Sunday, June 4, 2017

Two Phil(ip)s Are Better Than One AKA "Easy Lover" And Some Hard, Hard Varnish

And then one day, Philip Bailey, that guy from Earth, Wind & Fire with the super girly falsetto, decided that maybe he'd had enough of the other elements for a little while. Too much fire in his life. A little sick of wind. You know how it goes. Unfortunately, his first solo album, Continuation, seemed to vanish into thin ... what's the word? Air. Thin air. Turns out he needed another element. But which one? Water? Sulphur? Lava?

Phil Collins. I'm no chemist, but the element he needed was Phil Collins.

Yes. Like Frida before him, Bailey turned to the nakedly-domed producer with the Midas touch. But the world may not have been ready for Chinese Wall - and it may not be ready still. First of all, did you know that Philip Bailey could actually sing in a normal voice? That's sort of like finding out the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest could actually talk. Bailey was putting us on all this time! The thing is, Philip Bailey the tenor sounds a lot like ... fellow EW&F lead singer Maurice White. Which is probably why he decided to sing in falsetto while he was in the band. I guess the falsetto was his golden goose. But solo Philip Bailey was suddenly like, "Fuck that pansy shit, this is my record, I'll sing however the fuck I want." The end result is that a lot of Chinese Wall kind of sounds like J.T. Taylor being produced by Phil Collins. I mean, when you can sing effectively in two completely different registers, how do you decide which tracks should get the tenor and which tracks should get the falsetto? Did they record alternate versions of each, and then flip a coin?

"Photogenic Memory" partially solves the vocal issue by featuring the tacky vocoder version of Philip Bailey, surrounded by screaming guitar and lots of clanging things. Apparently Phil was really into that '80s synth effect that sounded like an Asian flute (perhaps inspiring the album's title?), as he smothered "For Every Heart That's Been Broken" and "Time Is A Woman" with the gimmick. A couple of these songs could have easily fit onto an EW&F album: "Go" sounds like a peppier version of "After the Love Has Gone," while "Show You the Way to Love" sounds like a more lethargic version of "After the Love Has Gone."

But EW&F retreads were not what the people came for. They came for the Collins. "Easy Lover" was Phil Collins's way of saying, "Yeah sure, it might say 'Philip Bailey' on the album cover, but I'm gonna let everybody know who's really in charge here." "Easy Lover" is like "Say Say Say" or "The Girl Is Mine," but with balls.

Before you can even speak the word "Sussudio," the drums come crashing in like Genghis Khan's hordes - snares taut and brittle, cymbals shimmering and piercing. In the distance there's this high-pitched synthesizer whistle, like an evil robotic bird singing outside your window on a warm summer day. Look out 1984, 'cause Phil and Philip are comin' to getcha. After about thirteen seconds, the big riff kicks in - a riff that is simultaneously raunchy and sinister without actually possessing what you might consider any genuine menace. Because this is Phil Collins we're talking about.

But listen to that titanium percussion machine! He's muscular, yet supple, forceful, yet thoughtful. When the song goes hither, he goes thither. And the transitions! Good lord, the transitions. Just when you get a handle on things, and you're humming along to "I'm just trying to make you seeeeee," Phil kicks you in the ribs with a fill, suddenly Philip Bailey's in this whole other zone with "She's the kind of girl you dream of," and you're curled up on the floor, gasping for breath. And just when you've gathered yourself, Phil knocks the wind right out of you with three swift punches to the gut and now we're in this whole new section about "No you'll never change her, so leave her, leaver her." The sheer sonic beat-down is unceasing.

And listen to that sweet, sweet vocal blend. It really makes me believe that God must be a fan of MOR '80s duets. Notice how, on the chorus, Phil and Philip harmonize way out on the left and right channels, multi-tracked and stacked, like a thousand gym teachers lurking in the night, but when the verse comes around, Philip jumps front and center, with Phil right behind. They're coming from all directions! And then they hit this chord at the end of "It's the only way/You'll ever knowwww-ohhh-ohhh." What kind of a chord is that? This "vocals from all directions" set-up truly pays off during the fade-out, as multi-tracked, pre-recorded Phil and Philip keep the party going on the sides, while live and in-the-flesh Phil and Philip hold court in the center and throw some juicy ad-libs into the mix:
  • 3:55 - Phil: "Sheee-eee's aneasyluvahh!"
  • 3:56 - Philip: "Get-uh, hold on, ohhh"
  • 4:06 - Phil: "You'll be downnnn on your knees!"
  • 4:12 - Philip: "You won't feeeeeee-aal it"
  • 4:21 - Phil: "Tryna make you seee-heee yeah!"
  • 4:30 - Philip: "And like no uhh-thah ... yuuuhhl be on yah knees"
  • 4:35 - Phil: "You'll be on your knees!"
  • 4:37 - Philip: "Yeah yeah yeah!"
The concept for the video (which seems to have been uploaded at the wrong speed - come on Vevo) strikes me as a bit underdeveloped. We're supposed to be watching Phil and Philip "making" the video that we're watching, but as far as I can tell ... how is that different from every other music video ever made? At 1:24 we see both of them in a dressing room, with Phil "practicing" the lyrics (for what, the video? It's not a recording session), getting his hair styled. Now that has got to be the easiest hair styling job of all time. And whose outfit is sillier: Phil's blue vest and white shirt with khakis, or Philip's black leather pants and wool sweater?

