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Phil Collins relives his youth through Motown

Phil Collins relives his youth through MotownGood god, look at Phil Collins now. Mister Sussudio, in Toronto recently to talk up his new album of Motown-era covers, is toddling gingerly across a room to fetch a bottle of water. When asked how he’s faring, the 59-year-old singing-drummer, deaf in one ear, responds with “Eh?” before admitting to feeling “okay,” but a “bit burned out” from all the travelling and talking. “You got me now,” he sighs, indicating his wish that the interview commence.

More or less, and for better or for worse, yes, we have Phil Collins. Going Back, his sixties-soul-raiding new disc, is a bizarrely self-indulgent project involving the music of the London-born musician’s youth and CSI-level sleuthing to make the radio-terrific tunes sound precisely like they did when he had hair – silky and blonde, judging by the album cover – and two functioning ears. Laid on top of the original arrangements, retro fidelity and what remains of the Funk Brothers rhythm section are Collins’s machine-polished vocals.

It’s karaoke for millionaires, is what it is.

“I’m prepared for the question,” blurts Collins, bundled up in a heavy sweater and scarf. “If you’re not going to bring anything new to Uptight, then why do it, because you’re no Stevie Wonder.” That’s a darn good question, Phil. And the answer? “I can’t say anything to that except for ‘Yes, you’re right.’ My reasons for doing this are very selfish. I just always wanted to sing these songs.”

There’s a lot of that kind of thing happening these days. Rod Stewart, who has a fifth volume of his Great American Songbook series coming out on Oct. 19, last year issued Soulbook, a collection of retro soul classics that contained a couple of Motown tracks. Geezer crooner Neil Diamond is getting in the action as well: Early November sees the release of Dreams, a 14-song package of his favourites written by others.

Tom Petty (with 2008’s Mudcrutch) and Robert Plant (with this year’s Band of Joy) have also revisited chapters of their past, but with much more gusto, inspiration and new material. What Collins, Stewart and Diamond are doing represents a sort of lucrative quasi-retirement – songwriters putting down their pens to wallow nostalgic instead.

“I am, and I’ve been telling people this since I did my final farewell tour in 2006, slamming on the breaks,” says Collins, who doesn’t plan to tour the new record.” Collins last toured in 2007 with a reunited Genesis, the progressive rock outfit he joined in 1970. “I don’t intend doing anything other than spending a more time with my family.

For Going Back, Collins did as much reconstructing as he did reminiscing. The process of duplicating the relatively crude sixties fidelity Hitsville USA was as enjoyable as the actual performing of the material. “I think that’s why the record sounds like it’s a bit of fun,” explains Collins, who had a hit with the bouncy Supremes classic You Can't Hurry Love in 1982.

Oddly, Collins never considered actually recording the album at the original, well-preserved Motown studio in Detroit where it all happened. Where John Mellencamp, for this year’s folky No Better Than This, hunkered down in Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and the historic Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Tex., the Switzerland resident Collins dismissed using Motown to get the Motown sound as “impractical.”

And as much as he describes the recording Holland-Dozier-Holland classics Heat Wave, Take Me in Your Arms, and Standing in the Shadows of Love as a giddy experience, it wasn’t all frolic. Drumming was a chore for Collins, who underwent surgery to repair neck vertebrae in 2009. Because he still has no feeling in the ends of his fingers in his left hand, a drumstick had to be taped into his paw. Even with that, he hadn’t the strength required to play for a full song in one take.

If this project was all about indulging and having fun, you wonder why Collins would put himself through the now laborious task of drumming. “There was nobody else I would trust with it,” Collins says with a shrug. “The guys I would have trusted are all dead. In the end, it didn’t matter how we got it. It happened that we ended up getting it, and it sounded good.”

© The Globe and Mail, by Brad Wheeler

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