The Number Ones

November 30, 1985

The Number Ones: Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives”

3/10

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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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A plane crashes in Siberia. On board is a celebrated Russian-born ballet dancer who has defected from the Soviet Union and become an American. He was on his way to perform in Japan, but he’s stuck, and he knows it. He’s back in the hands of the country he once escaped. But the Russians, hoping to score propaganda points by converting the dancer back to the Soviet cause, send him to live with a Black American tap dancer who has defected the the USSR. The two dancers bond, mostly by dancing, and then they decide that they’re going to escape together and go back to America.

That ridiculous story, Google tells me, is the plot of White Nights, a 1985 movie that I’ve absolutely never heard of. I don’t even remember seeing the video on the shelf in any of the rental places where I used to spend hours wandering aimlessly, looking at boxes. Did this movie simply cease to exist the moment that the Berlin Wall fell? White Nights mostly seems like an excuse to put stars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines onscreen together. For whatever reason, it takes these two great dancers and throws them into a Cold War thriller plot. It looks pretty bad!

White Nights mostly got dismal reviews, but it was a pretty big hit. It earned about $42 million, and it was the #18 movie at the 1985 box office. (On that year’s list, it’s right between Mask and Pale Rider. White Nights made more than Pee Wee’s Big Adventure or Commando or Teen Wolf or The Last Dragon, none of which have disappeared from the world.) White Nights also had a huge soundtrack, with some of the biggest names of its time, and it got Phil Collins back into the field of sad-bastard divorced-dad balladry. Maybe that’s some kind of achievement.

“Separate Lives,” Collins’ big contribution to the White Nights soundtrack, is one more peak in a ridiculous year. In 1985, Collins released the absolutely massive No Jacket Required. His singles “One More Night” and “Sussudio” both hit #1. He got nominated for an Oscar. He played at Live Aid in both London and Philadelphia. A year earlier, Collins had scored his first-ever #1 hit with “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now),” a heartsick ballad from a Taylor Hackford movie. So when Collins recorded another heartsick ballad for another Taylor Hackford movie, maybe another #1 hit was academic.

But “Separate Lives” isn’t just a Phil Collins single. On “Separate Lives,” Collins shares the spotlight with the Tennessee-born, Louisville-raised singer Marilyn Martin. This was Martin’s first big center-stage moment, but she’d been around for a little while as a backup singer. Martin had spent years singing in clubs before impressing the former Eagle Joe Walsh and joining his touring band as a backup singer. (Walsh’s highest-charting single as a solo artist, 1978’s “Life’s Been Good,” peaked at #12.)

From there, Martin had moved to Los Angeles and become a session singer, working most closely with Stevie Nicks. (As a solo artist, Nicks’ highest-charting single, the 1983 Tom Petty collaboration “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Stevie Nicks clearly liked working with Marilyn Martin. Martin’s first proper solo song is “Sorcerer,” a track that Nicks wrote for the soundtrack of the 1985 Walter Hill flop Streets Of Fire, a movie that I fucking love. Nicks sings backup on the song, too.

When Martin was singing backup on Nicks’ 1985 album Rock A Little, the Atlantic Records honcho Doug Morris took notice of Martin and made her into a project. Morris had the idea to pair Martin up with Phil Collins, and Collins was down. So Marilyn Martin’s first single was also her only #1.

Phil Collins didn’t write “Separate Lives,” and neither did Marilyn Martin. Instead, the song came from Stephen Bishop, a singer and songwriter who made smooth pop music and who carved himself out a niche writing songs for movies. Bishop wrote and sang a couple of songs on the National Lampoon’s Animal House soundtrack, and he also appeared in the movie, as the butt of a timeless and beautiful joke. (He’s the guy with the acoustic guitar.) Bishop also had songs in The China Syndrome and Roadie and Summer Lovers and Unfaithfully Yours, and he sang “It Might Be You,” the theme from Tootsie. (Bishop’s highest-charting single, the sleepy 1977 soft-rocker “On And On,” peaked at #11.)

While working on Animal House, Bishop had met Karen Allen, the woman who would later play Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. They were together for a few years. In 1982, around the time Bishop and Allen were going through a bad breakup, Taylor Hackford told Bishop all about the new movie he was trying to make. Bishop was into it. He wrote a heartsick breakup ballad for Hackford’s movie, and he put a lot of his feelings about Allen into it. It took Hackford years to get the movie made, but when he did, Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin recorded Bishop’s song. (White Night is the movie where Hackford met his future partner Helen Mirren, who played Baryshnikov’s love interest. They’re still together now.)

