Peter Gabriel Comes To TIDAL: Brush up on a Legend
Had Peter Gabriel quit music altogether after deciding to depart Genesis in 1975, he still would’ve been known as a creative visionary. However, after leaving the legendary prog rock band at the height of its popularity, the Surrey, England, native instead chose to embark on a solo career that eschewed expectations and embraced experimentation.
Beginning with 1977′s self-titled album and extending through his most recent release, 2014′s And I’ll Scratch Yours, Gabriel has specifically sought out collaborators who challenged him to expand his worldview. This deep curiosity informs his musical endeavors: he founded Real World Records and Real World Studios to serve as a home for world musicians, and launched the WOMAD festivals as a live showcase for these artists. Gabriel’s generosity extends well beyond this sphere, however — a noted political and environmental activist, he’s also championed and amplified marginalized voices and campaigned for human rights.
Gabriel has remained in the pop culture eye thanks to savvy film and TV placement — in recent times, his cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” appeared on the Stranger Things soundtrack — and major honors, such as his 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.
With most of Gabriel’s formidable catalogue arriving on TIDAL, here’s an overview of his long and winding career.
The Early, Post-Genesis Years
Gabriel’s first four solo records were self-titled, although each album came to be distinguished by prominent elements of their LP art. His 1977 debut — known colloquially as Car, as he’s pictured on the cover staring pensively through a rain-streaked windshield — is the sound of a man who’s been physically and emotionally reborn, and who is fumbling to find his place in this new world.
Unsurprisingly, Car‘s sound also serves as a link between his grandiose Genesis days and a more uncharted future. “Moribund the Burgermeister,” for example, resembles a slightly psychedelic cartoon soundtrack, between its brassy chorus, monster-like vocal growls and loopy keyboard effects. On a more accessible tip, the organ-burnished rock & roll holler “Modern Love” — Gabriel’s interpretation of a brawny Springsteen anthem — features a protagonist befuddled by romance, while the buoyant U.K. hit “Solsbury Hill” recalls Gabriel’s spiritually infused decision to step out on his own and depart Genesis.
With Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin behind the boards, Car certainly has no shortage of theatrical flourishes, notably the a cappella barbershop quartet harmonies kicking off the tuba-driven vaudeville strut “Excuse Me.” But the stunning “Here Comes the Flood” is Gabriel’s first flash of solo greatness. It’s a smoldering power ballad augmented by sunburned electric guitars, funereal keyboards and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Car is also notable for being Gabriel’s first collaboration with bassist Tony Levin — who remains a close live and studio collaborator to this day — and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Both men would shape Gabriel’s musical output in the short- and long-term. In fact, the latter actually produced Gabriel’s 1978 self-titled album, which is nicknamed Scratch because the cover features him defacing his visage with claw-like slashes.
Appropriately, this album often lashes out at external forces. For example, the poignant “Mother of Violence” presciently identifies the poisonous nature of fear, while “A Wonderful Day in a One-Way World” is pointed commentary aimed at cynical society. These tentative steps toward a more global lyrical outlook presage Gabriel’s future albums, even as bruising expressions of frustration and isolation elsewhere on the album are more solipsistic.
With Fripp behind the boards, Scratch‘s sound is brasher and more indebted to modern approaches and ideas. There’s fierce independence at the heart of the exquisite glam ballad “D.I.Y.” and Gabriel’s life-affirming sneer on the rocker “On the Air,” while the sax-scored Bowie homage “Perspective” shakes and shimmies with a soul-blues groove.
Perhaps even more important, Gabriel feels more comfortable taking risks with his sound and persona. The funky, keyboard-heavy “Exposure” benefits from the use of the studio technique Frippertronics, while “Home Sweet Home” even has slightly twangy tendrils curling up from its lush pop foundation. Scratch wasn’t quite as popular as Melt and produced no charting singles — these days it’s safe to call it an underrated bridge record that helped point Gabriel to where he wanted to be.
Gabriel’s 1980 self-titled full-length (a.k.a. Melt, because his face is half-collapsing on the cover, much like melted wax) provided several significant career milestones. The LP was his first U.K. #1 album, and it spawned his first Top 5 solo hit, the ghostly, synth-rock spinning top “Games Without Frontiers.”
On Melt, Gabriel worked with producer Steve Lillywhite, who was rapidly becoming known for his ability to tease out accessible edges from offbeat acts such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Psychedelic Furs. Lillywhite humored Gabriel’s insistence that no cymbals appear on the album and didn’t diminish the artist’s offbeat worldview — which, on Melt, consisted of character sketches of unsavory, out-of-control characters. The industrial post-punk throb “Intruder,” which is written from the perspective of a home invader, contains creepy effects that sound like creaking floorboards, while the dread-filled “No Self Control” is greyscale post-punk with ominous saxophone.
Despite this morose perspective, Melt wasn’t myopic. “Games Without Frontiers” is an anti-war song, and the album also features one of Gabriel’s most realized songs to date, the powerful protest song “Biko.” Lyrically, the song uses the 1977 death of South African activist Steve Biko as a jumping-off point to condemn apartheid. Gabriel’s former Genesis bandmate, Phil Collins, plays a repeated pattern on a Brazilian Surdo drum — a somber heartbeat that anchors the song as other solemn sounds (e.g., synthesized bagpipes, scorching guitars) underscore musical gravity.
