In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, which went to No. 1 on March 30, 1985, where it stayed for four weeks; on May 18, it stayed for two weeks; and July 6, where it stayed for one week.
At some point in the early-21st century, one of the biggest pop stars of the late-20th century decided he wanted his girlfriend to call him “Philip.” This was roughly the same time that Phil Collins—whose most successful album, 1985’s No Jacket Required, spun off four Top-10 singles (including two No. 1’s), won the Grammy for Album Of The Year, and was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America—announced his probable retirement from the music industry. The man who personified the compressed, booming, trebly, sports-coat-with-the-sleeves-pushed-up sound of mid-’80s corporate pop-rock no longer wanted to be “Phil Collins,” a concept now known as “dated” even though it’s remained as close to the heart of pop culture as the nearest shamelessly sappy (and compulsively listenable) playlist.
Phil Collins came out as “Philip” in a now-infamous 2010 Rolling Stone profile ostensibly tied to the release of Going Back, a collection of Motown covers that sold a lot better than you might think, at least internationally. (Those inclined to enjoy an album of Motown covers recorded by Phil Collins being the last demographic to still procure music by purchasing it.) In spite of that, Collins has indicated that Going Back is his final album, for reasons outlined in the Rolling Stone story: He has young children he wants to watch grow up, crippling pain that makes gripping things (like drum sticks) with his hands a difficult proposition, and a weirdly obsessive preoccupation with collecting Alamo memorabilia. Oh, and Collins is also sick of the world making fun of him.
Depending on your age, Phil Collins is either emblematic of middle-of-the-road pop music at its most defiantly centrist, or the antithesis of everything pop stardom is supposed to look, act, and sound like. Collins isn’t even good-looking for an accountant; there are cab drivers who radiate more natural magnetism and charisma. Like his contemporary Huey Lewis, Collins is a guy who could’ve only become a pop star in the ’80s, the golden age of thirtysomething white-guy hipness, when tasty horn licks and receding hairlines could still signify music enjoyed by young people.
Few artists got fucked by the rise of metal and hip-hop, the twin sonic avatars of youth culture, as bad as Collins. (Though it should be noted that rappers have paid their respects to Collins from time to time. Rolling Stone quotes none other than O.G. and sex-crimes expert Ice-T, who calls Collins’ music “deep” because “it makes you look into your own self.”) But for the most part, Collins has been a target of ridicule in “cool” music circles for years.
This apparently turned Phil Collins—at least in the way he’s described by Rolling Stone writer Erik Hedegaard—into a cross between J.D. Salinger and Richard Nixon, an eccentric recluse who wants the world to know that you won’t have him to kick around anymore. He talks about yearning to shed his musical identity with a brutal finality. “I sometimes think, ‘I’m going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story,’” Collins says, in what became one of the story’s most cited pull quotes. “Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom, and people will say, ‘What happened to Phil?’ And the answer will be, ‘He got murdered, but, yeah, anyway, let’s carry on.’ That kind of thing.”
Later—after the part where Collins suggests that he’s taken photos of ghosts hovering above present-day Alamo battle sites—he admits that he’s contemplated suicide. “I wouldn’t blow my head off,” he says in the story’s other big pull quote. “I’d overdose or do something that didn’t hurt. But I wouldn’t do that to the children. A comedian who committed suicide in the ’60s left a note saying, ‘Too many things went wrong too often.’ I often think about that.”
The most shocking part of the Rolling Stone story is at the end, and it comes not from Collins but Hedegaard, who refers to Collins as “the second biggest pop star of the ’80s (after Michael Jackson).” Wha? Bigger than Madonna? Prince? Springsteen? It only sounds crazy until you look at the evidence: Collins has sold 150 million albums, and that’s just as a solo artist. (And he’s only made eight solo studio LPs, which puts that figure in an even more impressive perspective.) If you consider Genesis’ mega-selling 1986 album Invisible Touch a sequel to No Jacket Required—and you should, because it is, in terms of sound, sensibility, and riding of coattails—and grant Collins partial credit for the chart-topping success of the Miami Vice soundtrack (anchored as it is by his “In The Air Tonight”) at around the same time, then he emerges as a clear titan during a time when only the most ginormous of pop-music dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
After the Rolling Stone story appeared, and millions of people wondered aloud about what the hell happened to the happy-go-lucky guy who sang “Su-su-sudio,” Collins took to his website and insisted that he said all of that stuff about murdering himself and/or being murdered by someone else with a smirk. He didn’t claim he was misquoted, only that the words didn’t have any consequence. Of course he did. Because this is what Phil Collins does.
I don’t claim to have any insight into Collins’ soul, but if you listen to his records, an obvious pattern emerges: Every time he says something sick and possibly ugly about his own life, he’ll rush to minimize it. He got so good at this, it eventually made his music appear empty and soulless, which is partly why he said sick and possibly ugly things about his own life in Rolling Stone. It’s the sort of thing that vicious cycles are made of.
The darkness in Collins’ life, which coincided with the songs that made him a superstar in the ’80s, stemmed form his first divorce. (Collins later got divorced twice more, in 1996 and 2008.) His solo debut, 1981’s Face Value, is practically a concept album about his romantic failings. And the wound still festered all the way to No Jacket Required, which includes the self-explanatory “Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore” and the No. 1 hit “One More Night,” a tinkling soft-rock ballad driven by a drum machine that ticks like a clock in the middle of a long, restless night, as Collins stares at his phone and pleads for it to ring.
“One More Night” doesn’t announce itself as an introspective song set inside a desperate man’s poisoned mind; by all appearances, it’s just a nice pop ditty that no doubt initiated some sultry slow-dances in singles bars throughout mid-’80s America. But lines like “like a river to the sea / I will always be with you / and when you sail away / I will follow you” only seem romantic if you assume the object of affection isn’t, in reality, the target of an unwanted fixation. It’s only Collins’ bland image, rather than the content of the song, that suggests that to be the case.
The negative-creep side of Collins’ persona didn’t go completely unremarked upon as the furiously beet-red mug on the cover of No Jacket Required systematically took over shopping-mall record-store displays in the spring and summer of 1985. Writing in The New York Times, music critic Stephen Holden called Collins “pop music’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock,” singling out his use of the drums as a communicator of dread:
On the surface, No Jacket Required is an album bursting with soulful hooks and bright peppy tunes. But beneath its shiny exterior, Mr. Collins’s drums and his voice carry on a disjunctive, enigmatic dialogue between heart and mind, obsession and repression. The jacket that the album title assures us is not required may not be a tuxedo but a straitjacket.
The straitjacket line references the character Collins sings about in the album’s penultimate track, “Take Me Home,” over a hypnotic, pulsating rhythm that skitters like an irregular heartbeat. That “Take Me Home” is about a tortured, possibly mentally imbalanced man isn’t exactly subtle: Collins sings, “I’ve been a prisoner all my life,” and, “There’s no point escaping.” He references a fire outside his door that he can’t see but feels burning him. The insistent pull of the drum machine suggests the feeling of being carried away by men in white clothing. But in the video, Collins chuckles and brushes all that aside, playing the good-natured British gentleman starring in a light-hearted travelogue. A song about descending into madness is presented as a feel-good anthem about a pop star returning home after conquering the world.
The knock on Phil Collins is that he was just a regular schlub, devoid of the glamour and star power that we demand of pop singers. Eventually Collins decided his critics were right, and left pop stardom behind in order to be a (very wealthy) normal person. But Phil Collins will never be normal. He tells us as much over and over again in his songs. He just won’t let us listen.
Coming up: Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile