Three decades ago this week, the second single from Phil Collins’ diamond-selling solo album No Jacket Required hit #1 on the U.S. Hot 100. In the days when even one-time platinum sales are a pipe dream for even the industry’s biggest artists, it’s pretty staggering to think about those quantities of product being moved. Perhaps it’s more amazing to think of it happening because of music that sounds like this.
But it really shouldn’t be, especially these days. The architecture of “Sussudio” and the colossal pop hits of this time infringe on popular music more than ever. Busy, Linndrum-esque backbeats — hallmarks of so much of ‘80s pop, from the electro-pseudo-soul of Collins and Hall & Oates, to the work of R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — infringe on the music of Top 40 stars like Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen. Alternative and “indie” acts have appropriated them for the better part of a decade. (A Dutch TV documentary devoted to Collins from a few years ago features Neon Indian, Sleigh Bells and Yeasayer guitarist/singer Anand Wilder espousing the endless virtues of the former Genesis drummer-cum-pop-icon.)
“Sussudio” has been criticized for, among other things, its similarities to Prince’s 1982 hit “1999.” If you compare the two tracks, the formal likeness is undeniable, but the affect couldn’t be more different. If Prince’s is club funk for a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk noir, Collins’ is gentle pub soul — slapstick fun from some summery Chevy Chase vehicle. Many millennials, of course, came to the song first through American Psycho rather than a well-loved family cassette tape, and therefore their image of the sockhop romance Collins dramatizes will doubtless forever be tainted.
However, either school should be able to hear the stunningly-arranged pop record that exists outside these associations. Collins leaves no fat on his melody and lets the horn section provide the only trimmings. Underneath it all, there’s the nearly toneless but powerfully driving synth bass, which ends up being a lot of what we hear, providing erratic palpitations inspired either by a crush or Patrick Bateman’s private stash. There’s no subtlety or variation here; the song is, at its essence, just a tribute to a good drum loop. It may be a coldly calculated pop algorithm, but it’s no lifeless knockoff.