Thursday, 1 August 2013
Classic Albums No's 7-9: Peter Gabriel 1+2+3
I thought I’d cheat a bit here. But for a brief period in the early 90’s, you could get these three albums in a 3-in-1 CD Box Set on the Virgin imprint. So perhaps the boxset should just be Classic Album number 7. Anyway, be it album 7, or albums 7, 8 and 9, these three records, from the start of Peter Gabriel’s solo career between 1977 and 1980, are the work of absolute genius. And yet, very rarely, do they ever get name checked by anybody. Well, let’s start name checking them right now.
I have loved Peter Gabriel for as long as I can remember. If we ignore the fact that I was apparently taken to a Cat Stevens gig when I was two (I have no recollection of it all), and that I seem to remember seeing Chris De Burgh before he went rubbish but with no idea what year it might have been (ie. it was before “The Lady In Red”), then Gabriel was the first person I saw in concert - September 8th 1983 I think, upstairs at the Hammersmith Odeon on the “1988 Playtime” tour. We bought a sew on patch from the merchandising stall, and a tour programme that was so surreal, it possibly wasn’t even a tour programme at all. He wore makeup, my sister smuggled her SLR camera into the gig, and I wrote down the setlist as he played. I seem to recall that he played the “never recorded in the studio” track that was “I Go Swimming”, previously only to be found on the recently issued “Plays Live“, although Setlist FM claims he only did it the following night. Perhaps I imagined it, or maybe wanted him to play it...after all, it was 30 years ago and I was only 10 years old. I think he fell backwards into the audience during “Lay Your Hands On Me” and walked ‘on the crowd’ by stepping from the top of the seats in one row to another during (probably) “I Have The Touch“.
I still love him. He may have gone a bit AOR in 1986 when he released “So”, an album which despite getting the big box set treatment last year, has even been referred to by the man himself as being “not as sonically interesting as the early records” (or something like that), but even now, he still feels out on the fringes, a man who was destined never to record an “Against All Odds”. Thankfully. Although he did appear on the soundtrack to the film of the same name, and stayed friends with Phil Collins for years after.
Gabriel had served an apprenticeship as lead singer of Genesis, before quitting in mid 75 amidst “band issues” and personal problems. His departure occurred after a tour promoting their greatest ever LP, and that includes all the ones they made without him, 1974’s “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”. In the years that followed, Gabriel remained quiet. Whilst his former band mates issued a new album in 1976, and had another one nearly complete by the end of the same year, Gabriel was nowhere to be seen.
And then in 1977, he re-emerged. He had a hit single, something Genesis never really managed whilst he was in the band, and a self titled debut album that defied description. Even today, it still sounds mind boggling, years ahead of it’s time and an astonishing left field listen. Whilst Genesis were starting to shift units by slowly creeping nearer and nearer towards the mainstream, Gabriel had released a ground breaking art-rock LP that outshone his former colleagues.
It really is a magnificent body of work. The only reason I refer to it as an art-rock LP, is that it is difficult to know how else to describe it. It operates on a similar plane to the likes of Bowie or Talking Heads, a “rock” album that often doesn’t actually rock. But instead, it works on moods, inventiveness, and sheer bloody minded diversity.
Of the nine songs on the record, barely two of them sound the same. The opener, “Moribund The Burgermeister”, sounds like the band were recorded whilst playing underwater, before the song bursts into a euphoric, crystal clear, anthemic chorus, before going underwater again, just as what someone who sounds like the Cookie Monster intones the words “I will find out...” - it’s completely off the wall, and this is only the first song.
“Solsbury Hill” is up next, and it shows you how good this record is when I tell you it’s one of the weaker moments on the album, a bit of a hey-nonny-no folky strum, anyway, you know what it sounds like. Better is “Modern Love”, which sounds like The Cars being produced by Phil Spector, which is followed by the supper club lounge lunacy of “Excuse Me”.
Side 1 closes with the beautiful “Humdrum”, which finishes with a gloriously melodic wall of sound, recalling the keyboard driven aura of Gabriel-era Genesis at their best. “Slowburn” opens the second half, a high energy piece of Power Pop of the tallest order. It’s then followed by the half jazz, half new wave madness that is “Waiting For The Big One”, all twinkling pianos with Gabriel crooning away one minute, then big booming choir filled choruses the next. If you want a clue as to just how much this song varies between being quiet and genteel one minute, then loud and roaring the next, check out the original vinyl. You can always tell how “diverse” a song can be because the grooves will form a smoother looking section on the playing surface whenever the music is laid back (ie. you could almost see your reflection in the vinyl), and on this song, there’s a smooth section, then a non-smooth (loud) section, then a smooth one - and you get seven plus minutes of this to-ing and fro-ing.
It’s then followed by the massively bombastic “Down The Dolce Vita”, which sounds like the theme tune from a big epic movie, imagine the producers of “Titanic” reissuing the film without the Celine Dion song, and using this instead for when the ship hits the iceberg - it’s totally feasible. And the finale is the beautiful piano driven “Here Comes The Flood” - Gabriel may have later regretted having the raucous, over-produced choruses sounds as noisy as they do, but it adds a stunning dramatic effect, and a sterling, quite magnificent, end to the record.
It’s an astonishing piece of work, unlike anything Gabriel ever did again, indeed, unlike anything ANYBODY ever did again. I have listened to the album endless times over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me at just how flawless, beautiful, diverse and ground breaking it is. And yet, most people seemingly have never even heard it.
The Hipgnosis artwork, again, is superb, in a sort of grainy, post punk way. The rear cover features a brilliant shot of Gabriel trudging through the snow, looking like a lost member of Joy Division. Inside, the lyrics were printed on a fold out lyric sheet, which came with what I can only describe as “CSI" graphics-style design work, lots of abstract images, the back of which featured Gabriel photographed within a series of concentric circles, and labels such as “stress areas 1-6”, and “magnification of focal point”. At the risk of sounding like a madman, I completely LOVE the oddness of it, the sheer “what on earth does it all mean” vibe it gives off. Inside the lyric sheet, there are a series of symbols displayed for each song - and indeed, across the rest of the artwork as well - which makes you think there is some sort of code to crack. Meanwhile, the sparse lyrics for the minimalist electro-funk groove of “Exposure” are printed in the centre of the relevant column (“Exposure, Exposure, Exposure”) aside from the two actual lines of proper lyrics which are printed, as you would expect, with a left hand side alignment. Don’t ask me why, but the decision to do this on this song alone, has fascinated me for the last 35 years. The whole thing just looks so...weird.
The album is what you could describe as a grower. It lacks the immediate punch that you get from the first LP, but the more and more you listen to it, the more it starts to get into your brain. The opening “On The Air” starts quietly with a twinkly synth intro, before exploding into a punky, new wave racket, with Gabriel’s vocals sounding ever so slightly urgent, aggressive, and rather menacing. By contrast, the following “DIY” (which kicks in straight away after “On The Air”’s twinkly synth outro ends) growls along in a strange, looping groove, lots of baritone style vocals and oddball time signatures. Issued as the only single from the LP, it flopped.
“Mother Of Violence” slows things down, a piano driven ballad, whilst “A Wonderful Day In A One Way World” is a post punk take on Reggae, a la The Stranglers’ “Peaches” (Gabriel supported them at Battersea Park the same year, BTW). And this album has it’s very own “Humdrum” in the form of the stunning “White Shadow”, lots of sky scrapingly anthemic keyboard flourishes, and spiky Robert Fripp guitar. It’s an astonishing end to side 1.
It’s the second half of the LP that, on first listen, seems to be the sort of thing that goes in one ear, and out the other. But repeated listens reveal a set of songs of real beauty, the genteel approach means that the songs, once you get used to them, become like old friends, gorgeous arrangements and a laid back approach that is actually quite stunning. “Indigo” is incredible, a slow burning piece of epic loveliness, Gabriel sounding lost and weary - “all right, I’m giving up the fight...I’m going away” - whilst the song sounds unlike anything on the first half of the record, recorder solos parping away in the background, steel guitars adding a country-fied twang that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the one time leader of a Prog band.
It’s not all slow vibes on side 2 - it’s followed by the upbeat, rinky dink piano pop of “Animal Magic”, whilst there is something genuinely disturbing about Gabriel’s vocal delivery on “Exposure”, each line being delivered in a different vocal register, with the lines that don’t simply feature Gabriel singing the title of the song, being delivered in a slightly manic vocal - because they are so few and far between, when they kick in, it catches you off guard...“Space is what I need, it’s what I feed on!” he hollers, and it’s just a little bit terrifying.
“Flotsam And Jetsam” sounds a bit like David Bowie covering “Hong Kong Garden” to start with, then starts to channel the same aura that you get from “Indigo”, all slide guitars and a tearful vibe, which midway through stops dead, and restarts with Gabriel crying the hopeful “if only I could touch you” line. Towards the end, the line “oh love, my love, nothing here is what it seems” is screamed with an air of anguish and desperation. It’s a truly remarkable piece of music.
“Perspective” recalls the bouncy pop of “Animal Magic”, whilst “Home Sweet Home” is another slow burning country influenced stunner, a story of a man meeting his wife who then commits suicide when things get too much to bear. The man gets a life insurance payout, but is so distraught, he tries to gamble it all away at a casino - only to win the jackpot. It’s another one that builds and builds, with some E Street Band style sax coming in midway through proceedings to create a big booming final section. On first listen, it seems like filler, a poor album closer when compared to “Here Comes The Flood”, but listen to it repeatedly, and at some point, it suddenly all makes total sense - it’s a gloriously beautiful piece of music, which brings the album to a slow, sad, and tearful conclusion.
Whenever I listen to this record, it sounds even better than the last time I listened to it. The second half of the LP really is quite brilliant at times, and although the more “pop” parts of the record can seem to be just a bit too throwaway, there is still a strangeness running through the sound of the album, Gabriel’s vocals at times sounding a tad odd, whilst there’s simply no denying the genius of the high energy sound of “On The Air” or the melodic pull of “White Shadow”. It’s something of a cult record I guess, but one that I have learned to become obsessed with over the years.
For many years, I never really noticed that the album had a lack of cymbals, but it does - the pioneering “gated” drum sound, which gives the album an almost teutonic sense of rhythm, was used throughout the record, creating an almost dance music like sound, all very electronic sounding and perfectly structured. This is particularly noticeable on the opening “Intruder”, where Gabriel’s spooky stalker vocals sound even more sinister over the sparse pounding of Phil Collins’ drums.
After the “no hit singles” situation with the second record, “3” is positively filled with them, although some were only hits in certain counties. “No Self Control” maintains the rhythmic strut of “Intruder”, this time with added Kate Bush psycho backing vocals, whilst “The Start”, which sounds like Roxy Music covering the “Moonlighting” theme with it’s lengthy sax solo, goes straight into the groovy, but mildly terrifying “I Don’t Remember”, the nearest the record comes to being pure pop thus far, only for it to climax with a strange synth overload, the song grinding to a growling halt, which sounds like the world coming to an end.
A sax pipes up again in “Family Snapshot”, a mostly raucous and upbeat track, which helps give the song a big pop feel, even though the subject matter is quite dark - the story of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1972, in a bizarre attempt to become famous overnight. I’m surprised Simon Cowell hasn’t considered doing a show along these lines. The song ends with a stunning, slow, quiet finale, representing the point after which the assassination attempt fails - with Gabriel, backed only by piano and occasional bass, softly singing the lines “all gone quiet, I’ve been here before, a lonely boy hiding behind the front door, my friends have all gone home, there’s my toy gun on the floor”. Side 1 closes with “And Through The Wire”, a guitar driven number, which again, has a lot more “oomph” than the sometimes minimalist feel of the first two records. But the gated drum sound, the synths, and the scowling guitar lines help to give the song a slightly warped, left field vibe.
Although the opener on side 2, “Games Without Frontiers” became one of Gabriel’s biggest hits, it’s still a freaky piece of music, the “tick tick tock” drum sound, more high pitched vocals from Bush, the sneering guitar lines, the famous “whistling tunes we piss on the goons in the jungle” lyric which was cut from the 45 version...again, it’s pop but not as we know it. The opening of “Not One Of Us” is driven along by indescribable ‘hee-haw’ keyboard noises, with strange yelping from Gabriel in the song’s high energy ending. “Lead A Normal Life” is little more than drums, electric piano, a xylophone, some minimalist lyrics, and what sounds like somebody attempting to recreate bird noises on a keyboard - an odd choice for a US single.
