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How Anthony Phillips Went From Genesis To Revelation

He was the driving force behind Genesis, but stage fright and illness drove him from the band and on to an illustrious and varied solo career

To the untrained eye, Anthony Phillips may seem like the football fan who left the stadium just before his team started banging the goals in. In reality, not only was he the co-founder of Genesis and a participant in some of their extraordinary formative adventures, from school years to studio and the road, but he went on to a singular life of creativity that’s now entering an exciting new phase.

Undermined by stage fright, Phillips left the band on medical advice after 1970’s Trespass, and took an extended sabbatical from the mainstream to study orchestration and harmony at the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama. Later, he began to amass a bespoke array of solo work, and in more recent times has made a tidy living composing library music. Now, still only 62 and filled with abundant creative enthusiasm, it seems an old bug might be biting him again.

The guitarist, composer and instrumentalist, known to one and all as ‘Ant’, is taking tea with Prog in the sitting room of his house in south London and enthusing about his new record deal with Cherry Red’s Esoteric label. The first fruit of the five-year pact is the opulent five-CD box set Harvest Of The Heart, which contains music he has created over a 45-year span from 1969.

That set contains a rare 1980 collaboration with Mike Rutherford, one of several liaisons with former Genesis colleagues he made after his departure from the band. When the reissue series continues in the new year, Phillips’ revered solo debut from 1977, The Geese And The Ghost, will revive further work he did with both Rutherford and Phil Collins. It’s being mixed in 5.1 surround sound by its original co-producer, the great prog studio man Simon Heyworth. But amid all this retrospection, there’s also the promise of new endeavours.

“Cherry Red has been going for 35 years at a time when most independents haven’t lasted,” Phillips says. “They’re a nice mixture of being very business savvy but with a lot of encouragement. I just feel it’ll be a safe place to have the back catalogue, and there’ll be a little bit more of a push to break out of the cult. It’ll just be a slightly higher profile, that’s what I’m hoping.

“They’ve been so decent, and they’re pushing the boat out a fair bit. It’s made me think maybe I should have a crack at something new. As somebody said, what’s to be lost? You’re earning good money from the library music. I’ve done a lot this year already, I’ve got lots of songs – no, sorry, lots of bits. The problem is, I can never finish a song. I’ve got lots of verses and choruses so I’m going to have to combine them.

“There’s nothing worse than the thought of going back and doing The Geese And The Ghost Part Two because that would be a disaster. But maybe something more in that genre, longer-form instrumental so you have the chance for more development, rather than the library pieces of two or three minutes.”

The deal will put many years of work a little further into the public gaze, an opportunity Phillips relishes. “If you invent a great soap, but it’s not on the supermarket shelves, how are you going to say that’s a failure?” he ponders. “Basically, people have never voted. If they’ve all heard it and turned you down, like at a general election, you’ve failed.

“But you get these little vignettes, like hearing you got played at a dinner party or something, and you think, ‘There must be so many more people like that.’ I’m not fooled that my music would ever be massively commercial, but for each person that hears it, there are probably more out there that will never hear it.”

You immediately recognise the congenial Phillips to be a man of very little ego, but there must be at least some frustration in having great success with library compositions playing in films and on television without a soul knowing who they’re by.

“No choice, really,” he says softly. “I’ve just accepted that over the years. I think I’m getting a little bit restless now because much as I’m proud of a lot of it, I’m starting to think about longer instrumental formats where you’re not restricted by the disciplines of library. You can’t go diving off into the heavy 7/8 section with a sax. Not that I think I would ever go back into some of the prog stuff – I think maybe that era’s gone for me.“So I am seriously contemplating doing a solo album, which is a bit scary because the truth is, when you put your head above the parapet, it’s quite often shot off. With library music, you never know of the rejections – you just see the successes. If you do a solo album, you are really baring your soul, and you do tend to remember the bad reviews.”

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He has some entertaining examples. “I remember with The Geese And The Ghost, I was in the States and they handed me a sheet. One review said: ‘This is music to wash dishes to', and another one called it a ‘mellow rock classic’. I think I probably remember the ‘music to wash dishes to’ best!” he laughs.

“There have been some shockers over the years, but for all the shockers, there was the Q one when Private Parts And Pieces came out [in 1978], saying: ‘These are tunes that Mike Oldfield would kill for’.”

But Phillips has clearly made the mental adjustment to deal with those contradictions, just as he overcame watching the band he had helped to form go on to globe-straddling stardom, untold wealth and estimated sales of 130 million albums.

“If you go over the list of people who’ve been equally successful as solo artists having been in a band, there are notable ones, obviously, like Sting, Peter [Gabriel] and a number of others, but it’s not a big list. That’s one lucky area I never suffer from. Because of health reasons, I never had a choice, so when people say, ‘Do you regret it?’. I always say it’s a meaningless question, really, because I didn’t have any choice. If I’d walked out in high dudgeon because of musical differences, I’d have felt a right plonker, but luckily that wasn’t the case.”

