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‘Both Sides’: The Revealing Story Behind Phil Collins’ Most Personal Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Both Sides’: The Revealing Story Behind Phil Collins’ Most Personal Album

Recorded in the middle of relationship difficulties, the ‘Both Sides’ album saw Phil Collins close a chapter on his personal struggles.

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As he faced up to the slow-dawning reality that his second marriage was reaching its end, Phil Collins set to work on an album that would provide a window into his troubled psyche. Entirely self-produced, Both Sides was more than just a collection of songs; it was a confessional, cathartic record, a deeply introspective journey through Collins’ personal trials and tribulations. Here we explore the genesis behind Both Sides, unearthing the profound emotional story behind its creation…

Listen to ‘Both Sides’ here.

The backstory: “There are things in my past that I thought I had worked out”

In November 1992, Genesis played at Wolverhampton Civic Hall for the final show of their hugely successful We Can’t Dance Tour. Little did audiences realise that, as the band’s singer stood behind the mic, he was secretly wrestling with the fact that his personal life was at a crossroads. With Genesis due to go on hiatus, Phil Collins was considering his options for a new solo album, and had begun readying a collection of demos that only he alone had heard. Collins had his reasons for keeping the music under lock and key – these songs, particularly their lyrics, were a ticking time bomb that would risk causing devastation in the wake of their release.

No matter how badly he tried to hide it, Collins was experiencing a crisis. His marriage to Jill Tavelman, his second wife and mother to their then three-year-old daughter, Lily, was going through immense difficulties. In a candid revelation to his biographer, Collins confessed: “All the reasons you live with someone, stay with someone, stay married to them, were gradually being lost. There were signs that maybe it wasn’t as special, or wonderful, as it used to be.”

Putting his relationship under further strain, Collins had secretly embarked upon a brief love affair with an old flame, Lavinia Lang, a former drama-school classmate whom he had dated in his teenage years. This extramarital tryst threw Collins into serious self-doubt, and the weight of his choices bore down heavily on his heart, raising profound questions about the viability of his marriage to Jill. As he confessed to her his infidelity, it was a moment of reckoning.

“There are certain things in my past that I thought I had worked out, and I thought I’d dealt with,” Collins said in an interview with Ira Robbins, “and it became very apparent to me – physically apparent – that I hadn’t.” In the end, Phil and Jill chose to work through their difficulties and agreed to stay married. However, as Collins’ new album would soon prove, the emotional fallout of his past misdeeds would prove much harder to shake.

The recording: “With songs this personal … no one else will be playing on or recording them”

Having demoed much of the material for the Both Sides album in his home studio, Collins knew that it would be difficult for Jill to listen to. Working entirely in isolation, on a 12-track Akai recorder, Collins often sat on a stool and sang spontaneous lyrics into the mic. Given that his debut solo album, 1980’s Face Value, was also a homespun journey of introspection exploring the breakdown of his first marriage, it became clear to the singer that this new album, his fifth, would be something akin to Face Value’s distant cousin. “The emotions that are firing these new songs are similar to the ones that gave Face Value its power, impact and, ultimately I hope, resonance,” he wrote in his memoir, Not Dead Yet. “They’re me, laid open and laid bare.”

Not only did Both Sides’ songs threaten to end his marriage for good, but they would also publicly open up old wounds for all the world to see. For this reason, Collins chose to self-produce the album, going so far as to play all the instruments himself. “With songs this personal, so close to home, no one else will be playing on or recording them,” he continued in Not Dead Yet. As a result, many of Collins’ previous collaborators were not invited to take part in the sessions; Both Sides would be a completely independent endeavour, a one-man solo offering that would be as intimate as it was deeply personal.

When the time finally came for Collins to head to the Fisher Lane Farm studio, in Chiddingfold, Surrey, to lay down the album’s drum tracks, he met with engineer Paul Gomersall and assistant Mark Robinson. “We overdubbed real drums and the odd new line of guitar or harmony and of course we finally mixed the songs,” Collins stated in the album’s liner notes. Throughout it all, he strived to maintain secrecy. “I’m fearful that as soon as Jill hears Both Sides, our marriage will implode,” Collins later wrote. “I suppose that, in keeping the creation and recording of these songs purely to myself, I’m trying to delay that moment for as long as I can.”

