Philip Bailey & Phil Collins: Easy Lover
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
It's difficult to overestimate the effect "Easy Lover" has had on my musical consciousness. Released in 1985, I would have been nine at the time. My parents were old-school Genesis fans won over by the pop-savvy sound created after adult contemporary detached from its feeding tube and crawled its way out of the nursery. Sade, Sting, Peter Gabriel solo records—these were the concessions to pop music made by my parents.
Allegedly one to hold on to the stereo and wiggle my formative booty quite early on, I absorbed the sounds of the household with eager ears, but was quick to cast my net wider: the 45 of Billy Ocean's "When the Going Gets Tough" was the first record I remember putting up fuss enough to acquire. Then hip-hop arrived—Run-DMC, LL—a blistering, triumphant wind sweeping up young Mallory in its wake. Meanwhile I retained an affection for R&B as difficult to acknowledge in my white suburban neighborhood as my burgeoning love for Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys.
"Easy Lover" has remained a solid staple on ‘80s retro radio strictly due to the cunning of its compositional elements: natty drum intro, tinny-yet-triumphal synthesizer, strands of prog-rock confetti, and falsetto R&B doodling. It's an unlikely combination that's as pointed and ageless as Jane Fonda's proboscis. The character described—the "leave you and deceive you" type—is an archetype even more eternal. Woman as user and abuser: "she'll get a hold on you, believe it." Heartless, willful, domineering: "before you know it you'll be on your knees." What a bitch. What makes this evocation of the tired madonna/whore scenario so cheerfully inoffensive is the childlike simplicity of the lyrics, free of worrying Nick Cave-like specificity. No actual serial killer has ever been tempted to murder a prostitute to the strains of "Easy Lover," a notion borne out by Bret Easton Ellis' brainless positing of American Psycho's narrator as a Phil Collins fan. Like the kiddie-porn lovin' religious guru portrayed by Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko, it's a stereotype so shamefully obvious it carries no rhetorical weight.
Of course, it's not all overweening harlots and pussy-whipped supplicants; like with that scarlet lady, there's a delicious and irresistible sugar-sheen to be devoured here. The intro reeks of prog's latter days; it would hardly sound out of place on an early 80's ELP or Yes record. But 15 seconds in and that wispy synth wafts in on angel's breath. Say what you will about old Phil, his drums on "Easy Lover" easily justify all his hackwork for Robert Plant, Tina Turner, Clapton et al.—powerful, visceral rolls and fills that make for a supple backbone beneath the wafery synths and Bailey's almost-edible falsetto. It takes a real poof to make Phil Collins voice sound so boisterously masculine, but Bailey manages it. The guitar solo is as delightfully unnecessary as such era trappings always are. The whole affair, wrapped up in its lithe funk-lite bundle, is as preposterous and charming as Collins' scrummy blue vest in the stupidly postmodern video.
Is it corn? Of course. But it's 24-karat corn, and nowadays there's little enough in its likeness to spread around. Which is why you'll still hear "Easy Lover" kick off a rock block during the lunchtime Power Hour, while driving home from work, watching classic videos on VH-1, or while shopping for free-range goat cheese at your local Whole Foods. Like MTV and the Bush family, it rose to prominence in the 80's but still casts a long shadow. All current formulae of statistical projection suggest that it will continue to exert its potent influence until the sun collapses in on itself and the Earth becomes a barren sphere. "It's the only way / you'll ever know, oh, oh..."