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Phil Collins: 'People used to think I was musical evil. Now I'm cool'

Selling records and winning awards are things that have always come easy to Phil Collins. He has sold 100 million solo records and another 150 million with Genesis, putting him in the same rarefied league as Madonna, Elton John and Pink Floyd. His numerous awards include seven Grammys, two Golden Globes and an Oscar (for You'll Be In My Heart from Disney's Tarzan).

Phil Collins, photo by Neale Haynes

Yet, by his own admission, the one thing that hasn't come so easily to him is musical credibility. Until now, that is. Holding court in a sumptuous hotel suite close to his home in the Swiss municipality of Féchy, he shrugs and says, 'For years I was selling millions of records but was regarded as a great musical evil by many people, who wanted to stick pins in effigies of me. Now that's changed. Living in Switzerland I've been unaware that there's been this great sea change.

'Then, just recently, I was out with Genesis in New York, where we were being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Iggy Pop came over to me to pay his respects and I'm thinking, "Iggy Pop!? The Godfather of Punk! This wouldn't have happened ten years ago." I guess after all this time a lot of people are finally shaking off their prejudices about me and feeling OK about admitting they like my music. If so, that's a wonderful thing. It doesn't make me the coolest man on the planet. But it's a start. Even so, there'll always be people out there like Noel Gallagher who firmly believe I'm the Antichrist.'

Phil Collins, photo by Neale HaynesIt's hard to be precise about when exactly it became socially acceptable to admit to a love of Phil Collins records. Quite possibly the critical rehabilitation began once it became common knowledge that he was a bona fide hero among the rap/hip-hop community, with die-hard fans including Ice-T, Pharrell Williams, Wyclef Jean and Timbaland. In recent years, hip-hop's elite have generously sampled Collins's solo records. The acclaimed 2001 album Urban Renewal brought versions of his songs by artists such as Lil' Kim and Kelis.

'The making of that album was an event in itself,' says Collins. 'The record company would give the money to these rappers to record the track, then they'd promptly go out and get arrested. To me, it was amazing that my music was so respected by rappers.

'The first time I realised something was going on, I was watching a TV documentary about Ice-T, who was showing a journalist around his house. The reporter was looking through his album collection and started taking the rise when he found all these Phil Collins records. Ice-T was incensed and said to the guy, "Don't you mess with my Phil." I fell off the sofa when I heard that. I was incredibly flattered that someone like Ice-T could see through all the nonsense that's been written about me and allow my music to reach him like that.'

The cool rebranding of Phil Collins, 59, was helped along in all quarters of the media. In 2006, Collins made a virtual appearance in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories.

In 2007, In The Air Tonight was used in an instantly iconic TV ad for Dairy Milk chocolate, with an impatient gorilla waiting to drum along to Collins's most famous song (it's been viewed on YouTube more than four-and-a-half million times). The same song was used to equally memorable effect in last year's hit comedy The Hangover, with former champion boxer Mike Tyson hijacking the vocals

'All of it is a surprise,' says Collins. 'The greatest surprise for me is how some of my songs have had this amazing afterlife. Often when I bump into strangers on the street, they won't speak to me; they'll just act out the drum sequence from In The Air Tonight. That song just won't lie down. When the chocolate company first rang up about the advert, they asked whether I'd have any objections about a gorilla playing my drum parts. My attitude was, "If you can make that mad idea work, then good luck to you." Then it goes on to become one of the most popular ads of all time.

'I knew nothing about the song being used in The Hangover. Then a friend asked me, "Have you seen that movie where those guys steal Mike Tyson's tiger during a stag night in Vegas and they all end up singing In The Air Tonight?" When I saw it I thought it was hilarious.'

Phil Collins, photo by Neale HaynesDuring the Seventies and Eighties, Phil Collins was nigh on impossible to avoid. Having joined Genesis as a drummer in 1970, he took over as frontman in 1975 following the departure of Peter Gabriel. Gradually his increasing influence saw the band evolve from artful prog-rock outfit into smooth hit-making machine.

Through the Eighties he worked relentlessly, with his mega-successful solo career running in tandem with Genesis's global domination. Additionally, he lent his talents to a mind-boggling variety of outside projects, working with artists as diverse as Brian Eno and ABBA's Anni-Frid Lyngstad. His reputation as rock's hardest-working musician was cemented with 1985's Live Aid, when he performed in both London and Philadelphia on the same day. He even found time for some acting, appearing in an episode of Miami Vice and starring in the movie Buster.

