Peter Gabriel was born in 1950 in Surrey, England. He began attending the Charterhouse School in 1963, where he met four other lads and formed the band Genesis. They became leaders in the growing progressive rock movement, releasing six albums in six years that featured epic songs with a distinctively English fabulist tone. As Gabriel’s prominence in the band caused some tension given its collectivist history, he began to develop an interest in other musical styles and song structures. Things came to a head with 1975′s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway a two-disc epic that made the most of the tensions but convinced Gabriel it was time to strike out on his own.
He released three albums between 1977 and 1980, all titled Peter Gabriel (“like issues of a magazine,” Gabriel observed.) Affectionately known as “Car” (1977), “Scratch” (1978), and “Melt” (1980) for their cover features, the three showed his rapid growth as a songwriter and musician, with a focus on dark narratives, psychology, and relationships. Gabriel also developed a strong interest in musical styles and structures outside the rock mainstream, including a fascination with traditional African and Native American music. Those forces came to the fore as he recorded his fourth album.
||Peter Gabriel (4 aka Security)
||September 6, 1982
||David Lord and Peter Gabriel
[US Hot 100]
- The Rhythm of the Heat
- San Jacinto
- I Have the Touch
- The Family and the Fishing Net
- Shock the Monkey [#29]
- Lay Your Hands On Me
- Kiss of Life
Gabriel titled the disc Peter Gabriel again, but his North American label, Geffen, insisted on a “real” title, adding a sticker to the albums calling it Security. It’s an interesting choice that — despite Gabriel’s well-known objections — captures the spirit of things nicely. One of the first full-digital recordings, it features his growing mastery of sampling and synthesisers, his strong knowledge of standard rock instrumentation — complete with a solid backing band, and his new interests in so-called World Music. The result is a strong, cohesive album that serves as the high point of a fascinating career.
Gabriel introduces the album with The Rhythm of the Heat, a narrative inspired by Carl Jung’s experiences with traditional African drummers. It’s a perfect welcome, capturing his own intent through story, a theme that fits the traditionalist thread that runs through the disc. A powerful song that mixes the modern with the ancient, it works on multiple levels, emphasized by mixing the vocals low enough to allow the dance troupe drumming to share the lead. San Jacinto crosses the Atlantic to study the plight of the Native American. Opening with a fragile synth line that sounds just traditional enough to be jarring and comforting at once, Gabriel moves his vocals to the fore as befits the oral history. I Have the Touch is a driving rocker, pondering the rituals that persist in modern life and the ways we interact. The use of the world beat rhythms to underpin the song both propels it and emphasized the “the more things change…” theme of the album. The Family and the Fishing Net takes a much more subtle approach, comparing modern Western weddings with older traditions. Using Gabriel’s proven technique of short, elliptical fragments woven into an emotive tapestry, it’s an oddly compelling piece that works its magic with or without the words.
Shock the Monkey was his first big international hit (reaching #1 on the US Rock Chart for two weeks), introducing him to American audiences. A dark meditation on jealousy, it uses animalistic images to show just how close we are to our evolutionary ancestors. It’s an amazing song that helped open the doors for other rock musicians to explore alterative musical styles as the 80s moved forward. Lay Your Hands On Me is a moving chant about trust — with darkness all around the edges. Gabriel’s urgent plea shows off his growth as a vocalist nicely as well. Wallflower, a more abstract approach to the themes he explored in 1980′s Biko, was inspired by the plight of political prisoners in Latin America. A quietly powerful song, it works as a reflection on psychological imprisonment as well. With its slow build and demanding closing, it’s one of Gabriel’s finest songs. Things wrap up brilliantly with the celebratory Kiss of Life. A lusty dance tune built on tribal rhythms, it sets the stage for his more typical rock success while perfectly summing up this album on an uncharacteristically joyous note.
FURTHER LISTENING: For just over a decade, Peter Gabriel was a fairly prolific, rapidly growing force in rock music. His interest in synthesizers and traditional rhythms grew and merged, creating a unique, powerful sound. From 1977 to 1989 he released five traditional studio albums, a double live set, and two interesting (mostly instrumental) soundtracks. Since then, his productivity and creativity have levelled off noticeably, although every album has something to offer. “Melt” (aka Peter Gabriel 3) is a close contender for his finest work. Compared with Security, it is arguably a stronger album lyrically but not quite as important a landmark in his career or the musical landscape. (Curiously, Gabriel re-recorded both his materspieces with German lyrics. The results are surprisingly compelling and recommended for real fans.) So is his commercial high point, featuring the great #1 romp Sledgehammer. It’s experimental moments, however, trend toward the quirky rather than the groundbreaking.
Gabriel’s work is sadly short on effective anthologies. He leans on live albums which show off his creativity nicely but often present quite different interpretations of familiar songs. The best overview of origianl material is 1990′s Shaking the Tree. It’s heavy on tracks from So (which makes it easier not to bother with that disc) and completely omits any of the handful of truly wonderful songs on his second album (“Scratch”). It’s a fine purchase for casual fans or those interested in his international hits. Serious listeners should pick up all four “Peter Gabriel” releases instead and toss in So for completeness.