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Phil Collins Goes Back To His R&B Roots

On his new album, the Genesis drummer has returned once more to the Motown classics of his blue-eyed-soul youth. Johnny Black asks him about growing up music-obsessed in mid-Sixties London. -- Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

JB: Your new album, Going Back, quite literally goes back to your musical roots. So where did you first start to become interested in music?

I was born in Chiswick Hospital in London, and my early years were spent in East Sheen, but we moved to Hounslow when I was three or four and that's where I grew up. My local record shop was called Memorydiscs, some kind of play on words, I suppose. I used to have to get the bus to go there and order records and pick them up. It had listening booths, and I used to go there all the time. I think the first record I bought was "All Things Bright And Beautiful" by Joe Brown. The other side was "It Only Took A Minute."

Motown is the main inspiration for this album. Where did your love of Motown and soul begin?

At the Marquee club. The first ever gig I went to was the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck on lead guitar. After that I used to go to the Marquee three or four times a week - I wasn't a Flamingo guy - or the Pontiac Club in Putney. I was always at the front of the queue because I went straight from school. I went so often that the management got to know me. They invited me in and I used to sweep the floor and put the chairs out before the audience arrived. This was before they even had a bar.

You saw the Who there during their famous residency didn't you?

I only saw the Who at the Marquee once but they were a great influence on me. I went every time the Action were on. They were one of the best bands in London, and they really turned me on to so much music. They were one of the best bands in London, and they really turned me on to so much music. I would listen to them playing Motown covers at night and then go to Memorydiscs the next day and order them. In fact, the songs on my new album are pretty much the Action's set list.

And you learned a lot by watching their drummer?

Yeah, Roger Powell. He's a great mate of mine now. I used to see them come in through the front entrance to the Marquee, never plucking up the courage to speak to them until years later, 1999, when I heard they were putting the Action back together for a gig in Putney.

I couldn't go but a good mate of mine went along to give me a report. Anyway, they filmed that but they couldn't afford to edit it. So I paid for the editing, purely because I wanted to see the film. I went to the launch of the film, up in Soho, and I finally met them all. It was like a dream for me, being in this place, meeting all these people, and then that night they played the 100 Club and I played second drummer with Roger, and it was such an amazing feeling to play with them.

The songs on the new album are pretty much the Action's set list. Now I'm funding a book which is the '60s seen through their eyes, because that's a book I want to read.

And did you learn anything from Keith Moon of the Who as a drummer?

My favorite drummers of that time, apart from Roger Powell, were Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, Bobby Elliot of the Hollies, Bob Henrit of Argent, and I used to keep an eye on them all.

Moonie was a one-off. I did Tommy a couple of times, as Uncle Ernie, but at one point, after Keith died, I was actually doing a session for Pete Townshend. I was working with someone Pete was producing (Raphael Rudd's album The Awakening, 1978) and I said to Pete that if ever he needed a drummer, with Moon gone, I'd love to have a crack at it and he said, 'Oh, fuck, we've just asked Kenney Jones!'

A couple of years later they asked me to do a week at the Royal Albert Hall with them but I couldn't do it. I would have moved heaven and earth to play with that band. I could have done a good Moon. I'm a bit of a chameleon. When I play with Eric Clapton I'm Ginger Baker.

You've often said you consider yourself a drummer more than a singer and when you joined Genesis, you were purely a drummer. How did you start writing songs for them?

I wrote a thing called "The Light" which ended up being part of "Lilywhite Lilith" on The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Towards the end of the '70s, we'd all bought little studios, eight track recorders, with a view to working more at home. So I started trying to work out how to use mine and if the meters moved I was happy. I was just recording ideas, little doodles, and some more heavy-duty material.

Which was how you ended up with the songs on Face Value, songs about breaking up with your first wife, Andrea?

Actually, Both Sides (released Nov 1993) was a more intensely personal album than Face Value. I'd come off the most personal thing of my life (breaking up with his second wife, Jill Tavelman) with Both Sides. Face Value, well, by the time that album came out I'd met someone else (Jill), so it was a coming out of the darkness into the sunshine album, whereas Both Sides is a very, very blue album. I had played every instrument on it, did everything myself, and I didn't know if I could go back to compromising and discussing things again. That's what sealed my departure from Genesis.

