For the uninitiated, my Six-Packs are not intended to say “these are these artists’ best songs” so much as just to pick six I dug when I wrote this. Could be a different six next week.
Brief history: Peter Gabriel is part of that crop of post-World War II Brits (Chobham, Surrey, England) who got caught up in the revolution in popular music happening at that time. As to influences, he cites The Beatles, Otis Redding whom he saw live in 1967 (“It was like the sun coming out”), Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, and Randy Newman.
And spiritual music: “Hymns played quite a large part. They were the closest I came to soul music before I discovered soul music. There are certain hymns that you can scream your lungs out on, and I used to love that… It was great when you used to get the old shivers down the back.”
In addition to singing and songwriting, Gabriel got into drumming and bought a floor tom-tom. He got into a couple of bands and by 1965 – when he was 15 – formed a band called Garden Wall along with keyboardist Peter Banks and drummer Chris Stewart.
By 1968, those three along with guitarist Anthony Phillips, and bassist Mike Rutherford – now having called the band Genesis – recorded their first album. (Stewart left the band, was replaced by John Silver, who was eventually replaced by some dude named Phil Collins.)
Since this is a Gabriel solo post, I’ll curtail the Genesis history and cut to the fact that after six studio albums and one live album, in 1975 Gabriel announced his decision to leave one of the most popular and influential progressive rock bands of all time.
I will say this – I like Genesis but I wasn’t one of the rabid fans at any point. Maybe I was just trying to absorb all the good stuff that was coming out at the time and they were one band too many. I was more into Yes, Floyd, Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer and jazz fusion. But I keep going back and rediscovering them from time to time.
I think I may actually like Gabriel’s solo work better than his prog work. It’s certainly more commercial, more accessible, funkier in a lot of ways. I came up with ten candidates, whittled it down to six. The honorable mentions were “Big Time,” (because I didn’t want to overdo So), “Red Rain,” “In Your Eyes,” “Games Without Frontiers.”
First up, maybe my favorite Gabriel tune, “Shock the Monkey.” The album it came from was called Security in the US. And while the bizarre video and lyrics might make you think of some weird science experiment, Peter has instead said that it’s a love song that examines how jealousy can release one’s basic instincts. The monkey is not a literal monkey, but a metaphor for one’s feelings of jealousy.
Cover me when I sleep
Cover me when I breathe
You throw your pearls before the swine, make the monkey blind
Cover me, darling, please
Gabriel has long been a proponent of world music, even (in 1980) co-founding the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance) festival which celebrates those things to this very day. In 1989 he collaborated with Senegalese singer/songwriter Youssou N’Dour on the latter’s album The Lion for which they co-wrote a song called “Shaking the Tree.” (N’Dour had sung backing vocals on “In Your Eyes” a few years prior.)
In 1990, Gabriel – or maybe his label – released a compilation album called Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats. This version of “Tree” with re-recorded vocals by Gabriel is from that album:
In 1986, Gabriel released the album So which produced, among other tunes, the massive hit “Sledgehammer.” This is a funky, funky song that is about as far away from prog-rock as you can get and shows Gabriel’s funky, danceable side. I gotta say though that to this day, I cannot figure out what this song is about:
This will be my testimony
Show me round your fruit cage
‘Cause I will be your honey bee
Open up your fruit cage
Where the fruit is as sweet as can be
Oh, wait a minute. That’ s naughty! The video won every award possible and justifiably so. Gabriel has always been a theatrical performer and that very much shows in this piece.
Gabriel lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video one frame at a time. “It took a lot of hard work. I was thinking at the time, ‘If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them.'”
From So comes a haunting song called “Mercy Street” which Peter wrote after reading poet Anne Sexton’s 45 Mercy Street. You can compare Sexton’s poetry and Gabriel’s lyrics here. (Sexton was a Bostonian and hence the references to Back Bay and Charles River.) Morrissey has also claimed to be inspired by Sexton, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a truly sad individual.
In 1992, Gabriel released his sixth studio album Us. The video for the song “Digging in the Dirt” is” largely an exploration of the issues in his personal life at the time, the end of his relationship with Rosanna Arquette, his desire to reconnect with his daughter and the self-healing he was looking for in therapy.”
Lastly, from the Melt album, I leave you with the captivating “Biko.” Wikipedia: The song is a musical eulogy, inspired by the death of the black South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in police custody on 12 September 1977. Gabriel wrote the song after hearing of Biko’s death.
It also had a huge political impact, and along with other contemporary music critical of apartheid, is credited with making resistance to apartheid part of western popular culture. It inspired musical projects such as the Steven Van Zandt-led Sun City and has been called “arguably the most significant non-South African anti-apartheid protest song.”