The Number Ones

December 23, 1989

The Number Ones: Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

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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And so the ’80s end the only way they could end: with Phil Collins softly murmuring about poverty, as if he couldn’t drop a life-changing wad of bills into an unhoused person’s hands on the merest whim. Phil Collins wasn’t the biggest ’80s pop star — though he was certainly close — but he may have been the most ’80s pop star. Within his squat frame, Collins encapsulated so many of that decade’s little oddities and contradictions. In Collins, we had a truly unlikely hitmaker, a prog-rock drummer who came along at the exact right time and rode a particular musical zeitgeist farther than anyone could’ve imagined. But when Collins became famous, he was so available to mug for any camera in his immediate vicinity that his omnipresence started to feel oppressive. The fucking guy flew across the world in the Concorde so that he could play Live Aid in London and Philadelphia on the same day. He was just always there.

Collins was a creature of the ’80s in so many ways. In the decade where most of his generation reached middle age, Collins went solo with an album of sad and lonely divorced-dad 808 hymns. Plenty of people, I’m sure, could relate. Collins was also an early adapter to the shiny and synthetic production flourishes of that decade, and in discovering the gated-reverb drum sound, he actually invented one of those key flourishes. In both movie and book form, American Psycho holds Collins’ music up as an avatar of slick, shallow, middle-of-the-road yuppie-ism. Through a certain uncharitable lens, it would be possible to view Collins’ last chart-topper as an example of the same kind of sociopathy that Bret Easton Ellis skewered.

So it’s almost poetic that Philthy Phil’s phinal #1 hit also happens to be the phinal chart-topper of that particular decade. Who else could’ve ended that party? Who else brought that level of lightweight gravitas?

When he made his 1989 solo album …But Seriously, Phil Collins knew that people were starting to get sick of his funky ass. Collins hadn’t released a solo album since the 1985 monster hit No Jacket Required, but thanks to Genesis and Buster and all his production and movie-soundtrack gigs, he’d never gone away, either. (Technically, “Another Day In Paradise” was Collins’ fourth straight #1 solo hit.) Early in 1989, Collins reached #1 with “Two Hearts,” and that song is some true goofball shit. At the time, Collins told Musician that he’d become “a little more trivialized that I wanted to be.” Talking to The New York Times Stephen Holden, Collins said, “I never used to have an image, then suddenly I turned around and someone had stamped ‘middle-of-the-road balladeer’ on my back.”

…But Seriously, from the title on down, was Collins’ attempt to remind the world that he was capable of more than just goofball shit, and his decision to release “Another Day In Paradise” as the LP’s first single was part of that messaging. Collins wrote “Another Day In Paradise” after thinking about the way he acted one day when he was leaving the recording studio and an unhoused woman with a couple of kids asked him for help. I hear the song as Collins’ self-castigation for how he acted.

Collins himself said that the exchange mostly just made him uncomfortable: “I felt awkward. I didn’t ignore her, but at the same time, I didn’t stop and give her some money.” In the song, Collins basically tells the story of that encounter. He probably goes a bit overboard in describing the woman as a poor and unfortunate wretch. (“She’s got blisters on the sole of her feet/ She can’t walk, but she’s trying.”) But the woman is clearly the protagonist of the song, and Collins himself is the problem: “He walks on, doesn’t look back/ He pretends he can’t hear her/ Starts to whistle as he crosses the street/ Seems embarrassed to be there.”

Maybe “Another Day In Paradise” would sound more honest if Collins sang it from the first person, if he announced to the world that he was the embarrassed guy who kept walking and whistled to himself. (Outside of cartoons, I never see anyone actually whistling tunes to themselves, but I bet Phil Collins totally does that.) As big a hit as it was, “Another Day In Paradise” also made a whole lot of people look at Collins as a total hypocrite. On the bridge, he howls into the void: “Oh Lord, is there nothing more anybody can do?” It’s like: Buddy! You’re rich! You wouldn’t miss a meal if you gave this lady a first month’s rent and a security deposit! It wouldn’t get you on TV, like when you played two different hunger telethons on two continents on the same day, but it’s a thing you could do!

But maybe there’s something vulnerable about writing a song where you’re the asshole. “Another Day In Paradise” might have a cluelessness issue, but it’s nowhere near as self-congratulatory as plenty of the social-issues hits of its era. At the time, Collins would get defensive about the song’s reactions, telling the Times, “When I drive down the street, I see the same things everyone else sees. It’s a misconception that if you have a lot of money you’re somehow out of touch with reality.” It’s a pop-stardom catch-22. When you write songs about things like this, people expect you to actually do something about it, but not so much that you come off overbearing and sanctimonious. There’s probably some net social good in reminding anyone listening to the radio that a lot of other people have gotten shitty deals in life. It’s probably better than nothing, anyway.

Collins wrote “Another Day In Paradise” while noodling at a piano one day, recording himself in case he came up with anything good. He’d learned that technique from Brian Eno while playing drums on Eno’s early solo albums. Collins told the Times, “I decided to see what would happen when I started singing. When I began, the words just came out, ‘She calls out to the man on the street.’ I didn’t set out to write a song about the homeless. Those were just the words I happened to sing.”

Collins did most of the work on “Another Day In Paradise” himself. He played the keyboards, programmed the drum machines, and co-produced with regular engineer Hugh Padgham. Collins sang some of his own backing vocals, and he also brought in a guest to help out on the harmonies: David Crosby, a guy who’s been in this column a couple of times as a member of the Byrds. Later on, Collins repaid the favor. Collins co-wrote and produced Crosby’s 1993 single “Hero,” and he also played the song’s drums and keyboards, programmed its drum machines, and sang backup vocals. (“Hero,” which peaked at #44, is Crosby’s highest-charting single as a solo artist.)

