Ex-Genesis proggy posturing singer Peter Gabriel launched his solo career in 1977, and, albeit slowly, began to appeal to more than just his academic prog-head following (the boys at school that I loathed). Thanks to some seriously catchy, off-the-wall singles, he caught my ear. His albums were an acquired taste, however, but they were definitely innovative and worthy of repeated listens until you got into them. Always looking to push boundaries and use different styles of music, Gabriel proved himself far more than merely a pretentious prog pedaller. He was also one of the first artists to dabble more than just a little in the sounds and rhythms of "world music".
PETER GABRIEL 1 ("CAR") (1977)
Moribund The Burgomeister/Solsbury Hill/Modern Love/Excuse Me/Humdrum/Slowburn/Waiting For The Big One/Down The Dolce Vita/Here Comes The Flood
This was Peter Gabriel’s first post-Genesis solo album and began his reinvention from pretentious, indulgent proggy to innovative, experimental and eventually far more commercial world music/post punk-influenced enthusiast. The album saw him delving into all sorts of styles in an effort to show just how “non-niche” he was. He does seem to be trying to be all things to all people, though, a bit, but it resulted in a most diverse offering. I find it still a bit of an acquired taste and certainly, in 1977, although I had a bit of time for Solsbury Hill, I had no time, really, for stuff like this. There was an overblown pretention to it at odds with the punk/minimalist/new wave ethic of the age. To be honest, despite my far more rounded approach these days, I still feel somewhat the same about this album. Many I am sure, will disagree.
Moribund The Burgomeister has some interesting moments in its mysterious, Eno-influenced verses but its big, synthy chorus has, like the song’s title, too many prog rock aspects for me. Gabriel was trying to break away from that Genesis thing, but old habits were dying hard. (A couple more listens, however, and it grows on me). The grandiose acoustic/orchestral strains of Solsbury Hill gave Gabriel a hit single, deservedly, and, while it again retains a bit of progginess about it, it also has some really infectious parts, both instrumentally and vocally. This brought Gabriel’s unique brand of intelligent but hooky pop to the public’s attention. It is so redolent of 1977 too, when things like War Of The Worlds and Yes’s Wondrous Stories were just as popular as any punk or new wave songs.
Modern Love has lots of catchy, chunky guitar riffs, a Who-like structure and vocal, although it is a tiny bit blighted by too many synth runs. It is a good vibrant track, however. Gabriel was almost trying to be a bit punky on this one and I quite like it. Excuse Me, though, is a pretty dreadful piece of Queen/Paul McCartney-style oompah-driven whimsy. It has a few hints of Leo Sayer’s early material too. Personally, it just not my thing. Humdrum is a beguiling, unusual song that needs a few listens to appreciate its many changes and moods. Slowburn also feels like a Who number, with another Daltrey-esque vocal.
I do like some of the bassy, jazzy parts of Waiting For The Big One, but the track once again suffers from a directionless feel derived from a desire to be over-creative. Its good parts, and there certainly are some, are over-run by indulgence. It has a great guitar solo near the end, mind. Surprisingly, next up is a Trampled Under Foot-style slice of thumping, clavinet-driven but heavily-orchestrated disco funk on Down The Dolce Vita. It is, apart from Solsbury Hill, the album’s best track, but the impressive funk is drowned out at times by an overbearing prog string orchestration. The track changes in tempo too many times, just stick to the funk, Peter. Here Comes The Flood, again, despite some good points, is a bit of a cacophonous mess, in my opinion. Look, all this stuff just sounds too King Crimson/Pink Floyd for my liking. It just doesn’t float my boat.
I also have a problem with the sound of the latest remaster and indeed the album in general. It is way too clashing and bombastic for my taste, too orchestral and not enough bass. (Apparently it has always been bad, even hard core Gabriel fans admit that). This is something Gabriel would address on later recordings as he became more influenced by the bassier rhythms of soul, funk and world music. This album carries too many proggy cobwebs with it, as far as I am concerned. I went to a boys’ Grammar School in the seventies and many of the boys there lapped this sort of thing up. It is a Grammar School album, listened to by those who would meet up (snd still do) to sit together in a dark room listening intently to every note of Dark Side Of The Moon. Each to their own. I will admit, though, that after a few listens it is more appealing each time so maybe that is its strength, if I am looking to end on a positive.
