Peter Gabriel’s brilliant 1980 self-titled album is probably best known for its much-discussed ‘gated reverb’ drum sound, the ‘no cymbals’ rule and the tracks ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘Biko’.
The record portrayed various characters on the fringes of society, whether due to war, intolerance, mental illness, crime or racism.
But its penultimate track, the somewhat forgotten ‘Lead A Normal Life, is a chilling, minimalist classic whose power grows with each passing year. It’s set in an unnamed, uncharacterised institution – a borstal, high-security prison, crisis centre or mental asylum? The latter seems most likely.
It’s fair to say mental illness was a taboo in late-1970s Britain, even while the borstals were subject to Thatcher’s ‘short, sharp shock’ doctrine (in the era of Alan Clarke’s devastating film ‘Scum’), unemployment and institutional racism were rife, crime was on the increase, the Yorkshire Ripper rampant and The Troubles in Northern Ireland very much on the agenda.
In short, it sometimes felt like this song WAS normal life in 1979. And many aspects of life in 2021 may lead one to a similar conclusion.
Legendary Atlantic A&R man Ahmet Ertegun, upon hearing Peter Gabriel III, reportedly asked if Peter had recently spent any time in an asylum. This may have hit closer to home than is often reported.
Gabriel elaborated a little on ‘Lead A Normal Life’ in September 2013’s MOJO magazine: ‘I think the assumption was that you couldn’t write about something like that unless you had experience of it. I later discovered I had depression around the time of my marriage breaking up (in early 1987). But maybe there was something more there.’
The lyric is very brief, but its power comes from colloquial, off-hand phrases, as if spoken by a (somewhat blithe) visitor of an inmate (or an ‘official’ visitor – ‘A Clockwork Orange’ came to mind while listening again recently). Despite the calming view of the trees, surely the institution is anything but ‘nice’.
Musically, the track is built around Morris Pert’s minimalist marimba (and slung mugs or child’s xylophone?), Peter’s haunting Yamaha CP-70 piano figure/ominous chords and Fritched, primal-scream vocals (with treatments courtesy of Larry Fast), Jerry Marotta’s tribal toms, David Rhodes’ guitar loop (or feedback?) and Dick Morrissey’s brief, stacked tenor saxes.
Producer Steve Lillywhite expertly uses muting/fading-in and deep reverb to create big black holes in the track, crafting a cogent arrangement in the process which easily holds the attention for four-plus minutes. It’s an object lesson in how to use silence to enhance a mix.
‘Lead A Normal Life’ is a masterpiece on a subject rarely touched in ‘rock’, evoking loneliness and disturbance in equal measure, shot through with Peter’s trademark compassion. He’s even played it live a few times, to chilling effect.
You wait all day for a prog/pop legend and then three turn up at once.
David Sancious, Francis Dunnery and Peter Gabriel gathered at London’s Abbey Road Studios on 7th February for a Steinway Pianos event:
Ex-It Bites frontman Francis posted on his always-entertaining Facebook page:
‘It was great to see David and Peter again. I’m havin’ fun here at Abbey Road. I’m hanging with Youth who I found out is a Capricorn. Killing Joke were an amazing band. It’s all good. Performance tonight for loads of Germans for Steinway Hamburg…‘
Now that I wanna hear: the Francis D/Killing Joke collaboration. I always suspected It Bites’ classic near-hit ‘Midnight’ was a teeny bit influenced by the Joke’s ‘Love Like Blood’.
It’s a very busy time in the Dunnery camp – he’s just finished the sold-out ‘Eat Me In St Louis’ UK tour (named after It Bites’ 1989 album), played a solo gig at Iridium in New York, has a live album out and is recording a new studio record.
He also has some UK house concerts booked in March and will return next year for ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ tour. Looking forward to that.
In the meantime, check out my review of Francis’s recent London gig in issue 38 of Classic Pop magazine.
There was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s.
You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…
I was never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years.
Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.
Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…
13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)
Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.
12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)
Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.
11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)
The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.
10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)
Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.
9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)
The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.
8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)
The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.
7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)
This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.
6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)
This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.
5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)
This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.
4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)
This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.
3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)
The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.
2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)
The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.
1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)
The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.
‘At the time of coming back, he had tremendous determination. He said, “I do want to make it! I do want to succeed!” Instead of going along with the idea that he is different, special, unique, precious, So was about him saying, “F**k that! I’m going to allow myself to succeed.”’
Jill Gabriel, quoted in ‘Peter Gabriel’ by Spencer Bright
So was the Peter Gabriel album that put him – albeit very briefly – into The Big League, alongside the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Prince, Hall and Oates and Springsteen, leaving his ‘art-rock’ contemporaries (Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp) in the dust.
He opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; a near-perfect mix of art and commerce.
photo by Steven Toole
In interviews, Gabriel has described the ’83/’84’ period as a dark time in his life. He mixed and released an excellent live album and looked for solace in film soundtrack work, producing two fairly inconsequential tracks: ‘Walk Through The Fire‘ from ‘Against All Odds’ and ‘Out Out‘ from ‘Gremlins’.
Far more substantial was his soundtrack for Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’, but, most importantly, it was the project that introduced him to So co-producer Daniel Lanois.
Gabriel later credited Lanois and his then wife Jill for steering him back towards more positive thoughts, and much more ‘up’ music and lyrics.
Gabriel came up with 20 new songs by early 1985. Lanois helped him whittle them down to 12, and then six months of pre-production began, focusing on song structures and arrangements. So was mainly recorded at Gabriel’s home studio, Ashcombe House near Bath.
Working at home was intended to save money on big studio fees and also speed up the creative process, but lyric-writing was still a big problem and a lack of words necessitated two missed release deadlines for So: 31st July 1985 and 14th December 1985.
Virgin were patient. Lanois once even nailed him into a back room to force him to come up with some lyrics – Gabriel was not amused, at least not for a few hours. ‘It is the most upset I’ve seen him at the studio,’ guitarist David Rhodes remarked. Lanois had made his point.
Musically, Gabriel very much leaned on tried-and-tested collaborators such as Rhodes and Tony Levin – it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing bass on So. He’s so much part of the music. Check out his ‘drumstick bass’ (later marketed as Funk Fingers!) on ‘Big Time’.
Joni Mitchell’s then husband Larry Klein also plays some lovely fretless on ‘Mercy Street’. French-African newcomer Manu Katche amazed everyone with his drumming, particularly on ‘That Voice Again’ and ‘In Your Eyes’. He had a new twist on Stewart Copeland’s style and also somehow found the time to fit occasional tom-tom flurries into his grooves too.
Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
‘Red Rain’ opens with some resplendent Copeland hi-hat work, and ends with the kind of piano/vocal coda that Simple Minds excelled at – the influences were now flowing both ways.
‘Don’t Give Up’ was inspired by a BBC TV documentary about the effect of unemployment on British family life, and also the photography of Dorothea Lange, portraying dust-bowl conditions during the Great Depression.
‘Mercy Street’, dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, shows evidence of Lanois’ influence; its opening ambient textures resemble Brian Eno’s ‘Under Stars’ which Lanois co-produced.
Gabriel’s low-octave vocals apparently had to be recorded first thing in the morning for maximum deepness. The song’s Brazilian/African groove predates Paul Simon’s Graceland by six months or so.
‘We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)’, concerning social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments, was originally recorded for Melt in 1980. While musically very rich and dark (I always think of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ when I hear that opening minor chord), lyrically it is possibly a little half-baked.
‘Big Time’ is Gabriel’s amusing, self-mocking, Randy Newmanesque satire on success and celebrity – ‘This drive for success is a basic part of human nature and my nature’, he later said.
Musically, it’s a potent mixture of driving Copeland drums, treated rhythm guitar, synth bass, quasi-industrial samples and some great Hammond organ by Simon Clark.
Another much rockier version – featuring Jerry Marotta on drums – was also recorded but scrapped just before the mastering stage.
‘Sledgehammer’ was the last song written and recorded for So. Ironically, it dislodged Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch’ to become a US number one single in July 1986.
A catalogue of sexual innuendos, it’s one of the weirder hits of the 1980s. Its odd cheerfulness may come from the fact that it’s mainly in a major key, a rarity for an R’n’B-influenced track. David Rhodes’ rhythm guitar part is eccentric and the Farfisa organ bizarre.
The opening sampled bamboo flute was copied by hundreds of keyboard players across the UK (or at least a few in my school). The groundbreaking video for the song, directed by Stephen Johnson (who had used similar techniques for Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’ clip), required 100 hours of Gabriel’s time.
Apparently Gabriel was obsessed with the album’s sequencing: he made up endless cassettes featuring just song endings/beginnings, testing all the different permutations.
He always wanted ‘In Your Eyes’ to close So, but was persuaded otherwise when told that its drums and bass wouldn’t hold up very well at the end of a long side of vinyl (though it’s hard to ‘hear’ it anywhere else but at the beginning of side two…). He finally got it where he wanted it on the definitive remastered version.
Gabriel’s only concession to the record company was to name the album something apart from ‘Peter Gabriel’. So seemed suitably off-the-cuff – ‘It had a nice shape but very little meaning’, he later said.
He also decided that a simple cover shot would better suit the directness of the music and lyrics than some of the more disturbing covers of albums past. So‘s design and packaging still look fantastic today.
The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and by summer 1987 had sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Gabriel promoted the album extensively before embarking on Amnesty’s Human Rights Now! with Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen in 1988.
