INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut JANUARY 2017 - by Michael Bonner
TURN IT ON AGAIN
"I thought I'd retire quietly," admits Phil Collins, as he prepares for a dramatic return to action in 2017. First, though, there is an extraordinary career to consider - one that takes in Genesis and the solo years, plus shifts with Eno, Clapton, Cale and Led Zeppelin. Stick around for an excellent drummer joke, too... says Michael Bonner.
You can train memories, you know," says Phil Collins. "When I was first on tour on my own, I'd have to remember all the Genesis lyrics, my lyrics and the arrangements. I knew everybody's parts. I had to. Now I've found I can remember everything."
All things considered, it is just as well Collins has such good recall. How else might he keep track of the many, diverse strands of his career: through his work on exploratory albums by Brian Eno, John Cale and Robert Fripp, and the subsequent worldwide success of his solo output. "To me, it's a natural progression," he admits. But his career has always been prone to improbable swerves, ranging from his formative days as a mod, through the extraordinary time signatures he deployed during Genesis' early peak to the "disaster" of Led Zeppelin at Live Aid, his jazz-fusion side project Brand X and his hushed, intimate collaborations with John Martyn.
Some - if not all - of these experiences are covered in Collins' autobiography, Not Dead Yet, which has arrived after a reissue programme of his key solo albums successfully brought him back into the public eye following a period beset by health problems, including nerve damage to his elbow. Subsequent surgery has left him with a numb right foot. "What I have is 'drop foot'," he explains. "I have no motor. I can't lift or lower my foot. It's kinda dead. The nerves need to regenerate. From the back to the foot is a millimetre a week. It takes a long time. I've been drumming since I was five. I joined Genesis when I was nineteen. It's frustrating, as I want to get back on a kit.
"I thought I would retire quietly," he continues. "It's time to do it again and I'm excited." Collins has just announced his first tour dates since 2007, including shows at the Albert Hall and Hyde Park.
In fact, Collins is not the only drummer in his family. His son, Nick, has a band called What You Know in Miami, where Collins is now based. Florida is the latest destination - musical or otherwise - in Collins' meandering journey that has found stop-offs in Hounslow, deepest Surrey, Geneva and New York. "I don't even like Miami, frankly," he confesses. "My kids moved here with their mum and that's why I'm here. I can get on with it. I've got a nice house, nice view. This is life, it's OK. I'm done being fussy."
Your first band was called The Real Thing. What were they like?
That was when I was at Barbara Speake Stage School, aged thirteen or fourteen. We did Motown, Sam & Dave, Stax, Atlantic covers. Me and the singer, Peter Newton, went to see The Action at the Marquee and basically copied their setlist. I was a regular at the Marquee. I lent Roger [Powell], the drummer with The Action, my scrapbooks and inside was my Marquee membership card from 1966. I saw all these bands, but The Action were amazing. They were a mod band and I was a mod. They had amazing energy and did all these Motown songs that opened up my love for the label and the acts. For me, there was The Beatles and there was The Action.
The Marquee must have been a terrific place to go in 1966.
The first proper gig I ever saw was The Yardbirds at the Marquee. Eric left in the afternoon, Jeff Beck joined, and then I saw them that night. Then I saw them again within weeks and Jimmy Page was on bass - he had his Confederate Civil War hat on - and Jeff was on lead guitar. A month later, Jimmy had taken over and I saw The New Yardbirds' first Marquee show, with about forty people, when they played what became the first Led Zeppelin album.
You toured with John Walker, didn't you?
We had a band, Hickory. I don't know how, but we came into John Walker's orbit and he asked if we'd back him. We played with him for a few months. Supper clubs, two shows a night. But as soon as it came, it went. He decided to stop and we went from staying at the Midland Hotel in Manchester with money pouring out of our pockets, to nothing.
Things picked up, though. Your next band, Flaming Youth, played at the London Planetarium.
It was in the days when you could still do something like that, it wasn't considered too naff. Howard & Blaikley had huge success with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch and The Herb, and we were their boys. They had the premiere of our album, Ark II, at the Planetarium, when they played the music and projected a light show on the ceiling.
Ark II was inspired by the moon landing, wasn't it?
Yeah, it was all in the air. We'd already recorded the LP and we spent an evening - the evening - when the Americans apparently went to the moon...
