The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Phil Collins’ “Sussudio”

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.

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Phil Collins – “Sussudio”

HIT #1: July 6, 1985

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

“Sussudio” is gibberish. That’s the best thing about it. Gibberish kicks ass. There’s a long, distinguished history of gibberish within pop music, one that stretches from Little Richard all the way through to Blackpink. Pop music is an art form dedicated to hormones and crushes and longings and the eternal struggle to stave off boredom. The words don’t have to make sense. They don’t even have to be words. With “Sussudio,” Phil Collins made up a word, built a song around that word, and then made that song into his third consecutive #1 single. If you’re capable of doing that, then why would you even need language?

But “Sussudio” doesn’t just discard language. It also laughs in the face of time itself. Consider this lyric: “Now I know that I’m too young/ My life has just begun.” When “Sussudio” hit #1, Phil Collins was 34 years old, and he looked at least 10 years older than that. You have to respect the audacity.

When Collins wrote “Sussudio,” he was well aware that his public image was that of a “miserable sod,” as he told Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits. Collins wanted to do something about that. He resolved to make an album of uptempo dance tracks — or, at least, an album with a few uptempo dance tracks. It worked out. No Jacket Required was a huge record, and even after hitting #1 with the sad-bastard ballads “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” and “One More Night,” Collins managed to get himself out of sad-bastard-balladeer territory.

Collins wrote “Sussudio” the way he wrote a lot of his songs — by playing around with a drum machine, coming up with an idea, and then writing to that idea. In this case, Collins was improvising, coming up with melodic ideas by singing nonsense words over his own beat. (This is also how a lot of rappers write these days.) Collins came up with the “Sussudio” hook, thinking he’d later go back and replace that non-word with something that meant something. But he couldn’t think of anything else that fit the track as well, so he kept the gibberish, and he worked around it.

“Sussudio” is a song about being a kid with a crush — or, at least, that’s the vague lyrical framework that Collins came up with. (“Sussudio” is implicitly fiction, which is why Collins could sing about being just too young.) But “Sussudio” is really more about a groove, and about how much fun it can be to wail over a groove. Nobody is ever going to identify with the “Sussudio” lyrics. Instead, what makes the track stand out is the funky, glistening state-of-the-art big-’80s bounce of that track. Collins threw a whole lot at his big beat: A monster synth-bass wobble, some Nile Rodgers-style chicka-chicka guitar scratches, a lot of complicated and exhortative horn-stab action from Earth, Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns.

Collins is a drummer, but there are no actual drums on “Sussudio.” Instead, Collins put together the groove on a Roland TR-909 drum machine, and he brought in an expert to help him with the rest. David Frank, the non-singing half of the New York dance-pop duo the System, played the synths, the Minimoog bass, and the DMX drum machine. (The System’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) Frank is the reason that bass hits the way it does. In fact, the only non-electronic instruments on “Sussudio” are the guitars and the horns, and even the guitars sound pretty synthy. (The horns, blessedly, do not.)

In making funky dance-pop, Collins committed the same sin as almost everyone else who made funky dance-pop in the mid-’80s: He bit Prince. Specifically, he took the groove, the tempo, the tumbling-drum sound, and the giddy synth riff from Prince’s “1999,” a song that had peaked at #12 two years earlier. Prince has never, to my knowledge, said anything public about the similarities between “1999” and “Sussudio,” but people definitely noticed. If something like that happened today, Collins would’ve at least had to give Prince a songwriting credit.

Collins has insisted that he wasn’t “plagiarizing Black music,” but he has acknowledged that the two songs aren’t that far apart. “I’d love to sound like Prince,” Collins told Fred Bronson. And in fact, an earlier demo of “Sussudio” had sounded even more like “1999.” Collins tweaked it so that it would be at least a little bit different.

