IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Peter Gabriel - So
IT would take a patient person…
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Peter Gabriel (1982); the songwriter’s fourth solo album/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
to tolerate an artist who released four eponymous albums in a row – in fact, releasing more than one would test patience! When Peter Gabriel released his fourth eponymous record in 1982; many wondered whether he was going to keep doing it and where it would all end! Think about the difficulty of doing that today. It would be a nightmare when it came to searching and ordering it from a record shop would be a bit of a palaver! 1982’s Peter Gabriel contained some strong songs but was not as well-received as some of his earlier work. A commercial change was needed and the outsider, cooler-than-anyone songwriter needed to take a leap. Although Gabriel claims So is a commercial album and one that he is not completely happy with; many consider it his finest record and it was a huge leap. The use of the Fairlight CMI synthesizer – which would inspire artists like Kate Bush to use it in their work – was still used but phased out to an extent by the time of 1986’s So. Even though there was more accessibility and commercial appeal; Gabriel was mixing genres as far-flung as Soul, World and Art-Rock into this complex and heady brew! The fact that his fifth solo album was the first non-eponymous effort sort signalled a shift to get his music properly marketed.
The album’s lead single, Sledgehammer, signalled what Gabriel was all about and why the album became so popular. The slam and catchiness of the song; the propulsive swagger and physicality of the song has lasted through the decades and is one of Gabriel’s best-loved songs. The trippy, animated video scooped awards and blew plenty of minds. Even by today’s standards, Sledgehammer’s video is groundbreaking and forward-thinking. One reason why So is perfect for a close investigation and should be bought on vinyl is because of the textures and variations on the record. From the chugging Sledgehammer we have the raw emotion and touching Don’t Give Up. A duet with Kate Bush – who was an early collaborator of Gabriel and appeared on Games Without Frontiers (1980) -; it shows Gabriel as a man whose dreams have been lost and his frailty is coming through. There is a gloom and hopelessness but, as Bush comes in, that plea to keep holding on emerges. Bush asks him not to surrender and provides a pillow for his troubles. African and Brazilian beats were coming into his music and, although So is the least experimental album from Gabriel; it is the one that gets into the head quickest and remains the longest. There is that radio-friendly sound to singles like Sledgehammer but the songwriting genius and incredible range from Gabriel means it could never be seen as chart-fodder or anything other than exceptional.
IN THIS PHOTO: Peter Gabriel recording in 1986/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Before looking at some of the standout tracks; here is a look inside the recording process and how Gabriel attacked his fifth album:
“The studio's basic equipment consisted of "two analog 24-track machines, a Studer A80, and a Studer A80 shell that had been modified by a local electronics wizard, with its own audio cards and transport controls".[nb 2] To record vocals a Neumann U47 tube microphone and a Decca compressor were used without equalization. All of So's songs were made in a similar format. Gabriel would record a piano demo on a modified "B machine" and play this to the band. During rehearsals, the band would listen to the B machine through headphones and record their output onto the "A machine"; parts of Gabriel's demo would also be transferred to the A machine at this stage. Subsequent takes of the song were then put onto the B machine in order for the band to hear what they had played with the demo, as well as the song's new and old takes.
Other equipment included the "groundbreaking" Fairlight CMI synthesizer, which Gabriel said in an interview for Billboard meant "more human imagination is involved". He added, "the creative decision-making process has become more important than technique. You have a wider range of tools, a wider range of decisions". Although remaining continually inspired to produce new music, he often struggled to write lyrics and would procrastinate. His proclivity to being dissatisfied with them required Killen to isolate certain vocal performances as the master track, in order to keep other tracks available so new lyrics could be edited in. Lanois took adverse measures to encourage his writing, such as destroying his much-used telephone in the nearby woods and, on one occasion, nailed the studio door shut to lock him inside.
Towards the end of recording, Gabriel became "obsessed" with the track listing and created an audio cassette of all the song's beginnings and ends to hear how the sounds blended together. He wanted to have "In Your Eyes" as the final track, but its prominent bassline meant it had to be placed earlier on the vinyl edition as there is more room for the stylus to vibrate. With later CD releases, this restriction was removed and the track was placed at the end of the album. So was completed in February 1986 and cost £200,000 to make”.
