Have you heard of Peter Gabriel? Oh, sure you have. He’s that guy who made that one claymation video back in the ’80s! Wasn’t one of his songs playing on Lloyd Dobler’s jukebox in Say Anything? Yeah, that guy.
Well, not quite. If you think “Solsbury Hill”, “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes” are the beginning and end of the best Peter Gabriel has to offer musically, I need to take a moment to kindly sit you down and educate you. Then we can go down to the nearest radio station and punch somebody in the face, because I don’t know whose idea it was to only ever play those three songs of his on the radio, but somebody has to pay.
Peter Gabriel turns 62 today, and is one of the greatest yet least talked about musical legends alive today, with one of the most versatile and impressive (not to mention award winning) catalogs available. He’s also a tremendous humanitarian who has performed at multiple events associated with Amnesty International, the Conspiracy of Hope tour, and Human Rights Now! He co-founded the WITNESS program (responsible for putting cameras into the hands of as many people as possible to document and boost the signal of human rights violations), and is a vocal contributor (no pun intended) to The Voice Project. He’s also a driving force behind the WOMAD movement (World of Music, Arts and Dance), and launched his own record label and built his own studio (Real World) to facilitate the creation and distribution of music by up and coming artists who might otherwise struggle to find label representation, hoping to bring wider Western attention to world artists.
It’s also worth mentioning that he’s a 62-year-old dude who has, in his later years, rather than railing against the digital marketplace, worked to try to expand and innovate within it, connects directly with fans and seeks input openly via Facebook and Twitter, provides monthly video updates to fans, and is just generally more chill and fucking awesome than you probably ever realized. Here’s the briefest (LOL) introduction I could manage to put together, because I know Tumblr hates long posts, but the love and admiration I have for this man and his work is basically unparalleled.
PETER GABRIEL PRIMER → king of progressive rock, mad musical scientist
Starting in 1969, when he was only 19 years old (!), Peter got together with some other young and brilliant budding musicians to form Genesis, who sit comfortably next to Pink Floyd at the very height of progressive rock, a unique genre unto itself. Peter Gabriel-era Genesis is an entirely different animal from the group that later reformed around Phil Collins when he left in 1974; it’s surreal, complex, and almost impossible to quantify (rather than the much more “‘80s pop” sound of what came later). Genesis shows during his time involved 10 and 20-minute long songs with phenomenal solo work, and theatrical staging, particularly of the various characters and personae embodied in the songs. As far as Peter’s involvement goes… he was the lead singer (with Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals), had a heavy hand in the lyrics and staging, and was the flautist, too. You guys, this dude shaved part of his head, wasn’t afraid to put on all manner of unusual stage makeup, not to mention incredibly bizarre costumes, to embody these characters. (Believe it or not, no drugs were involved in the process, at least as far as Peter’s role goes.)
NURSERY CRYME (1971)
The Musical Box
The Return of the Giant Hogweed
The Fountain of Salmacis
Watcher of the Skies
*Widely considered to be the band’s masterpiece. A 7-part, 23 minute epic exploring, in Peter’s words, “a personal journey which ends up walking through scenes from Revelation in the Bible… I’ll leave it at that.”
SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND (1973)
I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)
Firth of Fifth
The Cinema Show
THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY (1974)*
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Fly on a Windshield
In the Cage
Back in N.Y.C.
The Carpet Crawlers
* Though Selling England is the more common choice, I personally consider this album the band’s masterpiece. A double LP concept album chronicling the surreal odyssey of central character Rael (performed by Peter) while searching for his brother John (to put it very simply). Without a copy of the full liner notes, you definitely lose something, but I am including the entire album anyway, because… just listen to it, OK? Like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which I would put this on the same level as), it is meant to be experienced, preferably in its entirety, from beginning to end.
What can I really say about Peter on his own? Just as delightfully mad, progressive, unique and difficult to describe on his own as he was when playing with Genesis. One of the most unique and recognizable voices in music, and one of its most underrated and imaginative lyricists. He’s experimented with an incredible range of sounds, is often heavily influenced by his passion for world music, and works with some of the best backing musicians in the business (his main man Tony Levin’s bass licks are to DIE for). Honestly, I’d recommend you listen to ALL of his solo albums in full, but particularly III, IV, So, Us and Up. The sound quality and mixing on all of his albums is sublime, and I could talk forever about the quality of the songs themselves, so I’ll let you listen and decide that for yourselves.
I / CAR (1977)
Moribund the Burgermeister*
Here Comes the Flood
*Written about sufferers of the plague; visceral, horrific and surreal (three of my favorite adjectives when it comes to Peter Gabriel songs).
II / SCRATCH (1978)
On the Air
III / MELT (1980)
I Don’t Remember
Games Without Frontiers
*Allegedly a song from the perspective of the assassin of John F. Kennedy, though that’s one of many interpretations, and as far as I know, Peter’s never nailed a single one down. That’s the most fitting one I know of, however.
**Infamous anthem written as a tribute to the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, murdered in police custody in South Africa on 12 September 1977.
IV / SECURITY (1982)
The Rhythm of the Heat*
I Have the Touch
Shock the Monkey
*Inspired by psychologist Carl Jung’s autobiographical description of a nocturnal ritual dance (the n’goma) among villagers in the Sudan.
** Written about a coming of age ritual Peter learned about from an Apache man while on tour. In the ritual, a 13 year old boy is led to the top of a mountain by a medicine man, who then reveals a snake, which is made to bite the boy. The boy is left alone on the mountain, and was believed to have visions. If he returned down the mountain, he was then considered to be a man.
That Voice Again
In Your Eyes
*Written as a tribute to the poet Anne Sexton. My all-time favorite song he’s ever recorded.
Come Talk to Me
Digging in the Dirt
The Barry Williams Show**
Signal to Noise
*To me, this is the most eloquent expression of grief put into a song.
**Satirical examination of the reality show and armchair psychologist enabled and obsessed culture we live in.
SCRATCH MY BACK (2010)*
My Body Is a Cage
The Book of Love
*Peter’s daring concept for covering songs of artists whose work he admires, in the hopes they would return the favor (Several, though not all, did.), using only his voice and a 50 piece orchestra.
NEW BLOOD (2011)*
The Rhythm of the Heat
In Your Eyes
Digging in the Dirt
*The companion piece to Scratch My Back, where Peter goes back and re-imagines a powerful sampling of his past work, again with the backing of a magnificent 50 piece orchestra. Fresh and epic takes on classics.
Down to Earth (from WALL-E)*
Downside Up (Live) (feat. Melanie Gabriel)
The Tower That Ate People
When You’re Falling (with Afro Celt Sound System)
While the Earth Sleeps (with Deep Forest)
*Nominated for (and should’ve won) an Oscar. (He also helped Thomas Newman compose the beautiful “Define Dancing” instrumental track in this score.)
I realize I have no tracks included from his other soundtrack work (which is varied and wonderful). This was mainly to save space, since this post is already massive. For reference’s sake, Peter scored Birdy (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (album titled Passion, 1989), and Rabbit-Proof Fence (album titled Long Walk Home, 2002). OVO (a collaboration project from 2000 themed around the new millennium) and Big Blue Ball (another world music collaboration) are also absent, but must be noted, because (a) they are all terrific, and (b) I need y’all to understand what a MASSIVE and versatile musical catalog I had to whittle down here.
(If you’d like a single download of all the songs together, just let me know!)
PERFORMANCES / VIDEOS
Amazingly, impossibly, Peter’s music sounds even better live than it does on the record. But don’t take my word for it - crank the volume up and see for yourself. I’ve seen him live three times, and I’ve never had another concert experience touch what his shows are like in person.
The Musical Box (1972, live with Genesis, Belgian TV special)
Peter plays the tambourine and flute, as he often did during live shows, in a very simple studio setup. A beautiful and whimsical telling of the Pandora’s box story with some Old King Cole nursery rhyme mixed in. So to speak.
Supper’s Ready (Live in Shepperton with Genesis, 1973)
The best way to fully experience Genesis’s greatest single song: live, with Peter going through several costume changes, and including his spoken character intro at the beginning. Has to be seen to be believed.
Lay Your Hands On Me (1982, P.O.V.)
Peter stage dives and crowd surfs before it became a thing (and when it has actual lyrical relevance).
Biko (1986, Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope Tour)
These performances are always incredibly powerful, but the one that closes out his set on this tour is arguably the most powerful of them all.
Sledgehammer (1986, music video)
One of the most groundbreaking music videos ever made (and holder of the record for the winner of most VMAs, at a whopping 9). Stop-motion animated by Aardman Studios (best known these days for Wallace & Gromit).
Come Talk to Me (1994, Secret World Tour)
There are a lot of performances in this primer from this tour, because I think it’s one of the most flawless tours ever performed. (Find the DVD if you can and watch the entire thing. It will change how you view concerts forever.) This is the show opener. Peter duets with Paula Cole (whose career he helped launch) and literally comes climbing out of a British phone box.
Steam (1994, Secret World Tour)
Awesome performance of kickass song literally creates steam. (The uploader of this video unfortunately added a lot of reverb to the sound for some unknown reason, but it’s still epic despite that.)
San Jacinto (1994, Secret World Tour)
Prime example of how much Peter can build upon the sound of a song - and how he turns a concert into performance art - when playing live with his band.
Shaking the Tree (1994, Secret World Tour)
The joy and celebration of women expressed in this song - what you might call Peter’s feminist manifesto - comes out beautifully with the entire band dancing around the stage together.
Secret World (1994, Secret World Tour)
Show closer (before encores). The world literally closes down on him, after he (again) literally packs up his entire band. More awesome than I can put into words, I’m sorry. (Epilepsy Warning: Strobe lighting is used during a couple rounds of the chorus.)
Growing Up (2003, Growing Up Tour)
Peter runs and bounces around in a giant bubble. Seriously, it is so awesome. Demonstrates incredible voice, breath and body control to be doing such physical work while singing live.
The Barry Williams Show (2003, Growing Up Tour)
Peter brings a TV camera around with him while he sings about manipulative talk shows. About as meta as you can get.
Downside Up (2003, Growing Up Tour)
Another literal performance interpretation of surrealist lyrics; Peter and his daughter Melanie duet live while rigged upside down to a risen portion of the stage. Has to be seen to be believed.
Animal Nation (2003, Growing Up Tour)
Peter is also an advocate for animal rights, and has maintained that one of his most inspiring experiences as a musician was recording music with Bonobo apes in Africa. This song incorporates elements of the music they recorded together (listen closely!), and is a celebration of animals and our relationships with them.
Solsbury Hill (2003, Growing Up Tour)
He rides a bike around. This song is always fun, lighthearted and joyful when he performs it live, and this is no exception.
In Your Eyes (2003, Growing Up Tour)
Almost always the show closer (at the end of the encores). Whoever his opening artists were at the show (almost always world artists he’s invited along to help gain exposure) will join him in it.
I wish I could include something from the incredible live orchestra work Peter’s been touring with for the past year and a half, but there really isn’t anything of decent quality available on YouTube at the moment. But guess what? He played a set of several songs from New Blood live on Letterman last year, and it’s still available to be streamed in full, for free, right here! So… get on that.
This is HUGE and a labor of love, so if you have any interest in what’s up for grabs here, please - reblog! Pass this along so more people can hear from this amazing man. If any links go down, hit me up and I’ll be happy to fix them ASAP. But most importantly… ENJOY! ♥