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Singing the Changes

Singing the ChangesPhil Collins has been a child star, a pop phenomenon, and is now a Hollywood hotshot. But why has one of the most driven men in show business vowed never to tour again?

He was once considered the hardest-working man in show business. The sort of person who would put his solo career in front of everything except his other careers as the most visible member of Genesis, the budding Hollywood film star and the jobbing drummer for every charity rock concert in town. It was Phil Collins who performed, on the same day and via Concorde, at the Wembley and Philadelphia legs of the 1985 Live Aid event, the only participant who felt it necessary to pull-off this feat. By the early 1990s, with platinum discs, movie credits and globally televised benefits piling up, he was in danger of becoming as famous for his work rate as he was for his work. But today Collins has a perplexing confession to make.

"When I moved to Switzerland eight years ago, I discovered the art of relaxation. I realised why people went on holiday, and I thought, 'This is quite nice no wonder people do this.' I've read more books in the past eight years than I did in the previous 40. I've discovered a slower lifestyle, "Collins smiles as he says this, and gentle self-mockery aside, he has plenty to smile about. His house is on the cosy side of magnificent and, though not as big as the modern mansion he and his second wife, Jill, used to inhabit in the Surrey rockbroker belt, it's in a stunning location. A short drive away from Geneva, it commands views of Lac Leman and Mont Blanc. It sits above its own swimming pool, tennis court and, just below them, vineyards. For 30 years, he explains; this was the family home of the former grand-prix racing champ Jackie Stewart, hence the three garages. Collins and his third wife, Orianne, moved in first in 1997, renting it until last year, when Stewart finally agreed to sell it to them.

As he describes the summer tennis competition he hosts, the annual Christmas party in the garden marquee, or the expeditions to Les Diablerets or Zermatt, where the Collinses have holiday homes and Orianne has encouraged him to take up skiing, he sounds reborn. Hearing him talk about days spent on his boat on the lake, with the engine off and a book in his hand - Stephen Fry is his favourite author, biographies his preferred genre - it's hard to connect this recreation fiend with the hyperactive worker bee of old.

What makes it easier is that we're having this conversation in the swanky, Peninsula Hotel in LA, where Collins has come to spend a couple of weeks - yes, you guessed it - working. For a man prone to extolling the virtues of leisure, who is rich enough not to need to earn another cent in this lifetime, he is looking at one busy schedule. There is his new solo album, Testify, out next month, which needs to be talked up. There are executives from the Toyota car company to be schmoozed, all part of a deal that will see a track from the album, Can't Stop Loving You, used as a sound-bed on a forthcoming global TV advertising campaign. "You cant buy that kind of help normally," he observes, correctly. (Some of the biggest international hits of recent years, Fly Away by Lenny Kravitz being a prime example, have sold massively thanks to exposure on car ads).

Then there are the ongoing conversations with Disney. Phil Collins may not be flavour of the month in the pop world right now but he is a very big noise in that part of Hollywood where cartoon animations reign supreme. The songs he wrote for Disney's Tarzan movie, and in particular the main theme, 'You'll Be in My Heart', took a CV already saturated with success to another level. For his musical contribution (which he sang in five languages), Collins won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. "It meant a lot because it was outside my field. I thought of soundtrack work as professional, whereas I was semiprofessional. And I wasn't based here in the States, which tends to work against you." He recalls the moment when Cher opened the Oscar envelope with his name in it "It was mind-numbing. I was very excited."

So, even before the gongs showed up, was Disney. On the day Tarzan opened in the UK it was on the phone offering him another, bigger job: writing both the songs and the score ("which is new for me. I hope I can do it") for a super furry feature called Brother Bear. Feeling still perhaps a little underemployed, he then volunteered to take care of the music for Tarzan 2, a less prestigious project that will go straight to video: "Because I did the original I didn't want someone else coming in and tainting that," he explains.

Lastly, and most importantly, Disney and he are hatching plans for Tarzan: The Musical, a stage show to be performed in the round with six new songs from Collins, a mind-bogglingly spectacular set from the designer Bob Crowley arid possibly - -though this has only been talked about so far - a new purpose-built venue in Las Vegas or New York. "I took it because I thought it would be taxing and demanding and I would grow from it." Collins says, adding: "It can't t be like The Lion King. No animal costumes with zips up the back."

As he ticks off his list of commitments. obligingly filling in every last date and detail with a memory that would put a medium-sized elephant to shame, three things strike you about Phil Collins. The first, and it's pretty obvious, is that this man is kidding himself if he imagines he has traded fame for domesticity. He may have an adorable young Swiss wife, small baby Nicholas and whizzy Alpine homes, but he is far from living in semi-retirement. The second is that, now more than ever, Phil Collins is king of the middle of the road, the toast of the giant corporation that virtually invented family entertainment as we know it. The third, most interesting point is that, at long last, he seems happy with that.