But you had stayed with Genesis for many years after you had become a huge solo artist.

When you leave a band like Genesis, you're touching so many lives, road crews, other people who have no control over what you do. Our road crew were friends of ours, they were married, they had kids, so I didn't want to end all of that, but there was another reason, which was that Genesis fed a part of me that didn't get fed by my solo stuff.

Genesis, by that point, had become a group that wrote together, not individual songs as we had done in earlier times, so that whole process of sitting in a room and jamming until something happened was quite unlike what I did on my solo albums. So I stayed with it as long as I could and it wasn't until I moved here, to Switzerland, that I reached the point when I realized that doing it cross channel was not practical. So that was when I left.

I finally told them I was leaving, round the table at my manager Tony Smith's house, I didn't know if they were going to be angry at me, or upset or what. So I sat down and we ate the whole meal without saying one word about it until, at the very end, Mike said, "So, you're going to leave?"

It was strange to hear somebody else say it. I mean. We'd been together since 1970, so this was the end of 25 years. And then Mike said, "Well, we're actually surprised that you stayed so long." He said, "You could have left ages ago and we'd have understood, because you've been so successful in your own right. We expected you to leave."

I thought that was a fantastic thing to say. They were totally understanding and supportive. Tony said, "I have to say it's a sad day, but I understand completely." You could see, when it actually happens, and those words come out of your mouth - I wasn't happy about it, but I knew I had to do it.

The '90s was an awkward time for you, especially in Britain...

You know, I archived all my stuff last year onto DVD from VHS tapes and I realized that I appeared to be smug. I came off like I could do everything. And, although I was pretty good at acting and at this and that, really, I just came off as annoying and I can sympathise with people who went off me at that point.

I will say, though, that people always seem to think I'm safe but I've taken a lot of risks. I took out a big band and could have ended up with egg on my face, I did the music for Tarzan on Broadway. I have always taken risks, but people who only know One More Night and Against All Odds and the ballads, just aren't aware of it.

And you've encountered some serious health problems in the new millennium.

Yes, lots of issues now. Bits are falling off. I had a hearing problem in 2000 called Sudden Deafness, which is a different illness than tinnitus. It's a viral infection in the ear but they don't know much more about it than that. Now that has leveled off. It hasn't got better or worse but my brain has compensated.

But then a problem with my left arm developed during the Genesis reunion tour. It means I can't play drums or piano. I did play drums on the new album, Going Back, but I had to gaffer-tape the drumstick to my hand. It was OK for the record, because we were going for something specific and the Motown drummers were like jazz players. However, if I was thrown onto stage now I wouldn't be able to play drums.

The new album, Going Back, is largely a homage to Motown, something I know you've talked about doing for years. In fact your first UK No1 was a re-make of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" way back in 1983...

Yes, and the reason I did that was because of my love of Motown. I really wanted this album to recreate that classic Motown sound, so I sent tracks off to the Funk Brothers, and they just sent me back a list of mistakes. At no point did they say, "Phil, this sounds fantastic." I thought, "Hmmm, this is going to be interesting." They sent me back chord changes for "Standing In The Shadows" and "You Keep Me Hanging On." Of course, I had done a lot of it just by listening to the records and fishing out the James Jamerson bass part, and the chords, because God knows the sheet music wasn't right. So it was great to get them in on the finished record, and to have them with me for the Roseland gigs we used to launch the album.

Actually, I've kind of modernized a couple of the songs, like "Blame It On The Sun," which is a different approach from Stevie's version, and "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone" is one voice instead of five. "Goin' Back" is my own arrangement, an amalgam of Dusty Springfield's version, which was a hit in England, and the Byrds'. Obviously I couldn't use terms like 'skipping rope' so I used 'electric train'. So I put it together like that and then sent it to Carole King to approve, which she did.

So what's next?

Well, I've got a five-year-old and a nine-year-old, and my life revolves around them. I'm paying back now for the '80s when I used to say yes to everything. Now I won't do incessant touring and promotion.

After this album my record deal finishes. Drumming's problematic, and playing live, but I still love writing. I sat at the piano the other night and started to write something but whether that becomes a record ... I'd like to just write the songs and make the demos.

That's the way I'm thinking. I'm not stopping work and settling into the slippers and pipe. I just don't want to be away from the kids for too long.

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