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Phil Collins Beats The Odds

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Collins maintains now that it wasn't all that black-and-white, that he followed his family to Vancouver, that he was on the verge of leaving Genesis in 1979 so that he could reconcile with his wife. But things didn't work out. "I could have said no to the band, and I would still be married, but then who's to say the breakup wouldn't have happened anyway?" Collins said. "We'd always had a rocky go of it. She just didn't like the music business, and there was nothing I could do."

The divorce left Collins demoralized, bitter, alone and, eventually, rich. He converted the master bedroom of the country home his wife had deserted into a makeshift recording studio, and he chronicled his feelings in a solo album, Face Value, whose mere existence was another "fortunate" accident for Collins ("If I hadn't gotten divorced, I never would have written it"), just as Gabriel's departure from Genesis had been.

The music on Face Value was snappy and even more stripped down than the post-Gabriel Genesis albums. The LP contained at least one AOR staple, "In the Air Tonight," and landed in the Top Ten in 1981. The album's please-don't-go-get-out-of-my-life lyrics were so autobiographical that Collins' ex-wife might have asked for royalties. (Which, in effect, she did. After Face Value was released, she demanded "lots and lots of money"; he replied with a song on his next album, "I Cannot Believe It's True.")

Buoyed by the success of Face Value, Collins took an even more aggressive role in Genesis, and the band's next album, Abacab, which sounded suspiciously similar to Face Value in places, became the group's first to sell more than a million copies. "You can't mystify people if you want to sell records," Collins said. "Genesis only began to break when the lyrics became less story oriented. The basic difference between me and Pete and Tony and Mike is that lyrically they're a bit emotionally screwed up. They went to boarding schools all their lives, only saw their families on holidays, while I went to a regular school, went home every day. They would never put 'I love you' in a lyric, whereas I think nothing of it."

Collins maintained a balance between his solo career and Genesis, releasing another album, Hello . . . I Must Be Going!, in 1982, between Genesis commitments. With No Jacket Required, however, the balance became a bit precarious, and from the first day he stepped into the studio, there was no doubt that his solo projects had become increasingly important to him.

The Townhouse studios, where Collins was holed up last fall cutting No Jacket Required, lie in a seedy, particularly gray section of London called Shepherd's Bush, and resemble not so much a pristine palace of high technology as a fraternity house on parents' day. Vacuumed, once-plush carpeting runs from the state-of-the-art recording rooms to the living-recreation area: a snooker table, a spacious TV lounge and a cubbyhole kitchen, where the cook rang up the boys for dinner every night at seven. It is the kind of place you'd expect Collins to record at, all the vital necessities modestly packaged.

On a rainy November Wednesday in Studio Two, the tape was rolling and a splashy rhythm punched through the speakers, the studio crew tapping to what sounded like something from Prince's 1999. Then Phil Collins' voice wailed some nonsense words in place of lyrics that had yet to be written. It was not "1999" at all but "Sussudio," one of several dance tracks written for No Jacket Required. A dance club is the last place you'd expect to hear Genesis, but R&B has always been one of Collins' musical mistresses. A note-for-note reproduction of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" is one of his signature songs, and he had used the horn section from Earth, Wind and Fire on each of his solo albums before producing Bailey, one of EWF's lead singers. This time around, Collins was going all out to make authentic, contemporary R&B. In addition to the EWF horns, he had recruited keyboardist David Frank, from the acclaimed American funk duo the System, to play on the dance tracks. He had even found room for another EWF trademark, an African kalimba, which he played himself. "This will be another reason for Maurice White not to talk to me," Collins said, referring to EWF's leader.

"He'll talk to you," said trombonist Louis Satterfield. "We taught him how to play it."

Depending on whom you talked to, Collins either has a great love and understanding of black music or is its greatest appropriator. According to Collins, White has said that he stopped using the horns because he was sick of hearing them on Phil Collins records. And when "Sussudio" was released as a single in England, the British press trashed Collins for the song's similarities to "1999," which, by coincidence, had just been rereleased there. "If anyone thinks I'm ripping off specific songs, that is up to them, but I'm not plagiarizing black music," Collins had said before the song's release. "'Sussudio' was changed once because it was starting to sound a bit too much like Prince. I could never write a song like Prince, because I'm not from that environment."

"I'm a white guy from Hounslow in London," he added later. "Because of my love of R&B and the fact that I surround myself with black musicians, music critics think I'm trying to convince people that I'm half-black. I have never been under any misconception of who I am or where I come from."

