Offbeat lyrical twists, innovative sounds and a deep commitment to African culture have attended the career of this musical explorer.
1. Solsbury Hill
Given the financial hole he was in, and the success of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, 1974 was an odd year for Peter Gabriel to hand in his notice as frontman of Genesis. One of the reasons he gave for quitting was odd as well – he claimed he wanted to spend more time in his vegetable patch. While he really had been spending a lot of time tending to cabbages in the garden of his Cotswolds cottage, his daughter Anna-Marie had just been born breech and developed a serious infection. This meant that Gabriel had actually quit to spend more time with his family – but with none of the usual euphemistic implication that this phrase often carries when applied to public figures. During his sabbatical from recording music, he combined caring for a child and tending to his legumes with immersing himself in the study of world religion, art and philosophy, not to mention African, Asian and South American music, as well as becoming an early devotee of punk and post-punk. Like a distance-learning degree in esoteric, international and underground culture both modern and ancient, this would all, sooner or later, influence the second stage of his musical career. But not initially. His first single, Solsbury Hill – released in 1977 – may have kickstarted his solo career but both musically and lyrically this was a line being drawn under his time in Genesis. Against the stirring but simple riff, Gabriel sang of a spiritual awakening/epiphany/supernatural event which caused him to cut connections to the past and stake everything on a fresh roll of the dice. It was, by far , the standout track from his debut album, Peter Gabriel One (aka Car).
There is a lot to recommend about Peter Gabriel Two (aka Scratch) which came out in 1978. The singer’s interest in applying inventive studio production techniques and lyrics about esoteric or unusual matters to a mainstream popular music format was starting to pay dividends. The presence of Robert Fripp – nearly always something to celebrate – added colour and verve to the LP, not the least on Exposure, the track he co-authored and to which he liberally applied his Frippertronics. The tracks that really shine the most though are the radio-friendly post-glam cuts that owe a debt to Roxy Music and David Bowie, particularly DIY, a crisp new-wave stomper.
3. Games Without Frontiers
Games Without Frontiers, the lead single from Peter Gabriel Three (aka Melt), ties with Sledgehammer as his biggest UK hit; it reached No 4 on release in 1980. Melt is arguably the jewel in Gabriel’s crown and represents the start of his "imperial period" (to borrow Neil Tennant’s phrase to describe an artist’s creative and commercial potential hitting a peak in unison), which would carry on until after the release of his fifth album, So, in 1986. However it wasn’t apparent to everyone 36 years ago that the singer’s stars were aligning. On hearing the LP, Atlantic Records – which distributed him in the US – accused him of committing "commercial suicide" and dropped him. This was something the company regretted almost immediately after Games Without Frontiers became a hit in the UK and started picking up radio play in the US. The song was a (purposefully) childlike take on international affairs with reference to the popular family TV show Jeux Sans Frontières (It’s a Knockout) – and showcased his talent for turning out slick but unusual and highly individual pop songs.
This album track from Melt shocked listeners for a number of reasons. Initially it caused a rupture in music production at the start of the 1980s. To all intents and purposes, it was the first track to foreground the use of gated reverb on the drums. This effect, which gives an intense muscularity to the punchiness of a rhythm while presenting each hit in a pristine separation that borders on sterility, would become the trademark sound of pop in the first half of the 1980s. Gabriel’s version of the story (which has been contested) is that engineer Hugh Padgham came up with the effect as a colouring agent and applied it to Phil Collins’s kit during the sessions for Melt. Gabriel became excited by the idea of pushing the now alien-sounding rhythm to the front of the mix and asked his former bandmate to play a simple pattern without frills; going as far as taking all the metal off the kit. When Collins kept on going to hit drums that were no longer there, they solved the problem by simply adding more toms. The results were brutally impressive. (Collins – along with Padgham and producer Steve Lillywhite – wasted little time in applying the methodology to his own single In the Air Tonight. But popular music is at its most impressive when the message is as impactful as the medium. On Intruder, the scrape of a guitar string sounds like a metallic garrotte being tautened to breaking point as Gabriel sings creepily from the point of view of what appears to be a transvestite housebreaker – and the motivation of sexual assault is hinted at darkly. Whatever is going on, Gabriel’s desired aim of creating "a sense of urgency" is certainly achieved.
A man holds a picture of South African students leader Steve Biko, at his funeral in King William’s Town, 1977. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
One of the criticisms often levelled at political songs written by pop stars in the 1980s was that these tracks tended to be ill-focused polemics or even offensive flights of fancy; that they were little more than passing whims of the ill-informed and loosely engaged. Biko, the closing track from Melt, could not have been more specific. The opening lyrics served to root the subject matter – the murder of the black South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko – in as specific a geographical, temporal, spatial and political position as possible: "September ’77 / Port Elizabeth, weather fine / It was business as usual / In police room 619." From 1980 onwards – the year he co-founded Womad – Gabriel would receive flak from some quarters because of his involvement in so-called "world music". However, Gabriel’s own interest in African music and politics was neither faddish nor shallow. Biko – bookended with recordings of Ngomhla Sibuyayo and Senzeni Na?, as performed at the murdered man’s funeral, and containing the Xhosa chorus of Yehla Moya – remains a dignified memorial to a brave man.
6. The Rhythm of the Heat
Gabriel has a knack for writing dynamic but unusual songs that he uses to open his albums. Peter Gabriel Four (aka Security) fits this pattern. Rhythm of the Heat is a slow-burning epic that builds to a climactic tattoo of Ghanaian drums (played by the Ekome Dance Company). The track was originally called Jung in Africa because it related the bizarre story of Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung travelling to Kenya and Uganda in 1925 in a bid to understand primitive psychology by meeting culturally isolated natives of those countries. The story goes that when Jung actually came face to face with a ritual ceremony he became terrified and tried to scare the participants away by throwing lit cigarettes at them and shouting. He returned home realising the only insights he had actually gained were into the psychology of Europeans. Gabriel, with a wry sense of self-deprecation, has gamely suggested that parallels can be drawn between this story and his own explorations of African culture and music.
7. Red Rain
Early in his career, Gabriel had an idea for a movie called Mozo. One of the elements of the plot concerned a village that was punished by a bloody Old Testament-style deluge, and Red Rain was going to be the music for the opening titles. Movie or no movie, Red Rain still makes for a stirring opening track to his fifth studio album, So. When it was released as a single it was, for no clear reason, a big hit only in America, reaching No 3 on the mainstream rock singles chart. Perhaps the apocalyptic imagery was too heavy for the singles-buying public everywhere else. Either way, the week it hit big among rock fans in the States, thrash metal band Slayer went into the studio to record their career (and extreme metal) defining third album, Reign In Blood with its centrepiece anthem, Raining Blood. Who knows – maybe there was something in the air.
8. Don’t Give Up (with Kate Bush)
Gabriel’s biggest hit, Sledgehammer, was a bug-eyed and brashly synthetic reworking of the Stax soul sound and was adopted en masse by the MTV generation, partially because of its eye-catching video. But Gabriel was going through something of a purple patch, and wasn’t short of options when it came to potential singles. Don’t Give Up was another example of him reworking a black American sound in a modern but offbeat manner. This time the style he picked was dustbowl gospel, chosen because lyrically the song was about the mass unemployment of the 1980s in the UK. Gabriel originally wrote the song with Dolly Parton in mind, but she turned down the duet. Kate Bush, who had already appeared as a vocalist on Melt, stepped in and one of the great pop duets of the mid-80s was born.
The second single from the 1992 album Us was Gabriel’s last big hit in the UK and the US. It fits roughly in the same mould as Sledgehammer – a brash and funky take on Stax soul – although perhaps "roughly" is the wrong word entirely in this context. By this stage, due in no small part to rock bands such as Primal Scream, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays incorporating hip-hop and funk-inspired breaks into their sound, this kind of ultra-slick Prince and INXS-leaning pop was starting to sound anachronistic. Judged on its own merits, though, Steam is copper-bottomed radio magic.
Gabriel’s last studio album proper, Up (released in 2002), was inspired by his fears regarding world politics and his ruminations on his own mortality. The track Sky Blue alone apparently took him a decade to finish writing. However there were still plenty of moments of studio inspiration to surprise the listener such as the opening track, Darkness. Its high-contrast, dynamic combination of reflective piano ballad with Nine Inch Nails/Outside-era Bowie strength industrial metal bombast reflects the turbulent process of someone confronting their most primal fears.
Single-LP editions of the first five Peter Gabriel albums, and double-LP editions of US and Up, all half-speed remastered and cut at 33rpm, will be released on Real World on 2 December.
© The Guardian, by John Doran