'Every ego likes to get stroked, and it's nice to be able to get into places, but the cost is quite high,' said Peter Gabriel (pictured on stage in Argentina, 1988) Neal Preston
One minute the singer was the forgotten Genesis front man, the next he had a smash-hit single, stadiums full of screaming fans and a supermodel for a girlfriend. No wonder...
The BBC’s spoof music series The Life Of Rock starred a veteran prog-rocker called Brian Pern, played by Fast Show comic Simon Day, scuttling around the stage dressed as a giant crab, wailing inconsolably.
Watching the scene between the cracks in his fingers, Peter Gabriel instantly recognised the character as a comically heightened version of himself.
To his credit, he enjoyed the ribbing so much that he agreed to a cameo appearance in which he confronted Pern for a prog showdown in London’s Battersea Park.
"It made me laugh a lot, even though it was at my expense," says Gabriel.
"I love to laugh. Spike Milligan was a hero to me and I was a big Fast Show fan, but I’m not sure that part of me comes across when I bore people about politics and social stuff.
'People can’t always see who you really are."
From a distance the former Genesis singer can appear over-earnest, with his worthy causes and reputation as one of rock’s most dauntingly experimental artists. Up close he’s a more relaxed proposition.
Dressed in a black shirt, green Nehru waistcoat, white combats and sturdy boots, his face framed by glasses and a neat grey goatee, he’s warm and direct.
Happy to range over his 45-year career, he talks openly about his personal life, the pitfalls of fame, sex and drugs, and the chances of a Genesis reformation.
Aside from gamely lampooning himself on national TV, Gabriel has been busy putting together a new concert film.
Recorded at the O2, Back To Front is a record of last year’s world tour celebrating his classic 1986 album So.
Revisiting the album meant re-evaluating what he drily describes as "my pop-star period". Before the release of So, Gabriel was very much a cult figure.
After leaving Genesis in 1975, he had only two Top 20 singles – Solsbury Hill and Games Without Frontiers – in the next decade.
His first four albums were stark, confrontational affairs, so immune to commercialism they didn’t even have titles. So changed everything.
Warm, rhythmic and accessible, the album topped the charts in the U.S. and UK, propelled by the salaciously funky hit single Sledgehammer and its ground-breaking animated video.
It has sold over ten million copies worldwide, making Gabriel both a multi-millionaire and a household name.
The album So was warm, rhythmic and accessible, and topped the charts in the U.S. and UK, propelled by the salaciously funky hit single Sledgehammer and its ground-breaking animated videoHe looks back on this abrupt gear change with some ambivalence.
"It was a pain in the a*** really," he says.
"Every ego likes to get stroked, and it’s nice to be able to get into places, but the cost is quite high."
His 16-year marriage to his first wife, Jill, ended the year after So was released, and he subsequently enjoyed relationships with actress Rosanna Arquette, singer Sinead O’Connor and models Marie Helvin and Claudia Schiffer.
For a while he had an enviable reputation as a ladies" man.
"For a short while," he says. "After my divorce there was a little more experimentation. My pop-star period again.
'I’m glad my adolescent fantasies were explored to some extent, but life also gets quite complicated in that way."
Rumours persisted over the precise nature of his friendship with Kate Bush, who sang on another So classic, Don’t Give Up.
An emotionally powerful gospel ballad narrated by a man who had lost not just his job but his sense of identity, the female part was originally offered to Dolly Parton. When Parton declined, Gabriel asked Bush to step in.
They recorded the track at his home, Ashcombe House, near Bath, inside an old cattle barn. Gabriel recalls cows peering through the window as Bush sang her soothing words of consolation.
As well as revisiting So, in the past few years Peter has recorded orchestral versions of his classic songs and invited artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Elbow to tackle his back catalogueThough the pair have remained friends, on Back To Front Gabriel performs Don’t Give Up with Swedish singer Jennie Abrahamson. Did he invite the notoriously stage-averse Bush to take part?
"I didn’t, and I wouldn’t have called her expecting the answer to be yes.
'We send each other records and cards but I haven’t seen her for quite a while. She’s been well buried away,’ he continues, adding tantalisingly, "though there are rumours that her hiding away might soon be interrupted."
During this period Gabriel became almost as well known for his activism as for his music.
He co-founded the human rights organisation Witness, and continues to take a keen interest in social and political affairs.
"Like many an old hippie, I’m still obsessed with people power," he says.
He denounced apartheid on his stirring single Biko, and toured in support of Amnesty International.
After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Gabriel supported his Aids foundation 46664.
The two met on several occasions.
