Box Set Reviews, vol. 1: Peter Gabriel, So

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to order a copy of the 50th anniversary box set of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Why? Because it’s the Beatles, and Sgt. Pepper is one of the most important albums of the 20th century. Plus, there’s a new stereo mix of the album. It’s said to improve on the already brilliant 2009 remaster, and my life is incomplete until I hear it.

The more cynical among us (including more than a few fellow music fanatics) see these box sets as little more than an ornate cash grab. The boxes, they say, are an opportunity for defunct or creatively barren acts to get themselves another payday before they fall off the face of the earth, or vanish back into relative obscurity. I must confess, there are times when I am part of this cynical crowd. Given the number of box sets available from some of my favorite acts, I own very, very few of them. Forking over $100 or more for an album I already own means something very special is going on within the confines of that box.

So who rates that kind of dedication? For me, not many. But it has happened. Here’s the first example.

Artist: Peter Gabriel

Album: So (originally released in 1986)

What’s the occasion? The box set was released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the album’s release. Alas, Peter was forced to point out that he missed his deadline (which is not unusual for him), and the set was released in 2012. Nevertheless, So is the album that made Peter Gabriel an international superstar, and is no doubt the most popular album I bought in the ’80s. I was already a Peter Gabriel fan from his earlier solo works and his contributions to Genesis in the 70s. While I didn’t necessarily need it, So validated my faith in Gabriel to friends who otherwise would not have paid him any attention.

What’s Inside: The original cover for So wasn’t that ornate to begin with, consisting only of the album’s title, the artist’s name, and a large portrait. For the box, the photo was removed, and I find myself holding a cover that flirts with The Beatles (aka The White Album).

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But the outside is not bereft of art, as the songs are represented by what is best described as modern day hieroglyphics along the spine. Quite clever, actually.

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The rest of the set’s artistic efforts are found inside. Most of the content is housed inside a hardcover scrapbook that commemorates the making of the album, the “Sledgehammer” video, Gabriel’s efforts for Amnesty International, and his This Way Up tour, which promoted So. It is on the cover of this book where we find that iconic portrait of Peter Gabriel.

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On the inside of front and back cover, we find a total of six discs. The left side covers the audio, consisting of the remastered album (missing here because I was playing it at the time), a second disc called DNA, and the two CDs that make up Live in Athens 1987 from the This Way Up tour.

On the right side are the video discs. One is the documentary Classic Albums, which documents the making of So. The other disc is the video presentation of Live in Athens 1987. 

Also included are two LPs. One is the vinyl edition of the album itself. The second disc contains an alternative version of the hit “Don’t Give Up,” and two additional unreleased songs called “Courage” and “Sagrada.”

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Favorite Bits: I really enjoyed the scrapbook. It was made for music proto-geeks like me. Gabriel not only breaks down the songs individually, but he provides a complete list of the equipment used to record So. There may not be many people looking for that kind of information, but I am definitely one of them.

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There are tons of great photos inside, documenting the recording process and subsequent tour. It might be cliche to say it made me feel like I was there, but this came pretty close.

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Music videos are not necessarily my thing, but the video for “Sledgehammer” rightfully owned the MTV airwaves in 1986. It was a landmark video that set the tone for all that followed for decades. The scrapbook offers up both “behind the scenes” photos and storyboards, showing how everything came together.

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DNA was also assembled with people like me in mind. On this disc, Gabriel provides snippets from demos and rehearsals from each song, showing how they ultimately arrived at the finished product. I know there are plenty of people who couldn’t care less about the process of songwriting. “Don’t tell me about the labor pain,” they say. “Just show me the baby.” I, however, am not one of those people. I’m fascinated by the process, and loved the chance to learn from one of the best.

I saw the Classic Albums documentary on AXS-TV, and found it incredibly interesting. So I was thrilled to see it came with this box set. The original show clocked in at just under an hour, for television purposes. This means a lot of fascinating stuff was edited out. Those scenes are included as bonus features on this disc. Nice add!

Live In Athens is an incredible show, focusing not just on So, but on the material from Gabriel’s first four albums, which cult fans like me were already in love with. This is Peter Gabriel as he was emerging from the theater shows and heading into larger arenas with more ornate sets. Not surprisingly, I prefer the DVD presentation, because it’s fun to see what the band is doing during some of the longer numbers like “Lay Your Hands on Me” and “In Your Eyes.” Let’s just say it takes a lot of energy to be a member of Peter Gabriel’s band. I would love to be a part of it!

The LP sounds wonderful, even though I only played it once. The additional tracks, while not life-altering, are also interesting, and well worth the price of admission.

What’s Missing: Gabriel made a video for every song on the album. I’ve seen them. And while music videos aren’t my thing, it would have been nice to have a DVD of all the videos from this album. They were all highly creative, and only made a great record seem even greater.

Who’s this for? The obvious answer is Peter Gabriel fans in general, and So fans in particular. But this is also a great set for people who want to take apart and reassemble a classic album. I don’t know if I’d recommend this set for Gabriel neophytes, but there’s definitely something for everyone here.

Should I buy it? If you value Peter Gabriel as much as I do, yes.

Personal rating: 8.5/10

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2 Comments

    1. This is just me, but I’m guessing PG and company assumed that if you were willing to pop for the box set, you already knew the song’s lyrics. I, for one, wouldn’t plop down that much money on an album I’ve never heard. But that’s just a guess. The second LP contains a remix of “Don’t Give Up” and two bonus tracks. Given PG’s exacting nature when it comes to recording, I wonder just how many remixes there are to be found. He may have gotten the mix he wanted and then stopped. But again, that’s a theory.

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