Honestly, “Separate Lives” is a weird choice for a duet. It’s a song all about loneliness and bitterness — the kind of track that really demands one singer, rather than two. On paper, the lyrics are pretty acid. I never get the sense that Collins and Martin are two different people who are singing to each other. Instead, they’re both playing the same narrator — the person who got dumped and who then gets pissed off when their ex calls them up to try and be friends. Collins sings, “You build that wall.” Martin wails out a response: “Build that waaa-aaaall.” “It’s so typical,” they sing. “Love leads to isolation.” But they’re not isolated! They’re on the song together! It doesn’t make any sense!

Really, “Separate Lives” suffers from a lot of the problems that plague so many big-movie ballads. The song goes for grand, overarching drama, but all that drama smothers the sentiment. So here we have these lyrics about impotent post-breakup anger — “You have no right to ask me how I feel/ You have no right to speak to me so kind” — surrounded with gloopy keyboard-noodles and swelling strings. It sounds like a romantic ballad, but it’s all about the total absence of romance. The song can’t handle that kind of dissonance.

Collins really only has himself to blame for the syrupy overdrive of “Separate Lives.” This isn’t a case of a clueless producer throwing strings all over a song that didn’t need them. Collins co-produced “Separate Lives” with his usual collaborator Hugh Padgham and with music-business legend Arif Marden. So really, Phil Collins is the clueless producer. But then again, maybe “Separate Lives” is just a bad song. Shortly after the White Nights soundtrack came out, Bishop recorded his own version of “Separate Lives.” Bishop’s version of the song is more tender and intimate than the Collins/Martin take on the song. But it’s still a sleepy, boring ballad that never reaches the grand catharsis that Bishop seems to want.

As a singer, Marilyn Martin belts the hell out of her “Separate Lives” parts. She offsets the wounded, conversational quality of Collins voice by howling hard. This is clearly what she was brought onto the song to do. But I don’t feel like I get any sense of who she is from the song. Maybe that was the problem. Even after a #1 hit, the Marilyn Martin project didn’t really pan out.

“Separate Lives” got nominated for an Oscar, and it lost to a different song from White Nights — one that will shortly appear in this column. A year later, Martin released her self-titled debut. But the album only yielded one minor hit. (“Night Moves” — which Martin co-write with John Parr, of “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” fame — peaked at #28.) The next Marilyn Martin album, didn’t go anywhere. Madonna co-wrote the lead single “Possessive Love,” and even that didn’t chart.

So Marilyn Martin went back to singing backup vocals. She moved to Nashville and made a country album in the early ’90s, but it never came out. She hit the Christian music circuit, and she became a real estate agent. Sometimes, she still sings backup. In 2016, she toured with Stevie Nicks. Last year, she joined Fleetwood Mac on tour. There’s something oddly poetic about this lady singing backup for Stevie Nicks who gets a shot, makes a #1 single, burns out, disappears from the music business, and then goes right back to singing backup for Stevie Nicks. But that’s not a story of failure. From looking at interviews, Martin seems like a happy person without a lot of regrets, and there are worse fates in the world than singing backup for Stevie Nicks.

So Marilyn Martin won’t be in this column again. But we’ll see Phil Collins again.

BONUS BEATS: Before he fully adapted his Oneohtrix Point Never persona, Daniel Lopatin released woozy, gurgling music under the alias Chuck Person. Lopatin’s Chuck Person records leaned hard on ’80s pop samples, and they helped pioneer the vaporwave genre. As Chuck Person, Lopatin sampled “Separate Lives” twice. First, he used song on his 2008 track “No Compromise.” Here it is:

Then he sampled it again on “B3,” from the influential 2010 album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. Here’s that:

Lopatin just released the new album Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, and he’s said that “No Nightmares,” a collaboration with the Weeknd, was directly inspired by “Separate Lives.” Daniel Lopatin really loves “Separate Lives”! Here’s “No Nightmares”:

(The Weeknd will eventually appear in this column. Daniel Lopatin has never had a Hot 100 hit of his own, but he did co-write the Weeknd’s 2020 track “Scared To Live,” which peaked at #24.)

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