Before going solo, Peter Gabriel fronted the progressive rock band Genesis for six albums. His theatrical flair, croaky voice, and creative wordplay were all important ingredients in the the group’s artistic success.
Only 25 years old, Gabriel announced his departure from Genesis in 1975, but it took Gabriel time to find his footing as a solo artist. His 1977 debut featured the much loved ‘Solsbury Hill’, but it’s a dizzily eclectic record, a man liberated from the confines of a group, and trying out everything from progressive rock epics to slick modern rock and a barbershop quartet. Gabriel’s second album was a collaboration with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. It’s an unsatisfying effort from a pairing that sounds interesting on paper.
When Gabriel started work on his third album, he was yet to fulfill his potential on record. This all changed with a visionary record that introduced sonic innovations that would help to define the course of 1980s music and the rest of Gabriel’s career.
Unlike his first two albums, Gabriel’s third album started from rhythm – keyboard player Larry Fast gave Gabriel one of the first programmable drum machine. Gabriel later said “I felt that I wanted to write music for the eighties and that the place to begin was with a rhythm track”. To freshen his sound, Gabriel hired young producer Steve Lillywhite, who’d scored new wave hits like XTC‘s ‘Making Plans For Nigel’.
Another innovation was the drum sound – Peter Gabriel was recorded in Virgin Records’ Townhouse studios. Studio Two has stone walls that exaggerated the resonance of the cymbals. Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel’s former band-mate in Genesis, was recording drum tracks, and Gabriel announced that he didn’t want cymbals and hi-hats because they were “too normal”. Because of this, Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham created a big, ambient sound by placing the microphones further away from the kit.
While Collins was playing around with his re-configured kit, Lillywhite and Padgham were experimenting with a gate compressor unit, that shut the sound off and squashed it. When applied to Collins’ drums, it created an enormous sound, later termed as “gated reverb”. Gabriel wrote opening track ‘Intruder’ around Collins’ drum track, while Collins would use the same sound on his solo work, notably ‘In The Air Tonight’. Gated reverb had previously appeared on 1979 albums by XTC and Yellow Magic Orchestra, but it was very prominent on ‘Intruder’ and became a defining feature in 1980s pop music. Lillywhite later stated that “It’s been used so much that I’ve gone off it a little bit”.
The African rhythms and social justice lyrics on ‘Biko’ were new territory for Gabriel, and both would often reappear on his later work. Gabriel also pioneered of the use of marimbas on a pop record, inspired by Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. He was also the first person to use a Fairlight synthesizer in a UK recording studio.
Demonstrating that he had his finger on the pulse of popular music, Gabriel collaborated with new talent; The Jam’s Paul Weller plays guitar on ‘And Through The Wire’, as does XTC’s Dave Gregory on ‘Family Snapshot’. Kate Bush provided backing vocals on ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘No Self Control’. Robert Fripp’s avant-garde guitar returns from the previous record, and shines on ‘I Don’t Remember’.
Recording an album with a plethora of sonic innovations, Gabriel had to deal with record company interference. Atlantic A&R man John Kolodner infamously offered suggestions on how Gabriel could make ‘And Through The Wire’ sound like The Doobie Brothers. Gabriel and his team refused to compromise the modern, ground-breaking sounds of Peter Gabriel, and Gabriel was dropped by the label. They were ultimately vindicated with the record’s success – it topped the album chart in the UK, and sold 250,000 copies in the USA.
Peter Gabriel viewed his early albums like magazines, naming them all Peter Gabriel, but his third album is commonly referred to as Peter Gabriel III or Melt. The melting effect on the album’s cover was created by rubbing the emulsion on a Polaroid before it was dry.
Why Peter Gabriel III (Melt) is Peter Gabriel’s Best Album
Peter Gabriel’s third album is his most innovative effort – many of the new ideas that Gabriel introduced would continue to be used over the rest of his career. He established himself as a major creative force as a solo artist. Lyrically III is a series of portraits of psychological disturbance – an intruder, an assassin, and the portrait of mental illness on ‘Lead A Normal Life’. The decision to end the album with the empathy of ‘Biko’ gives the record a warmth that would otherwise be lacking.
Since Peter Gabriel III (Melt), Gabriel’s been far from prolific, only releasing four further studio albums:
Peter Gabriel IV (Security) (1982): Gabriel’s fourth album is a more difficult listen, insular and synthetic, but it’s a worthy followup to III, with standout tracks like ‘San Jacinto’ and ‘Wallflower’.
So (1986): So is Gabriel’s best known record, but for me at least, it loses some of Gabriel’s identity with its mainstream sound. It’s understandable that it was his best selling record, with hit singles like ‘Sledgehammer’, ‘Big Time’, and ‘In Your Eyes’.
Us (1992): Us is often overlooked, but for me it’s a deeper, more interesting version of So. ‘Steam’ is a great, funky single, while albums tracks like ‘Secret World’ and ‘Blood of Eden’ are gorgeous.
Up (2002): Gabriel’s perfectionism resulted in an overworked album with great moments like ‘Signal To Noise’ and ‘Growing Up’.
Along with his studio albums, some of Gabriel’s best work is on soundtracks. His most highly regarded is 1989’s Passion (Music for The Last Temptation of Christ), which explores Middle Eastern sounds among other world music textures. I only recently discovered OVO, Gabriel’s soundtrack to London’s millennium exhibition.
‘Family Snapshot’ starts slowly, with Gabriel accompanying himself on electric grand piano. Its multi-part structure might invite comparisons with Genesis, but with its saxophone it’s also comparable in tone to Bruce Springsteen’s 1970s epic album tracks. Thematically it’s right in tone with the psychologically disturbed themes that run through Melt – it’s a portrait of an assassin and their need for attention, inspired by Arthur Bremer’s account of his attempt to assassinate Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Games Without Frontiers
The album’s lead single, ‘Games Without Frontiers’ paved the way for the album’s success. Its peak chart position of #4 ties it with ‘Sledgehammer’ as Gabriel’s most successful single, but it’s an oddball record. Kate Bush repeatedly sings the phrase ‘Jeux Sans Frontières’, the long-running TV show that inspired the song’s title, while Padgham, Lillywhite, and Gabriel’s whistling part is also prominent. The lyrics equate world politics with a children’s game, and on the single release the line “Whistling tunes we piss on the goons in the jungle” was replaced by “Whistling tunes we’re kissing baboons in the jungle.”
Steve Biko was a South African anti-apartheid activist. He died in 1977, after beaten by state security officers after his arrest. Peter Gabriel’s memorial to Biko wasn’t the first to protest apartheid, but was one of the most well known – U2’s Bono later stated that he was unaware of apartheid until he heard the song. The synthesised bagpipes are an unusual sonic touch. Gabriel would go on to collaborate with Amnesty International, and 1982’s ‘Wallflower’ is another excellent protest song.
Do the Experts Agree?
Peter Gabriel III was very successful for such a ground-breaking album, topping the charts in the UK.
Dave Marsh wrote in Rolling Stone: “Lucid and driven. Peter Gabriel’s third solo album sticks in the mind like the haunted heroes of the best film noirs.”
On the website Rate Your Music, Peter Gabriel (1980) is ranked as Gabriel’s best album, with a average rating of 3.92/5.
On the website Acclaimed Music, Peter Gabriel (1980) is ranked as Gabriel’s second best album, as the 611th best album of all time, behind So at #230.
Peter Gabriel (1980) is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, along with Peter Gabriel (1977) and So.
What’s your favourite Peter Gabriel album?