Has it really been 30 years since musical living legend Peter Gabriel released So? Peter Gabriel has occupied an important position in the world of Rock Music for decades. Gabriel is a trailblazing experimentalist ever venturing to take what looks like unsavvy steps that in hindsight prove nascent and smart moves. Many in the record industry thought he was unwise to relinquish his front-man stint with Genesis just as things were breaking open for the band. Likewise many doubted his choices with his solo career circa late 70’s. During this same period, he would become a champion of World Music; co-founding the WOMAD Festival in 1982 when many thought World music was a dead/boutique music genre. His backing of synthesizers and pioneering of digital distribution of music seems again otherworldly prophetic.
Throw in the fact that Gabriel is a man seeking perfection in an imperfect world and you have the makings of someone who should be more of an underground musical artist than a successful solo artist. But in the mid to late 80’s and into current times he became a mainstream musical phenomenon and an elder statesman of Rock. So was Gabriel’s fifth solo album, his prior four releases were all eponymously named Peter Gabriel and differentiated by the nicknames for his album covers. “So” Followed Gabriel’s 1982 release nick-named Security.
“So” began with the collaboration of renowned producer Daniel Lanois and Gabriel working on the soundtrack for the film “Birdy”. Gabriel asked Lanois to lend a hand with the beginnings of Gabriel’s next solo project at his home studio at Ashcombe House. The initial sessions were Gabriel, Lanois and guitarist David Rhodes, and they dubbed themselves the three stooges. Eventual a large number of friends/artists would appear on the album with a credits list that looks like a who’s who of significant artists of the day; Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Stewart Copeland, Youssou N’Dour, Jim Kerr, Michael Been, Nile Rodgers, Manu Katche, L Shanker, Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta and on and on. The going was not always easy in making the recording; lyrics were a tough go for Gabriel for whom writing lyrics was never popular activity.
At one point Lanois became so frustrated he took drastic measures. He destroyed the phone in the studio and nailed the studio door shut with Gabriel locked in forcing him to write lyrics. Also slowing down the process was Gabriel’s maddening obsession with the track list. He would listen to the beginnings and ends of the tracklist repeatedly to make sure the songs merged into each other perfectly. In the end, all the hard work paid off with an album that many believe is his best and most accessible work. With So Gabriel was able to put to rest the drama of his departure from Genesis and come into his own. It moved him from a stellar cult artist to a mainstream star.
“So” gave Gabriel an undoubted victory. It was certified 5 fold platinum and had five extremely successful singles, Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up, Big Time, In Your Eyes and Red Rain. Sledgehammer reached #1 on Billboard’s hot list and won a record 10 VMA’s. The album was nominated for four Grammys and won numerous accolades. The album also provided a blueprint for the sound of 80’s rock with his “gated reverb” drum effect and trailblazing work with the Fairlight CMI synthesizer. The album focused on melody and combined it with elements of Soul and African World Music stylings. It was the perfect marriage of Gabriel’s mastery of world beats and Lanois’ perfect ear for texture and detail that produced a brilliant result. Always led by what Gabriel’s heart tells him to do there was no compromise within the message of the album or how it was conveyed. It was easy to listen to but underneath had a distinct subversive quality. It was emotionally complex and musically sophisticated. It was many times a heartfelt journey travelling over intensely emotional territory while being slightly off-kilter, burrowed into the listener’s being making it unforgettable.
“So” is relatively brief with only 9 songs but it is concentrated emotional power and charismatic. Red Rain begins with an extraordinary percussive build up as Stewart Copeland provides tremendous drama with his work on the Hi-Hat Cymbals. The song parallels a thunderstorm where it comes crashing in with lightning and thunder that captures your attention. It is menacing and angry as the lyrics address societal problems, torture and the threat of nuclear war. The lyrics could also be taken as an examination of a relationship “I come to you defences down, with the trust of a child.” The evocative song was a fantastic union of percussion, drums, glistening piano/synths and bass. “Red Rain” is a mini-masterpiece and the perfect song to begin the album.
The playlist jumped from strength to strength with the song Sledgehammer lodging itself into the public consciousness with its coy sexual innuendos and video. The song was inspired by Otis Redding’s stylings. The horns provided by Wayne Jackson are music punctuation for an amazing composition. The track captures Gabriel at his most soulful, testifying to unconverted as he once again blends R&B stylings with enough sexual double entendre to make a madam blush. The song was the gateway to bring the mainstream audience into the album creating a revival tent of sorts with Gabriel preaching the gospel for his version of rock music.
From the glorious noise that is “Sledgehammer”, the mood turned sombre with Don’t Give Up. Sonically it doesn’t get more perfect than Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel in duet. This stunning song is visceral and evocative. The sparse accompaniment relays the images of economic depression and destitution with the lyrics pounding home the message, “I am a man whose dreams have all deserted, I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name but no one wants you when you lose.” Kate presents the spirit of hope and encouragement of seeing beyond the moment, “Don’t give up cause you have friends, don’t give up your not the only one… don’t give up because somewhere there’s a place, a place where we belong.” The song was inspired by Gabriel’s outrage over rampant unemployment in the UK and the ill effects of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. It is an apt portrayal of the pain of unemployment and the individual catastrophes it causes. The song portrays a man on the brink of despair his purpose lost and ruined, “ moved on to another town tried hard to settle down, for every job so many men, so many men no one needs. “ The stark beauty of the song helps the ugly truth of the lyrics go down.
