This interview took place in 1993, before the separation from his wife, Jill.
Over the last few years, Phil Collins has emerged as one of the most successful singer/song-writers in the world. Early in his career he became drummer to an up-coming band called Genesis. When Peter Gabriel, the lead singer, decided to leave in 1975, Collins took over the job. In the early eighties, he launched a parallel career as a solo artist that has led to him becoming a household name.
Phil Collins invited me to his recording studio, which is part of a four hundred year old farmhouse in Surrey. During a break from putting the finishing touches to the latest Genesis album, he talked about some of the traveling experiences he has had, both touring with his groups and when off duty with his wife Jill and their two and a half year old daughter, Lillie.
Life 'on the road' is tough for bands at any time, but never more so than before financial success has eased some of the discomforts. Collins recalls: "It was hard in the early days. When Peter Gabriel was in the band, we used to travel to gigs in his Hillman Imp. Five of us used to squeeze in, sometimes all the way to Edinburgh or Newcastle. When he left, there were only four of us and we used to do the same kind of thing in a Mini. That was the band's main form of transport, while all our gear would go in a transit. After a time, as money came along, we got our own transit to travel in, which was fitted with aircraft seats."
As their popularity spread to Europe, Genesis found themselves touring the continent by coach, usually with two or three other bands. "We stayed in some pretty shabby places in Europe," says Collins, "where the walls were so thin, they might just as well have not been there! With three bands, it was chaos, as they all seemed to go to bed at different times. You'd get some guys like Tony [Banks] and Mike [Rutherford], who'd be up at eight o'clock and ready to go. Then there'd be the stragglers, who basically had to be prised out of bed at eight in the morning when they'd only just climbed into it!"
Eventually, the band's perseverance paid off and they found themselves in the position where they could afford to fly: "I can't remember much about the early flights, except that it was ages before we got into First Class. On one occasion in the early Genesis days, we were flying from Madrid to Lisbon or vice versa. As we went down the runway, I was listening to my walkman with my eyes closed, when suddenly, I felt the plane swerve sideways and I thought: 'this isn't quite right!' For some reason, the plane had veered off the runway onto the verge. I'll never forget that because it was the first time anything like that had ever happened."
Fortunately, the incident did not put the band off flying. In fact, they reached a stage where they were flying so much, they took the next logical step: "The advent of the private plane was just fantastic," says Collins. "When we're touring America or Europe, we use our own plane and a great advantage of that is it cuts out an awful lot of time checking in. You literally drive up to the plane, get on and then drive off at the other end."
With all the traveling Collins undertakes, jetlag must be a problem. "I get it, but I don't suffer with it," he explains. "The only time flying has mucked me about was once going to Japan. It was about '78 and it was the first time I'd ever been to that part of the world. Although it's east, we went the other way, stopping in Anchorage and then crossing the dateline and it took me about twelve days to adjust. At the time I was going through a divorce and drinking saki, so there were lots of reasons why I probably didn't get it together. I know it shouldn't make a difference, but crossing the dateline, we weren't sure what day it was - it was very strange. Now, I seem to cope with it better."
Flying can be very boring, but Collins says that he always has something to do. "I'm usually going to make a record, finish a record, start a record or start a tour or between tours. If it's the beginning of something - like an album, I'm working on the lyrics and I take a walkman and headset. Sometimes I get the chance to listen to some things that I've been stacking up. I very rarely listen to the in-flight stuff."
Is there ever time for sightseeing while on tour? "Not really. Sometimes, when it's a one-off thing, we'll make a special effort. Like, when I was a kid, David Crockett was my hero - still is, actually. So, I always wanted to go to the Alamo. Then, on one of the earliest Genesis tours in America, I got the chance. Another time, we had three days off in Australia, so we went out of our way to fly to Ayres Rock."
Collins outlines a typical day: "In the morning we get up and have breakfast and wherever we are, Jill goes out with Lillie to antique fairs, car boot sales and things, so I don't see the family much when we're on the road. I usually hang around the room listening to a bit of last night's show. If there's one available, I go to the steam room every day for my voice. I spend half an hour there and then I eat, because I can't eat later than four o'clock. Then I go for a sound check. That's my day."
