Thanks to a drumming gorilla, Phil Collins is now cool. But that still won’t stop him from giving it all up.
This time, he really must be going. More than 100 million album sales into his career and roughly two thirds of the way through our interview, Phil Collins casually serves notice of his retirement. Having joined a reformed Genesis for a world tour last year, he says he’s through with the touring and there’s no album planned. He’ll write, but only because he doesn’t know how to stop writing.
In truth, he sounds more excited about nurturing his collection of memorabilia relating to the Battle of the Alamo. “It’s not that unusual for a man of my age who grew up reading Davy Crockett,” he insists. In Switzerland, where he lives, he maintains his collection of cannon-balls and guns. When he’s not doing that he helps to raise the two sons he had with Orianne Cevey, whom he married in 1999, three years after divorcing his second wife, Jill Tavel-man, reportedly by fax.
But right now we’re not in Switzerland. Asked by Sky Arts if he would be a subject of its Songbook series – Squeeze, Travis and David Gray feature in other shows – Collins, 57, has flown to this studio in Barnes, southwest London, to perform four of his best-known songs. If he seems thrown by praise, that’s almost certainly because he hasn’t received much of it over the past couple of decades.
But in 2008 it would be weird to single out Collins for the derision to which he was once subjected. In person, he’s unexpectedly self-deprecating. Nevertheless, listen to all his biggest hits back to back – One More Night, In the Air Tonight, Against all Odds – and it all comes back, a picture of a man flailing amid the crashing waves of his luckless love life.
You suspect that, in the early Eighties, he was one of those people whom you dared not ask “How are you?” for fear that he would tell you. “I don’t think I was that bad,” he says. “There were other songs. But the ones that were coming out as singles were mostly in the same vein.”
His own commercial success surprised him more than anyone. “In Genesis we saw ourselves as song-writers. After Peter Gabriel left I was the first to say: ‘It’s OK – we can just do instrumentals.’ ” There was no need to worry, though. The relationship troubles that launched Collins as a solo entity also inspired Genesis tunes such as Misunderstanding and That’s All.
“In 1977 we played America and Europe three times, and Japan – my marriage suffered as a result. My then wife [Andrea Bertorelli] took the kids to Canada to be near her parents.”
The band briefly went into abeyance to allow Collins to try to sort out his marriage, but to no avail. When it emerged that his ex-wife had run off with a painter and decorator, he drily performed In the Air Tonight (from his platinum-selling debut solo album Face Value) on Top of the Pops with a pot of paint and brush atop the piano. He says the song itself was written on the back of a stray piece of wallpaper.
How ubiquitous was Collins in the Eighties? His profile was akin to that of, say, Mark Ronson today. As a producer he quickly became the go-to guy for singers after their own separations. He worked on albums by John Martyn and Frida from Abba while maintaining the solo career and being in Genesis.
A child actor in the Sixties, he later played a loveable Cockney Great Train Robber in Buster(even though he bore a marginally greater similarity to the train). In his mulleted prime he even donned a Hawaiian shirt and starred in an episode of Miami Vice(a role he digitally revisited in 2006 for the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories).
At Live Aid in 1985, his gorblimey, game-for-anything persona made him the natural choice when Bob Geldof cast around for a pop star to play on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did Collins rise to the challenge, he also occupied the drum stool for Led Zeppelin’s short set.
His detractors couldn’t help but take it all personally. Melody Maker led the charge against him. When it made him Wally of the Week two weeks in a row Collins wrote to protest. Mischievously, the magazine printed his letter without trying terribly hard to hide his address. NME raged at the “hypocrisy” of his writing the homelessness song Another Day in Paradise when he had allegedly baulked at the possibility of higher taxes under a Labour Government. He has since maintained that he has never voted Conservative.
Nonetheless, the matter still comes up far more often than he would like it to. Before the General Election in 2005, Noel Gallagher took a pop: “Vote Labour. If you don’t and the Tories get in, Phil is threatening to come back from Switzerland – and none of us want that.” Collins’s response? “I don’t care if he likes my music or not. I do care if he starts telling people I’m a w****** because of my politics. It’s an opinion based on an old misunderstood quote.”
But at the beginning of this decade, an odd thing happened. While a generation of indie kids defined itself against everything for which Collins apparently stood, the man from Genesis became a hip-hop icon. Urban Renewal – a 2001 compilation featuring versions of his songs by the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Lil Kim and Kelis – emerged to some acclaim.
“ Urban Renewal was sweet,” he says, “because I’ve been – unfairly, I would say – plonked in the middle of the road because of a handful of songs. It came at a good time for me, because you do take a bit of a browbeating and, as you get older, you become better at accepting it and realising why it happens.”
Then he received a phone call from his manager: Cadbury’s had been in touch to ask if Collins might allow the use of In the Air Tonightin an advertisement. Was it made clear to him that it would feature a gorilla playing drums to the song? “As much as it’s possible for such a thing to be made clear,” he smiles.
He’s long been reconciled to the fact that In the Air Tonight will for ever be his keynote song. “Do I mind? Well, if you’re ever remembered at all, it’s only usually for one or two things. With me, it’ll be: ‘He faxed his wife a divorce’, which is actually b****cks, but that’ll be on top of the headstone. And then, further down, you’ll have ‘Da-dum, da-dum’ . . .” He simulates that drum fill from In the Air Tonight.
Then he modulates into a burst from one of Basil Fawlty’s most memorable ruminations – “Zoom! What was that? That was your life, mate. Do I get another? No, sorry that was your lot” – and it amuses him just as much as it must have done the first time he heard it.
© TimesOnline, by Pete Paphides