PETER GABRIEL 2 ("SCRATCH") (1978)
On The Air/D.I.Y./Mother Of Violence/A Wonderful Day In A One-Day World/White Shadow/Indigo/Animal Magic/Exposure/Flotsam And Jetsam/Persepective/Home Sweet Home
Thankfully, on this, Peter Gabriel's second solo album, the prog rock vestiges that hung around on his debut offering from the previous year had been blown away by a cold, distant post punk-ish late seventies wind. This is a beguiling, but commercially inaccessible album that demands several listens. It is Gabriel's Fear Of Music, his "Heroes"or his Unknown Pleasures. All those albums came from the same sparse, industrial period for music. It is no surprise that a contributor to "Heroes", Robert Fripp, is heavily involved on here too. The E St. Band's pianist Roy Bittan, who had worked on David Bowie's Station To Station was another link to the monochrome music of the period. Strangely, that album and this were both completely different to the work Bittan did with Bruce Springsteen.
Personally, I much prefer its dark moods to the proggy indulgence of the previous album and I feel it is a bit of an overlooked gem of its time. It is a deceptively good album. None of its tracks will make any "best ofs", though, which is a shame. The picture on the rear cover perfectly fits the album, I have to say, however. It is also sonically by far the superior to its predecessor.
On The Air, after a ten-second "fade in", is a rocking punk meets The Who opener, with Gabriel adopting a higher-pitched vocal than usual, almost Johnny Rotten-esque in its sneering tone. The drums are very Keith Moon in style. It is hard as Gabriel has rocked in his solo career thus far. There are also some heavy metal-fashion keyboard swirls in there too. A right old mix.
D.I.Y. again features an operatic, grandiose Roger Daltrey delivery and the song is another upbeat, solid one. Its bass line is a nice, warm one. Mother Of Violence is a plaintive, piano-backed slow number with Roy Bittan on fine, expressive form, in a different style from that he regularly used with The E. St Band. A Wonderful Day In A One-Day World flirts with a cod-reggae slow skanking style that sort of brings to mind Joe Jackson, not directly, but just something about it. It also has echoes of some of Elton John's material from the period. White Shadow is an atmospheric, beguiling slow burner that is familiar-sounding but at the same time virtually impossible to categorise. Robert Fripp adds some typically fuzzy guitar.
Indigo is a bleak, mournful number, while Animal Magic is a chunky, riff very late seventies rocker that sort of stands as a leitmotif for the whole album. The mysterious tones of Exposure are very Talking Heads/post punk in their broodiness. It is an excellent, most beautifully miserable track. Perfect for late 1978. It could almost be Public Image Ltd or Joy Division. Flotsam And Jetsam is very John Lennon, mid-seventies in its jerky feel. It is a short, but quirkily appealing number.
Perspective is a New York Dolls, piano-powered rocker enhanced by some lively, wailing saxophone and some solid punky riffs. Home Sweet Home is a moribund closer worthy of Lou Reed's Berlin in its subject matter. It is a dispiriting end to a solemn, often bleak album that has been accused of being cold many times. Maybe that is not a bad thing. Cold was de rigeur by 1979.
PETER GABRIEL 3 ("MELT") (1980)
Intruder/No Self Control/Start/I Don’t Remember/Family Snapshot/And Through The Wire/Games Without Frontiers/Not One Of Us/Lead A Normal Life/Biko
After the proggy indulgence of his first solo album and the slightly funky, cold but powerful follow up, this, Peter Gabriel’s third solo album, was the one that saw him really achieve widespread acclaim and credibility as an artist. Many who bought this album did so never having bought his stuff before. For many critics, it is his finest album - a fascinating mixture of pop and paranoia. As with all his albums, they need several listens to be fully appreciated. I remember my student girlfriend at the time had this album and she only ever played side two. Fair enough, but the old side one hid a few less instant secrets.
