Peter Gabriel’s madcap music vision made him a hero among prog-rock fans during the 1970s. Later, in the 1980s, he became a mainstream pop star. Even later, he was revered as an elder spokesman of intelligent pop music.
Yet, there is a period in Peter Gabriel’s career that is less often celebrated. Between 1977 and 1982, the former Genesis frontman made four self-titled albums. A mixture of British fantasies, pop sounds, world music, and general weirdness these might just be the ones to capture Gabriel’s essence as a musical artist. Here’s a reassessment of those records.
Peter Gabriel’s time in Genesis
Genesis, much like Gabriel’s own discography, is a tale of several bands performing under the same banner. The band began as an imaginative folk-rock group cherishing pastoral images of Britain. They then blossomed towards grandiose, theatrical productions. With Phil Collins on vocals, Genesis turned into a soft-pop phenomenon. Lastly, Genesis turned into a dark prog-rock act again, before the inevitable reunions catering to their pop past.
Peter Gabriel’s time in the group is arguably the most interesting. The band was formed at a prestigious boarding school. Gabriel was, initially, their drummer. Choosing to abandon their education, the group christened Genesis began making low-key folk-rock music. It was a style that was very popular in Britain at the turn of the 1960s, a time when people like Syd Barrett were rightfully considering the wildest, most experimental of what Britain had to offer musically.
By the 1970s though, the young Peter Brian Gabriel had seized creative control of the group and hurled them fearlessly towards a path of exaggerated theatrics. The group’s songs were long. The lyrics talked, and largely ridiculed the British way of life. They made concept albums and Gabriel was well-known in the press, much to the chagrin of his bandmates, for his singing, but, especially for wearing eye-catching costumes.
Unhappy with his bandmates’ criticism and unwilling to relent creative control, Gabriel opted to leave the group and start a solo career. To his credit, little of solo output resembled Genesis. His bandmates, on the other hand, largely rescinded on their prog-rock past and became pop stars.
Peter Gabriel 1: Car – A perfect response to punk
Peter Gabriel’s first solo album was released in 1977. Like the three that followed, it was eponymously titled. Fans tend to refer to it as Peter Gabriel 1: Car, because of the album’s vinyl cover artwork.
It was rather a bizarre record considering Gabriel’s recent past. Gone were the mammoth concept records, the world-building, and the endless guitar solos. This was a wise move considering the rise of punk rock in 1977. This was a new kind of prog, that would no doubt influence the next generation of art-rockers like the Talking Heads or The B 52s.
The album scored a big hit with the folk-rock number Solsbury Hill, an ode to the bickerings had with his former bandmates. It’s a tune in which Gabriel uses his voice in a familiar fashion, not unlike Genesis’ Carpet Crawlers. The rest of the album is much less conservative. Electronica, soul, and cabaret all fight for territory, while the singer’s lyrics often place himself in the background. The 1980s were to be a time in which the artsy madcaps became pragmatical pop chameleons. In many ways, 80s pop begins here.
Peter Gabriel 2: Scratch – Testing pop music’s limits
Gabriel’s ambition was still burning brightly by the time of album #2. However, his desire to draw the public’s attention through a giant spectacle took, for the moment, a backseat. His second solo album, also eponymous, showed the prog-rock figurehead growing into comfortable maturity. This is reflected in the singer’s growing ability and confidence in concert.
Scratch is still a sophisticated creation. It employs good musicians and the production talents of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. It’s cutting edge in terms of technology use. At the same time, Gabriel appears less interested in earning new audience members. It had taken only two years, but little of his work now resembled what he had been involved with while in Genesis.
Peter Gabriel 3: Melt – Gabriel’s hit machine
If Peter Gabriel seemed in danger of losing his commercial momentum, it seemed to bother him little. His third solo record, nicknamed Melt by fans, doubled down on the eeriness, and cold, mechanic production. It was also a giant, albeit surprising, hit at the time.
