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.
Phil Collins was in A Hard Day’s Night. When the Beatles made their film debut in 1964, a 13-year-old Collins was one of the screaming kids in the audience for the band’s staged TV performance. 24 years later, someone decided that Collins deserved a Hard Day’s Night of his own.
Phil Collins had been an actor before he’d been a musician. As a child, Collins had played the Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver. Soon afterwards, though, Collins devoted all his attention to playing drums, and he got good enough that he played on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, the first post-Beatles solo album from a Beatle. When Collins made his grand, improbable move from prog-rock drummer to pop star, he returned to acting, in a way. Collins developed a music-video persona, an affable-everyman sort of thing, and it served him well through the ’80s.
In the mid-’80s, when Collins was at his peak, Michael Mann went to see Collins live. Mann had famously used Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” on the pilot episode of Miami Vice, and after seeing Collins in concert, Mann wrote the singer onto his show. On a 1986 episode of Miami Vice, Collins played a character named Phil The Shill.
In his single-episode arc, Collins made for a charming Cockney crook. When the British director David Green saw the episode, he figured that Collins could do more of that. Green was planning out the movie Buster, a kind of biopic about Buster Edwards, one of the people behind England’s storied Great Train Robbery of 1963. Collins took the role. As far as I can tell, this was Collins’ first credited feature film role since he’d been in something called Calamity The Cow in 1967. I’ve never seen Buster, but most reviews say that Collins is pretty good in it. The big knock on Buster was that it glamorizes crime; this is why Prince Charles and Princess Diana skipped the film’s premiere. I happen to believe that it fucking rules when movies glamorize crime. Maybe I should see Buster.
Buster did OK in the UK, but it was a resounding flop in America, where it took in less than a million dollars at the box office. Phil Collins never translated his pop stardom into movie stardom, and he didn’t take another film role until three years later, when he had a small part in Steven Spielberg’s Hook. It says here that Collins also played the lead in a 1993 Australian thriller called Frauds? I’m not entirely convinced that Frauds exists, but that’s what IMDB claims. Collins has also had a bunch of voice roles in cartoon movies, but he didn’t pull a Will Smith. The world’s appetite for cinematic Phil Collins vehicles was limited.
For years, I assumed that Buster was a goofy romantic comedy, mostly because of the cover art for the soundtrack album, where Collins holds two giant flower bouquets and smirks at the camera. When I was a kid, nothing about that image told me that Buster was a movie about a glamorous criminal — or, for that matter, a movie that I would ever have any interest in seeing — so somebody really fucked up there. The soundtrack album wasn’t a huge seller, either, but it went gold, and it spun off a couple of big Phil Collins hits. The first of those hits was “A Groovy Kind Of Love,” a song that was 23 years old when Collins recorded it.
“A Groovy Kind Of Love” came from Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager, two young songwriters who worked for Don Kirshner’s Screen Gems publishing house in the mid-’60s. When they wrote the song, Sager was only 22, and she had a job as a high school English teacher. Wine, meanwhile, was 17, and she was still in high school. Screen Gems used to sign teenagers to songwriting contracts all the time; Carole King was just a kid when she started cranking out hits for the company, too. Wine and Sager wrote “A Groovy Kind Of Love” together in 20 minutes, and their main objective was to work the word “groovy” into a song title. (When “A Groovy Kind Of Love” replaced UB40’s version of “Red Red Wine” at #1, that meant two consecutive late-’80s #1 hits for the mid-’60s Screen Gems songwriting-factory crew. That’s pretty nuts!)
A few different artists recorded “A Groovy Kind Of Love” in 1965, but the big one came from the British Invasion band known as the Mindbenders. Earlier in 1965, the Mindbenders had topped the American charts with the great swaggering rocker “The Game Of Love.” When they recorded that one, the group was known as Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders. Just after that hit, though, frontman Fontana had quit the band, storming offstage mid-show, and the Mindbenders kept going without him. Things didn’t work out so well for Fontana, who never made another significant hit and who got arrested in 2005 for setting a court bailiff’s car on fire while the bailiff was still in it. (Fontana died of cancer last year.) Things turned out much better for the other Mindbenders.
“A Groovy Kind Of Love,” was the Mindbenders’ first single without Fontana; guitarist Eric Stewart sang the lead vocals. In the Mindbenders’ hands, “A Groovy Kind Of Love” was a decent-enough two-minute teenage-devotion song. It took off, possibly because of the well-timed use of the word “groovy.” “A Groovy Kind Of Love” peaked at #2 in 1966, kept out of the top spot by “When A Man Loves A Woman.” (The Mindbenders’ “A Groovy Kind Of Love” is a 5.)
