I’M AN ORDINARY MAN 
Original 1985 release - the orange tint is to indicate the energy of the music
I have been attempting to write a song, an entry for a competition, and I decided to write what I know: it is titled “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You,” and crams in as many nostalgic references I can while still rhyming – Stephen Sondheim once said you should not leave half-rhymes in your songs, at the danger of giving your audience a fraction of a second of doubt. I also add in lines like, “if hauntology is your pathology,” and “if your kind of place is a liminal space.” For someone who has never properly attempted to write a song before, the result most definitely sounds like only I wrote it.
Naturally, the musical arrangement needed to be based in the 1980s. To that end, I used a Yamaha Reface DX, with its “LegendEP” preset evoking their DX7’s famous “Piano 1” sound, and constructed a drum track using sampled sounds from a LinnDrum machine, most famously used by Prince on the “1999” and “Purple Rain” albums – the drum line on “Let’s Go Crazy” sounds so much like a ticking clock, only a LinnDrum was going to be appropriate.
In learning how best to construct a 1980s pop sound, I found myself copying what Orson Welles did ahead of directing “Citizen Kane” – just as he watched John Ford’s film “Stagecoach” forty times, I wound constantly listening to tracks from a defining Eighties album, almost an archetype for the sound of that decade: “No Jacket Required,” by Phil Collins.
Released in 1985, “No Jacket Required” was Collins’s third solo album, but while his previous albums yielded, for me at least, one identifiable hit each – “In the Air Tonight” from 1981’s “Face Value,” and the Supremes cover “You Can’t Hurry Love” from “Hello, I Must Be Going!” (1982). His first US number 1, “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now),” was made separately for a film soundtrack.
“No Jacket Required” had three hits I knew straight away: “Sussudio,” “One More Night” and “Take Me Home,” with a fourth that was used as a B-side, “Only You Know and I Know,” becoming a firm favourite, along with “Who Said I Would,” which sounds a little like “Sussudio” in the same way that “Sussudio” sounds like Prince’s song “1999”: you can hear the influence there. Collins had deliberately made a more dance-oriented album than before, in order to take himself out of his comfort zone, something that appears not to have been repeated, except with his next album back with Genesis, “Invisible Touch”.
|2016 reissue cover|
The five songs I mentioned all use FM synth keyboards, most obviously the Yamaha DX7 used on “One More Night” and “Take Me Home,” with arpeggiators filling in the sound like a rhythm guitar would in a band, and a punchy keyboard-based bass on “Sussudio.” The fuzz of analogue synthesis is replaced by the more glass-like polish of FM synth, which changed the overall sound of pop music until the advent of General MIDI and sample-based synths at the end of the decade. Despite its distinctiveness, it immediately dates any song made using these sounds, and creating a mood and moment from which nostalgia can be drawn when used again by other artists in the future (I hope).
There are also the distinctive sounds of certain drum machines: on “One More Night,” Collins programs the Roland TR-808, whose synthesised sound is so distinctive it gave its name to a group (808 State), and an album (Kayne West’s “808s and Heartbreak,” which uses it on every track). The other songs use the more sample-based LinnDrum and Roland TR-909, the hand claps of the latter being very prominent on “Take Me Home,” this song also demonstrating Collins’ use of these machines as a basis on which to provide more intricate drum arrangements.
Most importantly for me, the deluxe edition of “No Jacket Required” includes demo versions of “Only You Know and I Know,” “One More Night” and “Take Me Home.” Having also heard the demo of “Sussudio” elsewhere, these works-in-progress show that Phil Collins essentially improvised what is still his most successful album and, with over twenty-five million copies sold, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. He laid the drums, switched on the arpeggiator, and poked out some chords from his DX7 – Collins’s liner notes for the album say, “I’m a lousy keyboard player, but I can make what I like to think is a ‘nice noise.’” He sings the melody for each song, but the words are not there yet, so he almost sings in tongues, with snatches of Ehglish, anything to get the melody recorded. But this is where the lyrics ultimately appeared: the line “One More Night” was improvised while listening to the rhythm of the TR-808, while the non-word “Sussudio” turned out to be a happy accident, prefaced in the completed song by “just say the word.”
It was heartening to hear how these songs turned out to be more spontaneous and personal than you think the mainstream music industry would allow. It certainly made me feel happier about my own efforts at writing a song. All I need to do now is see if I can sing a C sharp above middle C.