Happy Birthday, Mr. Gabriel: Spotlight on PETER GABRIEL

peterBy Ryan Smith

If I were to write you out a list of most important artists in the history of modern music, Peter Gabriel would without a doubt be near the top of that list. If I were to make a more personal list titled ‘idols’ or ‘influences,’ Mr. Gabriel would certainly occupy the high ranks on that one as well. Not only was he the lead singer of my favourite group of all time from 1967 to 1975, he has also set down a powerful and dynamic catalogue on his own that has pushed out the boundaries of traditional instrumentation, has redefined multimedia art, and on top of it all, absolutely refuses to age. On the occasion of Peter Gabriel’s 65th birthday, I have taken it upon myself to provide you with somewhat of a timeline of his recording career with links and brief commentary. Happy birthday, sir, may your work continue for some time.

1967 – “She Is Beautiful” Demo Sessions (w/ Genesis)

A very young Genesis (unnamed at the time) made up of Peter Gabriel, Ant Phillips, Mike Rutherford, Chris Stewart, and Tony Banks recorded their first demos in 1967 and managed to get them to local hero Jonathan King, who is blown away by the amount of soul in the young Gabriel’s voice. “She Is Beautiful” is a jazzy number and finds a band unsure of itself… but there is still that unmistakable ring of Genesis to it. The quality of Gabriel’s voice is absolutely incredible even in these early recordings.

1968 – “Image Blown Out” Demo Sessions (w/ Genesis)

The next batch of demos were recorded after King named the band Genesis, thinking that they would represent the beginning of his production career. “Image Blown Out” has that distinct English folksy sound that would become a staple of the band’s early career. While there is still very little of the bombast and impossibly fantastic Genesis style in the tune, one can clearly hear that the band become more comfortable with their direction on this one. The combination of quintessential English imagery and dark lyrical undertones presented here lay the groundwork for the band’s post-King output.

1969 – “In the Wilderness” From Genesis To Revelation (w/ Genesis)

The band then ousted Stewart (at King’s request) and recorded their first full-length record, From Genesis To Revelation, and released it in 1969. Heavily influenced by Jonathan King’s production, the album has a distinct sixties pop sound to it and is bled out by very loud string arrangements added by King post-recording (much to the band’s chagrin). Even still, there are some real gems on the record. Namely “In the Wilderness,” which is a fine precursor to the band’s next album. The strings actually work here and Gabriel’s voice is simply astounding. New drummer John Silver’s skills shine through and class up the pop arrangement and driving it along quite nicely.

1970 – “Stagnation” Trespass (w/ Genesis)

Breaking free of that shackles of Jonathan King’s pop-oriented production style, Genesis were free to record what they wanted to in the new-found freedom the early seventies offered to its artists. The album Trespass was released and is, believe it or not, my favourite effort from the band. Partly because it is proto-prog and doesn’t yet fit into a mold of what the band or the genre was supposed to be, but mostly because almost all of the songs are flat-out brilliant. The album contains the fan standout “The Knife” (which is hard as f*ck for a band like Genesis), along with other sweet and memorable songs like “Looking for Someone” and Ant’s holdover from From Genesis, “Visions of Angels.” Above all, though, it contains the superb beauty of a song called “Stagnation.” This tune features the band making precious use of unorthodox arrangement… the song unfolds over a few different movements and builds into an incredible vocal performance from Gabriel.

1971 – “The Musical Box” Nursery Cryme (w/ Genesis)

Replacing the recently departed Ant Phillips and ousted John Mayhew with Steve Hackett and Phil Collins respectively, the band recorded and released their third album, Nursery Cryme. Not only is the song “The Musical Box” the first time we hear Hackett’s thrillingly subtle form of guitar solo, its lead vocal is what I would consider to be one of Gabriel’s very best and most dynamic. You can even hear Phil adding his own magic in the background vocal.

