Saturday, 10 August 2013

Peter Gabriel

Recently I acted on a whim and bought myself Peter Gabriel's first three solo albums on CD.  In his enigmatic style each of them is simply titled Peter Gabriel so they have, by default, taken on various names: either simply "1, 2 and 3" or, for those in the know, names drawn from the pictures on their covers - "Car" for the first, "Scratch" for the second and "Melt" for the third.

I first heard Gabriel via Brisbane student radio 4ZZZ when I was at high school in the late 1970s.  One evening they played the entire The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the last album Genesis made with Gabriel as singer.  I was hooked at first listen.  I loved the passionate, energetic music, the constant experimentation with sounds and voices and the bizarre fractured fairy tale that ran through the album.  It's still one of my favourites 35 years later.

My love of this album put me in a distinct minority that didn't necessarily include all the members of the band.  Perhaps they didn't feel it was their finest work but there was also a certain amount of resentment involved.  Gabriel effectively hijacked the songwriting process by insisting on writing all the lyrics himself.   Such a takeover was tantamount to sacrilege in a band that saw itself first and foremost as a songwriting collective. 

Nor did they grow to love the album any more through performing it in its entirety over 200 times on the subsequent tour.  By the time it was over everyone was relieved that Gabriel was departing.  The parting was reasonably amicable but they all knew Gabriel needed to go his own way.

The question was, what exactly was Gabriel's own way?  There was little to be gained if he just replicated Genesis' sound, and the introspective, distant emotional tone of much of their music would hardly do for a solo artist.  He had his magnificent, athletic voice but what else did he have?

The first album, released early in 1977, could be described as a "promising beginning".  It sounds like a series of experiments in what sort of artist Gabriel wanted to become.  Moribund the Burgermeister, which opens the album, sounds just like Genesis.  Perhaps he put this song at the beginning to reassure nervous fans.  They needed it, because he quickly departed from the script.

There are some clear missteps.  Excuse Me and Waiting for the Big One are attempts at a kind of jazz fusion that would have been better left in the studio archive.  His essays in stadium rock - Modern Love, Slowburn and Down the Dolce Vita - are better but nothing to write home about. 

In the midst of this mediocrity are three gems.  Humdrum and Here Comes the Flood would sit comfortably on Gabriel's later albums, beautiful atmospheric tracks that showcase his soulful voice and storytelling skill.  Then there is Solsbury Hill.  Musically it's a genuine diamond, a jaunty pop tune unlike anything he has written before or since.  The lyrics are, literally, a revelation as Gabriel climbs Solsbury Hill and receives a message from a visiting eagle.

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut...

When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom....

It was partly a celebration of the freedom he felt on leaving Genesis, but it also seems to promise something more, a germ of creativity hiding within, the "real" Gabriel waiting for the right moment to be revealed. 

The second album, released in mid 1978, left listeners still waiting for that moment.  Unhappy with the production on Peter Gabriel 1, Gabriel ditched Bob Ezrin and decided to work instead with guitarist Robert Fripp.  Fripp's work with King Crimson and a vast array of other artists showed a rare creative edge, a willingness to experiment which Gabriel needed at that point. 

In a sense it worked for him.  The album is more even, it has a coherent sound, there is a strong touch of Frippery about the guitar and keyboard production.  Yet while it avoided the obvious lows of the first album, there were also fewer high points.  The songs are just not particularly good and even Gabriel's voice is often muted, as if he was struggling to commit to the material.

Sometime in 1979 something changed.  It's as if Gabriel went back up Solsbury Hill and spoke to the eagle again.  This time he came down with his mind clear, knowing exactly what kind of music he wanted to make.  With a third producer, Steve Lillywhite, on board he took the leap into space which is the hallmark of real genius.