The album closer “Biko” is the real key to what came next. Driven along, for seven minutes, by a simple, but monumentally effective African style pumping drum pattern, with just three verses of lyrics which tell the tale of the death of anti apartheid campaigner Stephen Biko, it remains one of the most affecting pieces of music Gabriel ever recorded. Some of the lyrics are simplistic, but explicitly effective - “when I try to sleep at night, I can only dream in red” - whilst the song builds to a climactic finale, with Gabriel repeating a “whoa whoa whoa” chant during the second half of the song. When it gets played in concert, this is the cue for a mass arm punching response from the audience, a communal anti-racist call to arms that is never less than remarkable to watch. As the anthemic sounding ending slowly starts to fade, in comes a tearful recording of “Senzeni Na”, taken from Biko’s actual funeral in 1977. This moving tribute continues for some time after the main song has finally faded out, before a drum roll brings the song - and the record - to a close. Absolutely incredible.
“Biko” was issued as a single, one of the more left field choices of 45 ever to be issued by anyone. It was issued on 12”, the first Gabriel single to appear in the UK on this format, with a slightly different cover design to the 7”, which had to play at 33rpm in order to squeeze the lengthy single onto the a-side of the disc. The single version was an alternate mix to the album version, and Gabriel used the rear of the sleeve to explain why he had decided to issue the single - mainly to help promote the ongoing issues in South Africa, and raise awareness of what Biko had gone through. A German version of “Here Comes The Flood”, newly recorded in “sparser” piano form, was one of two B-sides.
Gabriel also explained that he had remixed the song for use on a German language version of the LP, and wanted to release the remix but with English lyrics. That German language album was “Ein Deutsches Album”, basically a re-recorded version of “3” in German. It used the same basic artwork, but the yellow typeface on the front was changed to green, and there was a - German - lyric insert which also featured an explanation from Gabriel about the existence of the LP. Although Wikipedia claims the album features the original music with simple vocal overdubs, this is not strictly true - there are also subtle differences to the likes of “Intruder”, “Not One Of Us” and “Games Without Frontiers”. (These were not the only songs to be tampered with at the time, as the “Start”/”I Don’t Remember” sequence was subject to a revamp, with a new intro to the latter, originally for use as a US 45, but then issued on the UK as the b-side of “Games Without Frontiers”). Although obviously designed for the German market, imported copies of the vinyl turned up in the UK, whilst CD copies were pressed in 1987 specifically for the UK, although you will be lucky to find either a vinyl or CD copy cheaply nowadays.
Gabriel didn’t particularly lose his way after this, but the success of the third album and it’s associated singles put him into the public eye, and the music tended to veer towards a mainstream audience thereafter. In other words, “Sledgehammer” may be his most famous song, but it is simply not as good as anything you will find on these first three records. His fourth album followed the basic vibe of the third, and the African/World Music elements of “Biko” informed much of the work that followed, with Gabriel also becoming the head honcho for the Womad World Music festivals that followed.
Those first three records really are something else though. The sheer inventiveness that runs through them is beyond doubt, the diversity at times simply incredible, the sound of the records incredibly inventive, consistently strange but never unlistenable or pompous, always thrilling, exciting, and at times, staggeringly beautiful. They are records that deserve to be filed alongside other post punk masterpieces such as “Remain In Light” and “Scary Monsters”, but rarely get praised as such. And whilst it is “So” that is going to be played in full later this year on tour, it is these three records that Gabriel should really consider revisiting instead, as they are glorious, clever, and near flawless pieces of art.
As this is the first time I have done a “Classic Albums” feature on somebody whom has not featured on the site before, I have decided to list a discography of important releases (and re-releases) covering this period of Gabriel‘s career. It should all be fairly self explanatory. A look at “Peter Gabriel 4”, and beyond, will follow in due course.
A quick note regards the below releases - Gabriel’s first two LP’s appeared on Vinyl and Cassette using the same basic artwork, but the third album used a totally different sleeve for the latter - a fairly conventional picture of Gabriel staring slightly sullenly at the camera. The cataloguing system used for Charisma’s cassette releases had also changed by this point.