1972 – “Watcher of the Skies” Foxtrot (w/ Genesis)

With a growing international cult following, Genesis released Foxtrot, which is notable for many things, not the least of which is its side-length epic “Supper’s Ready,” which many people consider to be the magnum opus of the Gabriel-era band. Making use of one of the three Mellotrons supposedly used to record King Crimson’s seminal album In the Court of the Crimson King, the album opener, “Watcher of the Skies,” is a riveting supernatural wonder possessing a grace and philosophy beyond the band members’ years.

1973 – “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” Selling England by the Pound (w/ Genesis)

Perhaps the biggest record in the Gabriel-era band’s discography, Selling England by the Pound gave the band a quasi-hit with “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” and another multi-movement epic with the gripping “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.” The latter is a bloody astounding 8 minute rollercoaster ride filled with ups, downs, elegance, and, within a Genesis context, brute force.

1974 – “In the Cage” The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (w/ Genesis)

In their final outing with Peter Gabriel, Genesis completely did away with the English folk imagery that had become their trademark and begrudgingly allowed the singer to write all of the lyrics. After constructing a dark and psychedelic story based around a Puerto Rican street kid in 1970’s New York City, and adding semi-autobiographical elements as a way of dealing with the traumatic birth of his first daughter, the double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was born. While I love the album beginning to end, many others did not feel the same… especially at the time. “In the Cage” remains one of the more powerful examples of awesome on the record. It even remained in the live show when Phil Collins took over lead vocal duties.

1977 – “Solsbury Hill” Peter Gabriel 1

After leaving Genesis to ‘farm cabbage and make babies,’ Peter Gabriel returned to music in 1977 with his first solo album. Probably the most diverse album the man ever released, almost every song on Peter Gabriel is in a different style. While the darker themes explored in The Lamb definitely continue on this record, there are some powerfully uplifting moments as well. The album’s brilliant closer, “Here Comes the Flood,” although damned by Gabriel as being over-produced, is absolutely perfect in my opinion. “Solsbury Hill” stands out because not only is it about the artist’s leaving Genesis behind, but it also contains the first bits of world music that would later become an integral part of the man’s career. It’s a timeless song that can never be overplayed.

1978 – “White Shadow” Peter Gabriel 2

A criminally underplayed follow-up was released in 1978. Produced by King Crimson’s visionary benevolent tyrant Robert Fripp, the second solo album suffered because it took the colour and diversity of an album like Peter Gabriel and bled it out with a monochromatic and acidic edge. The gems on the record are the more lucid tunes like the soft “Mother of Violence” and the pleasingly strange “White Shadow.” The groovy, ominous, and brilliant instrumentation of this track is incredible.

1979 – “Here Comes the Flood” Exposure (w/ Robert Fripp)

Dissatisfied with the original version of “Here Comes the Flood,” Gabriel contributed vocals and piano to a stripped down reworking of the tune for Robert Fripp’s first solo album, Exposure. While I still prefer the original, Fripp is my absolute favourite guitarist and another of my heroes, and it’s lovely hearing his Frippertronics all over this version. The tune is especially powerful when introduced by the previous track, “Water Music I.”

1980 – “I Don’t Remember” Peter Gabriel 3

Proceeding brilliantly beyond his Fripp experience, Gabriel put a decidedly new wave spin on his third self-titled record. Combining the dynamic nature of his first record with the dark head creeps of his second, the third finally presents the world with the Peter Gabriel that brings art to the mainstream and challenges the archaic, played out nature of pop music. The album makes extensive use of electronics and not a single cymbal is played in its entire duration. Dark wonders like “Games Without Frontiers” became instant classics, while “Biko” brought a South African tragedy and that continent’s music to otherwise oblivious western audiences. “Family Snapshot” features a wonderfully passionate delivery, making it my favourite on the record, but I feel it more important to share the deranged bit of new wave awesome that is “I Don’t Remember” because it showcases Gabriel’s brilliant creative foresight.

1982 – “Shock the Monkey” Peter Gabriel 4

While I don’t consider the fourth self-titled record to be as particularly great as many seem to think it is, parts of it do continue on from the third, exploring different sides of the new wave boom and how it could be applied to other types of music. Of these, “Shock the Monkey” is most definitely the most prominent example. Much of the rest of the album is slower and more dramatic. While the artists uses this palette to very brilliant effect, I don’t find it particularly as interesting as those sections of his catalogue that beat mainstream at its own game. Of the slower tracks, “San Jacinto” stands out as a sad but powerful and somehow triumphant story of loss and perseverance. “The Rhythm of the Heat” is also fantastically moving, incorporating a rousing percussion section.