Genesis drummer Phil Collins guested on the first two tracks and was apparently unimpressed to find Gabriel had removed the cymbals from the drum kit.  Was he also planning to remove the black keys from the piano?  Yet later he, Gabriel, Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham would all claim credit for the resulting sound and Collins used it on many of his own recordings.  You can hear it from the first bars of the album, the simple, driving pattern which opens The Intruder.  Freed from the mess of clashing cymbals the rhythms are reduced to their uncluttered basics. 

It isn't only the drums that benefit from the makeover.  Each instrument is given its own clear space, instead of being buried in Phil Spector's wall of sound that even Fripp was unable to break through.  Sometimes it's creaky keyboard effects, at other times a simple guitar line, or else a marimba dancing above the mix or a wailing saxophone.  There's not that many instruments - as many as are needed, and no more. 

All this would be wasted if the songs were no good, but Gabriel had descended Solsbury Hill with a clear mind and seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say.  The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a concept album in the old sense, a set of songs woven around a single story, something that if you wanted to you could make into a film or a stage musical.  Peter Gabriel 3 is the other kind, like Dark Side of the Moon, a set of songs united by a common theme. 

Gabriel's theme is alienation and it comes in many forms.  Sometimes it is deeply personal, like the frightening amnesia of I Don't Remember, the manic compulsiveness of No Self-Control or the exhausted fragility of Lead a Normal Life.  Sometimes it is quite ordinary, like the travelling musician's pain at conducting romance over the telephone in And Through the Wire.  Sometimes it leads to cruelty, like the sinister thrill of Intruder or the callousness of Not One Of Us - a song that goes through my head every time I read coverage of my country's treatment of asylum seekers - or the spectacular assassination of Family Snapshot.  In the two most famous songs from the album it is political, the caustic satire of Games Without Frontiers in which our wars are recast as children's playground games, or Biko, the haunting lament for South African activist Steve Biko who was murdered in custody in 1977.

Writing and singing such songs requires amazing emotional courage.  Although it was another decade before Gabriel tried his hand at genuine confessional songwriting on Us - with mixed results - he inhabits each of the characters in these songs, screams and sobs their pain or their anxiety, cries out with them for recognition, for someone to break down the walls that separate them from the rest of humanity.  He even brings himself to inhabit their cruelty, conveying the chilling illicit enjoyment of the Intruder:

I like to feel the suspense
when I'm certain you know I am there.
I like you lying awake
Your bated breath charging the air
I like the touch and the smell
Of all the pretty dresses you wear
Intruder's happy in the dark
Intruder come, Intruder come and he leave his mark.

The courage to dredge this feeling up from the pit of his soul and lay it out for us to see is what sets this album apart from Genesis, and from his own earlier efforts.  There is nowhere to hide in these songs, no vague elliptical storytelling, no symbolism, no clever conceit.  It fires straight from the heart.  To perform these songs well it has to hurt.

Yet although the subject matter is dark, it is not without hope.  Steve Biko's death was not pointless.

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
When the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher.

And so it proved.  Biko never saw the end of apartheid, but Mandela did. 

Perhaps there is hope for the others too.  The poor, exhausted soul of Lead a Normal Life will surely one day be able to do so.  The amnesiac of I Don't Remember may one day recover his memory.  The long-distance lovers of And Through the Wire at least retain their connection, troubled though it is.  Perhaps even the callous and cruel will learn to overcome their fear.

There's safety in numbers
When you learn to divide
How can we be in
when there is no outside?

Gabriel reaches behind the callousness to the fear that feeds it.  In the process he encourages us to step out of the prisons we have created for ourselves and to see the "other" as a person - both the stranger, and the cruel insider - so that we can share a common humanity.  As it did for Gabriel, so it will take great courage for us.  Are we willing to risk it?

1 comment:

Jack Feerick said...

Very sharp analysis of the themes of the third album—especially the way alienation is rooted in anxiety. And while I agree with you that the second album suffered from weak material, it did provide an aphorism that works as a skeleton key for the subsequent work: "Fear is the mother of violence."