Phil Collins Beats The Odds

Take a look at rock's 'Mr. Nice Guy' now

May 23, 1985
phil collins rolling stone cover
Phil Collins on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Aaron Rapoport

The day after the Academy Awards, Phil Collins sat in his Hollywood hotel room, licking his wounds over a few early-afternoon Michelobs. He had come a long way just to lose, having rerouted his Australian tour to attend the show and then suffering the humiliation of having his offer to sing "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)," which had been nominated for a Best Song award, turned down.

It had seemed a logical offer. By show time, Collins was just about the hottest singer in pop music – except in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which sent a letter to Mr. Phil Cooper, thanking him for his offer but informing him that by that time all the slots had been filled. Collins was also the one who had sung the song in the film and who'd had the big hit with it, and by most estimations, he was the only one who could do justice to the highly personal lyrics – except in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which had given the nod to everyone's favorite singer, dancer Ann Reinking. This was a movie show, the academy explained; the songs would be performed by movie people. Collins, the polite, proper Brit, had been diplomatic about the situation, even up to the point when he walked down the red carpet into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night. It would probably be more interesting to see a production of the song than to see just him sitting at the piano, he told the roaming TV reporters. Then he watched such movie personalities as Ray Parker Jr. and Deniece Williams sing their nominated songs and heard his own song get butchered. Still, he might have forgotten all that had he won. By practically all estimations, including his own, his song was the best written of the five nominated – except in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gave the award to "I Just Called to Say I Love You," an egregious piece of fluff by Stevie Wonder. And that was enough to make Collins, who by most estimations is one of the nicest men in the record business, become a bit ruffled.

"It was awful," he said of the performance by Reinking, who lip-synced most of her vocal and might as well have lip-synced her dance routine. "But I'm glad I didn't sing the song now, after what they did to Ray Parker." And what about Wonder's win? "I'm disappointed that these things aren't necessarily judged on merit," Collins said. "Stevie Wonder is one of my heroes, but I have serious doubts about whether or not that song was actually written for the film." Collins had supposed it would come down to him and Wonder, though. "Stevie because he's blind, black, lives in L.A. and does a lot for human rights."

Had the thirty-four-year-old Collins won the Oscar, it would have capped off a dream week for him. His third solo album, No Jacket Required, had rocketed to Number One on Billboard 's charts in a mere four weeks, faster than even Thriller. More shocking, Collins' single "One More Night" was also Number One, holding off, at least temporarily, the all-star, all-media "We Are the World." In fact, it had been a dream year for Collins: Genesis, the band he had toiled in as drummer for fifteen years, had just come off its biggest album; he had produced, cowritten and shared lead vocals on "Easy Lover," a Number Two single for Philip Bailey, and he had won a Grammy for "Against All Odds," which had also reached Number One.

It certainly seemed like all that should have been enough to make Collins kiss off the Oscar loss, put away his shaving cream and fancy shoes and go back to his tour happy. Yet it stuck in his craw, and his disappointment, his rather well-thought-out case of sour grapes, clashed with his image as rock's Mr. Nice Guy. Could it be that Phil Collins was human after all? He was just about the only person in the music business with the gall to say something negative about the sacred "We Are the World," which eventually did dethrone "One More Night." Nice song, good cause, he said, "but done in a typically American way. Did they really need the laminated passes? When we did the Band Aid session, we all had to pay for cups of tea and coffee. I wish the guy who donated the champagne and caviar to USA had saved it and sent the money to Ethiopia." There was talk among the valets at the Sunset Marquis, the rock & roll hotel secluded just a few limos down the road from Sunset Boulevard, that Phil Collins wasn't exactly the friendly type and, moreover, that he was a lousy tipper. Phil Collins? The rock star who was known for not being a rock-star asshole, the man who went out of his way to say hello to everybody, the workaholic whose only hobby, only indulgence, was washing the dishes at night, and who drove himself around in an aging, battered BMW? Was all this ordinary-bloke stuff for real, or was success starting to go to his balding head? Even that had two opposing looks – one round, wide-eyed and innocent, nouveau Charlie Brown, and the other squinty and sinister, like the demon on the cover of No Jacket Required. And if Collins was the first to admit that he didn't look like a pop star, that he was short and paunchy, then it was also true that his appearance worked to his advantage. The previous year had been one of color and glamour on the pop charts: a purple prince, a blue madonna, a bronze wham, even a distinguishedly graying fogerty. The pop audience was primed for its own Cabbage Patch Kid, and Collins, with his catchy, smartly produced music, fit the bill: he was homely, and he sold.