1984 – “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” Mister Heartbreak (w/ Laurie Anderson)

This collaboration between Gabriel and insanely talented sound artist Laurie Anderson was first released on Laurie’s 1984 album Mister Heartbreak but was eventually tagged onto the end of Gabriel’s 1986 album So. Vinyl editions of the latter record did not include the track, however. The tune is very interesting, but is most notable as a collaboration between two brilliant experimentalists in their prime in the strange, contradiction-heavy musical landscape of the 1980s.

1986 – “Sledgehammer” So

While I’d much rather share tunes that some of you might not have heard, I feel it very important to share “Sledgehammer” at this point. Released in 1986, Peter Gabriel’s fifth album So redefined the artist’s career, skyrocketing him up the charts and into ‘household name’ status. Who the hell doesn’t remember greats like “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”? Or how about “In Your Eyes” from Cusak’s boombox? “Sledgehammer” was by far the biggest thing on the record and its video, created with a painstaking stop motion process, is probably the greatest that’s ever been made. While So was well-known for its over-the-top greats, it also included some beautiful sombre moments in songs like “Red Rain” and my favourite, “Mercy Street.” The powerful ballad “Don’t Give Up,” performed as a duet with Kate Bush, is also a very stirring piece.

1990 – “Shaking the Tree” Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats (w/ Youssou N’dour)

Included on his 1990 greatest hits album, “Shaking the Tree” is a beautiful collaboration between Peter Gabriel and the great Youssou N’dour. Continuing the artist’s wonderfully fruitful adventures in world music, “Shaking the Tree” makes astonishingly effective use of vibrant African music and the tremendous soul in N’dour’s voice.

1992 – “Love To Be Loved” Us

From here, Gabriel continued to incorporate world music elements into his music, but also began to explore a wider emotional palette. Released after a divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Us explores complications in human relations and communications. For the So fans, there are over-the-top numbers like “Steam,” and the wondrously hard-hitting “Digging in the Dirt,” but the focus is definitely on breathtaking, stunningly human numbers like “Come Talk To Me” and “Blood of Eden.” Perhaps the most human of these is “Love To Be Loved,” which paints the subject as flawed, naked, alone, and reaching. It’s the standout to me.

1993 – “Lovetown” Philadelphia Soundtrack

Acting as a very small and often overlooked bridge to his controversial 2002 album Up, “Lovetown” carries the flawed and alone feeling that I observed above in “Love To Be Loved” and applies it to a darker, seedier groove that only amplifies the breakdown in human relations. There are vibes here that carry over into Gabriel’s 2002 tune “Sky Blue.”

1998 – “I Grieve” City of Angels Soundtrack

Probably the most stunning song ever written about the passing of a loved one and dealing with the suffocating grief that follows, “I Grieve” appeared on the soundtrack to the film City of Angels but was definitely missing something. Gabriel later put together a far more triumphant version and included it on his 2002 album Up. Because I don’t think the song should ever be listened to in any other form but the 2002 version, it’s that version that I choose to share at this point.

1999 – “The Carpet Crawlers 1999” Turn It On Again: The Hits (w/ Genesis)

In 1999, the five members of what is generally considered to be the classic line-up of Genesis (Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins, and Tony Banks) reunited to record an updated version of “The Carpet Crawlers” from their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. This fantastic rendition is extremely awesome as it features both Peter and Phil on lead vocals, but it does eliminate the final verse of the song and it was the last studio recording Genesis ever made. To my dismay there are edits of the song that for some reason cut out Phil’s lead part (the video version for one)… these should be avoided…

2000 – “The Tower That Ate People” OVO

With the superb OVO, the soundtrack to London’s Millenium Dome Show, Gabriel crafted one damn fine world music album. Featuring a good thick blend of all kinds of world music such as African, Asian, Australian, and Celtic, and lead vocals covered mostly by guest musicians (including the late, great Richie Havens), it also boasted a couple of tunes that Gabriel provided lead vocals for, something that none of his other soundtracks had done. These songs are the touching ballad “Father, Son” and the savage industrial monster “The Tower That Ate People.” The latter signalled Gabriel’s triumphant return to more electronic realms. It remains one of my favourite of his tracks.

