knowing exactly what is needed."
Martyn is an unpredictable character, who tends to wander into a hedge - or a pub - on his way to the recording studio. "He lived with me for a while in 1978, and he drinks a lot, does whatever's around . . . he wanted me to produce his album a few years ago. I said that I'd co-produce it if he sent me the tapes, and he said that he'd bring them over in person [to Collins's house in Switzerland]. I told him: 'Stay right where you are!' He takes up a lot of space. But he's fantastic."
West Side Story has Collins's favourite score - "the yardstick by which I judge theatre," he says. "It's an operatic take on making songs, but nevertheless every melody is so finely crafted. [Leonard] Bernstein is a temperamental master. Andrew Lloyd Webber has brought people into the theatre, and I grew up with Lionel Bart, but alongside this . . ."
Collins has often cited the Beatles as the reason he started making music in the first place, and Revolver remains his favourite album. "Rubber Soul sounds a little clean to me, and this is a more incredible collection of songs than Sergeant Pepper.
"And Your Bird Can Sing is one of the best songs ever written, and it's only a minute and a half long. There is also a great consistency throughout the record. With vinyl albums, you would have big moments like the end of side one, the beginning of side two, and the end of the record, and with something like Revolver you would listen to it with great care, from the beginning to the end. With CDs, that process has gone."
Collins brings out All Things Must Pass, the album that George Harrison made in the wake of the Beatles' split. A product of Harrison's frustration at not having been allowed to contribute songs to Let It Be, All Things Must Pass is an explosion of previously bottled-up creativity. "The guy who made an apparently nominal additon to the Beatles' songwriting came out with this incredible collection of songs. This was George saying: 'Well fuck you, this is what I do.' "
Collins was witness to the process. At the age of 17, he received a call from his then manager to play congas at an Abbey Road session for Harrison's album. "I walked in and there was George, Ringo, Badfinger, Phil Spector - and remember that this was hallowed ground anyway, being Abbey Road," says Collins. "So I played congas for two hours until my hands had reached the blood-blister stage. Then Spector said: 'OK, congas!' What I hadn't realised was that up until then, my mike had been turned off. Half an hour after that, everybody stopped and went to watch the football. I got my cheque and went home."
The dream of being on an album with a Beatle was dashed when All Things Must Pass came out and Collins had no credit. Thirty years later, he received a DAT tape from Harrison with the note: 'Dear Phil, could this be you on congas?'
"Sure enough, it was the version with the congas. And it was terrible. Then at the end you can hear Harrison saying: 'Phil, can we do one more without the conga player?' Then it dawned on me. 'Fuck! I was fired!'"
© The Guardian, by Will Hodgkinson