“Peter Gabriel was forced to start slipping into this persona… If we’d not had two 12-strings to retune, would he ever have started telling all those stories?” Why so many musicians envy Anthony Phillips’ career after Genesis

Anthony Phillips
(Image credit: Press)

Best known as a founding member of Genesis, guitar virtuoso Anthony Phillips has – in his quiet, unassuming manner – gone on to become a prolific issuer of cross-genre albums, and one of the leading lights in production music. He spoke to Prog just before he launched the latest in his Private Parts & Pieces album series, The Golden Hour.

Anthony Phillips can often be portrayed as a loser in the labyrinthine Genesis saga. A founder member of the storied outfit, he came from the Anon camp right back there at Charterhouse, with Mike Rutherford and Richard Macphail. Phillips was instrumental in the early sound of Genesis as they transitioned from the saccharine chart-pop wannabes of From Genesis To Revelation to their initial lengthy mystical prog-soul experiments. Most importantly, he played 12-string with Rutherford, setting up the intricate multi-layered guitar passages that dominated their early work, making the instruments sound more like lutes or harps than the folky approach taken by most players.

As 1970 progressed, he had left – thanks to a toxic combination of illness, a broken heart and stage fright. He was persuaded to return for the recording of Trespass, the group’s debut album for Charisma, which was released after he’d played his final ever concert with the group that July. And, seemingly, that was it from Phillips – until 1977 when he returned with his beautiful, if poorly timed album The Geese & The Ghost.

In the interim, his old turn grew bigger and bigger, moving from clubs to theatres to arenas, withstanding personnel changes to become more and more successful. Phillips, meanwhile, juggled a career that involved study, tuition and writing for others, plus an early adoption of writing and performing library music, which would prove lucrative for him as time passed.

Intermittent solo albums followed: some unashamedly commercial, the 1979 Rupert Hine-produced Sides or the 1983 pop curio Invisible Men; instrumental suites, such as Slow Dance; classical, Seventh Heaven; and collaborations, including Tarka and Gypsy Suite with Harry Williamson. However, Phillips is probably most loved for his Private Parts & Pieces series of instrumental offcuts, that first appeared at the end of the 70s and recently had its 12th instalment released.

One thing Phillips resolutely has not done since 1970, however, is perform onstage. The stage fright that crippled him is still there, and aside from playing live in radio studios and his living room, possibly the only time he stood in front of any audience since then was at the Prog Awards in London in 2016, when he collected the Storm Thorgerson Grand Design accolade for the remarkable work Esoteric Records conducted over his back catalogue.

A mine of impressions, comical voices and alter egos, the cricket- devouring Anthony Phillips is the epitome of an idiosyncratic Englishman, who just happens to be a virtuoso guitarist and pianist. He welcomes Prog to his south London home and talks happily, freely and wittily about his storied career.

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All of Genesis were terribly well-to-do. What did your parents make of your early dalliances with pop music?

Mum was very supportive; Dad was much sniffier and a bit askance about the whole thing. I think, like everybody else in the 60s, they didn’t quite know what had hit them. It was pre-drugs, but rock’n’roll was already synonymous with ne’er-do-wells. Soon, my mum realised that I was taking it very seriously and not just mucking about.

Didn’t she forward you the cash for your first significant guitar? 

She did. £70, which, back in 1966, was a lot of money: it was a pre-CBS Stratocaster. I had to go all the way down to Erith [in south-east London] with my friend, Rivers Job, and bought it from one of [beat group] Bern Elliott And The Klan.

We used our dining room for Anon rehearsals and my mum drove us to the studio for our first demo at Tony Pike Sound, where they kept telling us to turn everything down. We had this song called Pennsylvania Flickhouse. It was pretty dreadful, but the one merit it had was that it was a bit Stonesish.

We had this experimentation that we didn’t really realise,… It’s only in retrospect I realised we weren’t really influenced by anybody else

Anon played the now-infamous double bill gig at Charterhouse with The Garden Wall – Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel’s group – in July 1966. You were on top of the bill and the plug was pulled during your set.

We were allowed to do this impromptu concert. Geoffrey Ford, the housemaster, was very effete, and didn’t want us to speak between songs. It was summer term, and people were demob happy. We had more people than came to most early Genesis gigs – three or four hundred.

We had an equipment breakdown and Richard, with great presence of mind, said, “Sorry folks, this is all part of the act.” Gownboys House were rocking the school clock and there was mayhem. Geoffrey stopped the concert. Rivers threw a lead at him.

