Friday, 27 June 2014

Phil COLLINS: No Jacket Required

(#312: 2 March 1985, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Sussudio/Only You Know And I Know/Long Long Way To Go/I Don’t Wanna Know/One More Night/Don’t Lose My Number/Who Said I Would/Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore/Inside Out/Take Me Home

The story was that Phil Collins and Robert Plant were visiting a Chicago restaurant called the Pump Room. Plant was allowed in but Collins was not, as the maitre d’ insisted that a jacket was required. Collins protested that he was wearing a jacket but was told that it was the wrong kind of jacket. This stuck in his craw, and he whined about it on Carson, whined about it on Letterman, whined about it just about everywhere he could whine. He wouldn’t stop whining. Arrive at your own conclusion.

It is still slightly baffling how, only four years after Face Value could just about pass muster as art-rock, Collins became the world’s biggest understudying pop star, or perhaps his was simply the most prominent instance of ancient (seventies) musicians and music being cosmetically fashioned to resemble newness. Richard Cook’s contemporaneous NME review of the record is so generous and articulate that I wish that what he said were true. Perhaps in 1985 No Jacket Required might have represented cunning, up-to-the-mark pop-rock, but twenty-nine years later it is hard to see beyond the crushing, deafening picture that the record largely presents.

Listening to NJR is like being bludgeoned repeatedly around the head with an early club sandwich-sized mobile ‘phone. No drumbeat is left un-gated – Hugh Padgham is, wearily, back again, as co-producer with Collins – no song left free of irritating, crisscrossing horn charts or glutinous eighties guitar (mostly Daryl Steurmer) or sax (Don Myrick or Gary Barnacle; it makes little difference). “Sussudio” came off poorly when set beside a reissue of “1999” but they are not really the same song, and most of the record’s other tracks are minute variants on the one song. Every beat has to be big, every introduction must herald yet another day off for Ferris Bueller.

It is oppressive; even listening to my elderly cassette copy at moderate volume inspired mild migraine – and I’m sure that was the intention, to batter any opposition into submission with its bigness, including the spectre of Collins himself, pictured on the inner sleeve, grimacing at the camera while wearing a suit at least two sizes too big for him (with frightful shoes). It’s sobering to think that at the time, he was just thirty-five.

Most of the album’s songs were improvised around drum machine patterns, and while some of them may express hoarse soul-baring, their messages are mostly impossible to decipher behind the gleaming clamour, and the snippets that do come through suggest that he is still stuck in the whining past; at least two songs bear reference to the “same old story.” “Take Me Home” might be about a patient in a mental hospital, but even the distant ghost of Peter Gabriel cannot elevate it above a prototype soundtrack for slow-motion football or athletics footage on television sports programmes.

There are a couple of ballads; “One More Night” is “If Leaving Me Is Easy” with all fight eviscerated, while “Long Long Way To Go,” a.k.a. “Starve With Sting” – I saw the two perform the song at Live Aid, which reminded me just how vital the third musician on stage with them, Branford Marsalis, was – highlights the record’s innate conservatism with its “a little charity for the poor” stance. But mainly the record plods in concrete clogs; “Inside Out” is so dreary in its intended massiveness that it sounds written for a BBC comedy-drama series abouttwo former prison inmates trying to go straight by forming an employment agency. Meanwhile, “Only You Know And I Know” sounds like “Abacab” stripped of ingenuity and invention.

Who is the “Billy” of “Don’t Lose My Number” – and why should anybody care? Nobody, I suspect, really treated NJR as anything other than a big soundtrack to a big life, to be played through big speakers while driving a big car and wearing a big suit. This is the eighties which people like Dylan Jones regard as the apex of Western civilisation, Bullingdon-Orientated Rock (BoR), the dead-eyed, iron-eared soundtrack to a lifestyle whose jackets were required only to have their sleeves rolled up halfway. Meat Is Murder only went gold; No Jacket Required went six times platinum in Britain alone. Clearly there was still a long, long way to go.


Alfred Soto said...

I enjoy the album much more than you do, in part because Collins had mastered this kind of drum machine-inspired pop (I thought I read your praising "I Don't Wanna Know" elsewhere, to me the best song and a better single than "Billy..."); and the use of space and keyboard patterns in "Long Long Way to Go" in the context of a big budget pop album made approaching Peter Gabriel a little easier.

Tom Albrighton said...

In a context where Cliff and the Royal Wedding album both merit several thousand words, the brevity says more than the review. Is there really so little so say?

The answer is yes, insofar as the record itself has so little to say, being as large and hollow as Collins’ jacket. But it’s worth noting that, while his sound may be big, his ambitions are small. Somewhere he’s said that he only wants to be remembered as a bloke who made some decent records. Maybe he failed even in that – or maybe he’s being falsely modest. More recently, though, he’s confessed to thoughts of ending his own life, dismayed at his critical legacy. No one, but particularly no one who entertained so many, should end up in that place.

Here, he comes across as someone who has stumbled over an alchemical formula – against all odds, really, because although ‘only’ 35 he’s still a veteran getting a second bite at the cherry. For me, Phil’s sound always seemed an unlikely candidate for such massive popularity: fibreglass-yacht-hull drums, squealing car-chase guitar, breakfast-TV keyboards. As you say, it’s a sort of refinement – or devolution – of his previous sound, stripped of all human fragility and machinified for world domination.

Maybe all pop music is inherently escapist. In terms of content, Genesis’ early pastoral stuff was more escapist than most. But in a meta way, it accurately reflected familiar middle-class impulses – to get away to the country, to lost oneself in fantasy, to deny progress, to turn away from diversity. Seeking a way out of that cul-de-sac via the personal immediacy of soul, Collins ended up imprisoned by the inexpressivities of the style he developed. But he still couldn’t help documenting the mental realities of the eighties – the frank enjoyment of material wealth, the contentment with face value, the marginal, token concern for society’s losers. Maybe that’s one reason to still listen to this record, if not to like it.

Er, except I do like it. That is, I like the memories of mine to which parts of it are indelibly attached. If only I’d had ONE mate who I could tape decent music off, my taste might have been salvaged. As it is, I’m stuck thinking ‘Take Me Home’ is a glorious, redemptive anthem that heralds the eighties’ sundowning middle age. It shares a quiet marimba intro based on fifths with Gabriel’s ‘Lead A Normal Life’, which really was about mental illness, but Collins broadens out the scope to a sense of confinement in an ‘ordinary life’. Maybe I am mad to like both.