A beginners’ guide to Peter Gabriel

From progressive rock pioneer, to art rocker, to world music conduit, to pop star, to multi-media explorer, Peter Gabriel has covered a tremendous amount of ground in his four and a half decades in the music industry, ensuring him an unarguable place among popular music’s icons.

Starting as frontman for Genesis, from 1969 onwards he recorded half a dozen studio albums, as well as a live album, before departing for his solo career in 1975. Both he and Genesis would enjoy previously unimagined global success through the 1980s, reforming just once in 1982 to help pull Gabriel’s WOMAD project out of a financial hole, with Gabriel reaching the apex of his commercial success with 1986’s So.

From the early 90s, following the release of 1992’s Us and an extensive promotional world tour, Gabriel concentrated increasingly on multi-media projects, soundtracks (always something Gabriel excelled at) and collaborations. He would finally release another solo album in 2002 and since then has continued to release a string of albums. In recent years, Gabriel has maintained his place as one of the most idiosyncratic, yet globally respected art rockers, yet his sense of fun continues to surface, proven by his seal of approval to Brian Pern, a well-meaning parody of him played by Simon Day, and has even appeared in a pair of brief cameos at the end of each series.

1) Foxtrot – 1972

While Foxtrot does lose focus from time to time, it’s the key release by Gabriel-era Genesis, being their first commercial success and the album on which they started to get the hand of pastoral progressive rock. While Gabriel was still finding his feet of a lyricist, the fact that their live shows saw him raiding the dressing up box gave them an increasing amount of press exposure.

The album’s key track was “Supper’s Ready”, the band’s only attempt at progressive rock’s keystone, the near side-long epic. While they would perfect their particular brand of progressive rock even further over the next few years, Foxtrot is the most fun album they released during Gabriel’s tenure with the band and remains a vital release when considering the progressive rock oeuvre.

2) Selling England by the Pound – 1973

Hearing it now, it’s easy to mark Selling England By The Pound as one of the best of the Gabriel-led Genesis albums. They were playing much tighter than they had previously, Gabriel was exploring his vocal range and providing the band with some ridiculously obscure lyrics and each band member was allowed to play to his strengths. It even boasted the band’s first hit single in the gloriously mad “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”.

As far as the actual music goes, there is some fine playing here, particularly in “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight”, where the band actually do go against their every instinct and actually rock out and the keyboard intro to “Firth of Fifth”. Selling England by the Pound also contains a track which signposts the post-Gabriel era of genesis in the Phil Collins fronted number “More Fool Me”, which is strangely unpopular among many fans of early Genesis. I for one think it’s one of the highlights of the album, showing exactly what they could do with a simple love song lyric and the minimum in the way of musical frills.

3) Peter Gabriel – 1980

After an interesting debut and a flop follow-up, Peter Gabriel had to pull out all of the stops for his third album. By the start of the 80s a pattern had emerged among frontmen going solo, releasing a solo album which sold reasonably well because it was bought by the previous band’s fanbase and then saw their second album bomb, leaving the artist to wallow in obscurity and release albums which sold less and less with each release.

Peter Gabriel was cleverer than that though. He recruited a crack band of session musicians to supplement his touring band on the album, including long-time guitarist-for-hire Robert Fripp, The Jam front man Paul Weller, XTC’s Dave Gregory and rising star Kate Bush on backing vocals. Oh, and former band mate Phil Collins on drums, who apparently wasn’t allowed to play cymbals…

Over his previous albums Gabriel had been building towards a career as an act that specialised in ambitious and intelligent adult pop albums, blending prog rock, synth pop, hints of world music and a maturity that the likes of Sting would later build their careers upon.  Gabriel’s third album tackled subjects such as an assassin stalking his victim (“Family Snapshot”) and conformity (“Lead A Normal Life”). In it’s own way it was quietly revolutionary. Despite this it had a distinct commercial edge to it, with “Games Without Frontiers” being his first bona fide top ten single, “No Self Control”, “I Don’t Remember”, “And Through The Wire” (complete with superb Paul Weller riff) and “Not One Of Us” all having hit-single potential.

