The album in question – SO, a career-defining set (containing that, no bones about it, career-changing single and video) – has this week been reissued as a trim three-disc set, and as a tidily luxurious eight-disc box-up.
The latter offers an opportunity to not only reassess the original album through a state-of-the-art remastering, but a rare chance to peek behind the curtain at Peter Gabriel’s writing and recording processes in reaching the end result, and to hear what his band did with the material when they trotted it out for a year on the road.
LIVE IN ATHENS 1987, presented on DVD and CD, is a re-graded and re-edited version of the performance first issued on quaint old video cassette back in the day as POV. Here, with moments of mostly extraneous 1980s video noodling removed, and presented as a straight-forward concert (or as straight-forward as Gabriel was ever likely to get), the show works well. Minor discomforts aside (some of the keyboard sounds are ruinously 1987 – GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS and SLEDGEHAMMER, in particular, suffer), the overall spectacle is the thing. Gabriel turns in a generally captivating set which now reads like a stepping stone to the astonishingly high-concept stagings of 1994’s SECRET WORLD and 2002’s GROWING UP tours. The highlight, despite Gabriel’s clever employment of technology to reinforce an impression, shift a mood or stoke the emotions – something he mastered on those subsequent outings – is altogether more flesh-and-blood. Seeing and hearing Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour (“… the King of Dakar himself ..!”) on stage together for a celebratory IN YOUR EYES is an unrestrained joy.
A recent edition of the always entertaining CLASSIC ALBUMS series is presented on DVD. It’s a brisk-paced hour’s viewing, covering most of the behind-the-scenes elements of SO’s production in toe-dippingly enlightening terms, and placing the album neatly in context through interviews with key personnel such as producer Daniel Lanois. However, unlike some of the other DVD releases in the documentary series, it lacks any supporting material additional to the TV broadcast version, so it ends up feeling like the opportunity to see something utterly definitive has remained just out of reach.
Another quibble on the issue of this boxed set’s thoroughness comes over the lack of b-sides and remixes from the album’s various single formats. The absence of these crucial parts of the SO picture, some of them previously unreleased on CD – the SLEDGEHAMMER and BIG TIME 12″ versions, vaguely ambient b-side CURTAINS, and the IN YOUR EYES (SPECIAL MIX), which is a longer, looser and superior take to the album cut (and which Gabriel himself has gone on record as saying should have been) – leaves something of a hole in the whole.
One is left to wonder why space could not be found for these when the Athens show is published in duplicate across several discs, both video and audio.
DNA, a stand-alone album compiling multi-stage demo versions of all of the songs from SO, is perhaps the box’s unique selling point. It may more-or-less strip away any mystique surrounding Gabriel’s eventual arrival at such dense finished recordings rather than merely nod towards how-the-trick-is-done (as in the CLASSIC ALBUMS programme) but, for all of its revelation, it is a satisying listen in-and-of itself and most of the magic remains secreted behind the smoke and the mirrors. Rather than offer complete takes from different eras of a song’s genesis, the disc cuts together various stages to present a singular track for each. So we hear a ‘complete’ version of, say, DON’T GIVE UP, beginning with Gabriel’s tentative home-recorded electric keyboard and gibberish vocal beginnings, cutting to a drum-machine backed rough studio demo with slightly more developed lyrics, and finally something approaching the complete mix. SLEDGEHAMMER is, perhaps, the most fun in this format. Gabriel’s nonsense vocalising, as he attempts to find a melody, encouraging words to shape themselves out of sounds during the constant redefinitions of the song, provides a couple of comedy gold yelps – and there’s even a whistling solo – but illustrates perfectly that on Gabriel’s earth songs arrive at their own pace like flowering plants, in spite of the propagating abilities and high-end qualities of the technology he uses.
DNA is a highly effective way of experiencing organically growing demos that, had they been presented in full, might otherwise have lead to only a single curious listen.
It’s interesting to theorise that Gabriel’s entire approach to making music is actually that the finished (mixes and) releases only exist because he has a record company who lay down deadlines. Each publically final version of a song is merely another draft in a lifelong process for him, a moment when he has to take a reading of where things are at so that the guys in the pressing plant have something to do. One can readily imagine him holed up at Real World still redrafting, say, THAT VOICE AGAIN, the weakest moment on SO by some distance, to this day.
Elsewhere in the box, a piece of 12″ vinyl contains a couple of previously unreleased outtakes – one a dense slab of funk, the other signposting later excursions into Africana – plus a sympathetically stripped down mix of DON’T GIVE UP, which sends shivers down the spine as layers of backing vocals and gospel-style piano are brought right to the fore.
But what of the actual album itself? For this most commercial – but still rather odd – Gabriel release alone (though with the arguable exception of his debut) context is absolutely crucial.