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Everything changed after that – the two groups eventually coalesced and the genesis of Genesis was in the air.

We made a demo where I wrote all the crap songs and Pete and Tony wrote the good ones. Pete only came along at Tony’s insistence. I didn’t know Pete could sing – he’d just lent us his drums at the time. John Alexander gave the tape to Jonathan King, and we ended up signing to Decca!

And that didn’t particularly work out for you…

It’s a good thing, really, that it wasn’t successful, or we’d have never developed our distinctive style. One day, I heard this golden sound of a 12-string coming from the glade at Charterhouse. That was it – I had to get a 12-string, and I started writing in a different way.

On the one hand, we were writing unoriginal blues stuff like Going Out To Get You, and on the other we had this experimentation that we didn’t really realise, as we were just mucking around thinking it was rather lovely. It’s only in retrospect I realised we weren’t really influenced by anybody else. I suppose the closest thing was the interplay between Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson in Fairport, but they were very much six-string, a little bit more folky. Whereas we were into weird chords.

Peter Gabriel used to sit there like an old woman, and then he exploded into this psychedelic thing

The summer of 1969 was tumultuous for you, was it not?

I’d been dumped by Lucy Burge, the love of my life. We’d recorded From Genesis To Revelation, and Jonathan King had mixed the backing track to mono and added the strings. It was released in March and the whole thing sounded limp.It seemed my whole world had come to an end. Being rundown causes illness and I contracted glandular fever quite badly, but I managed to work hard and get decent A-Levels. Genesis didn’t really know what to do; whether to go on.

When you were mooching around wondering what to do next, the East Grinstead Courier ran a feature calling you “folk-blues-mystical”, and in the picture there was also Brian Roberts and Anthony Hills Smith.

Anthony Hills Smith doesn’t get much credit. He was incredibly encouraging. We called him ‘Hillie,’ which is terribly public school. Pete knew him from Chobham [a village near Charterhouse], and he was in a group called Design. He sailed close to the wind yet had a lot of charm, like a breath of fresh air. He would just pop down and listen, telling us not to give up. Brian Roberts, too, was  constantly letting us record at his place. The encouragement of one or two of those people was worth its weight in gold.

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You then decamped to Christmas Cottage in Dorking and spent the rest of 1969 rehearsing and writing.

We worked so hard and it paid off – but we sort of frayed at the edges.

To be in that cottage during the same period as In The Court Of The Crimson King and Monty Python must have been incredible.

The impact of Crimson, especially on us, was huge in terms of sonics and how it was planned out. I later worked with Mike Giles, and he told me how the music was all planned before they recorded it. They went to America too soon, and that was it. We were rehearsing the day of their Hyde Park concert and missed it.

Peter Gabriel often seemed isolated during rehearsals, didn’t he?

I always felt a bit sorry for Pete, as we would gang up on him. He would have this incredible perception, all the time. It was almost too much – one in three ideas would be really good, but they wouldn’t stop coming. When we were ganging up against Pete, Tony was at the forefront.

That pecking order was a famous thing in Genesis, wasn’t it?

Tony was always friendly with me. But in a competitive situation, it was the only time I’d ever seen him anything other than friendly. He’s terribly competitive. Mike told me once they were playing tennis, and said the vibes coming from the other side of the net were so bad that he just gave the game away.

I asked for a poster to be put up in a music shop… they put ‘Ex-Genesis’ and people thought it said ‘Ex-Genius’

They say Paul McCartney was replaced with Billy Shears – I sometimes think that Peter was replaced, as well. He used to sit there like an old woman, and then he exploded into this psychedelic thing. Because of two 12-strings trying to keep retuning that took forever onstage, Pete was forced to do something and so he started slipping into this persona, which wasn’t the shy, sweet, slightly inarticulate Pete – he switched into this Messianic character looking into the far distance. If we’d not had two 12-strings, would he ever have started telling all those stories? We’ll never know. A great imponderable. 

You played with some incredible people in your short time on tour with Genesis.

I would love to be able to tell you about meeting Nick Drake or David Bowie... we just passed backstage at best. Mott The Hoople were incredibly supportive, though. Ginger Baker wasn’t very pleasant.

Your departure was a momentous time for the group – the only time they truly came close to throwing in the towel.

Glandular fever had been awful. I was incredibly ill. But we were young and kept driving forward. I then got bronchial pneumonia, took a couple of weeks off, came back and recorded Trespass, and went back on the road. When it came to solos, I was turning down. I’d just lost my nerve. I was basically, fundamentally scared. I was also being advised by medical people to leave. We were dossing down on floors. Glandular fever can affect your nervous system. I can’t be sure, but I think that the two were linked.

