(#312: 2 March 1985, 5 weeks)
Track listing: Sussudio/Only You Know And I Know/Long Long Way To Go/I Don’t Wanna Know/One More Night/Don’t Lose My Number/Who Said I Would/Doesn’t Anybody Stay Together Anymore/Inside Out/Take Me Home
The story was that Phil Collins and Robert Plant were visiting a Chicago restaurant called the Pump Room. Plant was allowed in but Collins was not, as the maitre d’ insisted that a jacket was required. Collins protested that he was wearing a jacket but was told that it was the wrong kind of jacket. This stuck in his craw, and he whined about it on Carson, whined about it on Letterman, whined about it just about everywhere he could whine. He wouldn’t stop whining. Arrive at your own conclusion.
It is still slightly baffling how, only four years after Face Value could just about pass muster as art-rock, Collins became the world’s biggest understudying pop star, or perhaps his was simply the most prominent instance of ancient (seventies) musicians and music being cosmetically fashioned to resemble newness. Richard Cook’s contemporaneous NME review of the record is so generous and articulate that I wish that what he said were true. Perhaps in 1985 No Jacket Required might have represented cunning, up-to-the-mark pop-rock, but twenty-nine years later it is hard to see beyond the crushing, deafening picture that the record largely presents.
Listening to NJR is like being bludgeoned repeatedly around the head with an early club sandwich-sized mobile ‘phone. No drumbeat is left un-gated – Hugh Padgham is, wearily, back again, as co-producer with Collins – no song left free of irritating, crisscrossing horn charts or glutinous eighties guitar (mostly Daryl Steurmer) or sax (Don Myrick or Gary Barnacle; it makes little difference). “Sussudio” came off poorly when set beside a reissue of “1999” but they are not really the same song, and most of the record’s other tracks are minute variants on the one song. Every beat has to be big, every introduction must herald yet another day off for Ferris Bueller.
It is oppressive; even listening to my elderly cassette copy at moderate volume inspired mild migraine – and I’m sure that was the intention, to batter any opposition into submission with its bigness, including the spectre of Collins himself, pictured on the inner sleeve, grimacing at the camera while wearing a suit at least two sizes too big for him (with frightful shoes). It’s sobering to think that at the time, he was just thirty-five.
Most of the album’s songs were improvised around drum machine patterns, and while some of them may express hoarse soul-baring, their messages are mostly impossible to decipher behind the gleaming clamour, and the snippets that do come through suggest that he is still stuck in the whining past; at least two songs bear reference to the “same old story.” “Take Me Home” might be about a patient in a mental hospital, but even the distant ghost of Peter Gabriel cannot elevate it above a prototype soundtrack for slow-motion football or athletics footage on television sports programmes.
There are a couple of ballads; “One More Night” is “If Leaving Me Is Easy” with all fight eviscerated, while “Long Long Way To Go,” a.k.a. “Starve With Sting” – I saw the two perform the song at Live Aid, which reminded me just how vital the third musician on stage with them, Branford Marsalis, was – highlights the record’s innate conservatism with its “a little charity for the poor” stance. But mainly the record plods in concrete clogs; “Inside Out” is so dreary in its intended massiveness that it sounds written for a BBC comedy-drama series abouttwo former prison inmates trying to go straight by forming an employment agency. Meanwhile, “Only You Know And I Know” sounds like “Abacab” stripped of ingenuity and invention.
Who is the “Billy” of “Don’t Lose My Number” – and why should anybody care? Nobody, I suspect, really treated NJR as anything other than a big soundtrack to a big life, to be played through big speakers while driving a big car and wearing a big suit. This is the eighties which people like Dylan Jones regard as the apex of Western civilisation, Bullingdon-Orientated Rock (BoR), the dead-eyed, iron-eared soundtrack to a lifestyle whose jackets were required only to have their sleeves rolled up halfway. Meat Is Murder only went gold; No Jacket Required went six times platinum in Britain alone. Clearly there was still a long, long way to go.