Phil Collins never set out to be an entertainer: he always wanted to be a drummer. He started banging a toy drum at the age of three and showed such flair that two "uncles" - Reg arid Len, not real uncles but friends of the family - built him his first drum kit when he was five. Suburban respectability was the dominant theme in the Collinses' semi-detached west London household. Dad worked in insurance in the city, like his father before him. But getting up on stage was a big thing with them too. Every Saturday night young Philip and his older brother and sister would be taken to Richmond Yacht Club on Eel Pie Island, where everybody, even Dad, did a comedy musical turn while Phil played along on drums. He is still remembered there, and has for years been honorary president of the club.

Returning one night, Collins had a vision of what he sensed his future would be. Passing the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, one of the joints where imported R&B music was taking root, he caught the mesmerising growl of a black American blues man backed by a group of white, English-Iooking scruffs playing electric guitars. This, he later found out, was Howlin' Wolf and the Rolling Stones. Like a generation of British teenagers, Collins was hooked. But as an 11-year- old recently enrolled at Chiswick Grammar School, there wasn't a lot he could do about it.

"I only took up acting because I was too young to play in a band," he explains, before going on to tell how, at 13, he landed the role of the Artful Dodger in the Lionel Bart stage musical Oliver! By now his mother was working for a theatrical agent, Barbara Speake, which is how he got put up for the part. His headmaster a forbidding gown- and-mortarboard wearer called Mr Hands, forced him to choose between stage and school. His parents, showing their yacht-club side, favoured the former and the die was cast: Phil Collins left to become a child actor. He says he was "really touched - amazed, actually"- when Mr Hands contacted him recently to say that he'd been secretly monitoring his progress ever since. After seven months in the West End, his voice broke one night and he had to quit Oliver! Mom came up with other parts: walk-ons in the Beatles movie 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'. But he was less interested in the smell of the greasepaint than in the roar of the rock'n' roll crowd, "My dad wouldn't talk to me for two weeks when I told him I wasn' t going to act any more."

Living at home in Chiswick, hanging out at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street and dating Andrea Bertorelli, daughter of the noted Italian restaurateur and the woman he eventually married in 1975, Collins had his first and only taste of failure. Playing in a succession of unremembered bands, he spent the rest of the 1960s struggling to get noticed. "The groups that I played in were good, but we didn't have any work which I found very frustrating." Phil, we do understand. Reading between the lines, they were a tad too pop for the psychedelic rock era, to which Collins, who has never taken LSD and only flirted with marijuana in the 1970s, was not temperamentally suited. An advert in the Melody Maker for "a drummer sensitive to acoustic music" changed everything. On the face of it, Collins, a Motown fan and graduate of the university of life, had little in common with a tight bunch of friends who met at Charterhouse School, played fey arid whimsical "progressive" rock and called themselves Genesis. He tells an amusing story of turning up "early as usual" for the audition at a large house in Surrey belonging to Peter Gabriel's parents. They suggested he have a swim in the pool while he waited his turn, "and I was like. 'Where? In the local municipal baths?' And they said, 'No, the pool's over there in the garden."' Unfazed, he sailed through the audition.

The relationship was highly productive but not easy. "I hadn't met anybody from public school before and they were quite highly strung. Very intense people. We'd be working on a song and someone would say something I didn't catch and one of them would just walk off for an hour. The person I most related to was Peter [Gabriel], because we both liked soul music, and made each other laugh. "They stayed friends after Gabriel left to go solo in 1975, and last met up in the summer at his wedding in Sardinia. A late-night jam session with other former band members ensued. Collins now disparages their earlier albums as "ungrounded", but the combination of his audience-friendly ways and the Charterhouse crew's artier sensibilities turned Genesis into one of the biggest British bands of the past 30 years. Eventually. It was a long slog to superstardorn: it took them 15 years to become stadium-fillers. But by the end, unofficially marked by their 1991 album 'We Can't Dance', they were selling more than 10m copies per release - twice what the Stones could manage at the time.

The main engine of their success was the prodigious Collins, who is understating the case when he says: "If you look back at the 1980s, I was never away". He was at all times everywhere. Drummer by appointment to the rock aristocracy, from Eric Clapton to Robert Plant, timekeeper at all the Prince's Trust shows, a film star in the 1988 train-robber movie Buster. How he found time to launch a solo career and propel Genesis into the international super-league is a mystery. "I was brought up to save for that rainy day, so whenever so-and-so asked me to do something. I always thought, 'Well, I may not get asked again.' So in that situation you tend to say yes. I loved my job so much, l didn't want to be away from it."

It is tempting to speculate that the trauma of the break-up of his marriage to Andrea cranked him into overdrive. And it is true that many of the songs on his first solo album, Face Value, were written in direct response to her running off with the decorator while he was away on tour. For inspirational services rendered, Andrea even tried, unsuccessfully to sue for a share of the royalties. But the departing spouse was swiftly replaced by wife No 2, an LA rock chick called Jill Tavelman. And anyway. Collins had been scarcely less busy in the 1970s. releasing a slew of albums with his jazz-rock band Brand X as well as putting out one a year with Genesis.