No Self Control used a world music-inspired marimba/thumb piano type backing. There was a very West African/Brazilian Bahia feel to the instrumentation that was enhanced by some fuzzy post punk guitar and crashing contemporary drums. Gabriel’s beguiling, intriguing lyrics helped to create a highly unusual, intoxicating and interesting track. Kate Bush appears on wailing backing vocals by the way. Simple Minds did a lot of stuff like this in the same period. It is very much of the 1980 avant-garde. There are also bits of this that bring to mind Sting.
Start is a brief slice of ambient bass. Keyboards and saxophone instrumental. It leads into the once more Simple Minds-ish, upbeat thump of I Don’t Remember, a track with a fine, muscular drum beat, chunky guitar riffs and a catchy chorus refrain. Check out that great rubbery bass line too. It is one of Gabriel’s best songs of the time. There is more than a hint of Talking Heads’ David Byrne in Gabriel’s vocal. Robert Fripp supplies some typically excellent guitar, too. Family Snapshot has some more echoes of Sting in its initial vocals. It begins plaintively but bursts out half way through into a huge, riff and saxophone-driven beaty rocker.
And Through the Wire is a slow burning, vaguely David Bowie on Lodger type of rocker. It features Paul Weller on guitar. The young Weller was recording in the same studio with The Jam at the time and was asked to contribute. Surprisingly (at the time) he agreed. Quite what he made of this quirky song is not known, but it is nothing like The Jam. It has a lot of changes of ambience, but at times it rocks pretty hard with some rousing chorus parts. It is a song that grows on you.
The completely infectious Games Without Frontiers was probably the reason for lots of people buying this album. It was a huge hit single and always seemed to be a the radio at the time. It seemed to partner the new romantic thing at the time. For me, it is just so reminiscent of the whole scene in 1980. The Japan-style rhythm, the odd, perplexing but singalong lyrics, the meaningful chorus, the programmed percussion.
Put it alongside Ultravox’s Vienna and Duran Duran’s Girls On Film and you have a pretty good 1980-81 sonic snapshot. The new romantic sound is continued on the pounding Not One Of Us, which was very typical early eighties rock. There is something of The Who about it too, as was often the case with Gabriel. It is a good track. Great drum work near the end from Jerry Marotta. Apparently Gabriel had asked for a drum sound without cymbals throughout the album, thus you get the pounding, resonant sound you hear on this track, Intruder, And Through The Wire and I Don’t Remember.
Lead A Normal Life is a plaintive, Bowie-esque number with more far-Eastern style backing and fuzzy guitar merged with some “Heroes”-style synthesiser. It reminds me a bit of Bowie’s Moss Garden.
The album ends with its magnificent tour de force - Gabriel’s first overtly political song, his moving, evocative tribute to murdered (in police custody) South African freedom fighter Steve Biko. However inventive and interesting the rest of the album had been, this simply blew it away. Up in my girlfriend’s student room, I played this one track endlessly back in 1980. “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire…once the flame begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher..”. A true anti-Apartheid anthem. “The eyes of the world are watching now….”. Thankfully they really were.
The unique Biko sits on its own, away from the rest of the album, which was a fine, quirkily ground-breaking one overall. Don’t do as I did in 1980 and only listen to Biko, give the whole lot a listen.
PETER GABRIEL 4 (SECURITY) (1982)
The Rhythm Of The Heat/San Jacinto/I Have The Touch/The Family And The Fishing Net/Shock The Monkey/Lay Your Hands On Me/Wallflower/Kiss Of Life
This album, from 1982, was the one on which Peter Gabriel utilised more "world music" sounds and influences than he had thus far. It makes for an interesting, innovative and imaginative album that always challenges the listener. In many ways, it was way ahead of its time. Its eight tracks are all lengthy and varied, offering many experiences, often within the same song. In many ways this is a bit of a genius of an album - serious and exacting.
The Rhythm Of The Heat is a beguiling, slowly rhythmic number involving African drum sounds and lyrics derived from the philosophy of the same culture. San Jacinto is a mysterious, haunting and hugely atmospheric number that lyrically explores Native America philosophy. I Have The Touch ups the tempo with a drum-powered number enhanced by some buzzy guitar interjections and a staccato vocal. The "shake my hands" vocal chant is very Talking Heads. Speaking of which, The Family And The Fishing Net has a bassy, sombre introduction that reminds me of The Overload from Remain In Light. Overall, the track is an eerie, evocative one, full of creativity and atmosphere. Now, a lot of the time I listen to soul, blues rock or reggae, genres whose style is more straightforward, so it is a nice change to experience some inventive quirkiness. The bass/vocal interplay around the four minute mark is captivating.
