Phil Collins: ‘I was pretty irritating’ | Stuff.co.nz
“I was ubiquitous throughout the 80s,” says Collins from the Miami mansion he bought from Jennifer Lopez for $NZ48 million last year, his voice as gruff as a chain-smoking London cabbie.
“I became unfairly tarnished with the brush of that era. Meanwhile, I was just trying to write good songs and play music with people I loved. But yeah, I think looking back on it, I can safely say, I was pretty irritating.”
Now 65, Collins has spent the past few years “taking stock”, he says, looking back over his life and work.
All of his solo albums are currently being reissued with extra live tracks, under the project banner Take A Look At Me Now. And a spanking new compilation called The Singles was released this week.
It’s a veritable Phil-fest, the sheer volume of revisited music suggesting Collins thinks it’s high time for a critical reassessment of his work.
“Well, that’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Really, the record company was keen to reissue those old albums, but it also seemed as though enough time had passed for people who couldn’t be bothered the first time around to take another listen, rather than just toss them on the scrap heap.”
Collins also recently released an autobiography with the rather passive-aggressive title Not Dead Yet (Century, RRP $40). The book relives the anecdotes that have become part of Collins lore down the decades.
His assorted marriages, divorces, infidelities, big hits and famous mates. His early days as drummer with prog-rock behemoths Genesis, and the backlash once Peter Gabriel left and Collins stepped in as lead singer, turning it into a shameless pop band.
The vast personal museum of military artifacts from The Alamo that occupies the basement of one of his houses in Switzerland. The mad fact that he was a shrieking 11-year-old extra in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night movie.
That time Phil’s first wife had an affair with their home decorator, so Phil plonked open cans of paint beside him while he played a song about infidelity on Top Of The Pops.
That much-repeated story about Collins being so cold-hearted, he broke up with his second wife by fax (“Not true”, says Phil). His recent struggles with alcoholism and depression after his third wife left him.
And that sorry business that possibly started the whole anti-Phil ball rolling, where he once outed himself as a rock’ n’ roll conservative, saying he’d leave the UK if Labour were elected in 1997.
True to his word, Collins moved to Switzerland. Eight years later, just before the 2005 election, Oasis singer Noel Gallagher told the British public : “Vote Labour. If you don’t and the Tories get in, Phil is threatening to come back!”
There’s a slightly wounded tone throughout his book, and that sense of injury permeates our phone conversation, too. Collins seems genuinely hurt that so many people have given him grief over the years.
I must admit I’ve done it myself. For years, I childishly insisted on calling him “Full Colons”, so jam-packed was his back catalogue with s***.
But you have to wonder why Collins cares so much about what his critics think. For every eye-rolling snob who disdains the glossy synths, sentimental lyrics and big hollow drums of his eighties pop ballads, there’s an equally vocal fan who loves the guy.
Phil has been praised to the skies by everyone from bat-chomping Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne to unimpeachably brilliant US punk band, Sleater-Kinney.
Some of our era’s biggest pop stars also pledge allegiance, including Beyonce, Kanye West and Alicia Keys. Lorde is a fan; Adele, too. Surely Collins must find this gratifying?
“Nah, f*** ’em, mate!” says Phil, followed by a wheezy little laugh. “Nah, don’t print that. Yeah, of course. It’s fantastic. I’ve taken a beating over the years and I’ve got used to it, but to hear this underground appreciation is very welcome. I think a lot of these fans either grew up with my music or their parents listened to it, and they then developed into singers and songwriters themselves. I’m thrilled.”
He doesn’t sound thrilled. Collins is reknowned for fixating on the negative, particularly this idea that people find either him or his music irritating. Even on his book jacket, he refers to himself as “that annoying bloke who kept popping up in the charts”.
But being irritating is hardly a crime against humanity. I’m annoying, too, though usually in the privacy of my own home, not over the course of several decades in full public view.
“Yes, well, I can imagine that’s true, Grant. I’ve only been on the phone to you for five minutes, and you’re already annoying the hell out of me, frankly. Ha ha! But my point is, there was a time when I appeared to be absolutely everywhere, and you couldn’t get away from me. Everything I did was huge, both solo and with Genesis.
“People just thought I was an unbearable show off. Here’s this guy who’s not happy to just play one f***ing concert at Live Aid in the UK, so he jumps on a Concord and plays a second Live Aid gig in the States as well! Meanwhile, the radio was playing my songs like a conveyor belt, so people simply got sick of me.”
Yes, OK, fair enough. Collins’ annoyingness is not in dispute. Some of his biggest songs were sickly sweet too, to be fair. But even so, he’s had more than his share of vilification. In some quarters, Collins became a symbol of everything that was wrong with 80s pop music; a multi-millionaire soft-rock crooner making the kinds of blandly melodramatic songs a stockbroker might turn up in his Audi.
He was an easy target – a short, balding, slightly chubby Londoner who wore unfashionable sweaters, pleated khaki slacks and tucked in his shirts like some nerdy uncle; a tax exile who had professed right-wing tendencies; an occasional actor in pretty crappy films; a millionaire with multiple mansions who even richer after writing a pop song called Another Day In Paradise about the plight of the skint and homeless.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph labelled him “the most hated man in rock”. David Bowie once referred to his own critically reviled 80s output as “my Phil Collins years”. In 2014, British duo The Beautiful South released a song containing the line: “Everyone around us agrees that Phil Collins must die”.