In hindsight, consider Car, Scratch and Melt to comprise Gabriel’s version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy — a zeitgeist-shifting trio of albums that relished experimentation and established the former Genesis member as an artistic force.
The Video-Driven Mainstream Years
Even during his days with Genesis, Gabriel realized that artists needed a striking visual look to accompany their music. As a solo act, he eagerly embraced music videos, and even produced clips for pre-MTV singles “Solsbury Hill,” “Modern Love” and “Games Without Frontiers.”
With 1982′s self-titled album (known as Security), Gabriel leveraged the nascent power of MTV with a dramatic video for “Shock the Monkey” that featured quick-cut camera tricks and actual chimps. The resulting exposure helped propel the tune to #1 on the U.S. mainstream rock charts, and landed Gabriel his first Top 40 hit on the pop and club singles charts.
In hindsight, it’s easy to hear why “Shock the Monkey” resonated. Because Security was a fully digital recording, the song fit in easily with other contemporary songs. Plus, “Shock the Monkey” represents a streamlined take on Gabriel’s rhythm-heavy synth-rock, as a Doppler-like keyboard line and stomping drums dart through the song with great precision.
Yet more than any Gabriel solo record to date, Security highlighted the productive tension between commercial considerations and boundary-stretching. Although the blocky synth-funk tune “I Have the Touch” made sense as a single, other moments almost defiantly emphasized chiseled sound experiments rather than taut arrangements. Security leveraged the capabilities of the Fairlight CMI, a cutting-edge digital instrument that allowed him to sample and manipulate sound, notably on “Rhythm of the Heat,” which emphasizes forceful African drumming and a stormy keyboard backdrop.
Lyrically, Security also addresses personal dualities — the tussle between analytical practicalities and emotional vulnerabilities — even as it explores more abstract topics: reveling in the primal power of music, rhythm and human connection, while maintaining reverence for history, spirituality and the earth itself. Gabriel was increasingly becoming more interested in the world around him, as well as the malleable nature of his own art.
In short, Gabriel’s artistic ambitions were rapidly expanding, and he placed an emphasis on absorbing and exchanging global perspectives. For example, in 1980 he released Ein Deutsches, a German-language version of Melt. In 1982, however, Gabriel released a German-language version of Security called Deutsches Album. Instead of a straightforward translation, this version was carefully curated for a German audience, with different song arrangements and musical flourishes.
The musician’s ambition and execution coalesced perfectly on 1986′s So. With production from Daniel Lanois, who added his usual otherworldly, atmospheric sonic dust to the proceedings, the album remains Gabriel’s commercial and critical high point — a sleek collection of contemporary keyboard-pop refracted through a blend of soul, funk, rock and world music.
Gabriel didn’t achieve this greatness alone, however. So benefitted greatly from a bevy of secondary voices. African music legend Youssou N’Dour, Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr and the Call’s Michael Been contribute to the background harmonic tapestry of “In Your Eyes,” while the gossamer Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up” is a beacon of solace to anyone staring down darkness. And the porous synth-funk found on the Laurie Anderson collaboration “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” embodies Gabriel’s fondness for deconstruction.
The flashy music video for the horn-driven “Sledgehammer” used a variety of elaborate filming techniques and approaches, including stop-motion animation and claymation, and racked up nine MTV Video Music Awards. “Big Time” — a biting assessment of crass ’80s capitalism set to a marbled funk backdrop — used similar elements for effect. Yet the visuals put forth in Gabriel’s lyrics this time around are just as striking; on the cascading “Red Rain,” glassy piano and rumbling rhythms bolster vivid imagery that hints at cleansing catharsis and, as on earlier albums, rebirth.
Gabriel wrapped up this era of his career with a comprehensive hits album, 1990′s Shaking the Tree: 16 Golden Greats, that featured a high-level overview of his catalogue — albeit with edits, remixes and re-dos of certain songs, a process that (in hindsight) is a harbinger of releases to come.
Following up So would be an impossible task, but Gabriel made a valiant effort with 1992′s Daniel Lanois co-produced Us. Although this album didn’t reach the sales or chart heights of its predecessor, that’s no reflection on its songwriting or execution. Lyrics use ornate imagery to hint artfully at discord and division, as Gabriel finds concord by weaving together world music, glacial electronic drone and searing rock & roll flourishes. Highlights include the slow-blooming fan-favorites “Blood of Eden” and “Secret World,” both of which are gentle fusions of yearning electronic programming and percolating rhythms, and the bagpipe-augmented plea “Come Talk to Me.”
As with So, Gabriel also pushed the visual envelope on Us. The music video for the sinewy, angry “Digging in the Dirt” won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video, thanks to its combination of live-action and stop-motion garden scenes, while the clip for the kaleidoscopic “Kiss that Frog” appropriately boasts colorful computer animation.
