By Ricky Spenner and Michael Sandler
In honor of the Phil Collins classic “Sussudio” topping the U.S. charts on July 6, 1985, Cultural Transmogrifier would like to be the first to report on a secret musical alliance between two musicians who towered over the competition with their grittiness and purity: Johnny Cash and Phil Collins.
The partnership sounds impossible. The two were introduced by producer Rick Rubin in December 2001, at an Alamo reenactment in San Antonio, Texas. As Collins revealed in a recent Rolling Stone interview, he is an Alamo historian, and even authored a book about the battle, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey. Collins was conducting research for the book, and by chance, ran into Rubin and Cash. The two were on a recording break from Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which was one of Cash’s last albums before his death in 2003.
“I was quite shocked, really,” Collins said of the meeting. “I’d been an admirer of Johnny’s music for a long time, and to be honest, always fancied meself a British cowboy.”
Initially, Collins said Rubin’s idea that he and Cash work together struck him as odd. “I thought, ‘bullocks,’ but John was keen to the idea, so we decided to lay down some tracks,” said Collins. “John had no idea who Phil was, but he was never one to turn down a fellow historian,” said Rubin.
Rather than write new music, Rubin suggested the two musicians guest sing on each other’s hit songs. Collins and Cash agreed, but with one stipulation: the two would only use Alamo-era instruments and recording equipment. Collins said he was feeling inspired by the Alamo reenactment, but the stipulation also allowed him to step away from the pressure of being Phil Collins.
“You know, they don’t listen to me music anymore, anyway,” Collins said of the record-buying public. “I’m right pissed about that, and I wanted to do a project for Phil Collins the Alamo aficionado, not Phil Collins the pop star.”
And with that state of mind, Collins, Cash, and Rubin entered a secret studio, and the ideas flew like bullets. Because of the crude style in which the sessions were recorded, Cultural Transmogrifier isn’t able to post the songs; but we’ve heard the magic first hand, and below is a song-by-song account, with long lost commentary by Collins and Cash.
Initially used as a warm-up song for the recording session, “Big River” became an immediate eye-opener for Collins. “I remember helping John into the studio that morning,” said Rubin. “It wasn’t looking like a very promising day. John looked tired, real shaky. You should have seen the look on poor Phil’s face. White as a damn ghost. Anyway, Phil reached to shake John’s hand and asked if he was feeling up to playing. John just winked and nodded at him and told him to keep up.” Collins kept steady time on an old snare drum while Cash jumped to life, his gravelly voice crawling through the track. By the song’s end, Cash asked Rubin for another take. “John only wanted to do one take per song, but since when has Johnny Cash ever followed the rules?” After a few minutes of walking Collins through the song, Rubin hit record. This time around, Collins elected to sing Luther Perkins’ lead guitar parts in addition to his drumming duties, giving the song a bouncier feel. The attitude was infectious. In fact, when Cash sang “I met her accidentally in St. Paul,” Collins can be heard yelling “Minnesota!” in the background. “That boy was giddy as all get up,” said Cash.
An obvious choice for the project, this Collins’s hit shows why the session was a match made in heaven. The duo replaced the original electronic drum opening with Alamo-style war drums, giving this version of “Sussudio” a primal feel. In a surprise move, Cash sings the first verse of the song. His rough voice gives the song new life; the lyric, “There’s this girl that’s been on my mind / All the time, Sussudio oh oh,” sounds like it was written in Kingsland, Ark., Cash’s hometown. Cash’s acoustic guitar is played in a two-step time signature. “That was Rick’s idea, and it worked perfectly,” said Collins. “It gives ‘Sussudio’ a shit-kicking dimension I never thought possible.”
“Remember the Alamo”
After “Big River” was put to bed, Cash made it clear he didn’t want to play any more of his hit songs. “I’ve been playing those for years,” he said. “What I want to do is remember why we’re here.” Cash, armed with his trusty guitar, slowly strummed through the tune, while an adventurous Collins thought it prudent to try his hand at the pan flute. Either impressed or confused by Collins’s spontaneity, Cash decided to throw a wrench in the project. About halfway through the song, Cash can be heard mumbling, “take it away, Phil.” A startled Phil Collins can be heard squeaking his pan flute before stuttering, “H-h-hey Santa Anna we’re killing your soldiers below / That men where ever they go, will remember the Alamo.” The song seemed to strike a chord with Collins. “I swear I saw the kid cry at the end of that one,” said Cash. “He’s a lot of fun to have around.”
“Don’t Lose My Number”
Collins said this track was picked almost by accident. Cash and Rubin were listening to Collins’s hits early in the process, and Cash mistakenly thought the song was about a famous sharp-shooter. “John heard the ‘Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number’ chorus, and assumed it was about Billy the Kid,” Collins said. “Rick and I thought that was absolutely brilliant, and didn’t have the heart to tell him different.” A banjo accompanies the two musicians on this tune, and the instrument is credited to a Jimmy “Fickle” Fingers. Collins was coy when asked who the musician was. “He’s a chap Rick found in Texas. He’s a bit of a recluse, and didn’t want any of the attention a project like this could bring.”
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”
This song ended up being Rick Rubin’s idea. Collins and Cash were discussing ideas when Rubin entered the room with lyric sheets in hand, proposing the duo perform a rendition of the Civil War-era song penned by Patrick Gilmore. “It definitely took some persuasion on my part,” said Rubin. “These guys, they were quick to point out it wasn’t an Alamo song. Phil seemed downright offended. Eventually, John looked at me, gave a shrug, and said, ‘you’re crazy for this one, Rick.’ I told him he wasn’t the first person to tell me that.” The end result is nothing short of glorious. Cash ditched his guitar and sang lead vocals while Collins hopped back on the snare drum and offered chants of “Hurrah! Hurrah!” Rubin shocked everyone when he tiptoed into the room with a bugle and brought the song home.
“In the Air Tonight”
Collins’s famous gated drum sound was replaced by a war drum, and Cash made a crucial lyric re-arrangement for his parts during the chorus. “In my original version, I say, ‘I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord,’” Collins said. “But John, he wanted to have an actual conversation with Jesus, so he changed the ‘oh lords’ in the song to ‘my lord.’” The result is a hymn-like feel that Collins is proud of. “It gives me chills, really,” Collins said. “It’s like John is saying, ‘I’m ready to see you, Jesus.’ Or maybe he’s saying he’d rather die than work with this British bastard again; you could never tell with John.”