Phil Collins Beats The Odds

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

phil collins rolling stone cover
Aaron Rapoport
Phil Collins on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

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.

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.

Coping with Phil Collins' success is a bit easier for his new wife, Jill Tavelman, than it was for his first wife. The daughter of a Hollywood outfitter who dressed, among others, Groucho Marx and Greta Garbo, Tavelman actually encourages Collins to indulge in his success a little more than he used to. She was the one who introduced Collins to Diana Ross at the Academy Awards, the one who had to tell him to say hello to Stevie Wonder, who was sitting at the end of their aisle, and the one who got mad when Collins skipped the post-Oscar parties. "Jill got a bit angry, but I just didn't know anybody," Collins said in his defense. "I wasn't about to go up to Jack Lemmon and say hi."

Collins and Tavelman met in an L.A. bar in 1980. He was at a low point following his divorce, and wasn't looking to get involved with anyone seriously, especially someone out to latch on to a rock star. So he was introduced to her as Bill Collick. But the deception proved unnecessary. Tavelman had never heard of Collins anyway, being more a fan of the Springsteen-Cougar style of music.

Still, they hit it off, and by the end of the summer, Collins asked her to go back to England with him. She was there while his creative energies were being refueled during the making of Face Value, and she has been there since. They were married last summer in a tiny church near their home in Guildford, an exclusive London suburb.

Their first few years together were difficult for Tavelman, because she had to watch as he built a solo career exorcising the ghost of his first wife and lamenting the loss of his children on his first two solo albums. "I don't like all that depression-and-divorce stuff," she said. "I thought, If he cares enough to write songs about it, then it hurts him enough that it's still there. Most of the interviews are about his ex-wife, because my story doesn't make for interesting reading. I wasn't the poor girl who made good. When I met Phil I had more money than he did."

Jill kept closer tabs on her husband's career than his first wife did, traveling on tour with him and introducing him to some American music he might not otherwise have heard. "My first wife just didn't understand what I needed to do to be happy, which is work," Collins said. "Jill obviously knows better than to try and fence me in."

During the long months that Phil is busy in the studio, Jill has gotten used to being alone. "Phil almost gets in the way when he's around," she said. "I have to tell him, 'Don't sit in my favorite chair,' or 'The cats don't do that.' I really don't mind being alone . . . He's always busy, but that might all change if Phil and I decide to have children of our own. But it's okay with me, for now."

For a week during the recording of No Jacket Required, the situation reversed. Collins' wife had gone back to L.A. to spend time with her family following the death of her father, and it was Collins who came home to the empty house every night. He looked a bit haggard, admitting that he didn't sleep well alone. The cats didn't get fed for three days, because Collins, who wasn't used to feeding them, kept forgetting to buy cat food. And with only a week to go before they moved into a new home, there wasn't a single gold record packed, not even a box in sight.

Collins did, however, air out the hot-tub room and start up one of two mountainous jukeboxes he had stocked with his favorite 45s, mostly vintage Beatles and Motown – although looking through the dusty glass that shielded the titles, he had some trouble remembering them. The house itself is small by rock-star proportions, really just an oversize cottage with a second floor. It would be hard to imagine Eddie and Valerie living there, for instance, but Collins, like the house, fits right in with the gentrified populace. Driving around Guildford on an unusually warm day in December, his fuzz face might have been the only thing to give away his identity – Guildford seemed a place where men shaved twice a day. Otherwise, in his cotton-checked trousers and argyle sweater, he was a natural, waving to an elderly bicycling couple who let him pass on the lane. This wasn't the typical MTV look, and Collins often feels less comfortable around his more chic pop peers. At the Band Aid taping, he found himself surrounded by photogenia – Sting, Duran Duran, Culture Club – as he sat behind the drums in his argyles. "I looked around and everyone had leather trousers on, jumpers with three-quarter sleeves that would have been girls', ten years ago. I'm so unfashionable, it's embarrassing."

But Collins' unfashion has become his fashion, his gimmick. His videos play up his nonlook – especially "Easy Lover," in which he appears hopelessly unhip next to the superslick Bailey – and they are heavy favorites at MTV. Even Collins was surprised to find he had female fans who swoon over him with the kind of affection usually reserved for such megastars as Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. "What's that they say about Woody Allen being the most eligible man in the world?" Collins said. "I guess that's because he's funny."

In fact, sales of No Jacket Required could exceed 6 million, and it's been said that Phil Collins is on his way to becoming the white Lionel Richie. His star has now clearly eclipsed that of Genesis, and he doesn't have to split the money from those 6 million sales with them. Is there room in Genesis for a white Lionel Richie?

Before the release of No Jacket Required, Collins insisted that he wouldn't leave Genesis, and he had already committed himself to the group's next album, set for late 1985, with a tour to follow. "The next one to leave the band will finish it," he had said. "I feel happier with what we're doing now, because I feel it's closer to me. I won't be the one."

Then the calls started coming in more frequently. Would he have time to produce Tina Turner? Barbra Streisand? Def Leppard, Liza Minnelli, Ronnie Spector, Al Jarreau? Both Bailey and Clapton want him for a return engagement on their next albums. And Collins has started entertaining one lofty notion of his own, producing Paul McCartney. "He's still got it," Collins said. "He just needs someone to knock it out of him. I'd love to knock it out of him." Despite all the offers, there was this Genesis thing Collins had to do.

"Poor old Genesis does get in the way sometimes," he said after the Academy Awards. "I still won't leave the group, but I imagine it will end by mutual consent."

If and when that happens, Collins will be free to do just about whatever he wants. Now, everyone knows who he is, and everyone seems to want him. Even the critics are praising No Jacket Required. Collins has brought the music industry to its knees by being an agreeable man who makes agreeable music, and he still insists that the regular-guy stuff is for real. "Just because you have a Number One album and Number One single doesn't mean you change overnight. Yesterday I bought four pairs of trousers. I could have bought a dozen suits if I wanted, but I didn't need a dozen suits. I'm still convinced this is going to end one day, and that I'll have to live off what I've saved." Words of wisdom from a pop star depositing his Number Ones into his own IRA. "Other people might spend a little more, but I say, 'I'm going to enjoy life when I'm sixty-five.'"

This story is from the May 23rd, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 448: May 23, 1985
x