The difference in the 1980s was how and where he concentrated his energies. The Collins solo project, plaintive and bouncy in equal measure, hit the pop mainstream like a train. Virgin Records, which signed him in the UK, was reputedly saved from bankruptcy in 1981 by the runaway success of a singing drummer whose services they secured for an advance of £50,000. Women all over the world warmed to the sound of this ordinary -looking bloke - shaggy no longer, thanks to a sharply receding hairline - baring his wounded soul. Throughout the 1980s Phil Collins, the voice of soulful decency, could do no wrong.

But in the 1990s he did, sort of. In 1993 he released a sad and troubled collection. Both Sides, which he still regards as his best work but which blind-sided the fans. It foretold the end of his second marriage. "I don't think my working hard had anything to do with that," he says firmly. "Whenever we toured, Jill and our daughter, Lily. would travel with us. And I can hold my hand in the air and say that I never fooled around on the road when I was married." A pause. "Until it all sort of deteriorated."

He met Orianne Cevey when the Two Sides tour touched down in Lausanne and she was sent by the local promoter to oversee the party's travel arrangements. For Collins it was more or Iess love at first sight. "She was a very beautiful girl and she had presence. I was married, but Jill and I were having a hard time, so I guess my blinkers were off. I told Orianne that if I wasn't married I'd probably ask her out to dinner." He did anyway, the next day, "and you could say I never went home again".

For the rest of that tour, home was a hotel room in Nyon. near where the 22-year-old Orianne lived with her parents. While the British tabloids made hay, Collins's record company blamed his tarnished reputation for his declining sales, and as soon as the tour stopped Collins did something he had never done before: he took five months off. A swift divorce settlement with Jill left her with custody of their daughter, and the house in LA he bought when his movie career kicked off. (Things between them are amicable: they all meet up whenever he's in town.) Soon he and his newest wife were renting a tiny medieval house on the main street in Hermance, near the Swiss--French border. "I had nothing. So I had to go around buying knives, forks and plates, bedclothes and towels. It was a very exciting time." Phil Collins's new life had begun.

Hugh Padgham, Genesis's old producer, who has also worked on most of Collins's solo albums, is often approached for revealing stories about the real Phil, the man behind the tasks. "People always ask me for anecdotes. but there aren't any. We didn't hang ou, it was just work. If I wasn't there at one minute past 10, he'd be on the phone. He's very, very private. I've probably only been round to his house twice in all the time I've known him."

Collins broadly agrees with this assessment. "When I was with Jill, I'd go to the pub but people never used to come to us. Don't ask me why. lt was the way it turned out." He also recalls his stern and distant treatment of the musicians in his backing band. In the 1980s, he would retire to his hotel room after a show to listen back to tapes of the concert. Anybody heard to have played a bum note had a written reprimand tucked under their door But that, he says, is all history. Touring is over, for ever. A recent infection in his inner ear has taken away 40% of the hearing and 70% of the comprehension on one side. When Queen asked him to sing 'We Are the Champions' at this years Jubilee bash at the Palace he turned up at the rehearsal only to find that "the ear shut down. It was so loud I couldn't pitch. And it hurt." He will only in future perform one-off, semi-acoustic unplugged-style concerts, like the one he gave for Toyota execs last month in LA. Testify, the new album, will have to rely on the car ad and on radio support, which, since the Tarzan theme became the most played record ever on Arnerica's adult contemporary stations, shouldn't be a problem.

His life row centres around his home. The man who used to pull up the drawbridge of an evening has turned into a bit of a party-thrower, thanks to the women he calls rather quaintly, "the wife". "Orianne is very open. She embraces life. I've become much more of a social animal." Mostly, he socialises with Swiss locals, whom he finds easier to get along with than their equivalent in the land of his birth. Hanging out with fellow celebrities is not his thing, although Orianne did throw a surprise party in Zermatt for his 50th birthday last year, which was attended by the pop grandees Sir George Martin and Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the Atlantic label.

Collins says he's "just as enthusiastic but less driven" now, and he certainly seems less troubled by how he is perceived. Many pop musicians have mixed feelings about being truly popular. Most would rather be cool, fashionable, attractively aloof from the throngs who flock to them. In the past, Collins was a bit that way himself, often professing in interviews his bafflement and annoyance at how success with the public had won him so little respect from critics. Since a particularly brutal drubbing from the NME in 1981, he has never let a journalist into his house. Now he doesn't seem so bothered what the world thinks. He frets briefly that we might wonder:... "'Oh God, he's still working so hard, what about his new family why doesn't he slow down a bit?' But it's not the amount of work you do, it's whether you can sleep in your own bed" he says.

As he busies his way into his sixth decade, looking about as charismatic as an old-fashioned manager at your local building society, he exudes the contented air of a guy who accepts that you can't win them all. And when you've sold over 100m albums, handled just about every trophy in the showbiz catalogue, enjoyed a 30-year career in one of the most competitive working environments on Earth and still found time for domestic bliss, you haven't really missed much.

© Sunday Times Magazine, by Robert Sandall

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