Unable to sit on it forever, Collins eventually issued Both Sides Of The Story as the album’s lead single, in October 1993. Boasting a radio edit more than five minutes long, the song was a thought-provoking soft-rock epic that appealed for listeners to seek understanding from multiple viewpoints, laying the groundwork for the unflinching emotional honesty Collins would exhibit throughout Both Sides. Peaking at No.7 in the UK and No.25 on the US Hot 100, Both Sides Of The Story easily ranks among the best Phil Collins songs for simply making a beautiful plea for empathy.

The release: “It’s a defiantly, proudly personal record, made entirely to my script and my specifications”

Phil Collins’ fifth album, Both Sides, was released in the US on 25 October 1993, with a UK release following on 8 November. Peaking at No.1 at home and No.13 stateside, the record would make for a unique listen among the best Phil Collins albums. “It’s a defiantly, proudly personal record,” the singer concluded in his memoir, “made entirely to my script and my specifications.

Both Sides’ second single, Everyday, saw Collins directly address his emotional turmoil, particularly in light of his affair. With lyrics describing his feelings about an ex-lover (“You’ll never know just how close we were”) and painting a grim picture of the future of his marriage in light of this revelation (“The book closes and we try to forget/But I know that things won’t change”), the song is a simultaneously painful yet utterly mesmerising AOR ballad. Peaking at No.15 in the UK and No.24 in the US, the song essentially re-opened a dialogue he and his wife had had behind closed doors and had took it into the public arena.

Elsewhere, Both Sides sees Collins reflect upon early courtships on I’ve Forgotten Everything (“I’ve forgotten everything about you till someone says your name”) while on Survivors he appears to seek forgiveness from his wife as they strive to keep their marriage going (“I never meant to break your heart/Somehow, somehow, we are survivors”). Coming to terms with the past is the album’s overriding theme, with Collins using Can’t Turn Back The Years to reflect upon times gone by (“The perfect love was all you wanted from me/But I cannot turn back the years”).

Described by Collins as the album’s bookend, We Wait And We Wonder was released as Both Sides’ third single, in April 1994. Picking up from Both Sides Of The Story’s plea for understanding, We Wait And We Wonder was written after an IRA attack in Warrington, Cheshire, and explores The Troubles in Northern Ireland. “It’s an emotional song, as much as a political one,” Collins explained in the album’s press kit. “I look at it as a simple sentiment from an ordinary person, an angry statement.”

Though many of the songs on the album don’t flinch away from the confusion Collins was facing in his personal life, the political consciousness he exhibits on tracks such as We Wait and We Wonder and Both Sides Of The Story allowed him to broaden his thematic concerns. In the end, Both Sides is an album about disagreements both personal and political, about how one can be haunted by past regrets, and about how the only grown-up solution is to face up to the difficulty of finding common ground. As a result, it was Collins’ most mature collection of songs to date, irrespective of the pain its lyrics.

The legacy: “All in all it’s the most enjoyable album I’ve ever made”

Going on to achieve the remarkable feat of selling more than one million copies in the US, Both Sides remains, along with Face Value, one of its creator’s personal favourites. Both haunting and guilt-ridden, it is a mood-driven record with atmospheric pacing that never fails to make the listener hang on every word, each delivered with an almost spellbinding sense of sincerity.

In the end, Collins’ fears about the impact the album would have on his marriage would be proven true. “To be painfully honest, I’ve realised that my marriage to Jill is over,” Collins later reflected. “I’ve undermined everything, and I can’t see a way back.” By 1994, the couple had separated, eventually finalising their divorce in 1996.

The songs on Both Sides, however, amply demonstrate how impeccably Collins was able to transform his personal difficulties into deeply affecting music with both relatability and tact. “All in all it’s the most enjoyable album I’ve ever made,” he said at the time of its release. Where Face Value burned with the anger and bitterness of a spurned lover, Both Sides occupies a limbo land of doubt and uncertainty, calmly reaching for adult solutions to highly personal problems and making them universally affecting for decades to come.

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