If Phil Collin's rise was, as he would claim, slow and accidental, it was also a relatively comfortable one. He was raised in a middle-class suburb of London, the son of an insurance man and a stage agent for children. June Collins' show-business inclinations rubbed off on each of her children; her older son, Clive, would become a cartoonist, and her daughter, Carole, was an ice skater before becoming an agent herself. "My husband used to say, 'If only I could have one normal child, who works in an office nine to five,'" she remembered. "He tried it with my older son and with my daughter. So I told him, 'Don't you dare try it with Philip.'"

There would never be anything for Phil except music: it was his only interest, his only hobby. ("Phil was the lucky one," said Clive, who now draws for the London Sun. "He never had to go into an office.") He had his first drum set at ten and was playing sessions by the time he was fourteen. But unlike the first wave of British rockers, who earned their chops, and took their licks, in smoky clubs around Europe, Phil got his first performing experience in a different kind of venue – his parents' yacht club.

Though Phil was obsessed with the drums, his mother thought he also showed acting ability. She suggested he attend the Barbara Speake Stage School, a Fame-type academy for performing arts, where, as partner and agent, she could help him get in and tip him off to auditions. Obediently, he went. His mother got him a job as an extra on A Hard Day's Night, and Phil soon found himself taking dance and diction lessons amid such other British child phenoms as Jack Wild. And he was already showing a penchant for modesty. "Philip was the model pupil," said Barbara Speake. "He did everything you asked without getting a big head about it."

Collins was in demand as an actor, but his desire to drum intervened, and he left the school at sixteen, after three years. His mother balked. "I was the agent, I was the one answering the phones," she said. "It got a bit frustrating to hear people say, 'Can we see Phil Collins?' He wasn't making any money drumming; he was just groping about. I thought it would be better to carry on acting, and then one day someone somewhere would ask him to drum. It all sounds rather stupid now."

Collins floundered in a few bands for a while, got into a session for George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and then, in 1970, heard about an audition for a group starting to make a name for itself around English universities. Genesis had formed at the exclusive Charterhouse School in London and already had a record contract, but it needed a new drummer. Collins wanted in, passed the audition and, at age nineteen, settled into a period of comfortable anonymity, hidden behind the drums, as the group built its reputation around the flamboyance and theatrics of its leader-auteur, Peter Gabriel.

It stayed that way for four years. Then in 1975, just as Genesis had started to sell some records, Gabriel suddenly left for a solo career. Speculation was that the band would break up or bring someone new in to take over as lead singer and leader. After about 400 auditions, the surprise announcement came: the new singer would be Phil Collins.

Collins had already sung on a few album cuts and, in fact, had a natural, melodic growl that would carry in concert halls. He also had his early acting experience to call on. He might have imagined himself in the role for a long time already. But he says that wasn't the case. "I never fancied myself a singer. I always thought of bands as four musicians and a singer." But he made the decision, and soon he was prancing around in front of the stage. But with him at the helm, the music of Genesis slowly became just that – music – less theatrical, easier to digest, and the band survived through a couple of Gabriel-less albums, A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. Then Phil Collins made another decision that would ultimately help keep Genesis thriving well into the Eighties and lay the foundation for his solo career.

It was New Year's Eve 1977. Genesis Guitarist Steve Hackett had just departed, leaving only Collins, keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist Mike Rutherford. Punk had caught on in England, and there seemed to be only one way Genesis was going to keep going: cracking the American market, and that meant extensive touring. Collins explained it all to his wife that night. The band had come too far, he said, had been through too much, to quit, especially now that he was its leader. They had to tour, he told her.

"She said to me, 'You do that and we won't be together in a year,'" Collins said. She had never liked the music business; she had especially not liked being left alone when Genesis was on the road. Collins had tried to accommodate everyone, staying at home in the mornings with her and the kids, Joely, now twelve, and Simon, now eight, before Genesis work began at midday, and he avoided the late-night excesses of rock life so that he could get up the next day and do it again. But he wasn't equipped to deal with this ultimatum. When it came to choosing between marriage and career, he chose career, figuring that the marriage would keep until he got back.

"I said to my wife, 'Don't be stupid. We'll work it out. Just try to hold on for a year.' I realize now that you can't switch people off like that." Genesis went on three American tours, plus two of Europe and one of Japan, and by the end of 1978, the band had its first gold album, . . . And Then There Were Three . . .  And Phil Collins' wife had taken the kids and gone.

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