In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
You could feel it coming in the air, and now it’s here. This column has entered the Phil Collins era. Cue the thunderous drum-cracks.
Phil Collins was always an unlikely pop star — a prog drummer with a distinct resemblance to a human thumb. Collins carried himself like a genial high-school assistant principal, not like a supernova of sexual energy. And yet Collins became a chart titan in the ’80s, a legitimate competitor to the Michael Jacksons and Princes and Madonnas and George Michaels of the world. Looking back on Collins’ career, all the usual intangibles for pop stardom are there: Timing, instincts, accumulated goodwill, canny image-manipulation. But Collins mostly owes his stardom to two crucial factors: He knew how to put a song together, and he knew how to make drums go boom.
The booming-drum part is the part that everyone remembers. This past week, Collins has been back in the news. Two YouTuber brothers, Tim and Fred Williams, taped themselves reacting while listening to Collins’ 1981 single “In The Air Tonight” for the first time (or, at least, while pretending to listen for the first time). When the huge drums come in near the end of the song, the two brothers performatively freak out. Twitter was delighted, and “In The Air Tonight” iTunes sales spiked immediately afterwards. Something similar happened 13 years ago, when a pensive gorilla drummed along to that break in a viral Cadbury’s commercial. We, as a society, are forever rediscovering that “In The Air Tonight” drum break.
“In The Air Tonight” — the song about that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drowning but didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him — was actually Collins’ first solo single. It was a global smash, and it pushed sales of Collins’ album Face Value into the millions. In the US, though, “In The Air Tonight” peaked at #19. Collins didn’t begin his run of American chart-toppers until a couple of years later, when he transformed a Face Value leftover into a neo-noir movie theme.
Collins, the son of an insurance agent, grew up in one of the more suburban areas of London. He started out playing drums when he got a toy kit for Christmas as a child, and he got more serious about the instrument when his uncle built him a set. Collins studied drums through his teenage years, and he also found work as a child actor. He played the Artful Dodger in a couple of West End runs of Oliver! and appeared as one of the screaming extras in A Hard Day’s Night. Within a few years, Collins went from Beatles fan to collaborator, drumming on one of the tracks from George Harrison’s 1970 solo debut All Things Must Pass.
In the late ’60s, Collins played in a couple of bands, Flaming Youth and the Cliff Charles Blues Band. In 1970, a couple of members left Genesis, a Surrey art-rock band that had formed a few years earlier. Genesis held auditions for new drummers at frontman Peter Gabriel’s parents’ house. (Genesis and Peter Gabriel will both end up in this column eventually.) Collins won the role after responding to a classified ad in Melody Maker. Over the next few years, Genesis became one of the titans of the ’70s prog-rock wave. At the time, Genesis didn’t get anywhere near the singles charts, but the band’s elaborate, atmospheric concept albums sold well. Collins had enough command of his instrument that he could play in all the different time signatures that Genesis required, and he had a good enough voice that he could sing backup while he did it.
In 1975, after Genesis finished touring behind their sprawling double album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Peter Gabriel left the band. While Genesis auditioned a new lead singer, they were also recording their 1976 album A Trick Of The Tail, and Collins sang lead on those tracks. Those songs turned out well, so Collins just became the band’s new lead singer. Not too many bands could survive the departure of a frontman and the transition of the fucking drummer to the lead singer position, but Genesis thrived, gradually growing more commercial over their next few records. Within a few years, Genesis even started to become a presence on American pop radio; their single “Follow You Follow Me” peaked at #22 in the US.
At the same time, Collins continued to work as a drummer for a whole host of different collaborators. Starting with 1974’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Collins played on most of Brian Eno’s classic records. (Eno will eventually appear in this column as a producer.) Collins also spent time in the jazz fusion group Brand X, played on John Martyn’s Grace And Danger, and worked with his old bandmate Peter Gabriel on Gabriel’s self-titled 1980 album, the one with the melty-face cover.
While Collins was working on the Peter Gabriel song “Intruder,” Collins, along with producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham, made an accidental discovery. While recording his drum parts, Collins used an overhead mic so that he could talk to Lillywhite and Padham. That mic, heavily compressed and gated, was left on at some point, and everyone noticed that it made Collins’ drums sound both huge and clean — a true stadium-style boom. The gated reverb drum sound became a Collins signature, and it remains the kind of thing that, when effectively deployed, can still freak out young YouTubers to this day.
While Collins was putting in all this drumming work, Collins’ wife and former childhood sweetheart left him, taking their kids and dogs with her. Collins, crushed, started writing sad songs. Sitting at home by himself, he’d play around with synthesizers and drum machines, taking on some influence from the American R&B that he loved. That’s how Collins came to record his solo debut Face Value, perhaps the ultimate divorced-dad album.
Over the next few years, Collins and Genesis both grew in popularity. Collins cracked the US top 10 for the first time in 1982, when his cover of the Supremes’ 1966 chart-topper “You Can’t Hurry Love” peaked at #10. (Collins’ version is a 5.) A year later, Genesis made it to #6 with their single “That’s All.” (It’s a 7.) And then the director Taylor Hackford, coming off the massive success of 1982’s An Officer And A Gentleman, came to Collins, looking for a movie theme.
Movie themes had served Taylor Hackford well. Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong,” the end-credits ballad from An Officer And A Gentleman, had already topped the Hot 100 and won an Oscar. Hackford’s next movie was Against All Odds, a remake of the 1947 film noir classic Out Of The Past. Against All Odds isn’t a straight-up romance like An Officer And A Gentleman — it’s about a gangster hiring an aging football player to kill his girlfriend — but Hackford wanted it to have a grand and romantic theme anyway. Phil Collins was who he wanted.