It's a can of worms and I don't know if I should open it. But I have lots of questions about that. Anyway, we were on the rooftop of their very glamorous Hampstead period townhouse, looking up at the moon and watching it on TV. It was a very heady time. It was basically the beginning of serious discussions about space travel and that's what Ark II was based on.
What do you remember about your audition for Genesis?
Me and Ronnie Caryl, who is still my best oldest friend, he played guitar and I played the drums in Flaming Youth. He and I drove down to Chobham, Surrey. We met Mrs Gabriel and she invited us in. My first impressions of them? They were a different kind of people. I'd been to grammar school and drama school, but I'd never really met people like that, who were far more sophisticated and otherworldly. Peter was as eccentric then as he is now, and Mike was kind of cosy. Tony was a little bit aloof and precious. But that all changed over the years.
What about Mrs Gabriel? That sounds quite sporting of her to let auditions take place in her back garden.
I remember us having lunch there. We were sitting around the table, talking about music, and someone mentioned the word "funky". Mrs Gabriel said, "Tell me. What exactly is funky?" She was a lovely lady. I got close to Mike Rutherford's parents. His mum and dad were wonderful people. Tony Banks' parents I barely met. It was a different social generation.
You'd been at stage school. Was the theatricality of Genesis appealing?
Not at all. I wanted to be away from all that. I can see how people might think that when Peter left, those would have been great shoes to fill. But, no. I really just wanted it to be simple music that stood on its own without the bells and whistles.
What were the challenges of moving from drummer to frontman?
Self-confidence. I was in the engine room and there was the captain of the ship who was prepared to wiggle his bum and do whatever singers do, and I didn't ever want to be that person. My main worry was what I was going to say to the crowd as the band are tuning their twelve-string guitars between songs. You can't let the dead air settle, you have to fill it, and that's what Peter became good at.
How did you fill it, then?
I used to tell little stories. Sometimes it was terribly embarrassing. I concocted this story for The Cinema Show. We were in Spain in a bullring and for some reason I can't quite fathom, the story involved an inflatable doll. There was this guy, trying to blow the doll up, and he's smoking and of course he bursts the doll. It was quite funny on paper. But I'm standing there in this bull ring, telling my story, which is written on a bit of paper in my hand, in pidgin Spanish, trying to blow up an inflatable doll... It became quite clear that this story was going to take a good half hour.
What effect did punk have on Genesis?
Our feet weren't on the ground in England when it was happening. We were aware of it, of course. I still bought all the music papers. But we weren't overly affected by it. Some of it was contrived... people would sing badly or detune their guitars to make it punky. But I remember seeing The Pistols play Anarchy In The UK on So It Goes, and I thought, "What the fuck is this?" It was fantastic. I felt the bands that they were trying to get rid of deserved it. I didn't see us as being among them.
It's those other proggy guys!
Yeah! I don't know if you ever saw Monty Python's accountant sketch? John Cleese once said that the day after it aired, he had a meeting with his accountant. He was terrified. He went in and said, "I'm terribly sorry if the sketch last night offended you." The accountant said, "No, it didn't bother me. I'm a chartered accountant." It's that kind of thing. We weren't part of that brigade.
What bands were you happy to see go?
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - much as I liked Keith Emerson when he was with The Nice. Jethro Tull and very early Yes.
Did you ever meet any of the punk crowd back in the day? Topper Headon.
I was getting on a plane at Heathrow and Topper came up to me, looked around to make sure no-one was watching, and said, "I think you're really fantastic, man." I met Rat Scabies and he was very nice. And John Lydon.
He came down to add 'Enossification' and I guess money wasn't discussed so I was sent upstairs as payment. "I'll do this if you lend me your drummer." I did Mother Whale Eyeless and we hit it off. Then Brian got hold of me one day and asked if I'd do some sessions. It wasn't as solid as, "Would you play on my album?" There was Paul Rudolph, Percy Jones, Fripp and a handful of others, a little muso group. Brian would come in with the stuff he'd messed around with on his Revox the night before and throw things out there to the musicians and see where it went. That's how we did Another Green World. Then I did Before And After Science. I think some of that stuff ended up on Music For Films. At the same time, I did Robert Fripp's album, Exposure. We did a beautiful song called North Star with Daryl Hall.
