Feature Review
by Darren Callahan

Three years after the multi-platinum smash "So" and a few before the release of 1992's "Us" I had moment of clarity regarding Peter Gabriel.

At a party, my friend John announced that he had been listening to the just-released Peter Gabriel soundtrack "Passion" in his car on the way over. I asked if he could go out and get it. When John returned, he & I, along with a few others, gave it a listen while trying to ignore a fight in the kitchen. At the side flip, I turned to John and asked, "Why would Peter Gabriel follow up a big pop record like "So" with an instrumental soundtrack for a movie that's two years old?"

"Because he's an artist," John replied. And he was right.

I had totally forgotten, with the ubiquitous presence of "Sledgehammer" on radio & MTV, that Peter Gabriel was once one of my favorite artists. By 1992, Pete was a shadow of his former self. "Say Anything" had got the best of him. His music was popular, yes, but with dwindling moments of zing.

However, there was a time when Pete was a more frazzled sort. Not everything was a tight knot of studio trickery -- the sound of a mix mixed until the engineer commits hari-kari. His first three solo albums were almost made by a different man. All with the same snappy title "Peter Gabriel", people use numbers to sort them out. They've also been christened by their extraordinary sleeves: The first features Peter Gabriel's face hidden in the wet windscreen of a blue car (CAR), the second a vampire-like black & white of him scratching his own photograph (SCRATCH), and the third has a tricked-out picture of his face melting on one side (MELT).

Each record is distinct in sound and mood. CAR is arena rock, not too far removed from his last bow with GENESIS on '75's "Lamb Lies Down On Broadway". Produced by wizard Bob Ezrin (he of "The Wall"), there's nothing subtle about his 1977 solo debut. "Solisbury Hill" is probably the most recognized track, but it's "Humdrum" that's the album's centerpiece - a droll cavalcade of 60s & 70s images set to a vibrato Rhodes piano and tango beat. There are even appearances by the London Symphony Orchestra. Pete shifts voices like he did with GENESIS, but there's an obvious attempt at creating songs over characters. The only mistake is "Excuse Me", a barbershop tune, hopefully meant as a joke, that inexplicably goes on for six verses.

1978 brought a follow up, one that shows an influence of NYC bands like TELEVISION and THE STOOGES. SCRATCH is most notable for it's roughness, courtesy of a hazy pre-tour and guitarist Robert Fripp's amateur production. Gabriel has said this is his weakest effort, but many fans (me included) thinks he selling it short. He's willing to shred his throat for a bit of the punk ethos working through England & America at the time. This is not to say the album is a copycat; he's still got his own thing going on. There are some old synthesizers about, and a song called "A Wonderful Day In A One Day World" (sung without irony), yet the album stands alone in his catalog as a refreshing kick in the ass. He would have killed for a single drop of this energy on anything past 1990.

Finally this brings us to Peter Gabriel 3, the melting face album, permanently affixed on many critics & musician's top lists. In 1979, with drummer Phil Collins and producer Steve Lillywhite (later of U2's and Simple Minds' most rockin' albums) Pete made a completely timeless record about going crackers. The most daring choices: no symbols, no hi-hat, Paul Weller on guitar, a bank of analog synthesizers, plus the loudest drum mix I've ever heard. Each of the first five tracks (side A in vinyl days) will make you weep with their coolness. I dare anyone to find a better headphone song than "I Don't Remember" with its "Oooh oooh you're nowhere" in one ear and "I don't remember" doubled & distorted in the other. At the very end of the album comes "Biko", the song Peter Gabriel is probably going to be remembered for in future generations. It's not a bad song; as a matter of fact, it's fantastic. However, it really doesn't belong on this record, as none of the other nine songs have anything to do with policy. "Biko" would point the way to the future Peter Gabriel - Amnesty poster child and dabbler in African music & culture. When Charisma Records heard the final mix of 3, he was dropped. It took him another year before a young David Geffen took a chance. Even though the hook was in French, at least "Games Without Frontiers" could be on the radio - maybe.

Subsequent albums like 1982's "Security" and 85's "So" are fine records - even really good records. But there is something about those first three. I get the feeling now he's more excited by other people's art, other's music, other's films. How else could you explain him working with Randy Newman on a song from "BABE 2"? Although there's equal craft in these earlier recordings, there is never a feeling of labor.

In May 2002, all these records have been gorgeously reissued. What had been the lamest transfers in the CD business are now totally redeemed. My previous copy of "Security" was distorted and MELT whisper-quiet. Each new disc comes with pristine sound and the song sequence reset according to the original British versions of the albums. People at Peter's own Real World Design have lovingly restored the artwork, and each contains a booklet with lyrics and a surprisingly large batch of archive photos. So, if you've forgotten that this guy was once the definition of "artist", revisit his best work through these reissues. They've been a long time coming.

© 2002 D Callahan all rights reserved