As Gabriel evolved as a solo artist, his live presentation continued to be vital to telling a comprehensive story. That’s most evident on 1994′s Secret World Live, an emotional chronicle of his 1993 tour. Gabriel has never been precious about his work, and that’s led to some amazing moments of reinvention — such as Secret World Live‘s comforting, empathetic version of “Don’t Give Up,” a duet with his then-backup vocalist Paula Cole.
By the time Gabriel released 2002′s Up — which has ended up being his last straightforward studio album — he was disinterested in exploring any previous pop vistas (or, really, any pop vistas at all). Save for the peppy lead single “The Barry Williams Show,” Up is a sprawling, abstract collection dabbling in ambient electronic sounds, harsh industrial glitching and delicate orchestral arrangements. Although one of the lesser-known corners of his catalogue, Up is vastly underrated, and best experienced through headphones — especially the anguished “No Way Out,” a song begging someone having a medical emergency to stay alive.
Big Soundtrack Moments
Gabriel’s music has been responsible for an abundance of indelible cinematic moments.
Most famously, in the movie Say Anything, John Cusack’s character, Lloyd Dobler, holds up a stereo boombox and blasts “In Your Eyes” as a way to try to win back his beloved Diane, played by Ione Skye. This iconic scene is regularly held up as an unparalleled romantic gesture, and was most recently spoofed in 2018′s Deadpool 2.
Although “Solsbury Hill” never charted higher than # 68 in the U.S., it’s taken on new life as a staple song for movie trailers (including Finding Dory) and the soundtrack to pivotal TV moments, as in the finale of Halt and Catch Fire. The aspirational sentiments of “Solsbury Hill” — “My heart going boom, boom, boom / ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘grab your things, I’ve come to take you home’” — coupled with its uplifting flute and galloping acoustic guitars, make it ideal to convey the excitement of a new beginning.
In addition to his studio albums, Gabriel has dabbled in composition work, starting with 1985′s Birdy, the score accompanying the 1984 film of the same name. His first collaboration with Daniel Lanois, Birdy amalgamates snippets from past work and new material, leading to a collision of textures and moods. In more recent times, he created a mesmerizing score for 2002′s Long Walk Home: Music from the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Gabriel had far more mainstream success with 1989′s Passion, which sprang out of the music he created for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Considered a standalone album and not a soundtrack, Passion highlights Gabriel’s deft use of moody electronic programming and illustrates his growing interest in world music. In fact, he collaborated with musicians and instruments from a variety of countries (including Pakistan, Turkey, India, Egypt, Morocco and Ghana) to shape Passion‘s haunting, hypnotic passages. In a nod to the quality of the work, the record nabbed the 1990 Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.
Sizing Up His Legacy
During the last decade, Gabriel has taken time out to grapple with his catalogue, both on the road — a 2016 collaborative tour with Sting featured revamped versions of hits — and on record. For example, a 25th anniversary deluxe edition of So came packaged with a 1987 live concert and remastered album audio that amplifies the nuance and crispness of the music.
Released in 2011, New Blood is another fine example of putting a fresh coat of paint on familiar sounds. The album features Gabriel singing over symphonic re-workings of hits (“In Your Eyes,” “Mercy Street,” “Solsbury Hill”) and select catalogue songs (“The Rhythm of the Heat,” “San Jacinto”) alike. A special edition of New Blood features instrumental versions of the album, as well as a gorgeous orchestral remake of “Blood of Eden” that brings new dimensions to the already-moving song.
In true Gabriel fashion, his other legacy-examining project was large-scale and meticulous: a pair of albums focused on interpreting existing songs. The project kicked off with 2010′s covers album Scratch My Back, and concluded with 2014′s And I’ll Scratch Yours, which finds many of the artists Gabriel covered putting their own unique spin on his work.
Gabriel sets the tone of his albums immediately with Scratch My Back‘s opening track, a string-sliced take on David Bowie’s “Heroes.” His voice at first sounds weary and defeated, as if achieving the greatness promised in the song is now out of reach, before gradually regaining strength and vitality. It’s hard not to view the song as a metaphor for how Gabriel himself was rejuvenated by the project.
Elsewhere on Scratch My Back, his cover of Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is faithful to the original’s reflective tone, but tingles with lively orchestral arrangements, as if it’s the soundtrack to a dramatic movie, while his re-do of Bon Iver’s “Flume” replaces acoustic framework with mournful piano and majestic brass swells.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon returns the favor on And I’ll Scratch Yours with an open-hearted version of “Come Talk to Me.” The rest of the album is uncanny in the way it touches on Gabriel’s many facets, including and especially his playful, serious and experimental sides.
Cheerful keyboard squelches and electro grooves drive David Byrne’s “I Don’t Remember” while, in contrast, Joseph Arthur’s drum-free approach to “Shock the Monkey” amplifies the song’s ache, courtesy of droning guitars spackled with distortion. And Arcade Fire tackling “Games Without Frontiers” is truly inspired, as the band’s funhouse-mirror synth-rock approach to the new wave curio is delightfully askew.
The two albums were eventually packaged together as Scratch My Back / And I’ll Scratch Yours. Taken as a whole, the records show Gabriel’s enormous impact on not just modern indie rock, but also on his peers.
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