When writer Bret Easton Ellis created murderous Wall Street sociopath Patrick Bateman in his 1991 novel American Psycho, a character intended to personify the viciousness of 80s capitalism, he made him a rabid Phil Collins fan.
Influential website The Quietus once ran a piece in which the writer considered the “hatred, bordering on civil unrest” engendered by this “Tory drumming homunculous”, praising Collins’ contributions to albums by Brian Eno and John Cale while dismissing his own 80s solo records as “sonic dysentery”.
And on and on it goes. But the comment that seemingly hit Collins the hardest came from Noel Gallagher.
“People hate f***ing c***s like Phil Collins, and if they don’t, they f***ing should!” announced Gallagher in one famous interview, referring to Collins as “the Antichrist”, a nickname he’s had to endure ever since.
“Yes, good old Noel,” says Collins with a sigh. “But the journalist that helped with my book interviewed Noel once and asked what made him say those things. Noel told him he didn’t really know. He said some of that stuff when he was stoned at a concert in Paris, and it just stuck. Now it’s always ‘Noel Gallagher hates Phil Collins’ but actually, it was just a throwaway comment, which was nice to know.”
Collins concludes that you need a thick skin in the music game, but sadly, he was born without one. Even so, there are surely plenty of positives he could focus on.
He’s filthy rich, for one thing, with millions of fans worldwide. During the 80s, the only pop singer who sold more solo records was Michael Jackson.
Collins was, in his day, a chart juggernaut. Even people held up as emblematic of the 80s – Madonna, George Michael, Prince – sold considerably fewer records than Phil.
“Yes, you’re right. Me, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney are the only people who’ve ever sold 100 million records solo, and 100 million records with their previous band. That’s something I will take to my grave.”
Collins came late to songwriting, and tried to write honestly about his turbulent private life. His own favourites from his back catalogue are the darker album tracks, many of which were inspired by the pain of various relationship breakdowns, but the songs that did most damage on the charts were chirpy Motown covers, or approachable singles like One More Night, Easy Lover or Sussudio.
“I was a drummer at first, and only started writing songs in 1981, when I was already 30 or so. I’ve talked to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan about this, who would be a lot more abstract about emotional things, but I just wrote from the hip about what I was feeling. Most of those darker songs went under people’s radar, but I also love huge hits like Take Me Home or In The Air Tonight, even though I spent years singing them every night.”
In The Air Tonight remains Collins’ best song. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, you still quake with anticipation for that bit where the drums come crashing in hard for just a few thunderous bars.
It’s startling, monstrous, marvellous. Those drums seem to arrive out of nowhere and gatecrash a far more modest song. It’s as if the Four Horsemen of The Apocalype suddenly came galloping down the stairs of a tiny suburban flat, then off out the front door.
“I remember waiting at the traffic lights one day when that song first came on the radio, then I looked over into the next lane and there was this guy in another car who was obviously listening to the same station, nodding along. And he turned it up just before the drums kicked in, and you could almost see all the speaker cones jump out, like they were gonna burst right out of the car! It was a fantastic moment for me, like something out of a cartoon.”
And Phil laughs long and hard, sounding suddenly like a different man. A sense of joy erupts out of him for the first time in our 20 minute conversation, and the contrast with his default setting of gloomy melancholia is striking.
But it doesn’t last long. A few moments later, he’s moaning again, about his critics, Miami’s oppressive heat, his advancing age and failing health. It’s a bit like talking to Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh.
“I can’t really drum much now, sadly. I’m gonna keep practicing, but I’m a bit of a walking junk shop these days. I went deaf for a while after an ear infection. My left hand has very little strength now due to neural problems and falls behind the beat when I play the drums, and I had back surgery last year which left my right foot numb. I have to walk with a stick these days because my foot is f***ed.”
He pauses, sighs, continues.
“But I still have my health, I guess. And I can still sing.”
Collins is now “semi-retired”, but plans to undertake a European tour next July, performing on stage again for the first time in ten years. It’s to be called the Not Dead Yet Tour, and his son Nic will be taking over Phil’s usual spot on drums.
“Yeah. I’m really looking forward to playing live again,” he says, despondently.
Collins seems in dire need of cheering up, so I give it a shot, reading him a few flattering quotes from hip hop and R’n’B acts who’ve come out as Phil-ophiles.
Akon admires him as a subtle and sensitive singer. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony praise his production skills. Lil’ Kim reckons he’s “dope”.
Rapper Ice-T is particularly fulsome in his admiration. “His stuff seemed deep to me, like it makes you look into your own self,” he told one interviewer. “Noel Gallagher should shut the f*** up and calm the f*** down”.
Collins is delighted.
“Ha, ha, God- that’s great! I knew he was a fan, but that’s brilliant. Actually, I once turned on the TV sometime in the 80s, and this journalist was flicking through Ice-T’s record collection, and he had most of my albums! The journalist said ‘What the f*** is this s***?’, and Ice-T said something like ‘Don’t be messin’ with my man Phil. You leave Phil alone, man.’
“It was fantastic! It’s difficult sometimes to keep your head above water when everyone’s trying to drown you, but it’s moments like that where you think that maybe what you’re doing’s not just a pile of crap.
“All those people in the hip hop community didn’t care that those songs were made by some white English guy a lot of other people had decided was annoying. They just thought ‘does this music move me or doesn’t it?’ Really, I just wish everyone would judge my records that way.”