It’s easy to forget, in 2012, that back in the early 1980s Gabriel was, relatively speaking, something of a fringe artist despite the merits of his work. The occasional (seemingly accidental) hit single – SOLSBURY HILL, GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS, SHOCK THE MONKEY – had done little to break him out into the mainstream. Breaking out into the mainstream was not necessarily something he might have been comfortable with, either.
Despite an open-minded and embracing personal worldview, Gabriel’s four previous albums (each titled PETER GABRIEL, like sequential editions of a magazine), plus the soundtrack to cult film BIRDY, seem to have come together within a bit of a professional bunker mentality. Each revelling in its own curious oddness, its own claustrophobia, a wider public was unlikely to catch on to most of what was steadily leaking out of his studio in the south of England.
Determinedly not “playing the game”, the roots of Gabriel’s single-minded and somewhat cloistered approach can be excavated from his resignation letter to Genesis, and from the lyrics of his debut single, 1977’s SOLSBURY HILL. Ultimately, the message was explicit and simple: “I was feeling part of the machinery”. Having not only resigned from the band that made his reputation as an eccentric and electrically intellectual curio, but having rejected the constraints of music business commodity obligation, Gabriel exiled himself to a simple rural village just outside Bath and steadily tooled up those five complicated albums.
Each sold reasonably well off the back of those accidental hits, or to loyalists and the curious, but none was a huge career-shifting success and none was issued from a position of Gabriel being anything approaching a major commercial force in music.
SO changed everything. But SLEDGEHAMMER changed everything first.
Peter Gabriel - SoA brash and twisted homage to Gabriel’s teenage record collection, it playfully spurts sexual metaphor and innuendo over a highly charged and dancefloor-insistent soul rhythm.
He would later come to refine this particular tongue-in-cheek template on STEAM (from 1993’s US), arguably the better song, but the primary-colours of SLEDGEHAMMER were the first time in Gabriel’s career that he was as overtly sexual and overtly funny.
On this new version of SO, every chop, flick and cut of the monstrous bass bounce / funk spring (Tony Levin and David Rhodes at their locked-in best) is clearly audible and the fresh impetus this brings almost justifies the price of admission by itself. With no new overdubs and with nothing remixed (anywhere on the album), this state-of-the-art studio reinvigoration is a lesson in how to remaster – buff up, basically – a song that has become dulled through over-familiarity as it approaches middle age. Here, the Viagra spruce-up has the song sounding almost as exciting as it did on first listen in 1986.
SLEDGEHAMMER, sarcastic success-hymn BIG TIME and DON’T GIVE UP aside – and despite the compelling and sinister blankness of WE DO WHAT WE’RE TOLD (MILGRAM’S 37), concerning the 1961 turned-tables psychological torture endurance experiments of Yale professor Stanley Milgram – SO is actually about only three key songs.
RED RAIN is the first of them. Seldom has Gabriel crashed in with such an apocalyptic opening. The skittering hi-hats, the bruised toms and thrashed snare, the cascading piano, the tumbling bass… This is urgent stuff, high tension indeed, a brutal and dynamic way to start the engine, only to then drive the album crashing through the wall seconds later. When the song reaches its end, only Gabriel’s plaintively straining vocals and piano are left in the mix. It’s hugely effective as a counterpoint to the intense drama of the last few minutes. It’s also quite moving.
MERCY STREET, a mood piece of considerable – but beautiful – melancholy, is virtually ambient in all but its setting over a lilting rhythm, which anchors it and allows it to safely float free above. Naming the song after a collection written by American poet Anne Sexton, Gabriel explores her recurring depression by expressing that disconnection as a space between thought and deed – where buildings, cars and “drawers that slide smooth” are each just an unfulfilled idea in somebody’s head. It’s dreamlike and, at the song’s conclusion, when Anne is “with her father, out on a boat, riding the water, riding the waves on the sea”, it’s blurrily vague and curiously devastating.
The third key song is IN YOUR EYES, rumoured to have been written for the actress Rosanna Arquette, with whom Gabriel had become heavily involved. It initially seems a relatively straight-forward love song, though rather clever, musically, and with Gabriel’s usual interesting turns-of-phrase. But the imagery builds with progressive intensity, using spiritual and religious metaphor until we find ourselves at “the doorway to a thousand churches”. It’s an amazingly uplifting piece, only bettered by the SPECIAL MIX mentioned earlier, on which Youssou N’Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali-Kahn are given longer and freer hand to lift the rapture over-and-above itself. The message is clear so the lyrical sound their native Wolof singing makes is absolutely unnecessary to translate into English. It’s sheer joy – love, in fact – as the pair crash that doorway open and find “the resolution to all the fruitless searches.”
SO changed the course of Peter Gabriel’s life – personally, artistically, financially. This fairly thorough set is an immersive – though incomplete and therefore imperfect – way to examine the album’s legacy. And, much as the unbridled success of the original release paid for the odd dip back into his more usual esoteric ways (Gabriel would never sound so commercial again), the fact that this not inexpensive box has been released at all leaves one wondering what it is that he actually has waiting up his sleeve.