He had a lot more than music on his mind – he waited a full six years before releasing the official follow-up to So. The commercial assault had paid off but at what cost to his long-term creativity?
In the 1980s, big-name directors generally had no qualms about helming pop videos: Landis, Scorsese, De Palma, Fincher, Peckinpah, Demme, Friedkin and Sayles all brought their visual sense to bear on the medium.
But if you weren’t tying the song in with a movie, you had to interpret the sometimes fairly nonsensical lyrics somehow (begging the question: were ’80s lyricists ever inspired by how their words would be interpreted in a song’s video?).
Given an almost blank slate, it’s fair to say that some directors’ imaginations ran riot; sometimes the storyboards got – how shall we put it kindly – a bit out of hand, riddled with disturbing symbols, disconcerting imagery and creepy concepts.
Here are five of the strangest clips of the decade:
5. David Bowie: ‘Underground’ (1986)
Legendary director Steve Barron (‘Beat It’, ‘Take On Me’) helmed this curio which accompanied David’s appearance in the movie ‘Labyrinth’. The song (which clearly influenced Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ a few years later) seems to be about a young girl’s alienation and initiation into the adult world (‘No one can blame you for walking away… Daddy, daddy, get me out of here!’), echoing the movie’s plot. But the video goes off into very odd tangents: David dissolves into the floor, has a flashback to all his previous personas and then moves into a murky underworld where he becomes an animated character. The disembodied ‘helping hands’ from the movie mime to the gospel backing vocals and David dances with muppets before he rips off his ‘real’ face and becomes a cartoon character forever. Albert Collins’ earthy, raunchy blues licks seem a bit out of place alongside this surreal stew…
4. Laura Branigan: ‘Self Control’ (1984)
‘Exorcist’ director William Friedkin was in charge of this expensive curio. Words are hard to come by. This excellent analysis says it all really. Was the video an influence on Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’?
3. Bonnie Tyler: ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ (1983)
Directed by another future Hollywood helmer Russell Mulcahy, this expensive weirdorama was filmed at the Holloway Sanatorium, a large, unused Victorian mental hospital in Surrey. It was a very apt choice of location: virginal boarding-school teacher Bonnie seems to be either dreaming or fantasizing about her students participating in various activities including swimming, karate, gymnastics, football, fencing, singing and dancing. As you do. Apparently there’s an urban legend that the boy who shakes Bonnie’s hand at the end is Italian footballer Gianfranco Zola. Let’s hope it’s true.
2. Peter Gabriel: ‘I Don’t Remember’ (1983)
This forbidding track, remixed from Peter Gabriel Plays Live, was never going to get a happy-clappy ‘Sound Of Music’-style vid, but it’s still pretty out-there. There are echoes of Bowie’s ‘Blackstar‘ in its conflation of poverty, physical threat, trance-like states and religious reverence. ‘I Don’t Remember’ is certainly one of the most distinctive vids of the mid-’80s but seems way too menacing for wide appeal.
1. The Jacksons: ‘Torture’ (1984)
The track seems to be about the ‘torture’ of relationship breakdown but director Jeff Stein and designer Bryce Walmsley (hi, Bryce!) over-egg the concept something rotten here. It pretty much comes on like a manual for trauma-based mind control. Both Michael and Jermaine refused to appear in the video, which ran over time and over budget, driving its production company into bankruptcy. Almost unbelievably, a wax dummy of Jacko was rented from a Madame Tussaud’s in Nashville and appears in three sequences including the tragic and really quite sad final salute. Stein recalls the shoot as ‘an experience that lived up to the song title’ and says it was so stressful that one of his crew members lost control of her bodily functions. Vigilant Citizen has put together an excellent analysis of the video.
I’m certainly not alone in finding the seaside very evocative of childhood memories and, in turn, musical revelations gone by.
Walking on Devon’s Slapton Sands recently, I was taken back to family holidays at St Margaret’s Bay, a little village atop the famous White Cliffs of Dover on the English Channel.
Armed with my Walkman, I’d take off towards the creepy, deserted air-raid shelters, then scramble up the steep chalk track to enjoy the huge expanse of sea in all directions and the French coast in the distance.
The two tracks most redolent of that time – and two which somehow seem to capture something about the English fascination with all things nautical – are Kate Bush’s ‘And Dream Of Sheep’ and Peter Gabriel/Robert Fripp’s ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (not strictly an ’80s track, being recorded in 1978, but originally appearing on the ‘definitive’ 1985 reissue of Fripp’s Exposure album).
They are almost indistinguishable to me and will forever be connected to that coastline and the seaside in general.
Gabriel’s sea song was originally recorded for his 1976 debut album in a bombastic, overblown style, very characteristic of its producer Bob Ezrin. But in 1978, during the Robert Fripp-produced sessions for the second album, he laid down a much gentler, far superior piano/vocal version, to which Fripp later added Frippertronics and a spoken-word segment from his spiritual guide and Gurdjieff-follower JG Bennett (who turned up on David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth too).
