Patrick Bateman, step away from my laptop.

I would not have thought it possible that No Jacket Required would sound like a sparkling pop album in 2010. The paradigm for the Sparkling Pop Album has shifted in favor of youth. Part of NJR’s charm is listening to a dorky never-been having fun with sampling keyboards, a mixing board, effects pedals, and a surprisingly well syncopated Earth, Wind & Fire horn section. Collins sought a context in an MTV-defined marketplace, and found what eluded a lot of his trad-rock peers: stick to what you know, but update it sonically. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to new music: like fellow thirtysomething Stevie Nicks, he heard Prince once and liked it (“Sussudio”); like a lot of English performers,  Peter Gabriel’s drum sound bewitched him: note how the rhythm track for  “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” mimics Gabriel’s “No Self-Control.”  One example of big beat angst works (“I Don’t Wanna Know”), the other doesn’t (“Don’t Lose My Number,” which epitomizes why lots of people wanted to punch his jaw). I don’t particularly enjoy “One More Night,” but Collins and co-producer Hugh Padgham carve a space for Collins’ bathos out of monotony: the singer’s multitracked harmonies, a three-note melody line elaborated upon by Collins’ keyboards and that oh-so-rote eighties rhythm guitar lick.

Speaking of keyboards: studying the credits of this and …But Seriously (Collins was big in the Soto household; I also own the 45 for  “Sussudio”), I realized that this drummer plays all of them. A considerable part of what renders his good solo material listenable is his way with the ivories, or, rather, how he programmed them. Face Value’s “This Must Be Love” is a good example of how Collins understood the possibilities of the Prophet 5 keyboard almost as well as Gabriel and Kate Bush; he gets it to sound as if it were another harmony vocal. NJR has lots of examples of Collins’ skill at integrating the Prophet and the Oberheim-X (“Long Long Way To Go,” a more sophisticated cousin of Genesis’ “Man on the Corner” and Collins’ later see-no-evil-hear-no-evil homeless plaint “Another Day in Paradise”).

Has any other megastar ever developed his career so shrewdly? Think about it: a bald, frumpy middle-aged Brit was the biggest male star on the planet for a few years running.  Starting in benign anonymity as drummer for an English prog rock band whose every album until 1992’s We Can’t Dance outsold its predecessor, he stepped to the microphone after the departure of its beloved lead singer for the US breakthroughs “Follow You, Follow Me” and “Misunderstanding.”  In between he did well-regarded session work for the likes of Brian Eno. He releases a hushed, self-effacing solo album that compensates for its absence of vocal charisma with a walloping drum sound. By 1984 he’s hit Number One for the first time with a well-structured movie ballad and nominated for a songwriting Oscar. Serious about his journeyman roots, he produces Adam Ant’s solo debut, Eric Clapton, ABBA singer Frida (her lone US hit “There’s Something Going On,” which I reviewed here, deserves tons more airplay), and, most spectacularly, EW&F’s heaven-kissed singer’s Chinese Walls, whose “Easy Lover” is a model of hamfisted eighties formula-rock.  From this moment forward Collins has the invisible touch, scoring six more US Number Ones and tons of Genesis hits until his determined dorkiness clashed with the grunge era’s youth fetish upon the release of Both Sides in 1993. His only salvation is an anonymous hack ballad from a Disney movie that lands him the Oscar he thought he needed as validation.

I’m not defending Collins as an overlooked master. Like Paul McCartney his video and public persona is several shades of unctuous and creepy; he’s like the kid in sixth grade whose parents and teachers reminded him of how talented he was.  What I want to make clear is how those huge Collins and Genesis hits straddled all kinds of pop music taboos.

8 thoughts on “Patrick Bateman, step away from my laptop.

  1. scott

    The difficulty in defending Collins — which I’ve done on at least a couple occasions in the past — is that the guy’s been so ridiculously maligned over the years (and for WHAT, exactly?) that you risk running too far with your arguments in the other direction just to begin to instill a modicum of balance to the conversation. You make the case well, though, and I agree with you, it’d be foolish to proclaim him any sort of “overlooked master” but he has, at times, been a fairly superlative craftsman, at least, and he’s had a bunch of good to great scattered moments throughout his career (many of which you peg and which I agree with, though my P.C. knowledge is limited entirely to his singles). I remember back around the time he was huge, not caring much for him but not really thinking much about him. Then a friend — someone much more deeply connected to “underground” music than I ever was — put “Sussudio” on a mixed tape for me, and with some liner notes he included noted its similarity to “1999,” which may have been what turned me around on Collins (the rhythm track in that song is ridiculously good). I also think the guy has a flair for prettiness, which is of course duly ignored by most critics: the mawkish “Another Day in Paradise” has real beauty in its sound, “One More Night” reminds me a little of Hall & Oates’s gorgeous “One on One,” and — I’m surprised you didn’t bring this one up! — “Two of Hearts” is ’80s Motown redux at its best.

    Mind you, as I write this, I’m looking at Phil’s Wiki discography and also noticing things I don’t care for (including — sorry — “Easy Lover,” which just sounds kind of constipated to me) and a lot of stuff I don’t even know. So again… not here to proclaim his Utter Greatness or anything, but dude’s dismissers really need to get over it.

  2. scott

    a considerable part of what renders his good solo material listenable is his way with the ivories, or, rather, how he programmed them.

    True, and what else interests me about him is just how consumed he, a drummer, was with adapting to the new technology of the times for programming his (always pretty OTM, even when I don’t care for the song itself) beats. I totally agree with your point about how his interest in sonics is a big part of the Clue to the Great Phil Collins Mystery.

  3. humanizingthevacuum Post author

    it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention Tom Ewing’s post on “A Groovy Kind of Love” (and the comments are consistently intelligent, even when they’re anti-Collins). I mentioned in one of mine that “Two Hearts” is a fairly good example of ersatz Motown, at least as good as Wham!’s “Freedom.”

  4. humanizingthevacuum Post author

    “One More Night” reminds me a little of Hall & Oates’s gorgeous “One on One

    Wow – you’re right.

  5. jerfairall

    Terrific write-up, as usual.

    I’m gonna dig up the copy of the album that I know is around here somewhere tonight and give it a fresh listen–encouragingly, “Sussudio”, “I Don’t Wanna Know”, “Don’t Lose My Number” or even “One More Night” aren’t any of the reasons that I assumed, for years, that I hated Collins on principle.

    Still, how do you review this album without mentioning “Take Me Home”, which even a casual hater like me knows is a fantastic state-of-the-80s pop song?

  6. Jeb

    As a drummer who also writes songs, I’ll defend Collins’ ’80s output to the end. He could have sunk into obscurity, but like many other mangy ’70s throwbacks he learned how to craft an image for the MTV age and was able to spin it into gold (see also: ZZ Top). In a decade of excess, he was the relatable everyman, with a sense of humor and the talent to back it all up.

    No Jacket Required lived in my walkman for the whole of 1985.

  7. Billy Bob

    Yes, let’s all be very cautious and make sure we do not say too many positive things about Phil Collins. I mean, it’s like defending Hitler, right?

    Anyways, Collins played drums on Peter Gabriel’s “No Self Control” (as well as on “Intruder,” among others) and was very much present when that big gated reverb drum sound was “discovered” during the making of that album. The similarities between the drum sounds on Collins’ albums and “Peter Gabriel 3” are there because it’s Collins anyway–his style, not really a rip-off when it was him in the first place.


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