Even if Gabriel disliked the idea of titling an album – as it distracted from the cover art and design – there is a slightly nonchalance and shrugging with So (it is almost sarcastic in its brevity). If the master was a bit unsure of his new direction, the songwriting was incredible. In Your Eyes is one of his greatest love songs and, against such diverse and eclectic progeny shows the sheer wonder and scope of So. The track features a pounding heartbeat of a drum and a potent vocal performance from Youssou N’Dour (singing in his native Senegalese). Big Time is one of my favourite songs from the album and has a definite Funk vibe. The lyrics slam the yuppie scene of the 1980s and that gaudy commercialism!
The song helped Gabriel assess his own life and whether he wanted fame at all – lest he turn into the sort of figure he was satirising on Big Time. It is hard to get a grip on all the scenes, stories and sounds inherent in a masterful record! If there were reservations from Gabriel regarding So and a move away from his usual working pattern; critical reviews and awards showed the music he was making could not be faulted. Rolling Stone said this of the record:
“The bravado of “Sledgehammer” is undercut by the solemnity of “Don’t Give Up,” in which Gabriel outlines the despair of “a man whose dreams have all deserted.” In this one, Gabriel is haunted and defeated, acknowledging his frailty. A mournful melody is interrupted when a ray of hope — embodied by Kate Bush — penetrates the gloom. “Don’t give up,” she breathes with the voice of life itself, “‘cos you have friends.” Every time Gabriel proffers a reason for surrender, Bush answers him back with a litany of comfort. “Rest your head,” comes her simple advice, “you worry too much.”
He seems to find what he’s looking for “In Your Eyes,” perhaps the closest thing to a conventional love ballad Gabriel has ever recorded, though what he sees in her eyes is symbolic and Graillike in the extreme: “In your eyes/I see the doorway to a thousand churches/In your eyes/The resolution of all the fruitless searches.” The pomp and pretentiousness of such a sentiment might collapse under its own weight were Gabriel not shrewd enough to underscore the song with a roiling pancultural jamboree of scat featuring guest vocalist Youssou N’dour.
So is a record of considerable emotional complexity and musical sophistication. Beneath its disarming simplicity and accessibility is the voice of an artist who does what his heart tells him to do. That So would finally bring Peter Gabriel commercial success is an extremely positive sign for the acceptability of intelligence on the airwaves and in pop music in general”.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
So was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy but lost out to Paul Simon’s Graceland – if you are going to lose to anyone... – and Sledgehammer got five nods in 1986 (including Record of the Year and Song of the Year). The track won for its video at the Brit Awards and there were many more nominations. So is seen as one of the defining statements of the 1980s and one of the greatest albums ever made. It showed an experimental artist could make a move into the mainstream without losing pace and compromising. So does have that experimental side but there are hooks and big anthems; challenges and complex interactions move alongside something free-flowing and easy. It remains one of those immense achievements and constantly features in critics’ all-time finest album rundowns. Gabriel pushed what a Pop number could be. He could have a powerful and quotable chorus but put twisting hooks and nuanced into the blend; little surprises and exciting diversions. Maybe Gabriel was keen to get more commercial success and see his work proffered more but the move proved effective. Those who preferred his eponymous artiness found much to love in So whilst those unaware of his music were provided something fresh and fantastic.
Gabriel spoke to Rolling Stone in 1987 as he was touring the album. He discussed some of the themes and stories that inspired the music:
“The fact that some of those growing pains are reflected on So is one of the reasons Geffen Records is so happy with the album. “Throughout the years, I didn’t really know who the man behind the mask was,” says the label’s Gary Gersh. “With this album, part of the idea behind our whole marketing campaign was letting people know that there really wasn’t a mask anymore, that the man was actually touchable. You can listen to the record and get inside his emotions.”
There’s one subject that touchable man finds himself returning to again and again, and with a little prompting Gabriel locates it. “There is some sense of, uh…,” he says, then pauses for a long time. “Alienation is a common theme, which is the struggle to break out of a sense of separation.”
