AS FRONTMAN OF PROGRESSIVE ROCKERS GENESIS – BETWEEN 1967 AND 1975 – PETER GABRIEL DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A SOPHISTICATED SHOWMAN.
Supporting the band’s intricate songs with a wide variety of flamboyant stage costumes – multimedia props which allowed him to slip into character – Gabriel was a sexually-charged old man for the nightmarish MUSICAL BOX in 1971, the fox in a red dress from the cover of FOXTROT in 1972, English figurehead Britannia for SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND in 1973, and the leather-jacket street-smart pre-punk Rael for psychedelic sci-fi story THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY, his final album with Genesis, released in late 1974. With the group on the verge of wider success, Gabriel quit. Drummer Phil Collins took centre stage, and Genesis surprised perhaps even themselves by eventually developing into a much more bankable affair than might have been expected for a band which had often been perceived as little more than arcane whimsy.
Highly creative Gabriel had expressed his frustration in a characteristically witty resignation letter published in the music press, and declared that he was leaving Genesis to concentrate on his “other literary and experimental interests outside of music”.
In the four decades since THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY, Gabriel has become a high-profile political activist; originator of the multi-cultural WOMAD festival; produced what could be termed ‘ambient’ soundtracks for the films BIRDY, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and RABBIT PROOF FENCE; extensively toured high-concept visual shows; and worked on thirteen solo albums. Each has a distinct character: from 1977’s relatively traditional sounding debut (which included surprise hit single SOLSBURY HILL); through 1980’s sonic turning point MELT (featuring GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS and BIKO); the enormous commercial successes of SO in 1986 (with a groundbreaking animated video for SLEDGEHAMMER and a duet with Kate Bush, DON’T GIVE UP) and US in 1992 (STEAM, BLOOD OF EDEN); to OVO (his soundtrack for an elaborately staged turn-of-the-century show at the Millennium Dome); and 2002’s densely layered UP (which led to Gabriel cycling around a circular stage, bouncing in a Zorb ball, and walking upside down suspended from the ceiling during concerts).
Daryl Easlea’s recently published book WITHOUT FRONTIERS: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF PETER GABRIEL sets out to “try and find the real Peter Gabriel, through his work and in conversation with a great many of his associates and friends”. In this neat Q&A with The Mouth Magazine, Easlea discusses almost forty years of Gabriel’s career, from his final release with Genesis through to his recent orchestral-focused project NEW BLOOD…
THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY IS AN AMBITIOUS RECORD, SURPRISINGLY TOUGH AND DIRECT – RECOGNISABLY GENESIS, BUT WITHOUT A LOT OF THE VERY QUAINT ENGLISH ASSOCIATIONS…
I think THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY stands beautiful and discrete within the Genesis catalogue. It really doesn’t sound like anything else they did, before or after. Even though it contained some previously written material – ANYWAY was 1969’s FRUSTRATION, for example – the density of Peter Gabriel’s lyrics, the opaqueness of the story and the brashness of the music make it sweetly and strangely singular.
IT’S STRANGE TO THINK WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, AS THE BAND COULD HAVE GONE EITHER OF TWO WAYS AT THIS POINT – MIKE RUTHERFORD SUGGESTED AN ALBUM BASED ON ANTOINE DE SAINT EXUPERY’S THE LITTLE PRINCE…
I think if the band had gone down THE LITTLE PRINCE route they would have been viewed more as a curio than the much-loved outfit they remain in certain circles.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS THE SHOWS ON THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY TOUR WERE COMPLEX AND GROUNDBREAKING. IT’S AMAZING THAT FOR A RECORD AS SUCCESSFUL, THERE IS VERY LITTLE SUPPORTING MATERIAL CONNECTED TO IT. THESE DAYS THERE WOULD ALMOST CERTAINLY BE A CONCERT DVD, A LIVE ALBUM… IT FEELS LIKE ONE OF THE ‘LOST’ MOMENTS OF ROCK…
Yes, it does in many ways. The album itself has been lovingly repackaged several times, but also you have to think the speed with which they created so much material meant that there wasn’t a huge amount of time for out-takes etc. But THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY should be up there with albums like QUADROPHENIA or TOMMY, which I see very much as its equals as opposed to TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS and the like.
YOUR BOOK DETAILS THAT THE BAND WAS STRAINED BY INTERNAL POLITICS IN 1974 – AND BY PETER GABRIEL’S RESPONSIBILITIES AND HIS RESTLESSNESS. HE’D REALLY GROWN AS AN INTELLECTUAL, AS AN ARTIST…
You can sort of sense even now the incredulity that his departure created, just as ‘his’ band were making it. There was no enormous schism (he toured with them for six months after telling them he was leaving); there was no affair with another band member’s wife; he was not out of it on drink or drugs. He’d just had enough and knew that if he wanted to get on, it had to be outside of the group. And that was unusual.
THE RESIGNATION LETTER HE WROTE FEELS LIKE A DRAFT FOR SOLSBURY HILL…
Yes, the letter is very funny and very detailed, and demonstrates Gabriel’s inventiveness, turn of phrase and talent. It certainly acts as a precursor for SOLBURY HILL.
HOW BIG AN IMPACT DID SOLSBURY HILL BECOMING A HIT SINGLE HAVE?
I think SOLSBURY HILL is one of several ‘gift’ songs that have come along for Gabriel as a solo performer. Others are of course SLEDGEHAMMER and DON’T GIVE UP… It was fortunate for him, because if some of the more conventional rock of the debut album – like MODERN LOVE – had hit first, his initial career may have been a little more… erm… humdrum…
THE FIRST TWO PETER GABRIEL ALBUMS STAND APART FROM ALL OTHER RELEASES IN HIS SOLO OUTPUT. THEY HAVE A MORE STRAIGHTFORWARD ROCK BAND SOUND, DESPITE THE STUDIO FLOURISHES. WAS GABRIEL ‘FINDING HIMSELF’ AFTER GENESIS?
The first two albums were indeed Gabriel finding himself – and both have much going for them. I think even with the second album’s strangeness, they’re both American-sounding records, which abruptly stopped happening with his third. The second album contains some of Gabriel’s most overlooked songs. I think HOME SWEET HOME and WHITE SHADOW are among his best work.
THE FIRST FEW ALBUM SLEEVES, DESIGNED BY HIPGNOSIS, WERE INVENTIVE AND DISTINCTIVE, AND CAST PETER IN AN ENTIRELY NEW LIGHT…
I think the brutal modernism of those Hipgnosis sleeves suggested to Gabriel’s audience that there was little in common with what had gone before.
THE THIRD ALBUM – OFTEN REFERRED TO AS MELT – SEEMS TO BE THE POINT AT WHICH GABRIEL ‘PROPER’ ARRIVED AS A ‘MODERN ARTIST’.
His third album is, for me, where Gabriel’s previous decade as a recording artist comes into focus. Recording it in his late twenties, he’d absorbed all of the influences around him and created something that was genuinely groundbreaking…
IT’S EXPERIMENTAL BUT ALSO COMMERCIAL – SO AN ARTISTIC LANDMARK.
Of course Gabriel’s peers Brian Eno and David Bowie had been experimenting with minimalism for years, but the way Gabriel managed to synthesise the talents of old wave and new wave together on this album is still exhilarating. It’s a frequently strange and challenging listen that hasn’t forgotten to pack the tunes. Instrumental experimentation, subject matter and lyrical themes are all to the fore. And, in the song BIKO (also released as a single), he created a piece of music that played a small yet significant part in changing people’s attitudes towards apartheid.
BEFORE THE FOURTH ALBUM CAME THE DISASTROUS FIRST WOMAD FESTIVAL, IN 1982, WHICH PETER HAD SET UP. THE PERSONAL FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS WERE ENORMOUS FOR HIM. GENESIS REFORMED FOR A ONE-OFF SHOW – TITLED SIX OF THE BEST – TO WIPE OUT ALL OF THE DEBT. AGAIN, THOUGH, QUITE BIZARRE THAT THERE IS NO OFFICIAL RECORD OF THE PERFORMANCE…
Yes, it is. A momentous event, and one held dear in many a fan’s heart despite the prolonged rain. Again Gabriel showed his unpredictability and flair by turning up onstage in a coffin – which, like the appearance in the fox’s head and red dress ten years to the month previously, he hadn’t announced to the other group members as he knew they would have vetoed it.
THE FOURTH ALBUM – OFTEN REFERRED TO AS SECURITY – WAS INCREDIBLY DENSE AND LAYERED. IT’S PROBABLY A MUCH MORE ‘DIFFICULT’ LISTEN THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN GABRIEL’S SOLO CANON…
SECURITY is an album to admire rather than love. It reveals its charms gradually, and when you listen to it again, it is almost half of MELT and half of SO. It is transitional and painstaking, often to the point that the songs become more like examinations rather than joyously loose grooves (which is something that, say, NOT ONE OF US from the previous and SLEDGEHAMMER from the following album had). For an artist so obsessed with rhythm that seems strange.
WATCHING CONTEMPORARY TV PERFORMANCES OF THE SINGLE SHOCK THE MONKEY, PETER WAS CLEARLY STILL USING THE IDEA OF GETTING INTO A CHARACTER THROUGH VISUALS TO REINFORCE THE MEANING IN, OR MOOD OF, HIS SONGS. INTERESTINGLY, AS YOU POINT OUT IN THE BOOK, THERE’S A BACKSTAGE PHOTO OF HIM WITH BOWIE TAKEN AT THIS TIME. HE’S IN FULL MAKE-UP – SOMETHING BOWIE HAD LONG SINCE LEFT BEHIND…
I think that time has been rather kinder to Gabriel’s work in this era than David Bowie’s.
THE BIG HIT ALBUM, SO – AGAIN, STRONG VISUALS… THE PAINSTAKINGLY PRODUCED AARDMAN ANIMATION PROMO VIDEO FOR SLEDGEHAMMER PROVES THAT GABRIEL CAN BE A CUTTING EDGE MULTIMEDIA ARTIST. THAT SINGLE AND ITS VIDEO OPENED A WIDER AUDIENCE UP TO HIM. WAS HE DELIBERATELY AIMING FOR A HIT?
SLEDGEHAMMER was one of those lovely afterthoughts that goes on to write the story. His use of video was the culmination of him wearing the flower on his head, the slide show for THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY, and of propelling himself into the crowd at his concerts.
THE HIGHPOINTS OF SO – MERCY STREET, IN YOUR EYES AND RED RAIN – ARE INTENSE AND MASTERFUL, AMONGST GABRIEL’S FINEST SONGS. BUT WHAT EFFECT DID THE SUCCESS OF SO HAVE ON HIM AS A MAN AND AS AN ARTIST?
SO is indeed an intense and masterful record and is, in essence, almost entirely the same record as its predecessor – but with much better hits. Gabriel took his moment as a superstar with great grace. He thoroughly embraced the liberation it offered him, by ploughing money back into his Real World studio complex and record label.
THE ‘DNA’ DISC IN THE RECENT SO BOX SET IS A REAL CLUE AS TO HIS PROCESS. IT’S INTERESTING THAT GABRIEL ‘PAINTS’ OR ‘SCULPTS’ HIS RECORDS OVER A LONG PERIOD OF TIME. BEARING IN MIND THAT HIS WORK IS MADE IN THIS WAY, IT’S ALWAYS INTERESTING TO HEAR HOW IT SOUNDS LIVE WHEN DELIVERED BY A ‘CONVENTIONAL’ ROCK BAND SET-UP.
Yes, there are very few of his songs that have not been played live. Although a songwriter is what Gabriel sees himself as first and foremost, he never forgets his role as one of pop’s premier song-and-dance men.
AFTER THE COMMERCIAL SUCCESS OF SO, AN ARTTISTIC HIGHPOINT IN COME TALK TO ME, BLOOD OF EDEN AND SECRET WORLD (FROM THE FOLLOW-UP ALBUM US).
US was exactly the album Peter Gabriel should have made at that point – and the first and only time when the widest audience was awaiting his next move. He’d neatly sidestepped the SO follow-up by releasing PASSION, his music from Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. It’s still one of his personal favourites and, in a way, the sound of this new freedom for him. US was the first album he’d made solely to be released on CD. As a result, as I say in the book, with almost every track clocking in at over five minutes, it was as if Gabriel was so locked in his groove he didn’t wish to be disturbed from his ruminations.
HE WAS WRITING IN A MUCH MORE OPENLY PERSONAL AND EMOTIONAL WAY.
The intensely personal lyrical content, delivered after years in therapy, present a uniquely bald yet seldom self-pitying work. SECRET WORLD is probably my personal favourite of his solo work.
THE SUBSEQUENT TOUR CONCEPT WAS DEVISED BY ROBERT LEPAGE WITH GABRIEL. THE FILM OF THE MILAN SHOW (SECRET WORLD LIVE) CAPTURES THE IDEA THAT ‘HIGH CONCEPT’ CAN ACTUALLY ALSO MEAN ‘A LOT OF FUN’…
Live, he knew he could make a spectacle of himself.
POPULAR PERCEPTION HAS IT THAT THERE THEN FOLLOWED AN ABSENCE OF A DECADE, WHICH IS NOT QUITE THE CASE. THERE WAS THE MILLENIUM DOME SHOW AND ALBUM – OVO – WHICH CONTAINED PETER’S RAWEST WORK YET: FATHER, SON. RALPH GABRIEL HAD BEEN AN ENTREPRENEUR, AN INVENTOR… HIS RENAISSANCE SPIRIT MUST HAVE BEEN AN ENORMOUS INFLUENCE?
Yes, I think if you want to hear one of Gabriel’s most sincere works listen to FATHER, SON. He respected and loved his father very much.
UP LED TO ANOTHER HIGH-CONCEPT WORLD TOUR, AGAIN STAGED WITH ROBERT LEPAGE. AMAZINGLY, FOR AN ARTIST WHO’D BEEN WORKING FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS, IT WAS A TRUE HIGH POINT. HAD THE TECHNOLOGY FINALLY CAUGHT UP WITH HIS AMBITIONS?
I think you’re right. All the things that were incredibly complex and detailed to achieve back during Peter Gabriel’s early tours could all now be done much more simply – if not always cost-effectively. Whether it was wheeling around on his Segway or running upside down, Gabriel always knows the value of a good ol’ slice of entertainment.
THE NEW BLOOD ERA SEEMED ALMOST PERVERSLY THE OPPOSITE OF ANYTHING EXPECTED OF GABRIEL – A ‘SWAP’ PROJECT IN WHICH HE COVERED SONGS WITH JUST VOICE AND ORCHESTRA AND, FROM THAT, AN ALBUM OF ORCHESTRAL VERSIONS OF HIS OWN SONGS. IT WAS INITIALLY UNCOMFORTABLE TO HEAR THESE RECORDS AS THEY’RE VERY ‘NAKED’. WHAT WERE HIS INTENTIONS?
To showcase the beauty, the bare bones of the song. Gabriel started NEW BLOOD at the point 40 years after he began as a songwriter – and the song is always the thing with him, be it his own or someone else’s. It’s interesting; it’s a challenging listen, but one that actually makes sense some time after first hearing. That fact is emphasised by his version of Lou Reed’s THE POWER OF THE HEART, which is incredibly poignant.
WHAT DO YOU THINK GABRIEL MIGHT DO NEXT?
I’d love him to do a quick and dirty soul album. But that’s hardly going to happen, is it?
FINALLY, WHERE DO YOU THINK PETER GABRIEL RANKS IN TERMS OF ‘THE GREATS’ ..?
Time will tell. I think, on one hand, he is very underrated. His work with stage performance in the 70s is often dismissed by the cognoscenti as some sort of prog tosh, but I genuinely believe he was up there with Bowie for a period. I think his singularity of vision and pioneering spirit will be increasingly appreciated over the years.
THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF PETER GABRIEL
by Daryl Easlea
Published by Omnibus Press
Hardback / £19.95 / ISBN 9781780383156