Here's a riddle for the ages: what genre is "Easy Lover"? It's like the Mariah Carey of pop singles. It managed to make the R&B, Mainstream Rock, and Adult Contemporary charts. It is a genre without a home, forever roaming the '80s airwaves of our collective minds. Phil knows what I'm talking about. From a recent Rolling Stone interview:
I always loved Earth, Wind & Fire, and in 1984 I was asked if I would produce Philip Bailey's solo album. People were leaning on him, racially — "Don't come back with a white album. You're one of us." So Philip got Nathan East to play on it also. We hit some rocky ground early on, but we worked everything out. Near the end of the sessions, Philip said, "We haven't written anything together on this album."

So we just started having a jam one night, and went round and round and turned it into a verse and a chorus. We recorded it that night so we wouldn't forget it. That song doesn't sound like any particular era. It's just fantastic. The hip-hop brigade fell in love with me after "Easy Lover." They were like, "Where'd that come from? That ain't black music and that ain't white music. That's kind of an interesting color of beige."
So that's the name of its genre: "beige rock." Got a certain ring to it. Once again, a riveting story - if only it were the truth. Here's what really happened. From In The Air Tonight:
I was playing strip croquet with the Phenix Horns. We'd made a bet: if I won, they'd buy me a ten-pack of Japanese bondage videos, and if I lost, I'd have to produce Philip Bailey's solo album. Well, guess who lost?

It was a warm summer day in L.A. On my way to the studio I saw a girl in the Sears parking lot, reminded me of a chick I'd shacked up with a couple of years earlier back in Baltimore. Kitty. Said she was Geraldine Ferarro's cousin. A stone cold fox, with short black hair and a Daffy Duck tattoo on her thigh. But she never called me back.

So Philip was cool, we hung out in the studio, jammed a little, but no ideas were coming. I went to the bathroom to get a fix of the horsie juice, when I saw him pull out a little metal canister from his jacket.

"You want some Phil?"

"What is it?"

"Just some shit I like to sniff."

"You're a sniffer? I've done some solid sniffing in my day." I walked over to Philip and leaned in close. "I used to get these big cases of paint thinner, you know, just crack that shit open and take a big whiff."

"What brand do you use?"

"Crown mostly."

"Crown's good."

"Sometimes I go with Klean Strip."

"Klean Strip? Klean Strip's for kids, man."


"Yeah, don't mess around with that amateur crap. What you really want is Jasco."

"Hmm. Never tried Jasco."

"Now that shit will fuck you up. Just drop a little of it in your eyes. You'll be flyin' higher than the Milky Way."

"No kidding."

"But I'll let you in on a little secret. You really want to get fucked up, you go with varnish." He dangled his canister in mid-air.


"Ronseal is good, Minwax ain't bad, but Valspar will take you to the fuckin' promised land."

"You don't say?"

"Yeah man. I take a good solid sniff before every concert. How do you think I get that high fuckin' voice all the time?"

"I see."

"Yes sir. Me and Valspar have had some good times. Boy, last year, I was doin' a show in Baltimore, afterward I was back at the hotel with this bad bitch, she had like, this short black hair, we were crackin' open that varnish, I was pourin' it on her tits and sniffin' it right off, man. But she never called me back. She was no good, man. Total tease, but couldn't trust her for shit, you know?"

"I know just the type."

"Yeah, she had sort of this Daffy Duck tattoo on her thigh, said she was Geraldine Ferraro's cousin or something."

I did a double-take. "Wait, Kitty?"

"Yeah, that was it, Kitty! You know Kitty?"

"Do I know Kitty?" I shook my head in mutual disgust. "Hell yeah I know Kitty. She's a total tramp."

"Oh, tell me about it! You had Kitty too, huh? Well I'll be damned."

I stood back in reflection. "I mean, at first, she's like the kind of girl you dream of, dream of keeping hold of."

"Yeah, but better forget it, man. You'll never get it."

"She'll say that there's no other, 'till she just goes and finds another."

"Yeah! Right on, man. You know what she is, Phil?"


"She's an easy lover."

We both glanced at each other. "That's it." Turns out Philip and I had been done wrong by the same skank. So it just flowed from there.

"We gotta warn other guys about her. Like, we gotta make them see."

"They're going to think they're going to change her, but they just need to leave her, get out quick, you know?"

"Man." I could see Philip was really getting eaten up ruminating about Kitty. "It's like ... she'll take your heart but you won't even feel it. How can she even do that? Bitch is crazy."

"And yet, you're the one that wants to hold her, right? And control her as well. I can't explain it."

"Better forget it, is all I gotta say. Ooh, you'll regret it. You getting all this, Nathan? This is gold, motherfucker, gold I tell you."


Anonymous said...

Easy lover was an innovation in "Mall Rock" music. It was such a non threatening, neutral song that one might mistake it as a product of Switzerland - although if you've ever been to Switzerland you know that they are anything but neutral so it's a bad analogy. You get the point though. A friend I knew who was working retail while in College told me that whenever Easy Lover came on that shoppers bought more stuff or if they were on the fence about making a purchase they went ahead. I could never get over the fact that Phil Collins was co-singing this tune when not even 7 years before he was singing lyrics like: "There's Winston Churchill dressed in drag
He used to be a British flag, plastic bag, what a drag". Frankly I wanted to hear more about cross dressing....

Little Earl said...

Oh, I don't know, the lyrics of "Easy Lover" are pretty surreal. "She'll take your heart but you won't feel it"? That's not even scientifically POSSIBLE. But yes, in 1976 he was singing stuff like:

Blood on the rooftops, Venice in the Spring
The Streets of San Francisco, a word from Peking
The trouble was started by a young Errol Flynn
Better in my day, oh Lord
For when we got bored, we'd have a world war, happy but poor

Say what man? Still, it's impressive that Phil and Philip were able to establish the exact musical formula designed to influence the psychology of shoppers. Imagine if they'd harnessed their power for, say, something useful, like curing world hunger.