The three records were reissued on CD in 1987, with the “numerically” designed catalogue numbers mentioned earlier, whilst all three were reissued - briefly - in 1992 as picture CD’s and housed inside the aforementioned special boxset. Gabriel’s own label, Real World, reissued the records in the early noughties, circa the release of the “Up” album, and although they again used numeric catalogue numbers identifying which record was which, they came with special stickers on the front detailing which number album it was. The 2010 reissue campaign, basically US copies being exported for sale in the UK, follow a similar tack, but with the stickers showing both the album number and it’s “fan” title. As with the 2002 releases, the inside artwork mostly ignores what was used on the original vinyl pressings (the lyric insert from “Scratch” is nowhere to be found, instead there are lots of images of Gabriel with a shaved head photographed after the album‘s release, as he adopted this drastic image change for the subsequent concert tour). It is quite possible, if hunting down second hand copies of these albums, that the stickers are missing, as all of these reissues were originally shrinkwrapped, and the stickers were placed on the outside of the shrinkwrap, rather than the CD (digipack) casing itself - note, that the “fan” titles appear nowhere else other than on these stickers. Also note that the original “Peter Gabriel” logo text that appeared at the top of the original vinyl front covers (and their 1987 CD repressings), is completely absent from these editions, with the logo now also appearing on the sticker instead.
VARIANT ALBUMS FROM PERIOD
Peter Gabriel (LP, Charisma CDS 4006)
Peter Gabriel (Cassette, with “Slowburn” moved from side 2 to end of side 1, Charisma CDSMC 4006)
Peter Gabriel (CD, 1987 reissue, Virgin PGCD 1)
Peter Gabriel 1 (CD, 2002 reissue, Real World PGCDR 1, “1“ sticker on front cover)
Peter Gabriel 1 (Car) (CD, 2010 reissue, Real World PGCDR 1, originally shrinkwrapped with “Car” title sticker on front of shrinkwrap, US import copies printed in Mexico)
Peter Gabriel (LP, Charisma CDS 4013)
Peter Gabriel (First Album) + Peter Gabriel (Second Album) (2-on-1 Cassette, post-1978 release, Charisma CASMC 102)
Peter Gabriel (CD, 1987 reissue, Virgin PGCD 2)
Peter Gabriel 2 (CD, 2002 reissue, Real World PGCDR 2, “2” sticker on front cover)
Peter Gabriel 2 (Scratch) (CD, 2010 reissue, Real World PGCDR 2, originally shrinkwrapped with “Scratch” title sticker on front of shrinkwrap, US import copies printed in Mexico)
Peter Gabriel (LP, Charisma CDS 4019)
Peter Gabriel (Cassette, different p/s, Charisma 7150 015)
Ein Deutsches Album (LP, technically German Import, Charisma 6302 035)
Peter Gabriel (CD, 1987 reissue, Virgin PGCD 2)
Ein Deutsches Album (CD, 1987 UK reissue, Virgin XCDSCD 4019)
Peter Gabriel 3 (CD, 2002 reissue, Real World PGCDR 3, “3” sticker on front cover)
Peter Gabriel 3 (Melt) (CD, 2010 reissue, Real World PGCDR 3, originally shrinkwrapped with “Melt” title sticker on front of shrinkwrap, US import copies printed in Mexico)
Solsbury Hill/Moribund The Burgermeister (7”, Charisma CB 301)
Modern Love/Slowburn (7” in die cut sleeve, Charisma CB 302, initial copies had “nude” picture labels)
Solsbury Hill (Live) (7” flexi disc, Sound For Industry SFI 381, gig freebie)
DIY/Perspective (Extended) (7”, Charisma CB 311, later withdrawn)
DIY (Remix)/Mother Of Violence/Teddy Bear (7” in die cut sleeve, Charisma CB 319)
Games Without Frontiers (Single Edit)/The Start/I Don’t Remember (Alternate Mix) (7”, Charisma CB 354)
No Self Control/Lead A Normal Life (7”, Charisma CB 360)
Biko (Single Version)/Shosholoza/Jetzt Kommt Die Flut (7”, Charisma CB 370)
Biko (Single Version)/Shosholoza/Jetzt Kommt Die Flut (12” in different p/s, Charisma CB 370-12)
Solsbury Hill/Games Without Frontiers (Old Gold 7”, first copies in diff p/s to original, Old Gold OG 9265, later reissued in die cut sleeve)