30 Years Ago: Phil Collins Goes Straight-Faced for ‘ … But Seriously’
It’s not that he wasn't busy – he’d been working with Genesis, Eric Clapton and on the movie Buster – but Collins had time to think out what he was going to say when the chance finally came to say it.
The title was well-chosen: While his previous albums often took irreverent glances, the new LP found Collins exploring issues from a straighter-faced perspective. “I feel I’m treading new ground … writing about things that I’ve felt for a long time but never really written about,” he said in a promotional interview.
For example, “That’s Just the Way It Is” observed the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time, which continued to be seen across the world in news reports of terrorist attacks. “People are growing up over there, kids are growing up, and you see newsreels of them throwing petrol bombs and stuff, and they don’t really know why they’re doing it,” Collins said. “They’re just doing it because their brothers did it and their fathers did it and their grandfathers did it.”
Watch Phil Collins' ‘That’s Just the Way It Is’ Video
Another track, “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” he explained, was about encountering one’s first love years after having split with them. “And it opens all those feelings again, opens the cut, if you like," he noted. "A psychologist would probably look underneath that and say it relates to my past relationships.”
Collins explained that many of the lyrics wound up on the album just the way he improvised them while he was working out the songs. Accepting that some people regarded his approach as “simplistic,” he countered that's the "way I write songs, from the man on the street’s point of view. You don’t need to know the details, all you need to know are the facts.”
Along with a change in subject matter, Collins also employed a change of approach to tracking. “I wanted to go into the recording of the thing knowing what I was going to be singing about,” he said in an interview. “We did vocals throughout the whole album rather than just do it in one big chunk at the end. Usually after a couple of weeks I write all the words and then come back and sing them all. … [This time] we just interspersed the whole thing. So it's a very enjoyable album that way.”
Like before, Collins employed a wide range of well-known session musicians for the LP, but the most notable guests were Clapton, who played on “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” and David Crosby, who provided vocals for “That’s Just the Way It Is” and “Another Day in Paradise.”
“Clapton played on [my 1981 album] Face Value, but he played very, very quietly on ‘If Leaving Me Is Easy,’ and everyone said they couldn’t hear him, and he complained that I never asked him to play on any other albums," Collins recalled. "So I asked him to play on his one, and he plays great.”
Watch Phil Collins' ‘I Wish It Would Rain Down’ Video
He noted that he "tried to get" Crosby on Face Value, "but he was out on his boat a lot of the time. He was probably out of it, on his boat, is what he was. He said I wouldn’t have liked him then because he wasn’t a very nice person. … What I wanted him to do … was come in and pick out all these strange harmonies – he picks out strange lines that people wouldn’t otherwise think of. That was a very successful partnership.”
If Collins felt positive about the resulting album, he had good reason to. … But Seriously became the second best-selling album of 1989-90, while also being the last No.1 album of the ‘80s and the first of the ‘90s, going on to be certified four times platinum. Lead single “Another Day in Paradise” was Collins’ last of seven U.S. No.1 hits, while “I Wish It Would Rain Down” made No.3, “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” and “Do You Remember?” got to No.4 and “Hang in Long Enough” reached No.23.
The LP was nominated for four Grammys and won Record of the Year for “Another Day in Paradise,” the second song he’d written about homelessness, following Genesis' 1981 track “Man on the Corner.” He was inspired by a visit to Washington, D.C., where he had seen the contrast between people living rough on the streets and the dignitaries of U.S. politics going about their business.
The message became even more stark to him. “The day I cut the record, I was leaving the cutting room in London, me and [producer] Hugh Padgham," he recalled. "We were walking towards my car, and this lady was sitting on the side of the street with two kids. She said, 'Lend us some money, guy,' and I froze – you know, I almost pretended I didn't hear it, the same as everyone else does. … And as I was carrying on walking, I thought, ‘I’m carrying on walking and she's just asked me.’ … She's got two kids and she hasn't got any money; maybe she hasn't got a home at all, who knows? And here I am, and I've just finished cutting the record, so I've heard it a dozen times and … it's frightening. People like me, and I think everybody's the same, have got to do something.”
Watch Phil Collins' ‘Another Day in Paradise’ Video
With work completed, Collins described … But Seriously as “the most solid album that I've done since Face Value” and said it was important to change tack because his most recent works – the singles “A Groovy Kind of Love” and “Two Hearts,” taken from the Buster soundtrack – could be seen as him having “gone soft.”
“I did Buster because I loved the story, I loved the script and I wanted to act," he explained. "It was a great vehicle for me, but it was a ‘60s vehicle … it wasn't what Phil Collins would do as a solo artist necessarily. But I feel that people don't see that – they just see it an another Phil Collins single. So, really, I tried on this album to try and haul people in to back to where I actually am, which is a drummer/singer/songwriter … capable of writing songs -- I think, very moving songs. My best songs for a while now are on this album.”