And has that been a struggle in his own life?
“Yeah, I think so,” he says, and his voice gets even softer than usual. “Definitely.”
“My lifestyle hasn’t really changed,” Gabriel says, shrugging. “I’ve lived comfortably for five to seven years now, but I still look to save a few pennies here and there, because that’s a very hard habit to get out of.” He has no plans, he says, to move out of the quiet English community in the Cotswolds where he lives. Nobody there makes a fuss about the resident pop star unless he’s on Top of the Pops...
But he does want new video equipment and an upgraded studio, and he wants the time to experiment by making videos for all the So tunes not yet turned into clips. He would like to mount a performance-art piece and tour smaller halls next summer. And he’s still interested in the idea of an alternative park that would be “a mixture of amusement park, art gallery, university and holiday camp.” It combines many of his current fascinations: high technology, behavioral research, environmental and interactive art. Plus some old-fashioned thrills, courtesy of the author and psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who has talked with Gabriel about a Ride of Fears, in which the most common phobias would be presented with increasing intensity until the rider conquers them all or pushes a panic button”.
So has gone down in legend and is a perfect album to buy on vinyl and relax to. Its details and secrets are unveiled as you listen and it is amazing to hear how much activity and sounds work alongside each other on an album that, on the surface, seems so simple. In 2012; Gabriel spoke to Rolling Stone again and looked back on a remarkable achievement:
“Why do you think So managed to reach a much broader audience than your previous albums?
There was less sort of esoteric songwriting. I think they were simpler songs in some ways, but I think we caught a wave. They were done with passion and we had a really good team working on them. Then, of course, we had things like the “Sledgehammer” video, which helped enormously. It got us a wider audience. Also, the one concession I agreed to was to place an actual photo of myself on the cover rather than the usual obscured stuff I had been doing....
You also gave this one an actual title.
It was named, yeah. That was a reluctant choice. In the old days I would go through my vinyl and identity each record by the picture, not by the title. I always liked that. In some ways, I’m just a visual person. It was the idea to just do away with titles. Give the pictures space to breathe and speak for themselves. But, of course, it caused confusion in the marketplace. The American record company, Geffen, got so fed up with me that they said they weren’t going to release my fourth record unless I gave it some title. So, it was called Security in America and it had no title everywhere else in the world.
The next time out I decided to go for the anti-title. There’s only two letters: So. It can be more a piece of graphic, if you like, as opposed to something with meaning and intention. And that’s what I’ve done ever since...
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover of Peter Gabriel’s 1992 album, As/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
You didn’t release a follow-up to So for six years. Do you think that was a mistake? You sort of lost some momentum there.
I’m sure commercially it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I’ve never really worried about that. And to be honest, I think one of the reasons I’m still lucky enough to put out records and have audiences come to shows is cause I haven’t played that game very well. I think that consumer culture tends to be very hungry. It can’t get enough of you for a very short time and then your taste gets boring and they spit you out and take the next new thrill. And so, while it was never a predetermined strategy, I would probably recommend it to artists now if they want a long career. If you got something worth saying, if you’ve got something to put out, don’t worry about what the record company tells you. Take your time”.
Gabriel would go on to make other incredible albums but nothing matched the magic and genius of So. The Sledgehammer video alone took his music to new heights and would lead him to experiment with videos and push boundaries – although his later song, Steam, is seen as a second part of Sledgehammer; its visuals are staggering. I love So because you get contrasting songs against one another and there is that fearlessness. Gabriel could have gone in a new direction or faltered but he followed four eponymous records with something blistering and historic. As we look at a modern mainstream with few innovators and wonderful Pop albums; it is worth studying Peter Gabriel’s 1986 masterpiece and taken guidance from it. Your mind explodes and explores as the songs unfold and take you somewhere special. Between 1977-1982, Peter Gabriel released four self-titled albums and took four years to follow that up. Gabriel might have lost his name for his fifth album but he gained so much more! The stunning songwriter abandoned a well-trodden path and, in doing so, brought his incredible music...
TO the wider world.