The best artists make music that continues to resonate long after they stop creating it on a regular basis. They become your “go-to” artists. Their music makes an impact, regardless of how often you play it. It can stay on your shelf for months, if not longer. But once it comes out, there seems to be nothing better.
For me, Peter Gabriel is one of those artists.
It’s hardly a stretch to consider Gabriel a personal icon. He has been, after all, an international superstar. If he goes on tour, chances are there’s a sellout crowd waiting for him. Some of my favorite artists actually have hits. Go figure. Some may find it hard to believe, but there are very rare times when my personal tastes and the popular music charts cross paths.
While I admit a hit first drew me to him, my fascination with Gabriel went and continues to go much deeper. I was aware of “Solsbury Hill” when it was released, but didn’t give it a great deal of thought. It was one of those cool songs I never got around to exploring in depth at the time. I’m sure I knew it was Peter Gabriel, but I hadn’t yet made the connection in terms of where he fit in my musical world.
Ironically, I had become a big fan of Genesis around the same time I heard “Solsbury Hill,” in the early 80’s. By then, Genesis was being fronted by Phil Collins and playing songs like “Abacab.” it took the purchase of a scratchy copy of Seconds Out (my favorite live album of all time) to learn that 1) Genesis was much more prog-oriented than I originally knew; and 2) Peter Gabriel was the band’s original lead vocalist. And just like that, a new musical adventure was born. I was hooked on “old school” Genesis.
But it was “Shock the Monkey” that got me into Peter Gabriel. The single opened side two of his album Security, which was released in 1982. This was also the early years of MTV, which would soon dominate the airwaves of any home with a teenager. Gabriel’s love of the theatrical combined with the song’s catchiness proved to be the perfect combination. I couldn’t not see this video at least three times a week, if not more.
For a short period in 1985, I worked in a record store. The owner was a guy named Warren (I wish I could remember his last name). I don’t even know why he paid me, because the money went almost exclusively back to the store, where I got product at cost. At any rate, Warren took me to the warehouse where he got the LPs for the store a couple of times. Those were always glorious trips. I even learned how to read the UPC bands on the records.
One day, we got to talking about Peter Gabriel. I mentioned how much I liked “Shock the Monkey,” even though I hadn’t gotten a copy of it yet. I can still see the look on Warren’s face. It was almost a look of pity that said, oh, you poor ignorant little man. What he actually said to me was, “Oh no, man. Peter goes much deeper than that!” With that, he plugged the Security album into his car’s cassette player. What I heard was a revelation.
The album opened with a tune called “The Rhythm of the Heat.” It was dark, menacing, and … yeah, highly rhythmic. I was getting my first true taste of “World Music” in a pop context. It would become one of my world’s great ironies that it took Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and Stewart Copeland to teach me the benefit and influence of African music, which they all did in the 80’s. “The Rhythm of the Heat” fired the opening salvo, and there was no going back.
I was hooked. I went home with a copy of Security almost immediately. Naturally, this led me to do what I do every time I “discover” a new artist: I raided his back catalog. Security was Gabriel’s fourth album. The first three were simply called Peter Gabriel, but nicknamed “Car,” “Scratch,” and “Melt,” after their LP covers. I’m told Gabriel only named the fourth record because his label demanded he do so! Title issues aside, I would come to learn what an incredibly deep artist Peter Gabriel was. The guy I thought was only capable of prog rock had an unbelievable knack for “ethnic” rhythms, and a singing voice that sounded more like a 60’s soul singer than an art-rocker. These four albums, along with the in concert release Plays Live, were getting a great deal of rotation on my home record player.
And then Gabriel up and took over the world.
His fifth album, So, landed in 1986, and nothing has been the same since. Once again, Gabriel and MTV proved to be the perfect combination, when Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video seemed to play non-stop for most of the summer.
The video was deemed to be a landmark of artistic innovation. (Most of the people making this declaration were unaware that Frank Zappa had done something very similar with claymation years before. But that’s beside the point.) And with every new single, an equally innovative music video followed suit. I wasn’t that concerned about the visual aspect of So. The music was second-to-none. Was it a perfect album? That is something I will seriously have to consider. I will say this: it’s hard to argue against that.
By that time, my “post-King Crimson Renaissance” had taken full hold, College Rock was becoming a dominant part of my world, and the embrace of jazz was just around the corner. My friends were finding it harder and harder to relate to me musically. But we could just about all come together on Peter Gabriel. At least we had that going for us. But from there, things would get a little bumpy.
To be a Peter Gabriel fan is to understand that nothing happens quickly in his world. He was already notoriously slow when it came to making records (which was one of the reasons he opened his own studio). The American music market can be incredibly fickle, and has no problem moving on from a hitmaker without so much as a backward glance. So by the time Gabriel had created the soundtrack for the film The Last Temptation of Christ (which is quite remarkable) and released his greatest hits album Shaking the Tree before releasing Us in 1992, the American market had moved on. And that’s too bad, because they missed out on a great record. And that record was taken to the next level when the concert film Secret World Live was released the following year. Peter Gabriel has become one of the great concerts draws the world over.
Since then, Peter has been pretty much playing with house money. He releases records when he feels like it (Up, released in 2003, is the last proper studio LP), explores different avenues of musical delivery (such as symphony orchestras), and tries interesting experiments like Scratch My Back, where he covered songs from artists he admired with the hope they would return the favor on … And I’ll Scratch Yours. That particular project did not go entirely to plan, as some of the artists Gabriel covered weren’t completely thrilled with his renditions. Oh, well. As the wise man said, “Sometimes when you go for it, you don’t get there.”
Nevertheless, Peter Gabriel remains a personal icon. He is and has always been one of the more innovative artists to inhabit my musical space. He is one of the rare artists in music I consider to be both a musician and a rock star. This is not easy to do, and only artists on par with Prince can inhabit such rarified air. One of my great musical regrets is that I have never had the chance to see him perform live. I would even endure a large room to make that happen. Alas, he has not made a lot of St. Louis appearances, and I haven’t been able to make trips to Chicago or Kansas City, which is as close as he has come. Time will tell if I get another chance.
One can only guess as to what he’ll do next, if anything. Rumor has it he has been working on something new. But we’ve all heard that song before. But there comes a time when an artist shouldn’t feel obligated to release something just because we think he should. I believe he has earned that status. Regardless of what he chooses to do, when Peter Gabriel speaks, I’ll be listening.
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