Does Phillips think that if he’d stayed, he would have fallen in line with the band’s metamorphosis into an MTV-friendly hit singles outfit? “I think I would have pretty much gone along with it,” he says. “I never felt critical of the decision to go more commercial, as it were.

“With the period of the very complex music, eventually you probably want to do something a bit more simple, because it’s quite onerous writing that stuff, and it’s quite amorphous. It’s almost quite easy coming back to verse-chorus stuff. Perhaps, up to a point, they didn’t have a choice, because obviously Phil was more the money-spinner later on. But I’ve never felt critical of that. I personally think the early music was probably more original, but I think I would pretty much have gone the same way.

“The point worth saying is that there were too many composers in that group. They got it down to a manageable number where each person’s territory was carved out, but there was too much crossing of territory when I was there. So I think regardless of the ill health, the ‘too many strong minds’ would have probably blown it apart anyway.

“You get battles in groups about solos and who’s playing this and who’s doing that. It’s sometimes he who shouts loudest that prevails, because there’s no template for where to go next. When we did The Knife and Looking For Someone, we just dived off into an endless section of bits, which eventually come round to the same thing at the end. But it seemed to gel; there were no arguments.”It’s a joy to hear Phillips reminisce with amused fondness at the literal genesis of Genesis, from the pre-history as early as 1965, on to their first recording sessions and touring.

“What people don’t remember – why should they know this? – is that I was the driving force in the first school group before Genesis, The Anon. Richard MacPhail was our singer, Rivers Jobe, my mate from prep school, was the bassist, we had a very good drummer called Rob Tyrell, and Mike was the rhythm guitarist.

“Mike left temporarily because it was all too serious. I was dead serious, I was a real slave driver. I wanted us to sound exactly like The Beatles and the Stones when we played at parties in the holidays. I was probably the keenest on going on the road, or Mike and I were. We liked the noise, for a start. “Me falling off the rails, it gets misrepresented that I didn’t per se like touring, which is actually rubbish. I’d had glandular fever before we went on the road and I didn’t realise how that can affect you. We weren’t living a sensible life. Richard was doing his best, feeding us and stuff, but people have a wonderful idea about the group. Someone was mentioning the other day about ‘groupies in the hotel’. I said, ‘You’ve got to be joking.’ We used to doss down on floors in the middle of nowhere and drive back through the night.

“There was no question of staying after gigs and going out for dinner with people. We had no money. Rich used to bring along sandwiches and grated carrots. It was ridiculous! We played with Nick Drake quite a lot of times and we never had the chance to do more than say, ‘Hi Nick!’ and goodbye.

“We never went to the pub or a restaurant,” he continues. “We had to drive the van back to our country retreat, and if it got too late, we had to bring all the gear out of the van, unpack it up the bloody 39 steps every night and in the snow, and it was a dodgy winter.” Phillips catches himself sounding like Python’s four Yorkshiremen and adds with a laugh: “‘Luxury!’ I was really going there, wasn’t I? I’m not making out it was a terrible time, but it wasn’t the fun time that people probably think it was.”

For all that, the young Genesis had many champions. “We met some people that were incredibly encouraging,” says Phillips. “Mott The Hoople were absolutely lovely, Ian Hunter in particular. They invited us round to their flat once, and we were all schoolkids in our duffel coats and there were women everywhere. We were way out of our depth.

“It’s slapstick comedy, a lot of it, the things that went wrong on the road. We got away with murder in the early days, things going wrong left, right and centre. It was chaos. We were wildly ambitious, with all these equipment changes, and things never worked, guitars feeding back all the time. It was blissful chaos.

“But we made a mistake in living in the same cottage together, looking back. You’ve got to get away from each other and we didn’t. We never even allowed ourselves walks. The Protestant work ethic had nothing on it.

“I’d been dumped by my spectacular girlfriend at the time, but Mike and Pete were getting [from their girlfriends]: ‘It’s the group or me.’ Looking back, I don’t blame the girls – they never saw them. It was like monks.”

As the new box set underlines, Phillips became happily uncloistered and created a fine body of work on his own terms. We look forward to the chance of him adding to it. And looking forward is what he prefers to do too, but when he looks in the other direction, it’s without regret.“I would love to have been part of some of those great later pieces the band wrote,” he says. “But the price you pay – and I hear this a lot from people that know rock stars in the public eye – is that some of these people’s lives are not happy. People can’t go anywhere, the press are at them, you put one foot wrong and your life is gone. So much as I would have loved to be part of the success, I don’t think I would have wanted that kind of separation from the normal world.”

This article originally appeared in Prog #50.


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