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What happened during the seven years when nothing was officially released?

I was a lost soul after I left the group. I had a place at Kent University to read philosophy. I remember they sent me a Bertrand Russell book – my idea of philosophy was sitting smoking joints and discussing life; then suddenly there’s all this scientific stuff. I’m a stranger to science. I panicked and switched to history. My nervous system had taken such a caning, in a sense, I was having a quasi-nervous breakdown. The idea of going to university seemed completely terrifying.

You went back to music school?

I deferred university for a year, and then I heard Sibelius for the first time, and that opened a new world for me. I knew that I had to read music. I had to catch up on stuff that other people would have done at the age of 13. I studied part-time at Guildhall [School Of Music And Drama in London], studying harmony, counterpoint and orchestration.

And teaching followed?

I started teaching classical guitar from 1972 onwards. I asked for a poster to be put up in a music shop, and they put ‘Ex-Genesis’ and people thought it said ‘Ex-Genius’! I taught at Peper Harow [a therapeutic community for troubled adolescents in Godalming] from 1975. I was also teaching at Reed’s School in Cobham. I was still teaching one day a week at Peper Harow as late as the recording of Sides. I was teaching the day Ray Cooper came in and did his overdubs. I’ve still never met him!

I was forced to do a pop-oriented side on Sides – Um & Argh was just a piss-take at the A&R guys

Mike Rutherford started to encourage you back into writing and recording around this time.

There was a brief period of schism, but we spent two Christmas holidays together in Cornwall and southern Ireland. We both love wild seascapes. We wrote some of the extra sections to Henry [from The Geese & The Ghost] at the hotel in Bantry Bay. 

When you started taking steps towards recording, you used Phil Collins, didn’t you?

Phil was great – he didn’t drive, so I would pick him up and he would gossip about what was going on in the group. He was just the sort of personality they needed; John Mayhew was great, too, but he wasn’t Phil. He had that plain, slightly folky style on the two songs that he recorded for me, like More Fool Me from Selling England By The Pound. He was music hall to Peter’s higher opera, and the two were a perfect foil for each other.

You also played keyboards on Peter’s first solo demos in 1976. 

Yes, at Trident. That was fascinating, working with Phil and Mike as a rhythm section.

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For many, The Geese & The Ghost, released in the States in 1977, is your masterwork.

Most of the material was taken from stuff Mike and I were doing in 1969 before we went on the road. Nobody was interested in The Geese & The Ghost coming out here; it was picked up by Passport in the States.

John Anthony Smith really got behind you, didn’t he?

Tony did everything he could, but it was the wrong time. The situation in North America wasn’t as extreme as here. There hadn’t been this universal palace revolution and ritual stabbing in the back of yesterday’s friends.

There was no question of joining Camel… I was never going to go back onstage. I never even got close to conquering that one

It did seem to be ‘Exhibit A’ in the case against prog during the punk wars.

Years later, I was playing cricket for a team called The Crocodiles and this fellow told me he had gone to Nottingham University in 1977. He had had a copy of The Geese & The Ghost, which he promptly had to get rid of because it was seen as being very uncool. In North America, I was respected for my new music – but over here, I was an old fart.

At this time you appeared, rather randomly, on the Intergalactic Touring Band concept album with Ben E King, Clarence Clemons and many others.

I was on The Geese & The Ghost promo tour and it was boring going around the country just repeating myself. So I used to take a 12-string into radio studios and play some live stuff. That never worried me because I couldn’t see the audience. Different people were coming in and contributing to this concept album. Meat Loaf was there. I remember I played on a nice 12-string track. I’d forgotten how stellar the line-up is.

And then, after 1978’s Wise After The Event, Sides came along, with your funkiest number, Um & Argh.

I was forced to do a pop-oriented side on SidesUm & Argh was just a piss-take at the A&R guys. I was drawing from quite a few lines which I’d heard. John Perry was told that his album was too good to go out. I enjoyed that, and they were all phenomenal players.

Mike Rutherford and you stayed together for some time.

Recording Smallcreep’s Day was fun. It was interesting to be employed as a keyboard player. [Drummer] Simon Phillips was younger than us and he would want us to jam, which is something I really don’t do. It was great being at Polar Studios, but we never met ABBA.

And you had a brief time in Camel too?