Did collaborating with Eno have much impact on your own working practices?
It gave me a lot of encouragement. Brian wouldn't be precious. He'd throw abstract ideas at you: "On beat twenty-six you do something, on beat twenty-eight you do something." He was after what happened in the moment, whether it felt good and fresh. When it came to doing Face Value, I decided to use my demos, as it wasn't whether you could hear a hiss, it was whether you liked what you heard. I learned that from Brian.
What did you make of John Cale?
I did Helen Of Troy. Chris Spedding was on guitar. Couple of days' work, and that was that. Cale was fired up. He did live vocals, which were pretty scary. Like Pablo Picasso, he might as well have been wearing the straight jacket he was in on the cover - he went for it. It was all very exciting.
You became very friendly with John Martyn - how did you meet him?
I got a call to do some work. I think he heard I was a good drummer and they needed one, so I ended up going to a studio in Holborn to do Grace and Danger. We became great pals and drinking buddies. At one point, we went to a pub in Guildford to meet Eric Clapton. John had worked with Eric, and I think he wanted to score something. That was the first time I met Eric, who, for a long time afterwards, thought I was John's drug buddy. But we did Grace and Danger and hit it off. I was going through a divorce, as was he, with Beverley, and he'd come to my house and we'd have a drink and a play. There was a time when he became a bit of a liability, John.
I'd moved to Switzerland. I was sat waiting in a dentist's car park one day and he called and said, "Phil, can you get me a record deal?" I said, "I don't know if I can do that kind of thing." He said, "If you produce the record, they'll give me a deal." I said, "That's not the right way round." He said, "I'll come over." I said, "No! Don't!" I had this lovely quiet life in Switzerland and I knew if he came over, he'd never leave. I said, "Just send me the tapes and I'll add to it in my little studio and put drums on in another." Anyway, we stayed in touch for the rest of his life. It was always a pleasure to see him, I loved him very much. You never knew what you were going to get, but he was lovely.
That's right. Divorce albums.
Was there any sense of satisfaction in making a successful album out of that experience?
No, I never thought of it like that. It was a sad time and then it became angry. All the emotions you have going through something like that. I was writing those songs as kind of messages. The album crept up behind me. I had a studio in the house. Just operating that for a drummer - I mean that as a joke as well as being serious - we're not very good with manuals. I was enjoying the recording process and suddenly I had all these demos. Genesis had just finished Duke and I took it up to London to play to Ahmet Ertegun. Then he said, "What else have you been doing?" I played him my demos and he went berserk. He said, "This has got to be an album!" I used my demos because I couldn't face doing them all again. That set the pattern for everything I did in the future: do it at home, make it sound like you want it to sound and then add to it.
Did you know the BBC banned In The Air Tonight during the Gulf War? It was on a list of seventy songs deemed unsuitable for airplay.
Really? I ran into Kate Adie at one of the Prince's Trust events and she told me that they played In The Air Tonight in the tanks before they went in. I heard that the Syrian president did an interview and he mentioned me as being one of his favourite artists...
What do you recall about Led Zep at Live Aid?
Robert put the idea to me. He said, "Are you doing this show?" and I said, "I think I am." He said, "Could you get me on it?" So I said, "Robert, you're Robert Plant. Just call Bill Graham." But he said he couldn't, due to an incident with Zeppelin in the '70s in San Francisco. He said, "You, me and Jimmy could do something." We left it at that. Between then and the show, unbeknown to me, John Paul Jones came on board and it became Zep. They got Tony Thompson on drums, too, who probably didn't want this English fucker to come in as well.
What happened when you arrived in Philadelphia?
I went to the Zeppelin caravan and there was a dark cloud over it. I was made to feel very unwelcome, by Jimmy particularly. Individually they're very nice guys. Robert is a diamond, I love him. But they weren't stage fit. I'd spent time with Tony in the caravan, saying, "I've played with two drummers for the last ten years. From experience, don't do this, do this, try and keep out of each other's way, let's not do anything too complicated." He didn't want to listen to advice from this upstart who had swanned in on Concorde. But I got the blame as I was the one who had just arrived and hadn't rehearsed. Before I left for Philadelphia, I'd said to Robert and Jimmy, "I'm going to know it, don't worry." I grew up with those guys. I was at their first gigs at the Marquee. I knew it. But Jimmy was dribbling. It just was an unpleasant thing and if I could have disappeared into the wings, I would have done so after a tune or two, as I knew this was a disaster.
