Off the Charts

Peter Gabriel

Until May 2018, Peter Gabriel resisted allowing his solo albums to appear on subscription streaming services like Spotify. Since that date, more of his records are being made available each month – most recently the album versions of two of his movie soundtracks. Not that you couldn’t get Peter Gabriel’s solo work before May 2018, but it’s good to see it more broadly accessible. There’s a lot to explore.

You might expect an overview of Gabriel’s career to start with his years in the band Genesis, but I’ll be devoting a separate column to them later. Which bring us to 1977, when Gabriel released the first of four albums all called Peter Gabriel. The initial one included the still-beloved “Solsbury Hill.” Nailed it right out of the box.

Less remembered today is the opening track, “Moribund the Burgermeister.” Taken as a whole, this song might be seen as a nod to the more theatrical numbers by The Who. But it’s the way the song starts that reveals what will become Gabriel’s central defining sound: a coexistence of traditional African music and avant-garde electronica:

 

The third eponymous album, from 1980, was the real breakthrough in artistic terms. It was also exactly what the world needed at the time – utterly original, thoughtful, incisive, and musically daring works. Gabriel introduced a way of combining serious social commentary (“Games without Frontiers”) and political activism with magnetic world music (“Biko”) that changed the pop landscape for a time. The 1980 album was also groundbreaking for including a visual element that would play on your computer while you listened.

Despite the reported skepticism of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun about the subject matter of the songs, Peter Gabriel was a big success. In “Not One of Us,” one of the tracks not released as a single, Gabriel’s experimental daring in blending acoustic and electronic textures enhances the sarcastic message about the cliquishness and exclusionary norms of society.

 

If you love the 1980 Peter Gabriel, you’ll get a kick out of 1982’s Ein Deutsches Album, on which Gabriel sings German-language versions of all the 1980 songs.

Besides his albums of songs for their own sake, Gabriel has been involved with many high-profile film projects. The first was Birdy, a 1984 move directed by Alan Parker and based on the William Wharton novel. Gabriel released a version of that soundtrack as a studio album the following year. It’s his first serious foray into ambient music, mostly newly composed, plus a few instrumental versions of older songs.

“Floating Dogs” starts as pure ambience, but then tightens into frenetic rhythm, showing both sides of Gabriel’s preferred compositional approaches.

 

It’s hard to deny that the definitive Peter Gabriel album is So (1986). Nothing about this masterwork can be considered “off the charts,” so I direct you to the 2012 documentary from the Classic Albums series for an in-depth look.

Much to his credit, Gabriel has never taken for granted the sounds he’s borrowed from other cultures, musical ideas that help define his own style. In 1980, he co-founded a UK music festival called WOMAD, which is still going strong. Its purpose is to introduce rock fans to music from other parts of the world, a quest at the heart of much of Gabriel’s work. The African, Middle Eastern, and Asian musicians he’s invited to the festival over the years have often contributed important elements to his albums and tours.

That pipeline to world-music masters came in handy when Gabriel scored the controversial Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ, which he then turned into a studio album of instrumental pieces called Passion in 1989. Appropriately, this was the first Gabriel album on Real World Records, which he’d founded as part of the WOMAD project. The score allows the musicians to explore melodies and instruments from their own traditions, incorporated into a distinctly Gabriel electronic background.

“Before Night Falls,” for example, features Kudsi Erguner on the ney flute, an end-blown wooden flute common in Middle Eastern music. Erguner, who is Turkish, includes a traditional Armenian melody in this number. In contrast to that ancient facet of the song, longtime Gabriel collaborator L. Shankar plays his own invention, the double violin, an instrument with two fingerboards to choose from, each with five strings. Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy, who has also worked with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, plays the Indian tabla and Middle Eastern duf drum.

 

The album Us (1992) hit No. 2 on the Billboard album charts and produced singles like “Steam” and “Digging in the Dirt.” One track that didn’t get much notice is “Fourteen Black Paintings,” a trippy but powerful human rights statement featuring African percussion instruments surdo (bass drum), djembe, and talking drum, plus the ancient Armenian oboe-like duduk.

 

One of Gabriel’s odder projects is OVO (2000), which originated as the soundtrack to a theatrical experience (for lack of a better term) of the same name that opened the Millennium Dome in London and ran for a full year. It told the story of a British family line in the past, present, and future, and featured a wide range of instruments and musical styles, including some that Gabriel had not worked with before. The opening track, “The Story of OVO,” features the rapper Rasco. Other guest artists on the album include the great Richie Havens as the father and Scottish singer-songwriter Elizabeth Fraser as the daughter.

 

In 2002 Gabriel released Up. He supported that album with a tour captured on the video Growing Up Live, in which the then-53-year-old rock star astonished and entertained by singing upside-down and bouncing around the stage in a huge inflatable ball. While Up includes live favorites like “The Barry Williams Show” and “Growing Up,” I love the lesser-known “My Head Sounds Like That.” Its mournful simplicity makes me think of John Lennon’s solo songs.

 

Gabriel hasn’t released a full studio album of new material since Up. While perhaps his creative focus has changed, you can’t accuse him of slowing down: he’s toured consistently and released several albums of live performances, collaborations, and new arrangements of older material. Maybe in hindsight we’ll say he was on the cutting edge, as usual, being among the first major artists to acknowledge that, in this day of digital download and streaming, the studio album is a thing of the past.

Occasionally he does still record singles, especially for soundtracks. His cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” for the 2014 movie Lone Survivor is worth a listen. As for recent original songs, “I’m Amazing” is a tribute to Muhammed Ali released in honor of the fighter’s passing in 2016. The diffusion of sound, the tribal energy, the slow-motion philosophizing – there’s no question this is genuine Peter Gabriel: