Come Blow Your Horn – A Six-Pack of Peter Gabriel

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

Spotify link

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:

Spotify link

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.'”

Spotify link

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.

Spotify link

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.”

Spotify link

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.”

Spotify link

28 thoughts on “Come Blow Your Horn – A Six-Pack of Peter Gabriel

  1. Glad you included Shaking The Tree- that’s a great song that’s not on a studio album.

    Last time I checked, I’m pretty sure Sledgehammer is phallic.

    There’s a lot of Gabriel to cover, but it would have been nice to see some selections from IV/Security and Passion as well.

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    1. Yes, my comments about ‘Sledgehammer’ were totally tongue-in-cheek. The very first tune, “Shock the Monkey,” is from Security. Passion I don’t know at all. Time for an Aphoristical post on that one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim S., Tubularsock enjoys your work. Tubularsock loves all kinds of music and has a room full of it but have only listened.

    Tubularsock has never been a “fan” of anyone though do have preferences of the sound rather than the people involved.

    As a result your worked helps to fill in stuff Tubularsock never really cared about and Tubularsock really enjoys you knowledge in input ……… so thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great selection. While I haven’t paid a lot of attention to Peter Gabriel since his ‘Us’ album and haven’t listened to him for quite some time, I dig many of his songs.

    I couldn’t get enough of ‘So’ when it came out. Sledgehammer, Big Time, Mercy Street, In Your Eyes…so many great tunes on that record. I think the duet with Kate Bush (Don’t Give Up) is incredible as well. It still gets under my skin every time I listen to it.

    Shortly after ‘So’ had come out, I saw Gabriel live in Cologne – great show! In addition to the music, I thought the choreography brilliant. Essentially, it involved Gabriel “engaging” with spot lights attached to telescopic arms that were in the stage background and would come toward him from different directions. My description doesn’t do it justice. I thought it was a very creative and cool idea.

    His first live album (‘Plays Live, from 1983) is outstanding as well.

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    1. I don’t think I knew how much I dug his solo work till I went back to do this piece. So much good stuff! I really, really wanted to put ‘Big Time’ on the list but then it would have practically been a ‘So’ tribute. So I flipped a coin and went with ‘Sledgehammer.’

      He and Kate Bush are so well suited for each other. Cool that you saw him live, in Germany no less.

      You know I hadn’t made the connection before but he has a lot in common with David Byrne. Byrne just blew through town and is now on Broadway with a (so I’ve read) very theatrical production of his music..

      I got to wondering if they were fans of each other or had ever worked together. In fact, it turns out that Gabriel released an album of covers in 2010 called “Scratch My Back” wherein he covered the Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind.” Byrne later covered Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember” on an album called “And I’ll Scratch Yours.” Apparently artists that Gabriel covered were supposed to cover him. But Radiohead, David Bowie, Neil Young, and Ray Davies declined to participate. What’s up with that?

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  4. I know that this is more about Peter’s solo work, but I do remember seeing Genesis supporting Yes in the early 70’s – it really was ‘prog rock’ at its finest that night !!! Peter was using costumes a lot in those days: a foxes head; a daffodil head; etc…

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    1. Never saw Genesis but I saw Yes in NYC back in the day. The Fragile album had been released just about a couple weeks prior. The set was divided pretty evenly between that and the Yes Album, with the latter having the favor. I remember it as it was one of the first late shows (11:30 or so) that I could get permission from my folks to go see. A great band and Steve Howe is one of my favorite guitarists to this day. A shame Chris Squire didn’t live long enough to see their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

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      1. I loved Yes – saw them probably 7-8 times , and ‘sort of’ lost interest after ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ because they were not doing songs anymore. They became an exercise in technical virtuosity – nothing wrong with that, but it just didn’t appeal to me the same way…

        I also had an interesting evening with Rick Wakeman in a club in Cardiff after one of the Yes shows; probably about 1972. He came in and started playing the piano in the bar – we were there until 5.00am… He could play literally anything – and did… classical; Yes stuff; pub drinking songs; whatever anyone asked for.

        He was also drinking then – many, many beers…

        And I agree with you about Steve Howe – an amazing ‘technical’ guitarist…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Really enjoyed this one, Jim. I’ve been very interested in Gabriel for a while, but I only know the self titled albums and a few of the 90s singles (never listened to Genesis).

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  6. A CB fave. Followed him for a long time. I would anticipate his early solo records the same way i did Springsteen. Check out your buddy Steve Hunters work on ‘Waiting for The Big One’. He really goes to town about 5 minutes in.You gotta remember where I was coming from when I heard this tune. From Genesis to blues/jazz vibe. The guy is a musical treasure.

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    1. I listened to that tune. Shit, that’s a blues tune! I never knew Gabriel had done one. He would have been thrown out of Genesis for that for sure. Didn’t even sound like him singing. If I had heard it on the radio I would have thought it was Randy Newman. Maybe a companion to his ‘Political Science.’ (Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.)

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      1. Like a lot of artists I like it was good to see them get some commercial success (Bruce starting with ‘Hungry Heart’ then ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and then you know the rest ) but there was always the rest of the music that people ignored or weren’t hip to. I really do like Gabriels more popular songs but there are so many others i also dig.
        I like the Newman comparison. The whole first album is a mixed bag of good stuff. It’s a fave of mine.

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        1. I love that stuff. Even though I’m not a techy and have no idea what they’re talking about half the time , I love to hear about the creative process. I understand the magic that sometimes comes together. Plus on that session Pete and Bob had some pretty good musicians to work with. I really do did the sound on that cut. Cool also That Fripp was just rhythm and Hunter did his thing. The piano was also a great touch. Good stuff Doc. Thanks. Amazing you found something on that particular song.

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        2. I was so in intrigued by Gabriel doing a blues that I figured there had to be something about it. Granted it’s not a straight-up traditional blues but it’s got that feel.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Oh yeah it’s blues filtered through Gabriel’s creative mind. Fantastic. They found a very cool sound on it.
          I really do like when I get tid bits like you dug up. More interesting than what kind of underwear someones wearing. I guess old CB is just a boring guy. I cant help it.
          On the blues side. Randy Bachman from you know who, cut a song years ago called ‘Blue Collar’. Very jazzy/bluesy. Totally from left field. He was a fan of Lenny Breau

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  7. Some great choices here – the only one missing I think is my personal all-time favourite Don’t Give Up, his duet with Kate Bush from his album So, but choices can change from one week to the next as you say!

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