Meanwhile, his family life grew ever more complicated. In 1975 he married Canadian Andrea Bertorelli, with whom he had a son. He also adopted Bertorelli's daughter. They divorced in 1980 after Bertorelli started an affair with their painter and decorator. He was married to his second wife Jill Tavelman from 1984 to 1996. Their daughter was born in 1989. He married his third wife Orianne in 1999, and the couple had two sons before divorcing in 2007.

In the Nineties Collins scaled back his recording and touring commitments with Genesis, and his solo releases became more occasional. While albums such as Both Sides (1993) and Dance Into The Light (1996) sold in their millions, they failed to scale the stratospheric heights of earlier works such as Face Value and No Jacket Required.

For the past ten years he has been conspicuously quiet, at least by his standards. His last studio album, Testify, was released eight years ago. His forthcoming album, Going Back, is a collection of covers of his favourite soul classics.

His reduced output is partly down to health reasons. Since 2000 he has suffered from loss of hearing in one ear. More recently he was diagnosed with severe nerve damage to his hands, making drumming extremely challenging. During recording sessions for his new album he was forced to tape his sticks to his hands.
Keen to accentuate the positive, he explains that his medical concerns have forced him to take stock of his life.

'I never used to think of myself as a workaholic,' he says. 'I used to work non-stop because I couldn't believe my luck that I was able to do all these things that I loved. I was everywhere, and I can see why that must have been annoying to some people.

Phil Collins, photo by Neale Haynes

'Then I reached a point where I no longer felt the need to go zooming around the world and attend the opening of every envelope. Basically I stopped. I've got a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I take them to football. I like to take them to school and pick them up. That's my life now. I love doing the things that other people probably find tedious because they've been doing them for so long. I never did those things in the past, as I was always working flat out. That was my loss. Now I'm able to do all that and also have time to indulge my passions.'

Phil with his Genesis bandmates Tony Banks and Mike RutherlandFrom Bill Wyman's metal-detecting to Alex James's cheese-making, every self-respecting musician is obliged to cultivate a hobby to relieve the stresses of the rock-star life. Collins is no exception, using the basement of his Swiss home for his twin enthusiasms: working on his model railway and tending to his vast collection of Alamo memorabilia.

'I've been keen on model trains for years. When my eldest son was 12 we'd set up our Hornby rail track on the carpet and play for hours. Then someone would inevitably walk into the room and trample all over it. When I moved to Switzerland in the mid-Nineties, I boxed it up and it sat in a garage for 14 years. Then my other kids reached the right age and I figured it was time to dust it off and put it back together again.

'My train layout isn't in the same league as Rod Stewart's. Mine is more of a standard, bedroom-sized operation, but it's growing all the time. I don't spend hours watching the trains huff and puff around the tracks. For me the fun lies in building my own scenery from scratch, making sure all the mountains and bridges look realistic.

'The Alamo is a far greater passion for me. I've been fascinated with the Alamo since seeing the Disney movie about Davy Crockett as a kid. Now it's an all-consuming thing. I spend as much time in San Antonio as I can. I rent a little property out there on the walls of the Alamo itself, where I'll dig for artefacts. I'm always looking for stuff to buy and the collection is growing fast. I've got a huge number of cannonballs, muskets and Bowie knives that were used there, and many documents that were written by the main protagonists. One of my prized possessions is a receipt signed by commander William B Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.

'My kids are convinced that I was present at the Alamo in a previous life. Just recently I attended a convention out there and met a clairvoyant who's married to a man who's attempting to restore the Alamo compound. She walked up to me and said, "You've been here before. In a previous life you were John W Smith, one of the major couriers who survived the Alamo and became one of San Antonio's first mayors." Oddly enough, one of the first documents I bought for my collection was the receipt for Smith's saddle. So maybe my kids are on to something.'

Collins knew that music was his life's calling from the age of five, when he was given a toy drum kit for Christmas.

'I was obsessed with it,' he says. 'Every spare minute I'd play along to whatever music was on the telly or radio.'

Having enrolled at stage school in his early teens he enjoyed a brief but successful career as a child actor, starring as the Artful Dodger in the London stage production of Oliver!, and landing the part of an extra in the Beatles' 1964 film A Hard Day's Night.