Andy Latimer and I did quite a lot of stuff together. After that, we did a lot of potential TV stuff. We had a piece used for the first European Golf Tour title theme. We did a few other things, too. I’m very, very fond of Andy.

Was there ever any talk of maybe you joining Camel properly?

No, there was no question, I was never going to go back onstage. I never even got close to conquering that one.

How did the whole library music thing come together?

I’d already been up to Riverside Studios in 1976 and recorded a putative thing for this so-called library music. I started writing for Atmosphere Music Library in 1981, while I was still very much ploughing my album furrow; 1984 had just come out. I was messing around on the Jupiter synthesiser doing Channel 4 plays and wildlife stuff. Anything that would pay the bills, having just bought my house.

I made almost nothing for the first 25 years, then was very lucky. You’ve got to have determination and hard work – but you do need luck

A great piece of pop trivia is that you once wrote a song for Bucks Fizz!

Yes, Tears On The Ballroom Floor [from 1984’s I Hear Talk, pop pickers!]. It was going to be coming out as a single. Then they had that horrific coach crash; and, understandably, it wasn’t released. Our original version was darker – more like OMD – but they made the chorus more pop.

We [Phillips and lyricist Roy Hill] gave another song to Chris Neil, who was working with Sheena Easton, that she was going to record, but then she left EMI and went to America. We wrote for a Roger Daltrey album that was shelved around that era. Our days as a hit factory were numbered.

Speaking of pop, you were briefly a VJ on VH1!

At the end of the 80s, my album Slow Waves, Soft Stars got labelled ‘new age’ and it was successful enough in America that I was asked to present a programme for VH1. That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do. I flew in, realised I had a cold and took Contac 400, which fries your brain but stops you sneezing. I had to choose these videos and talk about them – a lot of Pythonesque nonsense actually. I even got clapped by the cameraman.

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At that time [uber-cool coffee-table new age imprint] Windham Hill wanted me to record for them, and I got the brief so completely wrong, it was never released. We found a whole lot of material recently for The Golden Hour – Private Parts And Pieces XII.

The much-loved Slow Dance came out on Virgin in 1990 – one piece of music divided over two sides of music. Were they trying to turn you into the next Mike Oldfield?

That all came about because I was signed to Virgin Publishing, I was working on what became Slow Dance. They thought it very filmic and hired me as a TV and film writer. They saw it could be a cheap deal; this was the boom time for CD, so they were able to put my catalogue CDs out. The fallow ground of the 80s paid off and a nice advance saved me.

I started to get more commission work. Then we had the takeover of Atmosphere by BMG, which pushed us right up there. I started earning some proper money. I made almost nothing for the first 25 years of my life, then was very lucky. You’ve got to have determination and hard work – but you do need luck as well.

It’s when you have to give in to a guy, and you think: ‘In the end, that guy’s gonna realise what a fucking idiot he is’

Library music seems a perfect fit.

I love the quick turnover of ideas. For me, composition is the joy. I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I’ve been able to be constantly creative, yet not under great pressure. When people who are much more famous hear my story, they say that it sounds a lot gentler. I don’t have the big bright lights, but it’s a much gentler life.

You have an enormous catalogue to the uninitiated. Where’s a good place to start?

If you’re someone who likes prog, The Geese & The Ghost. If you’re somebody who likes film music and more romantic stuff, Slow Dance. If you’ve more of a classical bent, then Seventh Heaven, definitely. If you only like pop music, then maybe go for Invisible Man. I can’t really recommend a Private Parts & Pieces album, because they’re all so different.

Do people still approach you because of the Genesis connection?

Now and then. Although, when I worked with Guillermo Cazenave in Spain [on 1996’s The Meadows Of Englewood], we went to see a friend of his, who just wasn’t having it that I’d been in Genesis. It’s when you have to give in to a guy, and you think: ‘In the end, that guy’s gonna realise what a fucking idiot he is.’

Or is he? He could be thinking, ‘He’s from England, they all say they’ve been in Genesis over there’ …

Maybe you’re right!

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Daryl Easlea

Daryl Easlea has contributed to Prog since its first edition, and has written cover features on Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. After 20 years in music retail, when Daryl worked full-time at Record Collector, his broad tastes and knowledge led to him being deemed a ‘generalist.’ DJ, compere, and consultant to record companies, his books explore prog, populist African-American music and pop eccentrics. Currently writing Whatever Happened To Slade?, Daryl broadcasts Easlea Like A Sunday Morning on Ship Full Of Bombs, can be seen on Channel 5 talking about pop and hosts the M Means Music podcast.