"I feel enormously lucky that I had a few times with him," he says.
"There was one journey when he invited some of the 46664 musicians up to a safari lodge. My son Isaac was with me and we had an hour, one on one, with him riding in the same truck.
'I thought, "You should write some of this down so you’ll never forget it," and of course, idiot that I am, I never did. But the extraordinary thing I came away with was his courage to trust his enemy to build the future." He grins. "That, and that he had a real eye for the girls."
By nature a "forward-facing artist", Gabriel has recently seemed happier looking back.
As well as revisiting So, in the past few years he has recorded orchestral versions of his classic songs and invited artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Elbow to tackle his back catalogue.
A Genesis reunion, however, may be a step too far into the past.
He left the band when tensions grew between the idea of "a writers’ co-operative" and Gabriel’s prominence as their wildly theatrical front man: wearing dresses, sporting fox-heads and flower costumes, and singing about man-eating hogweed and wanting to be a lawnmower. The usual.
"I wanted to get out, there was an oppressiveness to it," he says. "They asked if I’d do another six months of touring without saying that I was leaving. That was really difficult. It all fizzled out at a gig in France. There weren’t many people in the audience; it was very sad, but nobody fell out."
When he began his solo career he presumably didn’t envisage that he’d still be fielding questions about the band 40 years later, but events have conspired against him.
Bassist Mike Rutherford has just published a book about the group, while Phil Collins, who stepped into Gabriel’s shoes as their lead singer, has announced an end to his retirement following rumours of severe depression.
"It’s been a very difficult time for Phil," Gabriel confirms. "If he’s getting out of that it would be a great thing. He was the workaholics' workaholic, so it was strange to see him stop."
This flurry of activity, and the fact that everyone has remained friendly over the years, has fed speculation that the original line-up will reunite.
Peter in 2003 with his wife Meabh and son IsaacGabriel smiles and sighs in one long exhalation.
"I was looking seriously at a reunion for a while, but it seemed to be growing into a bigger project than I was ready for. It’s about time and energy, and what you’re letting go of to pursue that.’
So there’s nothing planned?
"There’s nothing planned, but we’re all still above the turf and I would never say never.’
He hasn't read Rutherford's memoir.
"I have it beside the bed," he says. "I've dipped in."
He needn"t worry. The book depicts Gabriel kindly, as a benevolent, slightly scatty dreamer, very far from the rock-star archetype. Was he as wild as he might have been back then?
'Probably not, no. I never got heavily involved in drugs. Acid was the only thing I was really interested in, but I had really powerful, scary dreams without it. That frightened me away a little bit."
He does recall one hair-raising experience when, in the spirit of creative research, he devoured a cake that had been stuffed with marijuana.
"I was on my own and I thought, OK, I'm going to give it a go. I had a slice and it didn't do anything, so I had another slice, and another slice. Then it hit.
"I moved my head about five degrees forward and these tubes of liquid metal shot out of my back and crashed into my head. I was convinced I was going to die.
"I was in the farm studio about half a mile from where I lived. I had a little cassette recorder with me, and on the tape you can hear me making my bid for home.
"I waited 20 minutes to cross a completely empty road, afflicted by extreme paranoia, and then I decided that the meaning of life was four video tapes running out of synch.
"As this moment of deep enlightenment arrives you hear me falling into the ditch…"
At 64, such escapades are firmly behind him. In 2002 he married Meabh Flynn, with whom he has two sons - Isaac, 12, and Luke, five.
They live in London, uprooting from Gabriel's Bath base after his wife decided she had "done her stint in the country".
His second turn at fatherhood (he has two adult daughters from his first marriage) partly explains why his last album of original new material, Up, was released 12 years ago.
"I used to be an obsessive workaholic, but I want to be a present and active father. I'm doing lots of homework rather than spending late nights in the studio. I've got slower, but I'm chomping at the bit to get back writing. "
His children enjoy music. Luke loves Michael Jackson and Isaac is a Beatles fan, though the latter's real passion is wildlife photography, cultivated on a recent year-long family trip around the world.
Gabriel took the boys out of school, viewing the holiday as part of their education. "Why are we keeping these young bodies imprisoned in school for longer and longer hours?" he says. "It's self-defeating."
One of the places they visited was Botswana, which reminds me that Gabriel once co-wrote a song with a bonobo monkey, another episode played for laughs in The Life Of Rock.
I have to ask: did he unearth any promising simian talent this time around?
"Oh God, that show runs the risk of doing for me what AbFab did for Lynne Franks," he laughs. "All that hard work gone to waste."
"Back To Front" is in cinemas from March 20.
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