"Do you like Phil Collins?" To many young fans, Patrick Bateman expounding on the artistic genius of Phil Collins in the film American Psycho is their primary reference point for America's unlikeliest pop star. However, he initially exploded onto the scene about this time 30 years ago with his album No Jacket Required.
To be sure, Collins had been a force up until that point, thanks to his drumming in a mildly popular progressive-rock band you might have heard of called Genesis, his theme song for the Jeff Bridges vehicle Against All Odds and his creepy first hit, "In the Air Tonight."
But No Jacket Required, which was released January 25, 1985, certified Collins as a superstar and a household name with its sleek production, Motown-inspired singing and horn sections, and intensely catchy hooks.
These past 30 years have been a long road for Collins. He definitely fell out of favor for a long time in the '90s and into the turn of the millennium. It has taken this long for him to come back to prominence, yet now he gets name-checked by artists as wide ranging as Yeasayer and Neon Indian.
Yet in 1985, he was unquestionably one of the hottest properties in pop music, a veritable enterprise unto himself. Between his solo career and Genesis, Collins is matched only by Michael Jackson for the sheer number of hits he released in that decade alone.
No Jacket Required was the culmination of a slow build towards stardom that had begun with Genesis first breaking through to the pop world with "Follow You, Follow Me" in 1978. It represented a turning point in the band's career, where they finally embraced the allure of writing simplified pop hits instead of the progressive epics they had been known for.
But Genesis stalled. Even an album like Duke, which came two years after "Follow You, Follow Me," struggled to fully define their pop sound. It was a brilliant album to be sure, but "Turn It On Again" was hardly "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'."
Around that time, the band finally took a break to explore their solo careers. This is oftentimes the death knell for a group, but it was actually exactly what Genesis needed to do to continue their forward momentum. On his own, Collins managed to score with "In the Air Tonight," still highly regarded even among his biggest detractors.
The following few years would be crucial. First, Genesis released their self-titled record, reintroducing themselves to the world with the fully fleshed-out pop sound that would come to define them to most fans. It still had its prog moments, like the epic two-part "Home by the Sea" jam, but songs like "Mama," "That's All," and "Just a Job to Do" were indicative of a new life for a band who was left searching for an audience in the wake of punk rock and New Wave.
Then it happened. Collins struck gold. Enter No Jacket Required. If the self-titled Genesis record introduced the new sound Genesis had been searching for, No Jacket Required expounded on it tenfold. Unfettered by the more progressive influences of his bandmates, Collins was free to delve fully into his interest in pop-rock and Motown-inspired disco grooves.
The meld immediately struck a chord. To this day the gated drums, the horns, and the layered keys that bounce into your ears at the start of the album's first track, the massive hit "Sussudio," are an incredible feat of musicality, and the sound is unmistakably Collins. Often imitated in the '80s, including by former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel, but never quite matched, Collins hit paydirt with a truly unique sound that exploded onto the scene in 1985 like an atom bomb. It was energetic, dance music with a distinct sound and vibe no one else was producing.
The best part was that it was being produced by this balding man in a shabby suit, a loosened tie, and white socks glaring out of his loafers. A man with a squeaky voice, an incredibly odd sense of humor displayed in his bizarre videography, and credentials in art-rock that no other pop star could hope to match.
It was the perfect storm of influences, eccentricity and originality to set Collins apart from any of his contemporaries and bolster him to the status of one of the most beloved and iconic entertainers in the world.
If his work sounds dated now, it's solely because Collins' stardom is so inextricably linked with the time period. Like Batman in the The Dark Knight, he was the hero the '80s deserved, not necessarily the one it wanted. If you define an era almost singlehandedly, of course it will be hard to separate your music from it.
That doesn't matter, though. The caliber of songwriting on No Jacket Required is timeless, even if its sound immediately sends you reeling back into 1985. It's an album that never, ever lets up, even in lesser-known numbers like "Only You Know and I Know," which just as easily could have been a hit single for anyone else if the album hadn't already churned out massive pop hits like "Don't Lose My Number" and the sweeping journey of "Take Me Home."
The insane part is that Collins would match it the next year with his band, propelling Genesis to the same heights with an even better album in Invisible Touch. Most artists would kill for one record like No Jacket Required. Collins made two in as many years. Though it would definitely be topped by the masterpiece he produced with his band, Collins still made a landmark and a cultural touchstone with No Jacket Required, and he did it all with the same goofy smile, as though he stumbled into it without a bit of foresight.
These days few pop masterworks are made with such little calculation, but Collins still stands as a shining example of a pure musician with a humble attitude who just made some great songs with a unique sound that accidentally topped the charts.
© Houston Press, by Corey Deiterman