At only two and a half, Lillie has already chalked up an unenviable number of flying hours. Traveling with a small child isn't easy and Collins is the first to admit that his attitude is different when he is traveling alone: "There's that awful moment when you're in the First Class lounge and a baby comes in and you think: 'better not be near me!' Sometimes we've got on the plane with Lillie to fly to LA. You can see the terror in the other passengers' eyes and they're thinking; 'what's this flight going to be like?' Eleven hours later, they come up and congratulate us and say: 'she's been such a good girl!' You can see the relief that actually, she's been all right!"
There are times, says Collins, when it's the cabin service that can cause problems with Lillie's routine. At the end of a recent holiday in Bermuda, the Collins family boarded the aircraft for their flight home. "The lights were dimmed when we took off and Lillie was half asleep, when suddenly all the lights were turned up because the crew wanted to feed us. Now, to his credit, the steward put the lights down when he served dinner, because I asked him to. I suppose you can't take kids into consideration all the time, but I just wish there could be a bit of flexibility. The stewards and stewardesses are great, but they have to do the service they're told. On this flight, all the Tampa passengers had already eaten and having got you on at twelve, they did another meal service. On some flights, they wake you up at four for breakfast, when you could actually have slept for the whole time."
For parents and crew alike, small children can be a nightmare on a long flight. Collins agrees: "If you're in Economy, then I think it must be hell with a two or three year old, because they want to run around and there's no-where to do it. At least in First Class there's a bit of room and when Genesis as a band go out, there's three of us, plus wives, family and tour managers, so we take up most of the cabin."
Although Collins enjoys traveling with British Airways, he believes there is room for improvement. "Children are provided for with the kids' packs and the stewards and stewardesses couldn't do more, but if British Airways could take a page out of anyone's book, it would be Virgin, in as much as they have a lounge which is just behind the galley. It's another place for people to sit and they provide a table for the kids."
Having no special dietary requirements, Collins says he'll eat more- or-less anything. "Catering on planes, like on British Rail, is a standing joke, but I don't really have a problem with it. I don't quite know what people expect. Of course, I'm only getting one end of it, as we travel First Class all the time now, where you order the meal you want. I remember flying with Air India to New York quite a few years ago now and I love Indian food, so the fact that I had a curry on board was fantastic. When I go on Japanese Airlines, I really love it because I like Japanese food. I guess it can be pretty brutal in Economy if you flew with maybe one of the Eastern European airlines. I never have."
Over the years, Phil Collins has toured extensively with both his own band and with Genesis. While on the road, their lifestyle is not unlike that of longhaul crew. So, when they get to their hotel, do they hold room parties? "Usually they hang out more like that if the wives aren't around!" jokes Collins. "No seriously... when there's families, you tend to go back to your room after the gig rather than go for a drink with the other guys. But there's always someone who's got something going, like the tour manager. Often there's a BA crew, because half the time we stay at the same hotels, especially in Australia. I can remember spending quite a lot of time with crews around the pool there. They always make themselves known to us. What usually happens is: we invite them to the gig and then I come back and everybody else goes to the crew's room party!
Collins is well-known for inviting crews to his concerts while down- route. One story has it, that having invited a crew to the final concert of his tour down-under, he announced the final song: "Take Me Home" and dedicated it to them. "I think that that might be one of those little stories!" says Collins, smiling. "Take Me Home used to start straight away out of another song and there was never really time to say much, to be honest. It's one of those little stories that's nice. If I'd thought of it or someone had suggested it, I probably would have done it!"
Anyone who owns the "Phil Collins Live in Berlin" video, will have seen him introducing each song in more than passable German. Surprisingly, however, he cannot speak the language. "I do that in whatever language of the country I'm in, because the audience appreciate it. You can either go out there and say: "Everybody all right?...All right! And the next song is..." or you can go out there and tell them what it's about. On the day of the show, I sit down with someone that speaks very good English and someone who speaks the local language very well and work out what I'm going to say. Believe it or not, Japanese is actually easier than some European languages! The way I do it is to write it all down phonetically so I get the pronunciation right, although nobody else could read it. In the old days, it used to be the odd word in French, but over the last fifteen years it's sort of built up and now it's become a thing. To be honest, I couldn't hold a conversation with anybody in any language other than English - and that's a struggle sometimes!"