2002 – “Growing Up” Up

In 2002, ten years after his last proper full-length album, Peter Gabriel unleashed Up. A dark beast of an album, Up deals primarily with death and dying. Some of the tracks are stunningly dark and sleek odyssies (see “Darkness,” “Growing Up,” and “Signal To Noise”), while others are pretty and powerful all at the same time (“Sky Blue,” “More Than This”). Others, like “No Way Out” and “I Grieve” are some of the most moving tunes I’ve ever heard. As begun with “The Tower That Ate People,” the electronic element is quite prominent on this record, while the world music is but a murmur.

2003 – “Burn You Up, Burn You Down” Hit

Released on his sweet two disc greatest hits album, Hit, in 2003, “Burn You Up, Burn You Down” is a really great return to form for Gabriel, in that it is but it is not at the same time. The tune sounds like it would be right at home on 1992’s Us, so it’s great for fans of the more conventional Peter Gabriel. The soul element in the chorus is utterly satisfying, harking back to Gabriel’s early influences. However, the Up sound is still present in light electronic elements, certain vocal effects and techniques, and plaintive lyrics, so fans of the ever-changing Gabriel shouldn’t see it as a disappointing retread.

2008 – “Down To Earth” WALL-E Soundtrack

Written and recorded for the excellent Pixar film WALL-E (the damn thing is one of my favourite movies ever), “Down To Earth” is a neat little song with an innocent, more adventurous tone to it. Soft electric piano and acoustic guitars make the song quite different from his other work, but the strong beat and powerful bass keep it quite within his realm. The chorus has a soaring quality that’s really great.

2010 – “The Book of Love” Scratch My Back

Not your average covers album, Scratch My Back was conceived as a two-part album. The first part would feature Peter Gabriel covering songs by artists that he admires, and the second, And I’ll Scratch Yours would feature those same artists in turn covering songs of his. Peter’s effort was released in 2010 and was very, very different. Doing away with everything that he’d established over his decades long career, Gabriel decided to use only orchestra, piano, and vocals to perform the songs. There are some really lovely songs that border on transcendental (nudge, nudge), like his covers of Bowie’s “Heroes,” Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble,” and the Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love,” (with background vocals by his second daughter, Melanie) but there are a couple that just don’t work. Hazards of experimentation.

2011 – “Darkness” New Blood

The next year, Gabriel followed Scratch My Back up with New Blood, an album in which he covered songs from throughout his own catalogue using the same system he used in the previous album, just orchestra, piano, vocals. While there are some truly awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements on the album, it’s just not the revolutionary Peter Gabriel that I know and love. Still, standouts include a more intimate version of the OVO song “Downside Up,” performed as a duet with Melanie, and “Darkness” from Up. The latter includes a return to the voices Gabriel used to do in songs like “Harold the Barrel,” “Supper’s Ready,” “The Colony of Slippermen,” and “Moribund the Burgermeister,” as well as a bold orchestral arrangement that I’ll admit is rather exciting compared to a lot of the others.

And that’s pretty much it for now! In recent years, Peter has embarked on two great Back to Front tours in which he played a low-key set, his acclaimed 1986 album So in its entirety, and an extra set of hits. I can only hope a wonderful new album is on the way. I’ll leave you with his rendition of “In Your Eyes” from the Back to Front tour. Happy birthday, Peter Gabriel!

RYAN SMITH spends a great deal of his time under troll bridges shaking his fist and hollering obscenities at the mainstream, but occasionally finds himself on the side of a pop act that the underground has disowned. A schizoid fan for the 21st century? Although he has a diverse musical taste that runs the gamut from black metal to country to most forms of jazz, Ryan’s first love will always be progressive music.