Yes. It was a lovely studio, a lovely island. Eric came to me and said, "We're going to do it at Montserrat. No girlfriends, no wives." I said, "OK." We went there. He quickly had an affair. It was great fun to do, but I think I frightened the musicians.
What was wrong with Eric's albums before Behind The Sun - like Money And Cigarettes - they had a kind of work-from-two-'til-six ethic. So I came in as a workaholic and there was a mutiny. They were supposed to be there for three weeks. We did all the tracks in a week. We'd start about 11, do a track and I'd say, "OK, what we doing next?" In the end, the musicians went to Eric and said, "Listen, man. We thought we had three weeks off with you here. Can we work slower and enjoy being here?" Eric came to me and said, "You've gotta slow down." I said, "Well, fuck. Let them have the three weeks holiday and we'll carry on." But we finished way ahead of course, anyway, as that's how I work. I don't think Eric had been pushed like that for a long time.
Concorde, Montserrat... There's a perception of the 1980s as an extravagant time. Do you think that view is accurate?
The idea of staying somewhere like Montserrat, which sounds glamorous, is that it builds up camaraderie, people living together. It all started with Traffic and their cottage in Gloucestershire - everyone started to get it together in the country. It became exaggerated: "Well, why don't we go to this place in the Bahamas," or wherever. I guess it can backfire. The '80s has a lot to answer for. So why did you decide to write your autobiography? I'm sixty-five. I want to do it while I can still hold a pen!
There are a lot of rock memoirs. What were the do's and don't's for you?
I try to be honest. You've got to. I've been hard on myself. I've been married three times and there's blame on both sides each time. I have to remember that my children are going to read this and my children have friends and they have parents and they're going to read it. So I've tried to write something that's honest, but still has a bit of dignity.
What's your favourite drummer's joke?
What is the difference between a drummer and a drum machine? You can pour beer on a drum machine and it won't work. How many drummers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five. One to do it and four to say how much better Steve Gadd would have done it.
GENESIS: Foxtrot (1973) - Phil collins aces it on connoisseurs' Genesis choice. never more so than on the twenty-three-minute Supper's Ready, especially Apocalypse In 9/8. Take that, impossible time signature!
BRIAN ENO: Another Green World (1975) - Phil Collins plays on three songs: Sky Saw, Over Fire Island and Zawinul/Lava. further collabs with Brian Eno include Taking Tiger Mountain, Before And After Science and Music For Films. Well ambient.
PETER GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel (1980) - No cymbals! Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins' first collaboration since The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. A bold new studio effect on Intruder - the "gated drum" - becomes a signature '80s sound.
JOHN MARTYN: Grace and Danger (1980) - The highpoint of this moody album is the poignant Sweet Little Mystery. First - and best - of several collaborations between John Martyn and Phil Collins.
GENESIS Duke (1980) - A commercial breakthrough from the mothership. the slimmed-down band don white jackets and deliver progressive pop. the surprisingly catchy Turn It On Again is a big hit.
PHIL COLLINS: Face Value (1981) - Prog-rock instrumentals, heartfelt ballads, horn-driven R&B, a Beatles cover... Phil Collins' versatile debut is dominated by the impressively atmospheric In The Air Tonight.
A BIGGER BANG: "IT'S JUST WEIRD"
Phil Collins on that drum sound for In The Air Tonight
"I was trying to move away from the complicated genesis stuff, go in a simpler direction. I didn't have any lyrics prepared, but I started singing, and what came out is what you hear on In The Air Tonight [Peter Gabriel's] Intruder and [Genesis'] Mama launched a kind of drum sound. We used to go in there for different tracks with genesis and try to go for that kind of sound, but it never sounded the same. Whereas I think the drum sound for In The Air Tonight defines the period, it is not of that period particularly. We all know it's of that period, but it sounds completely new as well. It's just weird. everything goes in alignment and you just get it. I didn't think about the drum fill, I just did it that particular take and that's the one we used. We didn't sit there thinking, 'oh boy, their mouths are going to be dropping when they hear this!' it was nothing like that."