Perhaps the most famous flight Collins has ever undertaken was on Concorde to New York in July, 1985. Watched by an estimated billion television viewers around the world, he successfully made the trip that enabled him to perform at both the London and Philadelphia Live Aid concerts on the same day.
It was just as his '85 No Jacket Required tour was drawing to a close that Sting got in touch with Collins and told him about the unique charity concerts, capturing his immediate interest. "When we looked at who was on in England," he recalls, "there was really nobody a) that I might have wanted to play with or b) that I knew or that I thought would want to have me. All my mates like Clapton and Robert Plant were doing the American show. Then someone said to me that it would be possible to do both if I went on early enough in London and then got Concorde. So I said 'OK, I'll do that then', without really thinking about it."
There were still a number of logistical problems to be ironed out before the venture could be accomplished successfully. Collins had to ensure that he went on stage early at the London show and that the bands he was to play with in Philadelphia were performing late. Another hurdle was the seemingly impossible of task of trying to find a way to speed through the normally slow process of completing customs and immigration formalities at JFK.
"A week before Live Aid, my tour had finished in New York and while I was there, I said to this guy at the airport: 'We're coming through next week to do a charity show; any chance of getting cleared on board?' He said no. Apparently everyone has to go through the terminal - even Princess Margaret.
Unperturbed, Collins pushed on with his plans. On the day of the show, he played his set in London before taking a helicopter with his wife and manager to Heathrow for the trans-Atlantic flight. He has vivid memories of his departure: "When we got to the airport - I'll never forget this - we landed and all the baggage handlers were out by Concorde to wave me goodbye. It was ever so nice of them."
By the time he boarded, he had acquired an entourage of reporters including DJ Steve Blackman with a film crew. "We were the last to get on," explains Collins.
"Cher was on the plane and apparently thought that all the fuss was for her. I gather she didn't look that great, so she went into the toilet and came out looking fantastic; but when she sat down, all the reporters went straight by her!"
During the flight, Collins introduced himself to her and when she asked what was going on, she confessed that she had never heard of Live Aid. She wasted no time however, as Collins points out: "That night, not only did she get in, but she got on stage singing "We Are The World!"
On arrival at JFK, Collins discovered that some strings had been pulled, when he was told he would be cleared by immigration on board, saving valuable time. Their helicopter was already waiting and thus began a nail-biting dash to the Philadelphia stadium.
"Considering the distance is only a hundred and fifty miles," says Collins, "it seemed like ages after it took us only a few hours to go all the way from London to New York. I was worried that we weren't going to arrive in time to play with the people I was supposed to play with."
As it turned out, he only had time to find out what Clapton and Led Zepplin were playing before going on and playing with them completely unrehearsed. "Before I had done all this running around," recalls Collins, "I was asked to sing a couple of lines in 'We Are The World' at the end of the show and at the time I had said: 'Yeah, no problem.' But when I came off, it was like someone had unplugged me; I was completely zonked."
The following day - Sunday - Collins and his wife returned to London. "It was really the next morning, when we woke up and read all the newspapers, that we actually realized what we had been part of," he explains. "At the time, as far as I was concerned, it was just a logistical exercise, getting from A to B. Would I get there in time? Would it be all right? Would I lose my voice? People are still asking me if I've recovered from it; that I must have had jetlag. But we didn't, because we weren't there long enough to adjust."
Pursuing, as Collins does, several distinct careers, it is not surprising that his diary for '92 and early '93 is almost completely filled. Fitting everything in requires a juggling act, as Collins explains: "Each thing leapfrogs. I do a Genesis project - like now, we're just finishing off an album - and then by the time the album is doing its thing, I could do nothing or I could do a film. Then we tour and by the time it's over, I'll do another film and then it will have been three years since my last record. If I had my way, I would be doing an album on my own now as well as a Genesis album, but you can't do that kind of thing. Whatever happens, I'm always doing something."
Collins has a pet project which, if all goes well, will come off late next year: "I'm hoping to do a film which is a baby of mine, that I've been trying to get together since 1985. It's going to be "Goldilocks and The Three Bears" with me, Bob Hoskins and Danny DeVito as the three bears which will be good fun. It will be a comedy - probably!"
© An interview by Anna Warman
transcribed by Ilya V. Yakovlev