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Music

How Phil Collins ripped off Prince for 'Sussudio'

@TylerGolsen

I’m not sure how willing he is to admit it in public, but my father has quite a fondness for Phil Collins and his 1980s synth-pop hit ‘Sussudio’. That makes sense: he’s a white guy in his mid-fifties, and he tends to wear his music choices with pride, no matter how cool or uncool they may be. There’s something very admirable about that, even if it is to defend ‘Sussudio’.

I, on the other hand, can’t stand the song. Calling the song pap is an insult to other pap. If a limp noodle somehow gained sentience and was able to plug in a keyboard, it would play ‘Sussudio’ like that was its only mission in life.

Collins was a phenomenal drummer, and I’ll go to bat for quite a bit of his work. His tenure during the Peter Gabriel years in Genesis? Classic. The post-Gabriel years with Phil at the front? Still good in my book, even when they were singing ‘Invisible Touch’. ‘In the Air Tonight’? Overplayed, but groundbreaking in its use of gated reverb and still eerie in the modern-day.

But ‘Sussudio’? Please god no. I would rather listen to his dreary ballads like ‘Another Day in Paradise’. I’d rather listen to Calling All Stations, the one awful Genesis record made without Gabriel or Collins as the singer. I’d rather listen to the Tarzan soundtrack, which I hear actually has quite a bit of defenders. I’d do it all before I’d willingly sit down and subject myself to the skin-crawlingly buoyant tones of ‘Sussudio’.

Evidently, though, if I dislike ‘Sussudio’, I actually have another widely-acclaimed, hugely successful pop act to blame: Prince. That’s because ‘Sussudio’ is based, at least in part, on Prince’s monster hit ‘1999’. Collins recalls hearing the Prince smash while on tour with Genesis, and wished to recreate the magic. 

The comparisons are most obvious in the central synthesiser riffs of both songs. Prince, like many artists of the time, favoured the Oberheim synthesisers that were cutting edge in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s likely that Prince probably used an Oberheim OB-X or the OB-Xa upgraded model for the central keyboard blast on ‘1999’.

Collins’ collaborator David Frank wound up using the further upgraded OB-8 model for ‘Sussudio’. The similarities in tone are obvious, but Collins doesn’t completely rip off the Purple One. Technically the two songs are in different keys, although the difference between ‘1999’’s F Major and ‘Sussudio’’s C major is just a single note. The melodies are different enough to be unique, but the line between “influence” and “stealing” is thin. As journalist Tom Breihan rightly observed, “if something like that happened today, Collins would’ve at least had to give Prince a songwriting credit.”

But rock and roll, or pop, or any music genre is filled with plenty of cases of thievery, whether intentional or accidental. If every song had to be completely scrubbed on its influences, well then we wouldn’t have any good music. But maybe we’d be able to avoid songs like ‘Sussudio’ every once in a while. A boy can certainly dream.