So I went to an ’80s aerobics dance class last night. Seriously. It was something I had always threatened to do but only gathered up the courage to actually see through after two G&Ts and a lot of coercion. As it turns out, it was heaps of fun, really tiring and I can’t walk properly today. But perhaps the best bit of the entire evening (apart from the chance to see a whole bunch of leggy girls in amazingly garish hot pants and crop tops that should be illegal, of course) was the soundtrack. Thanks to their aforementioned fashion and intersection of white and black culture, this decade has been given a terrible rap in the intervening years. But bewteen all the Moog freakouts and Roland sampler experiments, there were some really excellent songs and even better bands in there. Like Huey Lewis and The News, Prince and The Police, for instance. It’s only when sweating up a storm in perfect synchronicity that you begin to understand the allure of these tunes in a present context; it’s like they were specifically engineered for uncoordinated people to dance to. Straight but funky, bass-heavy but earnest, and smack bang in the middle of this time period comes the man from Genesis with ‘Sussudio’.
Now, this word is hard enough to pronounce, let alone sing when you’re doing moves in front of a mirror, but the song has like twenty hooks in it. It’s pretty much the archetype for how to use electronic instruments phenomenally well; from the amazingly huge kick of the drum machine which apparently gave the song its name through to the bass and programmed horns, Collins got it so right that everyone’s been working on getting back to this moment since. With a groove that sounds like it was lifted from a Michael Jackson track and a chord progression which sounds remarkably like the Purple One’s Revolution, there was no way Collins was ever going to fail with this one, even after Bret Easton Ellis decided Patrick Bateman would listen to it while murdering prostitutes. Collins pulls out a strong vocal performance and really separates himself out from his former band, but really, there’s nothing more he can add to a template that’s pretty much perfect. The glockenspiels and guitars in the bridge, that cresting wave held over on the vocal which crashes into the chorus refrain, those quietly brilliant guitars holding down the funk underneath, it’s all happening, usually all at once.
‘Sussudio’ isn’t only remarkable because it’s a bald drummer guy making you dance. It’s really ahead of it’s time, particularly in the way the drums sound. In the 80s, bands were getting really good at recording their live drummers to sound like they were exploding large mountains, or combining them with sequencers (see INXS, U2), but only a few could actually generate huge sounds out of machines and make them feel like they weren’t quantised robots. New Order preferred to embrace the precision of the instrument on ‘Blue Monday’, but Collins, with a background in hitting the things himself, seemed to really want to humanise a drum machine that could create amazing new sounds. You can hear that in the ‘wub-wubbing’ toms which roll beneath the main groove, adding another layer of texture beyond the snare and kick format. Because they’re synced to off-beats, that notion of spontaneity, however transient, still exists. It’s this combination that makes ‘Sussudio’ so attractive to the listener (in addition to the vocal hook); you can hear the pulse, but you can feel the rhythm. I also really like the fact that Collins, who was far more natural at singing than he first showed, really seems to be pushing it like a soul brother on this track. The second stanza of every verse, he’s busting his chops to get to the top of his register, something he could have very easily avoided and would have been a nightmare for him once this song became a runaway hit. But he believed in the song, despite it’s stupid name that still means absolutely nothing to this day. That’s a pretty powerful endorsement for music. And if not, it certainly is for fluoro-tinged aerobics.
Phil Collins – ‘Sussudio’