4) So – 1986

So was the culmination of Gabriel finally becoming comfortable with the idea of becoming a fully fledged pop star, which the soon to become ubiquitous “Sledgehammer” with its groundbreaking video launched him towards. The funk stylings of “Sledgehammer” was undoubtedly Gabriel’s most commercial moment to date and with the equally pop-tastic “Big Time”, it ensured Gabriel would cement his status as the knowledgeable and mature pop fan’s solo artist of choice.

It’s not all plain sailing though, as some of Gabriel’s pretensions and over-confidence do bubble through some times, most notably on some of the more self-indulgent world-music passages. It can be a little too forced and pre-meditated as well, a little too perfect and produced at times, occasionally rendering some of the material oddly soulless. Though no one could point that accusation towards “Don’t Give Up”, Gabriel’s rightly celebrated duet with Kate Bush. Who knows what delights he could have achieved if Gabriel’s originally intended duet partner had agreed to the collaboration. The lady who turned him down? None other than Dolly Parton.

So was the album that turned Peter Gabriel from an important artist into a global superstar and household name. Sure, there were some old fans from the Genesis days who couldn’t resist yelling ‘Sell out’, but on the whole they were in the minority, but So remains a key album of the 80s and everything that Peter Gabriel had been working towards in his career up to that point.

5) Us – 1992

So had seen Peter Gabriel become a global megastar, however it took him six years to release its follow up. Gabriel hadn’t rested on his laurels though, recording the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as releasing the well received compilation, Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats (though only twelve if you got the vinyl version!).

Us was the’ album with the unenviable task of following up the phenomenally successful So, but where So could occasionally sound detached, Us is a much more warm, honest and personable album. It’s no accident that Gabriel views it very much as his ‘relationship album’, as at the time he released it he gave interviews to suggest that this was his way of purging what he called ‘the bastard within’. This anger is most notable in “Digging In The Dirt”, where Gabriel really does sound legitimately angry with whoever he’s singing the song about.

This is by no means the only highlight though, “Come Talk To Me” is a plea for open communication to a former partner, “Steam” is a funk-pop song cut from similar cloth as “Sledgehammer”, but a dozen times better and “Kiss That Frog” is another fun pop song. The rest of the tracks are largely more mellow and reflective, betraying Gabriel’s world-music influences yet again, though for once they’re not over bearing or pretentious. After just over a decade, Gabriel had finally managed to use these influences to their best effect within his work.

In bearing his soul in such away, Us becomes Gabriel’s most honest and generous album by some considerable distance. Sometimes this soul-bearing could seem a little too intimate, leaving the listener feeling like an unwelcome voyeur, but it’s a compelling listen nonetheless.

6) Hit – 2003

There have been a few attempts to reduce the appeal of Peter Gabriel down to a greatest hits set, however his appeal can only be truly appreciated in the album format. That said, 2003’s Hit offers single mixes, some of which vastly improve on the album versions. This is most obvious when it comes to the material taken from 2002’s Up, an album which Gabriel fans have bloated the importance of, simply because it was his return to albums after years of exploring the worlds of multi-media. The single cuts of “Growing Up” and “More Than This” are vastly improved from those on Up, and there’s also a number of cuts from the Ovo, the well-intentioned soundtrack to the Millennium Dome Show, which also work far better out of album context. There is a pay off though, as the single cut of “Steam” is nowhere near as good as the full-bananas album version.

Another selling point of Hit, is it’s second disc, Miss, which explores Gabriel’s output deeper than his biggest hit singles. As a jumping off point it’s fascinating for the newcomer, as it plunges you into the deepest recesses of Gabriel’s output, with various extracts from soundtracks.

Gabriel continues to release albums, however his days as a singles chart-bothering act seem long behind him. He seems happy with that though, as he records classy, arty albums for a devoted fanbase. He seems incapable of making a truly bad album, although the previously mentioned Up was a significant disappointment after the career-best Us.

You could never entirely rule him out of making a return to the pop charts though, as in 2008 his contribution to the soundtrack of Disney’s WALL•E, “Down to Earth” demonstrated that he’s still more than capable of writing a commercial pop tune when he sets his mind to it.

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