Bennett’s words set up the themes of the song; Gabriel’s lyric seems to point towards the inhabitants of an island (England?) joining forces (telepathically?) to save themselves from a pending (apocalyptic?) tsunami. In doing so, the islanders taken on mystical, extra-sensory powers.
There are shades of the Genesis track ‘Supper’s Ready’, with its epic tale of good versus evil, and also elements of the research into ESP that Gabriel was apparently doing at the time.
For some reason, the lyric also always reminds me of John Carpenter’s movie ‘The Fog’. Something to do with bad things coming out of the sea, I guess. Anyway, it all adds up to make a very affecting piece (below paired up with Fripp’s ‘Water Music’ too).
Bush’s version of the sea song kicks off the extraordinary Ninth Wave suite that takes up the entire second side of her classic 1985 album Hounds Of Love. We are thrust unceremoniously into a psychic association with a female protagonist who finds herself in the middle of the sea after a shipwreck.
Echoes of past/present obsessions, loves and losses float to the surface of her mind (including the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast), ostensibly to keep her awake so that she doesn’t drown.
The conclusion of the song cycle suggests that she’s now at peace and in a far more positive state of mind, either in death or safe at shore. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of music (and in the same key as ‘Here Comes The Flood’), with Bush truly painting pictures with sound.
So was the gateway Gabriel album, as it probably was for many teenagers in the 1980s. I went back and checked out some other albums.
As a 15-year-old, I really didn’t get Melt. The deceptively dry, claustrophobic mix, extensive use of processing, Gabriel’s animalistic yelps and the barmy Fairlight sound effects seemed so forbidding compared to So.
The opening ‘Intruder’, with its liberal use of flatted-fifth chords and Gabriel’s schizophrenic vocal, was exceptionally unsettling to a teenage lad in leafy south-west London. Forget Black Sabbath, this sounded genuinely dangerous, in a particularly English way.
The question is, of course, what an ostensibly happy, settled, middle-class young man such as Gabriel was doing digging around in the dirt in such spectacular fashion. But thank goodness he did.
He extended ‘character’ songwriting – also used to memorable effect by the likes of Randy Newman, Sting, Steely Dan and The Beatles – far beyond the range of Genesis, conjuring up a memorable parade of the bungled and botched operating on the edges of society.
Musically, Gabriel apparently instructed producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham that nothing ‘normal’ was acceptable. Hence the famous cymbal ban, the layering of Kate Bush’s ethereal backing vocals and seemingly out-of-control processing and phasing.
Kate Bush and PG recording at The Townhouse, London
The album’s themes seem to be the moral trapdoors of late-20th century urban life (mental illness, sexual violence, political assassinations, terrorism, the dehumanisation of war, social isolation).
You could argue that at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, Bristol riots and IRA bombings, this was the perfect soundtrack.
‘Intruder’ subtly probes the sexual connotations of ‘breaking and entering’, equating a petty criminal’s intrusion with other kinds of violation, suggesting – controversially – some kind of tacit consent or ‘understanding’ by the victim.
On the epic, affecting ‘Family Snapshot’, Gabriel somehow manages to make us feel empathy for a fame-obsessed political assassin, especially in the closing ‘All turned quiet, I’ve been here before…’ section (which It Bites ‘paid homage to’ on fine 1988 B-side ‘Staring At The Whitewash’).
I used to think the protagonist of ‘Lead a Normal Life’ (‘eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives’) was stuck in a borstal, but now I’m sure it’s far worse than that. And is the narrator of ‘I Don’t Remember’ an imprisoned political dissident or someone in an abusive relationship?
It’s certainly not going to end well judging from Gabriel’s indecipherable whispers over the mechanized hum of the Fairlight in the outro, suggesting meek (drugged?) capitulation or even death.
It took me ten years or so to fully appreciate the album. But now it’s by far my favourite work by PG. Some fantastic UK session players play as if their lives depended on it, especially Dick Morrissey on sax and bassist John Giblin.
Tony Levin delivers one of the greatest and most influential basslines in rock on ‘I Don’t Remember’ and single-handedly invigorates interest in the Chapman stick.
And Padgham and Lillywhite have never done better work. Check out their stunning sound design on ‘And Through The Wire’; the mix subtly develops the drums with a little more room reverb in each successive chorus until the explosive last one when Marotta’s snare and Paul Weller’s brutal guitar threaten to destroy your speakers.
And the gradual building of ‘Biko’ and ‘No Self Control’, the latter with some distinctly Steve Reich-inspired marimbas played by Morris Pert, remains an aural treat.
This fantastic album still challenges and surprises after all these years.