Phil Collins: Cover versions
Phil Collins talks to about creating work out of karaoke, album posters and fan letters as the artist unveils his first solo exhibition in Scotland
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but few bands have inspired such hopeless devotion in their fans as The Smiths. When Morrissey, Marr and co appeared in 1983, the pure emotional rawness of Morrissey’s lyrical confessionals tapped into an adolescent yearning that inspired adoration. Phil Collins recognised this when he started work on his major video installation of Smiths fans performing karaoke versions of their idols’ ‘The World Won’t Listen’ in 2004. Not, however, where you might expect to find acolytes of a band steeped in English kitchen-sink mythology.
‘I’d gone to Bogota in Colombia,’ Collins explains, ‘and spent a lot of time going out to rock’n’roll clubs and indie clubs there. These were the sorts of places playing the type of music I never thought would be big there, and that’s where the idea came from.’
Collins commissioned Colombia’s biggest band, Los Aterciopalados, to record the backing tracks to The Smiths’ 1987 compilation album of neglected singles and other works from the previous two years in its entirety, from ‘Panic’ through to ‘Rubber Ring’.
‘I didn’t want it to be a joke,’ says Collins. ‘At that time karaoke was still the preserve of Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Phil Collins (the other one), all these things you’d never want to sing, no matter how drunk you got. You had this beautiful means of expression, but no good songs to sing.’
Collins then put out an invitation for Smiths fans to take part and be filmed. The result was 1200 people performing renditions of their favourite song in a nightclub over four days. Collins repeated the process in Turkey and Indonesia, and has synchronised each part of the trilogy in a manner that shows how the international language of Morrissey translates.
‘Some people had learnt the lyrics phonetically,’ says Collins, ‘so they ended up singing in a northern English accent. It was very moving.’
Accompanying ‘The World Won’t Listen’ is ‘Britney’, a series of photographs of posters for Britney Spears’ post-breakdown album Collins found in New York. ‘They’d all been spat on or grafittied,’ he says. ‘It was like she’d been tarred and feathered.’
A set of screen-prints of the letters and classified ads a teenage Morrissey sent to the NME in the late- 1970s completes this skewed vision of a fan convention alongside a video piece based on a laughing contest set up in Helensburgh.
‘All the works say something about performance,’ Collins says, ‘and the fans’ relationship to it. When you do karaoke, you’re somehow supplanting your idols, but your performance is also full of flaws, which creates something beautiful as well.’
As a northern lad from small town Runcorn, Collins was understandably attracted to The Smiths from an early age. ‘The Smiths still have a special place for me,’ he confesses. ‘They remind me of all those things that happened and were important to me all those years ago, the same way David Bowie does. The Smiths still provoke and console in ways that 99 per cent of other bands can’t.’
Phil Collins: The World Won’t Listen, Tramway, Glasgow, Fri 17 Apr–Sun 31 May.