35 Years Ago: Phil Collins Takes the 808 Drum Machine Mainstream With a Ballad
The Roland TR-808 drum machine had come and gone from the wider popular consciousness. In fact, less than 12,000 units were sold during a brief three-year production run beginning in 1980.
The problem was, it didn't sound much like a drum. One critic memorably compared the Roland TR-808 to "marching anteaters." But, crucially, the 808 was programmable, so artists could create their own custom beats. A few hip-hop and R&B artists saw early promise in its metronomic utterances, including Afrika Bambaataa (1982's "Planet Rock"), Marvin Gaye ("Sexual Healing," also from 1982) and Run-DMC (1984's "Rock Box").
Still, the Roland TR-808 didn't make its biggest mainstream splash until Phil Collins' "One More Night," a ballad that began the first in a two-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard chart on March 30, 1985.
Wait, a ballad? By one of rock's most recognizable drummers?
"I just used it as a rhythm machine, really, and to come up with some interesting moods," Collins said in 2015's 808: The Movie. "You try to get a drummer to play something simple for 10 or 15 minutes, he won't do it. We get bored. A drum machine, as long as you turn it on, it will just play that forever. That was the beauty of it: If you used certain sounds, it would give you a hypnotic feel. With 'One More Night,' that was just a steady groove. It was invaluable, because it didn't have any of the frills that drummers would put in."
He'd used drum machines on earlier demos, going back to 1981's Face Value, then recorded over them. Sometimes, as with "In the Air Tonight," Collins even played alongside a simple pattern. By the time sessions for No Jacket Required were underway, however, these beats were left as is, becoming rhythmic skeletons for the finished songs.
"It was a great tool to write with because it could be programmed easily," Collins said in 808: The Movie. "Some of the other drum machines of the day were not as easy to just whip around and get something out of. The big thing that appealed to me about it was it wasn't really identifiable drum sounds. They were kind of percussion, kind of a little different sounds. Obviously, it was to some extent trying to replace the drummer. But the Roland machines kind of didn't really do that. They kind of just gave you percussion – and that, for a drummer, was great."
In this instance, Collins actually started with a machine-based cadence, then built outward. "I had a tempo in mind," Collins later told Playboy. "I was thinking of one of the Jacksons' songs actually when I strung a chorus on it. The line 'one more night' just fit what I was playing. The rest of the song was written very quickly."
That tick-tocking beat gave "One More Night" the dark heart of a jilted lover. (In a contemporary review, The New York Times said the 808 "injects a whisper of lurking fear into a song that suggests a sweeter, tenderer reprise of [Collins' first No. 1 single] 'Against All Odds.'") Quiet additions followed from guitarist Daryl Stuermer and bassist Leland Sklar, then Earth, Wind & Fire's Don Myrick completed things with a mournful sax solo.
"At that point, Phil had already put down the drums, drum machines and keyboard parts before we even got there," Stuermer told Chris Palmer in 2011. "So, when we came in, I was playing guitar over tracks that have been laid down prior to our arrival."
Watch Phil Collins' 'One More Night' Video
Careful listeners will note that the rhythm isn't perfectly consistent like a true sample. That's because the 808 actually generates sound from an analog circuit, meaning each beat is ever so slightly different.
"For me, the way I write, I need an atmosphere," Collins said in 808: The Movie. "Atmospheres will tell you where to go next and suggest what you could do after this chord. Sometimes, those 808 patterns that you would write would give you a great platform, something where not a lot needs to happen. That's why, certainly on my stuff, there's a lot of space when there's a drum machine."
Co-producer Hugh Padgham argued that those spaces gave "One More Night" its emotional heft.
"Our whole production approach was that less was more, because the more stuff you had on the record, the more it gets cluttered up – and therefore, the less you can hear what's on it," Padgham told Chris Williams in 2015. "Songs like 'One More Night,' for instance, were really, really simple. There was hardly anything on it. Making simple songs is sometimes harder than making more complicated songs, because there is so little there. What is there sticks out like a sore thumb, so it all has to work well and marry together."
No Jacket Required, Collins' third solo album, and the follow-up single "Sussidio" subsequently topped Billboard charts. Two more songs, "Don't Lose My Number" and "Take Me Home," also reached the Top 10. The now-ubiquitous "One More Night" had opened the floodgates.
Perhaps inevitably, a backlash followed. "A lot of people criticized that song because it said 'One More Night' so much," Stuermer told Palmer, "but it ended up being record of the year. It is a beautiful song."
Despite its clear sonic limitations, the Roland TR-808 became more than just a founding element of hip-hop music: It later moved toward wide use in British drum-and-bass and European EDM. Meanwhile, Genesis' drummer continued to employ machine-based rhythms in his own music too, despite the supposed incongruity.
"I was never threatened, because as well as being a drummer, I was a writer," Collins said in 808: The Movie. "And I think as a writer, it was a fantastic tool. As a drummer who writes, I used to do all of this stuff on my own. I didn't have any help, and I didn't have any other musicians. So, it really was a way of not just keeping time, but it was something you could put down and you knew you could play drums on top of it."
The 808 faltered in only one key area when compared with sometimes temperamental sidemen, Collins noted. "The joke is, you can't pour a beer over a drum machine, because it will stop working," he said. "But you can pour beer over a drummer."