Peter Gabriel: ‘Lead A Normal Life’

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.

Further listening:

The Police: ‘Invisible Sun’

XTC: ‘Fly On The Wall’

David Bowie: ‘Scream Like A Baby’

Joan Armatrading: The Key 35 Years Old Today

A&M Records, released 28th February 1983

Produced by Steve Lillywhite (except ‘Drop The Pilot’ and ‘What Do Boys Dream?’ produced by Val Garay)

Principally recorded at The Townhouse, Shepherd’s Bush, London

UK Album Chart position: #10
US Album Chart position: #32

Musicians include Adrian Belew, Jerry Marotta, Tony Levin, Stewart Copeland, Daryl Stuermer, Larry Fast, Annie Whitehead, Guy Barker, Tim Pierce

 

English Snapshot: Peter Gabriel III

peter gabriel

Virgin Records, released 23rd May 1980

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987?

10/10

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 peter gabriel

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.