'I never wanted to be lead singer of Genesis,' says Phil Collins
Sir Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Phil Collins - it is an elite club that have sold more than 100 million records as a solo artist and a member of a group.
But talking to Collins as he prepares to play the Sheffield Fly DSA Arena next month, he still seems almost surprised by his success.
“I often get asked about my secret to success and I still don’t really know,” says the 66 year old. “I think it might be that I write songs that resonate with a lot of people. My songs are honest and from the heart and I think people can tell that.”
Well this unlikely mega star, who looks more like someone’s doddery grandad than a pop star, has definitely done something right in his career which took off at the age of 19 when he joined Genesis as their drummer. Before that he had been a child actor and attended drama school, something he says his late father would have preferred he pursued.
But Collins says his first love was always music, especially jazz which he says influenced his drumming from an early age. He got his first drum kit aged three and started drumming properly when he was just five.
“It was something I always wanted to do, but my dad thought it wasn’t a proper job.” His mother started a theatrical agency which helped land him a number of acting roles including the Artful Dodger in the stage version of Oliver!
But music was his first love and after playing with a number of bands he saw an advert for a drummer with the band Genesis. It may be his father’s initial disapproval which has made Collins determined to support his own children in following their dreams.
To that end his 16-year-old son Nicholas plays the drums on his dad’s current Not Dead Yet Tour which resulted from forced cancellation of some Alber Hall gigs after Collins suffered an accident.
“We needed to replay the cancelled shows but I wanted to go back to the old Genesis days when we used to take the music to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to the music,” says Collins. “I remember travelling hours in the back of a van to Sheffield City Hall, playing the gig and then travelling all the way back down to London in the back of the van.”
He says it was a difficult decision to choose Nic as drummer rather than his older son Simon, 41.
“It is difficult to choose between your sons, but Simon who is a fantastic drummer is already successful in his own right and so I decided to give Nic a chance. I was a bit worried I might be accused of nepotism but the rest of the band have been really impressed with Nic’s playing in his own right. I just want to support my kids in whatever direction they want to go.”
His youngest son, Matthew is just 12 and wants to be a footballer. Collins also has two daughters, Lily, 28, and Joely, 46, who are both actresses.
Collins was 19 when he got the job as drummer and backing singer with Genesis. But when Peter Gabriel left five years later he was persuaded to take over as lead vocalist.
“It was the last thing I wanted,” he says. “I liked being a drummer and that’s what I wanted to do. But when Peter left we couldn’t find another singer and so the rest of the band convinced me to do it.
“There really wasn’t another option and I drew the short straw. I often wonder what life would have been like if Peter hadn’t left and I had stayed playing the drums.”
Once out front Collins, still in his early 20s, found being lead singer a very vulnerable position.
“It was completely different to being at the back playing the drums. There were no monitors in those days and suddenly the band were all behind me and it sounded very different then from the drum kit, where the band sounds the most powerful. I was no longer surrounded by drums and cymbals. It was a big culture shock for me.”
Collins’s taking over from Gabriel co-incided with a change in Genesis’s direction and suddenly they developed into a popular band with hit records, rather than a cult group playing long songs. Many of the loyal Genesis fans suddenly saw their group becoming more populist and accused them of selling out, and Collins took the brunt of their anger.
“It felt very strange that I was being blamed for the band becoming a success,” says a still clearly bemused Collins.
“Nothing was planned. There was never a decision within the band to change direction. I think we had always wanted to make shorter, I suppose more accessible, songs, but we ended up making longer songs and that was what Genesis became known for. But as you get older, your tastes change, you are influenced by different things and you evolve, that’s what happened to us. We just got better at writing songs that were more concise. But the diehard fans seemed to blame me because they could no longer get tickets to our gigs.. They wanted to keep us as their secret passion.” But popularity had other stresses. Constant touring and recording put a strain on Collins’s first marriage to Andrea Bertorelli and Genesis took a hiatus while he travelled to Canada to try to save his marriage.
While he was away Genesis members Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks started work on solo albums and so when Collins returned to the UK having failed to save his marriage he wrote his own solo album, inspired by his failed relationship. The seminal Face Value was the result containing the massive hit single In The Air Tonight.
“I wrote with my heart and I think people related to it,” says Collins, And people did. It reached number one in seven countries and pushed Collins even further into the spotlight. He continued to have success with Genesis and further solo albums followed until he decided to form the Phil Collins Big Band in 1996,
But in 2011 he announced he was retiring. “I’d had enough of being Phil Collins,” he said. “I had other things I wanted to do. I wrote the music to Tarzan and wrote a book on the Alamo , and I wanted to spend more time with my family, to be a dad.” However shortly after his third marriage to Orianne Cevey failed and she moved to Miami with the couple’s two children, Nicholas and Matthew.
But more recently Collins has rekindled his relationship with Orianne and although he had been dogged with health problems last year he decided to once again take to the stage. “I had a back operation a couple of years ago and that resulted in me having a dropped foot which means I need a stick and I won’t ever play the drums in public again.”
Named after his long-awaited Not Dead Yet autobiography, the idea was to play a limited number of sell out dates at the Royal Albert Hall. But a bad fall meant he had to call off some of the gigs. And so this year Collins, his band and his son decided to embark on a small tour which will be at the Fly DSA Arena in Sheffield on November 24
For tickets www.philcollins.com