The instant fame of the record is due, most likely to two reasons. On the one hand, many of the songs are genuinely among the best Gabriel’s ever-written, including Games Without Frontiers. On the other hand, the ominous, synth-drenched sound arrived at the perfect time when college rock was to transform into pop music.
Soon, experimental bands like Human League would score pop chart-toppers. Helped by MTV video music’s popularity, former teenage punk groups like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet would become teenage heartthrobs. And, synth-pop was to become the defining sound of commercial 80s music.
Games without frontiers, Family snapshot, and Biko might have been ahead of their time, but only by a little. Peter Gabriel was once again a star. He was now an example for the likes of U2 or George Michael. It was to be an era in which the cultivated rock songwriter would no longer be afraid of making pop records.
Peter Gabriel 4: Security – Time for a new change
Gabriel was inevitably heading towards giant pop stardom. Perhaps, it only made sense that the man who had had the attention of 1970s British crowds so glued to him would become an international star.
Before that, however, he prepared one final work of bizzaro pop brilliance. His fourth record in a row not to carry a title, the record nicknamed Security or, simply IV, continued to walk the fine line between accessibility and experimentation.
Having earned considerable praise for his anti-apartheid song Biko, Gabriel’s involvement was now courted by different political causes. He entered into a long partnership with Amnesty International. He also began to change the focus of his music. The British way of life was no longer the primary concern, but the way in which people in less advantageous circumstances carried out their existence.
His interest in world music was also at the forefront, foreshadowing a trend that other pop stars, like Paul Simon or Sting, would embrace. His use of synths and synthetic sounds played a large part in assembling his pop vision as well.
Much like their predecessors, this is a complex and impenetrable sounding record. Like them, it’s fine work. A lot of these sounds and techniques were still fresh and experimental. But, not for long. In less than two years, new wave and pop would mine this for platinum success. By the time it happened, Peter Gabriel was towards other things, and ironically, these career tweaks would make him an even bigger star.
Peter Gabriel’s pop career post 1982
In many ways, Peter Gabriel began a new solo career after his fourth solo record. It bookmarked a body of work that had seen his compositions retreat further within. Much like David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, Gabriel experimented with the most modern technology available and added art-school principles to pop records.
By the time that he was ready to return to making music, the industry was anxious to turn towards the singer and embrace him. In 1986, Peter Gabriel released So. It was a resourceful pop record filled with many genuine hits. It included the collaboration with Kate Bush Don’t give up and some of the most pop-oriented singles of his career. The music combined old styles with new tech in an alluring mix.
There was also the matter of the music videos chosen to accompany the songs. These pop-art extravaganzas, none more popular than Sledgehammer, would play consistently on MTV, the biggest tool for music promotion at the time. On the strength of these, Peter Gabriel’s next album, Us, was, also, a major success. His Secret World Live Tour was one of the biggest live events of the early 1990s.
He continued having hits and slowly grew into a well-respected elder statesman of intelligent pop music. Songs like In your eyes, The book of love, Mercy Street, Sledgehammer, Blood of Eden, or Red Rain were genuine hits in a growing adult-oriented music market. (Shaking the Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats is a good place to start for the uninitiated.)
Gabriel was, also, often the man tasked with setting up events shining a spotlight on various humanitarian issues. Also, he continued experimenting with new technologies, being one of the first to embrace the idea of downloadable music. The music industry has consistently viewed him as a man capable of predicting the future of pop culture.
He never did reunite with Genesis although the idea has popped up occasionally. Time has been very kind on the records he made with the group. Calls from young fans to hear them perform songs off of albums like the Lamb lies down on Broadway or Selling England by the pound, have not been succesful though. Instead, Genesis did reunite in recent years as a pop-trio, without Gabriel, performing their 1980s output.
Peter Gabriel has done many things worth exploring. Because of his large musical output and the complexity of each work, some albums are remembered more fondly than others. The first four albums of his career showcase a strange, brilliant vision of what pop music could be and which, eventually, ended up becoming.