The Mindbenders kept going until 1968. After their breakup, Eric Stewart and bassist Graham Gouldman went on to form 10cc. (10cc’s highest-charting single, 1975’s “I’m Not In Love,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9.) Later, Stewart worked with Paul McCartney on his ’80s albums. The other people involved in “A Groovy Kind Of Love” had storied careers of their own. Toni Wine became the lead female voice in the Archies, and she was also one of the original studio vocalists in Tony Orlando’s Dawn project, which means she sang on the #1 hits “Sugar, Sugar” and “Knock Three Times.” Carole Bayer Sager kept writing hits for decades. In 1986, two songs that Sager co-wrote with then-husband Burt Bacharach reached #1: Dionne Warwick’s all-star fundraiser “That’s What Friends Are For” and Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s duet “On Our Own.” So Sager was still a relevant presence in pop music when her first real hit staged its big comeback.
Collins got the idea to record “A Groovy Kind Of Love” from his friend Steven Bishop, the guy who’d written Collins’ 1985 chart-topper “Separate Lives.” Bishop actually wanted to record the song himself. He’d made a demo of himself singing it, and he brought it to Collins, hoping that Collins would produce his version. Collins told Bishop that he actually really wanted to do the song himself, since it fit the time-frame of the movie Buster. Bishop was evidently OK with it, though I bet he was at least a little pissed off when the Collins version got to #1. “A Groovy Kind Of Love” was actually the first Phil Collins solo-artist single since “Separate Lives”; Collins had devoted most of the time between those two songs to Genesis. That’s how big Phil Collins was in the ’80s. He could take three years off between singles and still wind up with consecutive #1 hits.
For his cover, Collins took the Mindbenders’ version of “A Groovy Kind Of Love” and slowed it way down, surrounding his voice with meditative synths, echo-drenched drum-cracks, and melodramatic strings. Sager’s “Groovy Kind Of Love” lyrics bask simplistically in the contentment of new love: “When I’m in your arms, nothing seems to matter/ My whole world could shatter, I don’t care.” But when he sings it, Collins sounds sad.
Maybe that’s not intentional. Maybe my brain has just been wired to think sad-bastard music everytime it hears Phil Collins singing a ballad. But I prefer to think that the sadness is purposeful. After all, this is a 37-year-old Phil Collins, in 1988, singing a love song with the word “groovy” in the title. So I hear this as Collins losing himself in nostalgia, thinking about young-love feelings that he can’t fully access anymore. If I’m right, that unlocks an emotional dimension to the song that wasn’t there when “A Groovy Kind Of Love” was a Mindbenders song.
But that new emotional dimension doesn’t make the song any good. In Phil Collins’ hands, “A Groovy Kind Of Love” is a sturdy-enough pop ballad. Collins sings it with warmth and intimacy, and he knows the morose synth sounds that fit his voice best. But it’s boring. The song just lurches along at half-speed, a sleepwalking twinkle. It’s practically twice as long as the Mindbenders’ version of the song, and there’s no sense of purpose to it. It’s just a trudge through the halls of memory. Maybe that made it perfect for the 1988 pop charts, where adult-contempo boomer nostalgia was a prime driving force. But it damn sure doesn’t make it perfect for me.
Collins co-produced “A Groovy Kind Of Love” with Ann Dudley, a former session musician who’d become a member of Trevor Horn’s great theory-based dance-pop project the Art Of Noise. (The Art Of Noise’s highest-charting single was the 1988 version of Prince’s “Kiss” that they recorded with Tom Jones. It peaked at #31.) Dudley started scoring films in 1987; her first credit was the Fat Boys comedy Disorderlies.
Dudley composed the score for Buster, which is presumably why she co-produced “A Groovy Kind Of Love.” She went on to a long career, even winning an Oscar for scoring The Full Monty. A couple of years later, Phil Collins won an Oscar of his own, taking home Best Original Song for the Tarzan ballad “You’ll Be In My Heart.” (“You’ll Be In My Heart” peaked at #21.) So Collins’ cinematic endeavors did not end with Buster — or even with Frauds. But Phil Collins is ultimately a music guy, not a movie guy. He found continued success as a music guy, and he’ll appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2011 New Girl episode where the show’s cast does a slow-motion chicken dance to Collins’ version of “A Groovy Kind Of Love”: