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20 Insanely Great Peter Gabriel Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know

Peter Gabriel at his home in 1984 Peter Gabriel at his home in 1984 Peter Noble/Redferns/Getty

Art-rock innovator, soul-pop craftsman, "world music" ambassador: Peter Gabriel has evolved substantially with each LP, often abandoning a comfortable style to stake out new creative ground. And whether he's wielding his soulful "Sledgehammer" or channeling an evil "Intruder," his music always aims for the grandiose – even his leftovers are crafted with imagination and verve.

It's been 14 years since Gabriel's last batch of new material, Up, but he's remained active since – releasing two orchestral albums (2010's covers-only Scratch My Back and the following year's New Blood, full of revamped originals) and touring the world multiple times, most recently with the classic So lineup on his Back to Front trek.

Gabriel recently launched the Rock Paper Scissors tour – a collaborative, co-headlining jaunt with Sting – and released a dynamic Muhammad Ali-inspired single, "I'm Amazing." It's an ideal time to explore the lesser-known corners of his sprawling discography. From obscure soundtrack tunes ("Party Man") to anthemic B sides ("Don't Break This Rhythm"), these are 20 great Peter Gabriel songs only hardcore fans know.

"Humdrum" (1977)

Gabriel's debut solo LP is best remembered for its triumphant lead single "Solsbury Hill," a folky kiss-off to his Genesis days. With "Humdrum," he put another foot forward, seemingly celebrating the birth of his first daughter. "As I drove into the sun/Didn't dare look where I had begun," he sings over enormous washes of synth. "From the white star/Came the bright scar/Our amoeba/My little liebe schoen." Like the rest of the self-titled album – a.k.a. Peter Gabriel 1 or Car – "Humdrum" is a giddy hodgepodge, with the newly solo Gabriel throwing sonic spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. He croons in an off-kilter phrasing over Wurlitzer chords, slithering around the downbeat; he shouts over tango rhythms and romantic accordion. "Listen to my heart," he begs. "Don't need no stethoscope."

"Exposure" (1978)

After dismantling King Crimson in 1974, guitarist and prog architect Robert Fripp launched a bizarre production career, helming LPs for folk trio the Roches, Philly soul journeyman Darryl Hall and experimental kindred spirit Peter Gabriel. Eerie art-funk soundscape "Exposure" is an equal collaboration between the prog-rock gods, with distinct versions appearing on both Gabriel's 1978 self-titled album (a.k.a. Scratch) and Fripp's 1979 LP Exposure. Both takes, built on Tony Levin's barking bass and glacial "Frippertronics," are defined by the polar opposite vocal performances: Terry Roche's slasher-film screams (on the Fripp cut) and Gabriel's deep, pitch-shifted moans (on his solo cut). Adding to the confusion, Exposure also featured a minimalist reinterpretation of Gabriel's piano ballad "Here Comes the Flood." 

"And Through the Wire" (1980)

Though one of Gabriel's most accessible rock songs, "And Through the Wire" remains an obscure deep cut nearly four decades after its release. While Melt ushered in the 1980s with brooding synths and bare-bones percussion, "Wire" offered a punk slant on that same approach, utilizing a clamorous electric guitar riff (courtesy of the Jam's Paul Weller). Gabriel explores his full vocal range here – from hoarse yelp to frog-in-throat rumble. But Marotta, Melt's underrated MVP, pilots the track from start to finish with his resonant tom-toms and cowbell. (No cymbals, though: Gabriel forbade them during the sessions, insisting that they cluttered the mix. He'd change course with 1986's So, linking up with splash master Manu Katche.)

"The Family and the Fishing Net" (1982)

"We think we're islands, but we're all connected in a landmass," Gabriel told Mojo in 2010, reflecting on the volatile "The Family and the Fishing Net" from 1982's Security (the alias of yet another self-titled album). "What you see above the water is two people getting married. But beneath the water are the tentacles of two larger, dominant organisms which are the families making connection through those two particular tentacles. But we never observe and recognize that."

The unseen complexities of marriage – "the ritual of the wedding, the ring and the finger," as Gabriel said onstage on the Plays Live LP – anchor this seven-minute behemoth. The track simmers in one extended build, without a true chorus, anchored by Tony Levin's sparse Chapman Stick. Then, finally, it detonates: "Another in the mesh!" Gabriel yelps. "The body and the flesh!"

"The Family and the Fishing Net" is a litmus test for hardcore fans, but Gabriel has always adored the track, even plugging it into the set list for his recent Back to Front Tour. "[That's one] a lot of fans will never like really, but I want to play that," he told Rolling Stone ahead of the trek.  

"Soft Dog" (1982)

More sound collage than true song, this "Shock the Monkey" B side features some of Gabriel's most unusual instrumentation: jazzy, dissonant clarinet; droning electric guitar; gusts of theremin-like synth. It's difficult to imagine "Soft Dog" as anything but a non-album track: The singer's brief glossolalia implies he couldn't pin down any lyrics, and the track's meandering atmosphere would have stalled Security's focus. It's a Gabriel doodle embellished into a left-field mosaic. 

"I Go Swimming" (1983)

"I go swimming/Swimming in the water/Swimming in the pool/Swimming is cool," Gabriel sings on this art-funk lark, hiccuping like a seal over Tony Levin's slap bass. The lyrics might be first-draft material, but the groove is first-class. One of Gabriel's breeziest tunes, "I Go Swimming" has a hazy backstory: An undercooked bootleg studio outtake has been wading around since the early Eighties, and a retooled version was tacked on to the soundtrack of the Rick Springfield-starring 1984 drama Hard to Hold, but the song truly shines as a slaphappy stage palate cleanser, as evidenced by the cut found on 1983's Plays Live. (The liner notes admit to "cheating" via studio doctoring, but who cares?) 

"Walk Through the Fire" (1984)

Back in 1984, when soundtracks were all-star events, Gabriel snuck this obscure gem onto the Against All Odds LP. And "Fire" sounds exactly like the product of its era: more playful and immediate than Security, more keyboard-heavy and textured than So – pairing imagistic lyrics with clanking percussion and synth-horn emulations. "Darkness heavy on my shoulder," Gabriel confesses. "Smell the smoke, sickly sweet/The body's weak, the shadow's strong." ("Against All Odds," of course, is a Phil Collins powerhouse, and the soundtrack also features a Mike Rutherford solo tune, making the set essential for Genesis fans. Who knew it would take a middling romantic thriller to unite 3/5 of the band's classic lineup?)

"Don't Break This Rhythm" (1986)

Peter Gabriel catapulted into the pop mainstream with 1986's So, marrying African rhythms and soul melodies with art-rock synth textures. But "Don't Break This Rhythm," his finest fusion of those three elements, didn't crack the final track list, appearing only as the B side to horn-fueled single "Sledgehammer." It's a glaring omission. "All this momentum keeps stealing through," Gabriel yelps, his voice ricocheting off warped keys and muted, polyrhythmic tom-toms.

"Curtains" (1987)

This near-instrumental, the B side to hammy So single "Big Time," earns immense impact with ordinary tools: a static kick-drum pulse, New Age synth pads and stray electric-piano chords. "Curtains" is cut from the same ambient cloth as So closer "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" – slow-building to a suspenseful anti-climax. "There are angels on our curtains/They keep the outside out," Gabriel croons. "There are lions on our curtains/They lick their wounds; they lick their doubt." An expanded version, re-tooled with composer Jack Wall, appeared during a transitional sequence in the 2004 video game Myst IV: Revelation. But the original, with its less-is-more melancholy, strikes a deeper chord.  

"Zaar" (1989)

Three years after transforming into a pop heartthrob with So, Gabriel delivered his sharpest creative curveball with 1989's Passion, an arty New Age bricolage of instruments and inspiration from across the world. The Grammy-winning LP, which originated from his soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, united Gabriel with musicians from the Middle East, Asia and Africa – and the unnerving "Zaar" is the most accessible showcase of that multicultural approach. Formed around a driving Egyptian rhythm designed to fend off evil spirits, the track weaves in L. Shankar's eerie double-violin, kamancheh (an Iranian bowed instrument) and thickets of percussion, including the surdo (a Brazilian bass drum). While Passion's heady textures are best digested in full, "Zaar" remains the album's majestic stand-alone moment. 

"Quiet Steam" (1992)

The original "Steam" is an underwhelming "Sledgehammer" rewrite, copping that song's soul groove but dulling it with overstuffed production. The "Quiet" version, released as the B side to Us single "Digging in the Dirt," is the sonic opposite: Gabriel trims back the arrangement to a minimalist core of barely there organ and electric-guitar throb, almost whispering his words. There's more drama at play when the singer, voice quivering, praises a "life with the dreamer's dream" and glances down at the dogs sniffing at his feet. 

"Lovetown" (1993)

Gabriel is one of rock's most theatrical performers – from his early days donning a fox head with Genesis to navigating elaborate stage sets during his solo Us tour – so his reverence to the soundtrack form is only appropriate. The soulful "Lovetown" appeared in the 1993 drama Philadelphia – better known for spawning Bruce Springsteen's Oscar-winning ballad "Streets of Philadelphia" – and was later buried on the tongue-in-cheek "Miss" disc of Gabriel's 2003 Hit collection. But the track, which foreshadows the hushed majesty of Up's "Sky Blue," always beckoned for a wider audience. Over Tony Levin's rubber-band bass and David Rhodes' smoky tremolo guitar, Gabriel compares romantic love to a city with walls. "In each other's shadow/The roots reach into the soil," he emotes in that signature whine. "All these knots so tightly tied/We could not uncoil." 

"Across the River" (1994)

This atmospheric powerhouse, a rare Gabriel songwriting collaboration, was co-crafted by trusted guitarist David Rhodes, Police drummer Stewart Copeland and violinist L. Shankar for the 1982 WOMAD compilation Music and Rhythm. It's trademark Eighties Gabriel – a forgotten precursor to Security's "The Rhythm of the Heat," full of ethereal synth pads and multicultural bombast. But Gabriel brought the piece to life onstage: The cathartic version captured on his second live LP, 1994's Secret World Live, builds to a more dynamic climax, with Manu Katche's tom-tom fills injecting a manic rhythmic thrust.

"Party Man" (1995)

Co-written with the World Beaters (the random teaming of Tori Amos and music supervisor George Acogny), this textured ballad is one of Gabriel's most obscure one-offs – available only on the soundtrack to 1995 thriller Virtuosity, a virtual-reality flop starring Denzel Washington. That's one odd dumping ground for such a high-profile collaboration. But "Party Man" is far from B-side quality: Over lush synthesizers and feathery nylon-string guitar, Gabriel gazes out from a "high wall" down to street lights "spread out like a banquet." The lyrics feel unfinished, but he sings them with raw angst, careening to a squealed falsetto on the chorus. Far from the jovial romp its title suggests, "Party Man" ranks among Gabriel's most cathartic Nineties tracks.

"The Tower That Ate People" (2000)

This buzzing industrial-rock epic is the centerpiece of OVO, Gabriel's 2000 multimedia performance and soundtrack LP, which explores a feud between "the earth people and sky people." "Tower" remains one of Gabriel's most exhilarating post-So arrangements, mutating from distorted, funky electronics to a wistful bridge of overlapping vocals. And while the overall OVO concept is nonsense, the words here operate on a broader scale: "Tell it like it is/Till there's no misunderstanding," Gabriel intones. "When you strip it right back/Man feed machine; machine feed man."

"My Head Sounds Like That" (2002)

While designing the sonic palette for Security, Gabriel famously trekked to the junkyard with recording equipment – smashing TVs, breathing into pipes and feeding all the noises into his brand-new Fairlight CMI sampler. It was an ideal marriage of artist and instrument: No other rocker has better utilized the musical potential of abstract sound. "My Head Sounds Like That," the slow-building centerpiece of Up's second side, finds Gabriel meditating on the raw emotional power of noise. Over glacial piano chords, digital tablas and sighing brass, he transforms the mundane – squeezed sponges, oil "spitting" into sauce pans, knives scraping across "burnt brown toast" – into the cosmic. 

"I was just thinking about a depressed state but where you have suddenly heightened consciousness of sound, a bit like when you are about to throw up when suddenly smell goes into 3D, if you know what I mean," Gabriel wrote of the track. "It becomes a sort of heightened experience, and so I was just trying to picture it."

"Baby Man" (2004)

Gabriel performed this electro-orchestral epic nine times throughout his 2004 European tour. But the authorized bootleg concert version, recorded in Brussels, teases the brilliance locked away in the singer's sprawling vaults. "Baby Man," the not-so-distant cousin of lush Up opener "Darkness" and OVO's biting "The Tower That Ate People," juxtaposes the organic (flute, violins) and synthetic (synth pads, industrial programming) with childlike giddiness. So why the lock and key? It's possible Gabriel, ever the perfectionist, never arrived at a final draft of the lyrics, which border on cutesy overload. ("Fishman, earthman, spaceman, what?/Better check out what the Baby Man got," he sings.) But daughter Anna included two minute-long studio snippets in her 2005 documentary, Growing Up on Tour: A Family Portrait, suggesting this leftover may see the light of day eventually. 

"Whole Thing" (2008)

In the summers of 1991, 1992 and 1995, Gabriel hosted roughly 75 musicians from more than 20 countries – including Billy Cobham, Tim Finn, Joseph Arthur, Vernon Reid and Sinéad O'Connor – at his idyllic Real World Studios, where the multicultural crew recorded more tapes than they could properly store. More than a decade – and numerous editing sessions – later, Real World compiled the results into the Big Blue Ball LP. The apex is opener "Whole Thing," a seductive swirl of electric guitar shards, throbbing electronics and processed vocal harmonies. "One that I love I dream beside," he chants on the chorus, floating to his falsetto moments later. In a way, it's a shame Gabriel didn't finish this in time for 2002's Up – it trumps almost the entire track list.

"Downside Up" (2011)

"Downside Up" originated as a sweet but slight New Age / pop duet on OVO, performed by Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser and the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan. Gabriel reclaimed the track for his Up tour, trading off vocals with his daughter Melanie – and singing upside down at the climax. But he delivered the definitive version on New Blood, an LP of orchestral re-workings: John Metcalfe's arrangement – built on sawing strings, counterpoint brass and fluttering flutes – injects visceral tension, a darkness to balance out the original's surplus of light. 

"Courage" (2013)

When Gabriel rummaged through his archives for the 2012 So box set, he discovered a demo version of this feverish pop track. In its rough form, "Courage" was little more than a showcase for Tony Levin's face-melting funk bass, but Gabriel and guitarist David Rhodes piled on fresh overdubs for the 2013 single version, finished off with a polished Tchad Blake mix. 

"When So drew to a close I didn't feel the song was delivering in the way I had hoped, so decided not to include it," Gabriel wrote on his website, announcing the release. "When we were reviewing all the material from that time [for the box set], we wanted to take a fresh look at it and get it finished. I always liked the track and very much enjoyed the playing on it, especially the energy of the drums."

Luckily, the single cut feels authentic to the So era, full of glistening synths and reverb-heavy percussion tracks. Would it have made the cut were it finished in 1986? Probably not. But even that slight possibility demonstrates Gabriel's consistency in that golden age.

© RollingStone, by Ryan Reed

Last modified on Friday, 11 August 2017 13:12

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