Bringing in Crosby was a deliberate choice. Crosby is one of the all-time great harmony singers, and he’s also a veteran of a late-’60s and early-’70s protest-folk era. “Another Day In Paradise” isn’t really a protest song, and it’s definitely not folk, but Collins wanted to evoke the idea that a pop song could stand for something greater — a noble and well-intentioned goal, even if the mushy vagueness of “Another Day In Paradise” undercuts it.

Phil Collins was a rich pop star who made himself richer with a song about poor people’s misery. I don’t feel great about that, but I can’t deny that “Another Day In Paradise” is a truly pretty pop song. In recording the track, Collins reached back to the spaced-out desolation of his early solo records. Everything on the song glimmers softly. Collins plays a hypnotic keyboard riff and surrounds it with quietly comforting drones. The bass is a low thrum. Guitarist Dominic Miller, a regular Sting sideman, switches between Edge-style echoing chimes and smooth-jazz noodling. Both approaches work.

Collins’ voice is something else, too. He’s not a showy singer, but he’s great at conveying wounded intensity. He mostly used that gift for describing heartbreak, but it works just as well for poverty. Collins’ melodies are sharp and clean, and he attacks them with an understated grace, never leaning too hard into the melodrama that a song like this practically invites. Crosby’s voice makes a comforting counterpoint, but Collins always remains in the foreground; I don’t think I even knew Crosby was on the song before I did the research for this column. Purely as a piece of music, “Another Day In Paradise” is a nice way for Collins to end his run on top.

Of course, Phil Collins didn’t know that “Another Day In Paradise” was his last #1 hit, and it’s not like he suddenly disappeared from the radio when the ’80s were over. …But Seriously went quadruple platinum. In the US, Billboard listed …But Seriously as the #2 album of 1990, just behind Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. (MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em had sold more than twice as many copies by the end of 1990, so I’m not sure why Billboard had it listed all the way down at #5, but that’s the pre-SoundScan era for you.) In the UK, …But Seriously was the year’s biggest seller. Collins followed “Another Day In Paradise” with “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” which had a gospel choir and Collins’ buddy Eric Clapton on guitar, and that one peaked at #3. (It’s a 6.) Two more …But Seriously singles, “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven” and “Do You Remember?,” both peaked at #4. (They’re both 5s.)

“Do You Remember?” turned out to be Phil Collins final top-10 hit. Collins made one more album with Genesis before leaving the group, and he spent the rest of the ’90s cranking out solo albums that made less and less impact. Collins soundtracked the 1999 Disney movie Tarzan and won an Oscar for it. He also went through a bunch of turbulent personal-life stuff that turned a whole lot of people off. Collins spent years denying stories, for instance, that he’d ended his second marriage by fax. When his third marriage ended, Collins paid out what was, at the time, the biggest settlement in celebrity-divorce history. By that time, Collins had moved to Switzerland. He insisted that he’d moved there because his wife was Swiss, not because he was trying to dodge British taxes. But when you’ve got a hit song where you ask God what can be done about poverty, then that kind of thing makes you look like a real dipshit.

In 2011, Collins was dealing with a whole host of medical issues, including severe hearing loss, and he went into temporary retirement. But his hearing got better, and he eventually came back with a memoir, a bunch of reissues, and a solo tour. A couple of years ago, Collins announced that he’d reunited with Genesis. They were supposed to go out on tour as a band last year, but then the pandemic happened. The tour is back on now, and it’s set to start next month in the UK. Collins can’t play drums anymore, so his son is filling in for him there.

These days, nobody seems mad about Phil Collins anymore. The drum break from “In The Air Tonight” seems to soundtrack some viral video at least once a year. (Just last week, it was all over Twitter, thanks to a video of a little kid in a carseat air-drumming along with it.) Even with all those divorces, Collins is still crazy rich. His daughter Lily, born nine months before “Another Day In Paradise” hit #1, has a successful acting career. (Oh! Think twice! She’s got the title role on Emily In Paris — nice!) We no longer live with the constant cultural presence of Phil Collins, which makes it a whole lot easier to admit that Phil Collins is pretty good at making songs.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely pleasant version of “Another Day In Paradise” that the reggae great Dennis Brown released in 1992:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2001, Brandy and her brother Ray J recorded a cover of “Another Day In Paris” for the Collins tribute album Urban Renewal. The Brandy/Ray J version wasn’t a single in the US, but it made it to #5 in the UK. Here’s the video:

(Brandy will eventually appear in this column. Ray J’s highest-charting single, the 2007 Yung Berg collab “Sexy Can I,” peaked at #3. It’s a 3.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Reel Big Fish’s goofball-ass 2007 ska-punk cover of “Another Day In Paradise”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Action Bronson rapping over “Another Day In Paradise,” as well as a bunch of other songs that have been in this column, on “Contemporary Man,” a deeply ridiculous track from his great 2012 mixtape Blue Chips 2:

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

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Berner’s stony and satisfying 2013 Wiz Khalifa collab “Paradise” is built around a sample of “Another Day In Paradise.” Here’s the video:

(Wiz Khalifa will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Janet Jackson’s strident, militaristic dance-funk statement-song “Rhythm Nation” peaked at #2 behind “Another Day In Paradise.” It’s a 9.

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