That Voice Again was Gabriel taking on the concept of conscience and the superego. On display are the war between the ego and superego,” I’m listening to the conversation judge and jury in my head.” It followed the argument in our heads, “I want to be with you I want to be clear, but I don’t want to hear, hear that voice again”. This song is a map for many a great 80’s songs with its utilization of the soft/loud technique. The crystalline synths and amazing bass anchor the song. “That Voice Again” is a culmination of all that was great in prior Gabriel discs and is an amazing manifestation of all his gifts.
The album continues to produce alluring track after alluring track and In Your Eyes in many ways cemented the popular acclaim for the album. This beloved track is Gabriel’s greatest love song. It was inspired by the Sagrada Familia and its architect Antoni Gaudi. The song launched a thousand proms themes in its day. However it is not just a candy-coated lovesong, it was a sincere look at love and spoke to the highs and lows encountered in the act of loving someone. Within the imagery, there is the idea of a thread that exists between two people that cannot be broken no matter how far you run. “In your eyes the resolution of all the fruitless searches, in your eyes the light, the heat, in your eyes, oh I want to be that complete.” Gabriel attempts to capture the essence of love and comes out with an unforgettable song. The cameo backup singers and Youssou N Dour’s scat ending sent this song on its way to the top of the chart and rightfully so.
What can I say about Mercy Street except that it was the song that was my gateway to the album? I was and am an aficionado of the poet Anne Sexton for whom the song was dedicated. The song is utter perfection as it aptly blended the imagery of three of Anne’s poems; Rowing, The Rowing Endeth and 45 Mercy Street. The song displayed what was so extraordinary about her poems. To really appreciate the song you have to know some of the backstories. Anne was a troubled suicidal bipolar disorder sufferer who discovered in her twenties her ability to write poetry. For a time poetry saved her life. For twenty years until her suicide, she wrote groundbreaking acclaimed poetry.
Her works were confessional, thought-provoking and extremely evocative. In her life, she endeavoured upon a never-ending search for health, acceptance and something other. The song speaks to Anne’s insightfulness, her battle with mental illness and her search to find peace with God. Her journey was an eternal search for closure with her disapproving parents especially her father. That is why the close of the song is so moving; “Anne with her father is out in the boat, riding the water, riding the waves of the sea.” The song aurally is spectacular with its haunted swirling quality. It is the emotion apex of the album and goosebump-inducing. The stripped back production and simple vocal make the synth and world beats sound otherworldly. Years after it’s release it is a song that still moves me to tears, it is incandescent and magnificent.
Gabriel oscillated back to funk with Big Time which satirized the emerging yuppie culture of materialism and consumerism. “Big Time” was Sledgehammer’s little brother. Presented is a Gatsby-like creature who is a total façade. This bloke is turning into a total prat as he boasts about how big everything he owns is including what lurks in his pants. It is hats off to Stewart Copeland for again providing the impeccable percussion on this track along with Lanois providing the surf guitar. We Do What We’re Told was actually written for Gabriel’s third album. It is inspired by American Social Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. The song is ghostly and aptly clinical in feel. A surreal dream floating off into the ether as Gabriel attempts to capture the subconscious in a song. The song perfectly segues into This is the Picture/Excellent Birds which is like the surreal dream that occurs after the conscious signs off and you surrender to the unconscious world.
These two tracks are also the most experimental and off-kilter of the release. “This is the Picture” was included in the album a mere two days before the album was submitted. “Excellent Birds” was composed by Laurie and featured on her 1984 album “Mister Heartbreak”, that song was interpolated into “This is the Picture”. It is a menacing and prophetic song. The icy taunt lyrics encapsulated modern life and it is a fantastic collaboration of two visionaries. It also reassured long-time Gabriel fans he had lost none of his avant-garde tendencies.
The Iconic So captured all of Gabriel’s gifts and distilled them into a master-work. The brilliance lies in the combination of unlikely genres that attracted vast and different fans. It is only right that it holds a place on many lists of the greatest albums ever released. The tour that supported the album was as magnificent and moving as the album. Those fortunate enough to catch his live performances during this era will never forget the charisma and power of his presence on the stage. Today Gabriel continues to trail blaze and produce music; following up “SO” with US and another 4 albums along with collaborations, soundtracks and live releases.
He has also continued his commitment to various important political causes; Amnesty International, Artists Against Apartheid and Amazon Forest Initiatives among many. He is one of the originators of WITNESS a non-profit group that trains activists in how to use video and the internet to document human rights violations and get them noticed. Always the techie wonk he was one of the pioneers of digital distribution methods for music, co-founding OD2 one of the first online music downloading services. The man is a walking legend and So is prime evidence of his magnificent skills and abilities. If you have never availed yourself with a listen to this album do not hesitate to correct the situation, you won’t regret the move.