'Even when I started acting I'd mapped out that music was going to be my career, but being in a proper band didn't occur to me at all. Even when I was filming with the Beatles, I wasn't thinking I could be like them some day.'

Phil with his second wife, Jill Tavelman (left) Phil with his with third wife Orianne (right)

After drumming with a number of long-forgotten bands he successfully auditioned for Genesis in 1970. The other band members had all attended the exclusive Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey, making Collins an outsider from the start.

'It wasn't that the others made me feel different. But because they'd had this Charterhouse background, they would finish each other's sentences and shared the same sense of humour. Because my background was different I was able to deflate the pomp when it crept into the music.

'Looking back, we were an unusual group. Unlike most bands we didn't go in for rock 'n' roll excess. We weren't celibate and we weren't always straight in terms of illegal substances, but it never went to extremes. We'd look into the audience and see all these guys completely out of it. They were probably looking at us thinking that we had to be equally out of it to play this music.

'In fact we needed to have our wits about us to do what we did. Having a crafty spliff before a show wasn't the ideal way of getting focused. But I had to experiment a bit before I reached that conclusion. I remember doing Robbery, Assault And Battery from A Trick Of The Tail in 1976. I recall the first verse coming at me like a train out of a tunnel, and I stood there thinking, "What the hell is the first line?" That's when I realised it wasn't too smart to have a smoke before the show.'

By the late Seventies, with the runaway success of albums such as Wind & Wuthering, Genesis were in such demand that most of their time was spent on gruelling world tours. As Collins was to discover, there was a hefty price to pay for being away from home so frequently.

'Basically I came back off tour to find my marriage gone. I suppose I expected my wife to understand that going on tour was part of my job, but she hated being left on her own.'

His break-up with Andrea Bertorelli had a positive effect on his career, though.

'If my missus hadn't left me I suppose I'd have gone off and made an obscure jazz album that nobody would have bought and that's the last you'd have heard from me. Instead I started writing the songs that ended up on Face Value.

'Nobody was more amazed by my solo success than I was. It took me completely by surprise. Everything I touched turned to gold at that time. Looking back, the only mistake I made was getting trapped in a persona. Maybe I became a parody of myself. A lot of people saw me as this middle-of-the-road kind of guy, a family entertainer like Cliff Richard. They judged me based on a handful of songs that were played to death on the radio.

'In the Eighties there was an awful lot of vitriol coming my way. Some of the criticism hurt and I would respond by writing letters and telephoning journalists to have it out with them. With hindsight I can see that I was oversensitive. But I felt I was being disliked for the wrong reasons, reasons that often had nothing to do with the music. There are still people who hate me for reasons that have nothing to do with the truth.'

Mainly he's referring to the breakdown of his second marriage, to Jill Tavelman, which he was widely reported to have ended by fax.

'Complete nonsense,' he snaps. 'There might have been a few faxes exchanged about access to my daughter, but that's not how the marriage was ended. But it doesn't matter what I say. That untruth will still be carved on my headstone.

'Same goes for the idea that I'm a Tory rocker who threatened to leave the country in 1997 if Labour got in and raised my taxes. It's all garbage. I've only voted once in my life. In the late Sixties I voted Tory, only because my dad had been a lifelong Conservative. Nobody ever asked me if I was Tory or Labour. The truth is that I don't believe in any of them.

'As for my threat to leave the country, I moved to Switzerland because I'd fallen in love with a woman who lived on Lake Geneva. As I said at the time, I'd have moved to Grimsby if she happened to live there. Inevitably everyone in Grimsby turned around and said, "Why's he having a pop at Grimsby?" If you're Phil Collins it seems you just can't win.'

As he admits, though, there's not too much to grumble about these days. Despite paying out a total of £42 million to his second and third wives, he's left with an estimated fortune of over £100 million, which allows him to lead an enviable lifestyle, with homes in Switzerland and America. Among musicians he enjoys a rare freedom, able to make the records he wants to make when he chooses to make them. And, after years spent fending off criticisms of his music, he's finally found almost universal acceptance.

'If that's true,' he laughs, 'I can now leave the house without wearing a disguise. Even my kids have started telling me they think I'm cool. I'm not sure about that myself. I think the jury will be out on that one for a good while yet.'

'Going Back' is out in September on Atlantic Records

© Dailymail, by Jon Wilde

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