Peter Gabriel’s So: 30 Years Old Today

gabrielVirgin Records, released 19th May 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1986

‘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. He stopped being simply the slightly esoteric, hugely-respected, highly-intelligent man about the arts, and opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; it’s a near-perfect mix of art and commerce.

photo by Steven Toole

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‘ – produced by Nile Rodgers and featuring Adrian Belew on lead guitar – 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’. No one else would have thought of that. 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

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 – it’s hard to see what ‘One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream’ has to do with the experiment.

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.

More power to PG – a national treasure.

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.

Check out Part One of the Summer Playlist here.

Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

I love you/You pay my rent

 

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

THOMAS DOLBY: ‘Hot Sauce’ (lyrics by George Clinton)

Brother in the codpiece/I’ve seen him on the TV
I think he likes his ladies all sweet and sugary
I’m partial to a pudding/But that’s for second course
The main meal and the hors d’oeuvres must be smothered in hot sauce’

 

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

I believe in love/
I’ll believe in anything/
That’s gonna get me what I want/
And get me off my knees’

 

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

I want you/
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/
It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

 

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

Hey Mikey/
Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

 

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/
Your lovers would look like movie stars’

 

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

‘Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
I might end up in the hospital’

 

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

‘Once there was an angel/
An angel and some friends/
Who flew around from song to song/
Making up the ends’

 

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

Burn down the disco/
Hang the blessed DJ’

 

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/
And the sun’s riding high/
I must bid you farewell/
Every man has to die/
But it’s written in the starlight/
And every line in your palm/
We are fools to make war/
On our brothers in arms’

 

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

Out on the road today/
I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/
A little voice inside my head said/
Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

 

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

‘Hello Johnson/
Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/
There’s no reason to get so excited/
I’d been playing football with the youngsters/
Johnson says don’t dramatise/
And you can’t even spell salacious’

 

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

‘I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat…’

 

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

‘Come back Mum and Dad/
You’re growing apart/
You know that I’m growing up sad/
I need some attention/
I shoot into the light’

 

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

‘People say that I’m no good/
Painting pictures and carving wood/
Be a rich man if I could/
But the only job I do well is here on the farm/
And it’s breaking my back’

 

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

So long, child/
It’s awful dark’

 

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

I could have been someone/
Well, so could anyone’

The 5 Creepiest Music Videos Of The 1980s

Peter_gabriel_31081978_02_400In 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: the best thing to do is just watch. 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.

Any more for any more? Let me know below.

Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker licks. Jazzers loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop fans loved him because he could play absurdly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and also solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes.

He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl. It has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s works like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G.

And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band was diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

Dreams By The Sea: Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush

kate bushI’m certainly not alone in finding the seaside very evocative of childhood memories and, in turn, musical revelations gone by. Walking on Slapton Sands in Devon 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, where our boys defended their island from attack, 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).

kate bush peter gabriel

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, with Bush truly painting pictures with sound.

Let me know some other great ’80s sea songs.