At the time, Genesis were touring. Hackford flew to Chicago to see them play and to watch a video version of an Against All Odds rough cut with Collins. Collins agreed to come up with a song, which wasn’t a hard decision. After all, he already had one mostly written. While working on Face Value, Collins had written a song that he’d called “How Can You Just Sit There?” Like so many other Collins songs from the era, it was about his divorce. Collins thought the album already had enough ballads, so he left the track off. When Hackford came calling, Collins slightly rewrote the lyrics to fit the movie, shoehorning the phrase “against the odds” — not even “against all odds.” He also gave it an ungainly new title.
“Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” came together quickly. Collins co-produced the track with Arif Mardin, the legendary producer and Atlantic Records label guy. Collins and Mardin recorded in two different cities, with Collins tracking the drums and vocals in Los Angeles while Mardin arranged and recorded the orchestra in New York. Collins was actually one of three Genesis members who ended up on the Against All Odds soundtrack. Former frontman Peter Gabriel had a song on there, and so did guitarist Mike Rutherford, who will appear in this column both with Genesis and with his side project Mike + The Mechanics.
Just like “In The Air Tonight” before it, “Against All Odds” is a chilly song from a broken man, and it builds tension before letting the drums explode onto the song midway through. But “Against All Odds” is muddier and more lethargic. Collins’ best ’80s songs have a clinical sparseness to them. The melodramatic orchestral crescendos ultimately take away from the song. When those drums come in, it’s dramatic and satisfying, but it’s just not the same. (Taylor Hackford, who directed the “Against All Odds” music video, helpfully punctuates those big drum cracks by cutting to a movie scene where a guy gets thrown into a drum set. I think that’s pretty funny.)
Lyrically, “Against All Odds” is straightforward enough. Collins can’t believe that this woman, the only one who really knew him at all, would really walk away from him. He doesn’t even try to stop her. He just tells her that he’s been utterly obliterated by her decision: “Take a look at me now/ Oh, there’s just an empty space/ And there’s nothing left here to remind me/ Just the memory of your face.” Collins’ voice is rich and controlled, but he delivers those lines with an anguish that stops just short of being overwrought. Collins has better songs, but I like the idea that he figured out how to get Hollywood money for the leftover scraps from his dark-night-of-the-soul album.
I’ve never seen Against All Odds, but it got pretty good reviews and did so-so business. The song became a whole lot bigger than the movie. Just like “Footloose,” the song that it replaced at #1, “Against All Odds” was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. Just like “Footloose,” it lost to a song that will eventually appear in this column. Collins wanted to sing “Against All Odds” at the 1985 ceremony, but the producers didn’t seem to know who he was. Instead, they brought in the All That Jazz star Ann Reinking to do a truly strange lip-synced dance number to the song. Collins, who’d rearranged his touring plans around the ceremony, hated the performance, though he managed not to write a heartbroken album about the experience.
15 years later, Collins won that Oscar. “You’ll Be In My Heart,” which Collins wrote for Disney’s Tarzan, won Best Original Song. That year, the category wasn’t jammed with chart-toppers the way it had been when “Against All Odds” lost, but it was still pretty crowded. Phil Collins, who did get to perform that year, beat out Aimee Mann and Randy Newman and a Gloria Estefan/*NSYNC collab that Diane Warren had written and the South Park banger “Blame Canada.” (“You’ll Be In My Heart” peaked at #17.)
Take a look at Phil Collins now, and get used to seeing him in this column. He’ll be here a bunch more times.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the R&B version of “Against All Odds” that Montell Jordan released in 1999:
(Montell Jordan will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Mariah Carey, someone who will be in this column a great many times, released her own R&B cover of “Against All Odds” on the 1999 album Rainbow. Here’s that version:
In 2000, Carey teamed up with the Irish boy band Westlife to record another version of “Against All Odds,” and that version became a #1 hit in the UK, where Collins’ original had peaked at #2. (“Against All Odds” has actually been to #1 twice in the UK; the X Factor winner Steve Brookstein had a #1 hit with it in 2004.) Here’s the video for the Mariah Carey/Westlife version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Postal Service covered “Against All Odds” for the soundtrack of the 2004 movie Wicker Park. Here’s their version:
(I am pleasantly surprised to learn that the Postal Service actually had one Hot 100 hit and that it wasn’t “Such Great Heights.” The Postal Service’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “We Will Become Silhouettes,” peaked at #82.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Bronx rapper and former Terror Squad member Cuban Link used a sped-up “Against All Odds” sample on his 2008 track “Take A Look At Me.” Here’s the video:
(Cuban Link has never had a Hot 100 hit as a lead artist, but he rapped on the Beatnuts’ 1997 single “Off The Books” — a song that I love deeply — which peaked at #86. Terror Squad will eventually appear in this column, but not when Cuban Link was in the group.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s DJ Khaled interpolating, or at least imitating, the “Against All Odds” melody on his 2017 Kodak Black/Gucci Mane/Rick Ross collab “Pull A Caper”:
(Kodak Black’s highest-charting single, the 2018 Offset/Travis Scott collab “Zeze,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. Gucci Mane’s two highest-charting singles, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars/Kodak collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. As a guest rapper, Gucci will eventually appear in this column. As a lead artist, Rick Ross’ highest-charting single is the 2008 T-Pain collab “The Boss,” which peaked at #17. As a guest-rapper, Ross’ highest-charting single is the 2019 Drake collab “Money In The Grave,” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8. DJ Khaled will eventually appear in this column.)