But pinpointing his musical direction became a little harder for Collins, only because he had his fingers in so many different pies. "To me, everything Bruce Springsteen does is very typical of him," he said. "Maybe people think the same thing about me. But I think I have too many styles to single one out."

If Collins was contending that he was a jack-of-all-musical – styles, then critics have tended to finish that statement. The only innovation he's credited with is the fat, cavernous drum sound of "In the Air Tonight," and even that he developed when he was playing on Gabriel's third solo album. It is, in fact, Gabriel who has remained the critics' darling, Gabriel who has been called the only important artist to have sprung from Genesis, while Collins, who has sold a ton more albums, is the three-star pop act relegated to the back of the reviews pages.

Collins yearns for the kind of respect Gabriel is accorded; in fact, one of his acknowledged goals is not to make successful pop music but respectable pop music. He is quietly proud of the fact that he works and travels within an elite circle that includes Eric Clapton, Sting and Robert Plant, and one of his favorite stories is about how former Clash drummer Topper Headon came to see him after a concert, looked to make sure no one was around, shook his hand and said, "Phil Collins, man, I'm a great fan of yours."

The Clapton connection has been especially important to Collins in recent months. Collins produced Clapton's Behind the Sun, and it might have been a chance for him to earn some of the critical respect that has eluded him with his own albums. Instead, when Behind the Sun came out, it was dismissed as dull and uninventive; Collins was used to this kind of reaction, but he wasn't prepared for the album to be attacked by Clapton's record company, Warner Bros., even before it was released.

"Eric's last couple of albums were a little bland, productionwise," Collins said. "So when he asked me to produce him, I thought it would be a great chance to shake up his music and make it stand again. He had written some great songs, was off the booze, playing and singing better than ever. When we finished the album I thought, Right, that's the album, now on to Phil Bailey.

"Then I get a call from Eric's manager saying that Lenny Waronker, the president of Warner Bros., didn't think there were any singles on the album and that Eric had to go back and record some more stuff."

This jolted Collins. In his fifteen years of recording, either on his own or with Genesis, his relationships with record companies had always been congenial and tidy – he simply delivered his album, and the company liked it and released it. "My heart sank. I spoke to Eric, and he was fuming. We had all felt so solid about the album, and suddenly these people, who had no input at all when the record was being made, came in and said that there were no singles. We weren't even convinced that they'd listened to the album more than three or four times. I appreciated the fact that they put out the money for the thing and wanted to see something back for it, but they just didn't understand what Eric's music was about. When he puts out a record, it's not necessarily meant to compete in the same marketplace as Duran Duran. Lenny Waronker probably won't even talk to me if any of this is printed, but maybe he'll understand how pissed off I was."

In the end, Warner Bros, deleted three Collins-produced cuts and substituted three produced by Waronker and Van Halen producer Ted Templeman. Behind the Sun proved that even Collins wasn't immune to the politics of the industry; he went into Bailey's album, Chinese Wall, with his confidence shaken, and the interference threatened to get worse. The bottom line was that Collins was white, Bailey black. Collins claims that an executive at the black-music department at Bailey's label, Columbia, hadn't heard of him, and that Bailey was told that if he made a pretty album, black radio might not play it.

"I'm surprised at the amount of racism that still exists in this business," Collins said. "In theory, there shouldn't be any, with McCartney and Michael Jackson, McCartney and Stevie Wonder, making records together. Yet it's still there. When Face Value came out, I suggested to Henry Allen, the head of black music at Atlantic, that we send a sampler of cuts to black radio stations, labeled 'Phil Collins with the Earth, Wind and Fire horns,' and he said, 'They're gonna know you ain't black.'"

With this pressure being put on him before he and Bailey even started recording, Collins thought about pulling out. Bailey persuaded him to stay, though, and they were both vindicated when "Easy Lover," the album's single, turned into such a big smash. Then came the Grammy for "Against All Odds," two weeks after No Jacket Required was released. Collins wasn't as wrapped up in the Grammys as he was in the Oscars; he won this one, beating, ironically, two of the people he would be up against for the Oscar, Stevie Wonder and Kenny Loggins. "These are American-based awards," he said. "I get the impression that record companies try to nominate everything and figure that something will surface. If you throw enough shit at the wall, something's bound to stick." Still, the Grammy win, coupled with the chart showing of "Easy Lover," made the success of No Jacket Required virtually assured.

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