In any case, I’m not mad at having another song that sounds a lot like “1999” out in the world. Even if one groove is a distinct copy of another, everything else is different. Maybe it’s best to think of “Sussudio” as a kind of mixtape freestyle, with Collins foreshadowing future Number Ones subject Lil Wayne’s mid-’00s run a couple of decades early. Collins comes up with a whole different melody, and he belts out that melody with grace and conviction. He really gives his voice a workout on the track, hitting notes hard without ever attempting R&B runs. He sounds exuberant as hell, as if he couldn’t be happier to be singing something other than another sad-bastard ballad.

There are sharp little hooks strung all through “Sussudio” — the “just say the word, ohhhhhh” bit, the way Collins gasps his way onto the bridge, the stuttery joy of the meaningless title. All through, those Phenix Horns go nuts, bringing a busy fanfare that powers the track and keeps it in the air. “Sussudio” is not a transcendent classic or anything — it’s not “1999” — but “Sussudio” is a goofy, fun jam, and there are never enough of those in the world.

For the “Sussudio” video, Collins returned to the same Richard Branson-owned pub where he’d shot the “One More Night” clip. This time, Collins wasn’t howling out his troubles after closing time. Instead, he was confronted with a packed but apathetic house. We don’t know what he’s been doing before singing “Sussudio” — or why he’s wearing a damn double-breasted business suit — but we know that it hasn’t been working. Even in his own videos, Phil Collins can’t get respect. But “Sussudio” changes all that, as Collins pulls the classic movie trick of convincing you that you like a performance by showing a bunch of people in the crowd gradually deciding that they like the performance. Hey! Worked on me!

Collins had a whole lot of hits after “Sussudio,” but “Sussudio” may have represented the apex of the man’s career. One week after “Sussudio” hit #1 in the US, Collins pulled off a wild publicity stunt, becoming the only artist to play both Live Aid shows. Bob Geldof had set up Live Aid, a massive global fundraising show that was set to air on TV from two different continents, in the immediate wake of all the success he’d had with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” a song that featured Collins. There were two shows, in both London and Philadelphia, and they were happening on the same day. Collins played both of them.

At the Wembley Stadium show in London, Collins played a few songs with his friend and collaborator Sting, who he’d met while recording “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (As a solo artist, Sting will eventually appear in this column.) Then Collins jumped on the Concorde, flew to Philadelphia, and made it to JFK Stadium in time to sing a couple of his own songs and then to play drums for another friend and collaborator, the past Number Ones artist Eric Clapton. Then, in his final Live Aid act, Phil Collins played drums for motherfucking Led Zeppelin.

Zeppelin had broken up five years earlier, when drummer John Bonham had died. The Live Aid reunion was their first time playing together since then, and both Collins and Chic/Power Station drummer Tony Thompson filled in for Bonham. Unfortunately, the three-song performance fucking sucked, and a whole lot of people have blamed Collins for that. For his part, Collins has blamed Tony Thompson. The Zeppelin members more or less disowned that performance, and they’ve only performed together a handful of times since then. At those occasions, Collins has not been invited back. (Led Zeppelin’s highest-charting single, 1969’s “Whole Lotta Love,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)

The hubris of the Live Aid stunt was not Phil Collins’ downfall. Two more singles from No Jacket Required made their way into the top 10. (“Don’t Lose My Number” peaked at #4. It’s a 7. “Take Me Home” peaked at #7. That one is a 10.) Phil Collins will be back in this column before long.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2000’s American Psycho where Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman expounds at length on Phil Collins and puts on “Sussudio” while getting into some freaky shit:

(Genesis’ 1986 single “In Too Deep,” the other song that plays during that scene, peaked at #3. It’s a 5. Genesis will soon appear in this column. Huey Lewis And The News and Whitney Houston, the other two artists that Bateman talks about in American Psycho, will also be in the column soon.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s MF DOOM, working under his King Geedorah alias, quoting “Sussudio” on the 2003 track “Fazers”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Action Bronson rapping over “Sussudio,” as well as one song that’s already been in this column and a bunch more that will eventually be here, on his 2012 mixtape track “Contemporary Man”:

(Action Bronson’s sole charting single is the 2015 Chance The Rapper collab “Baby Blue,” which peaked at #91.)