Shock The Monkey is an upbeat, catchy number that revisits the energy of I Have The Touch. Check out those stabbing guitar/keyboard breaks and the intoxicating South American rhythms. The final three tracks are all quirky and relatively obscure i.e. not catchy in a vaguely commercial way like a couple of the previous ones (Shock The Monkey and I Have The Touch). Lay Your Hands On Me is a perplexing semi-spoken and once again very Talking Heads-ish ambient number. It ends with some seriously pounding drums. Wallflower is a gloriously enigmatic number with mystifying lyrics about doctors. Kiss Of Life is an energetic track full of great drums and percussion and synthesiser breaks that even a non-synth man like myself can appreciate.
This was a really impressive, unusual piece of work that deserves several listens.
Red Rain/Sledgehammer/Don't Give Up/That Voice Again/Mercy Street/Big Time/We Told What We're Told (Milgram's 37)/This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)/In Your Eyes
In 1986, four years after his last album, Peter Gabriel released this, his most successful and commercially-appealing offering. His videos were all over MTV and mainstream consumers now bought his singles and this album. For many long-term fans, this was where he "sold out" but that is a bit unfair on Gabriel, because, as far as I am concerned, this still bore a lot of the quirky, adventurous sounds of his previous work, it just had a couple of huge hits on there too. For me, it had nowhere near the "world music" influences that many critics have claimed it had, they were all on the previous album. Here, I feel, the influences came from Talking Heads, Berlin-era David Bowie, Sting and contemporary dance music.
Red Rain is a rhythmic, chunky, vaguely funky and very Sting-like number that carries a lot of power and appeal to it. Many of Gabriel's songs sounded as if they were ecologically-based, although his lyrics were often cryptic. That is the case here. Red rain - it must mean something about nuclear weapons, or power disasters and Gabriel was a sensitive, concerned guy, you get the idea. Either way, it is a good track even if its meaning is not immediately obvious. A bit like with The Clash - it must mean something worthy, right?
Sledgehammer was his big hit single, a funked-up, catchy singalong number complete with bizarre video featuring dancing headless chickens amongst other things. In the age of MTV this was exactly what people wanted. Personally, I didn't give a tinker's cuss about videos. It was always the music for me. Musically, it was a great track too, full of Motown and soul influences, so it duly became a big hit. It also reminds me of Phil Collins and there were some world music guitar breaks in there and some Talking Heads-style backing vocals, so it was a veritable cornucopia. Next up was another track that made it big - the moving, Sting-like duet with Kate Bush, Don't Give Up, whose chorus is exceptionally moving in its plaintive way. It was curiously "hands in the air", crowd-pleasingly anthemic for Gabriel, though but it has a great bass line at the end too. Everyone knew Peter Gabriel after these two songs came out. He was briefly mainstream, with his old Genesis mate Phil Collins.
The easy vibe of That Voice Again is once again hugely reminiscent of Sting. Mercy Street has a sumptuous deep, warm bass underpinning another slow, atmospheric song that sounds just like Sting. sorry for referencing him so much, the similarities are so strong for me. The dance-ish upbeat groove of Big Time was also a hit single, and provided another bright, lively interlude and attracted accusations of commercialism.
A solemn ambience returned on the mysterious We Told What We're Told (Milgram's 37), which was based around some experiments about blind obedience to authority conducted by American University professor Stanley Milgram in 1961. It is made up of synthesiser sounds and a few vocals repeating the title and is all quite like David Bowie Low instrumentals, in some ways. This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds) is very influenced by Talking Heads' David Byrne, musically, lyrically and in the vocal delivery. There are also a few quiet hints of Bowie in the vocals too. In Your Eyes is a gently rhythmic but sad, distant slow burner featuring some West African backing vocals that also has a few eighties traits in its slightly programmed-style backing.
This was still an album that challenged its listeners in true Gabriel style, hit singles or not.