Peter Gabriel – circa 1986
“My heart going boom, boom, boom” – ‘Solsbury Hill’ (Peter Gabriel)
“Pete was – and still is, I think – a frustrated drummer,” claims Mike Rutherford about U.K. rock star Peter Gabriel. Rutherford and Gabriel were long-time colleagues in the art rock band Genesis. In fact, Peter Gabriel started out as the drummer in Genesis. It was a position he did not hold for long. For a man who is not really famous for his prowess in percussion, it is still drums, rhythms and all those things that go thump in the night that have dictated the direction of much of his musical career.
Peter Brian Gabriel is born 13 May 1950 in Chobham, Surrey, England. His father, Ralph Parton Gabriel, is an electrical engineer. Peter’s mother, Edith Irene Allen, came from a musical family. She teaches Peter to play piano at an early age.
The family are affluent enough to send Peter to private schools. From Cable House in Woking, Surrey, he moves on to St Andrews Prep School in Horsell. In 1963, he starts at Charterhouse Public School in Godalming (Note: In England, a ‘public school’ is actually what would be known as a private school in other parts of the world i.e. an expensive, elitist educational facility.)
At Charterhouse, Peter Gabriel meets Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips. These youngsters all share an interest in music. In the mid-1960s they form a school group called The Garden Wall. The line-up is Anthony Phillips (vocals, guitar), Tony Banks (keyboards), Mike Rutherford (bass) and Peter Gabriel (vocals, drums). They originally come together as ‘a songwriter’s cooperative’, but the group becomes primarily a vehicle for Gabriel’s songs. Chris Stewart quickly replaces Gabriel as drummer, freeing the latter to concentrate on vocals.
There is a big impact on the music scene when The Beatles release ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967). The Garden Wall is ‘fired up by the possibilities of post-“Sgt Pepper” pop.’ Peter Gabriel later acknowledges a debt to “The Beatles songs I had grown up with.” ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ is, arguably, the album that births art rock. Up to this point, rock ‘n’ roll is basically music for teenagers to dance to; it has no greater ambitions. ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ brings in elements of classical music, experimental avant-garde electronics, poetry and the psychedelic visions induced by mind-expanding drugs like L.S.D. In other words, it is more artistic or pretentious, it aspires to make grand statements, not just act as a soundtrack for discotheques. It is easy to see how this would appeal to ‘five well-trained – both musically and socially – teenage boys from [an] elite private school.’
Yet even at this early stage, Peter Gabriel is also deeply interested in soul music and rhythm and blues. He admires the likes of Otis Redding, James Brown and Nina Simone. Although such acts also influence The Beatles, they play no part in art rock. These artists record earthier stuff, not high-minded art. It may be Peter Gabriel’s early role as a drummer that gifts him with an appreciation for this less intellectual, more visceral music. Soul relies on a natural, strong rhythm.
The late 1960s find Peter Gabriel ‘dressed in kaftan, beads and flowers,’ the quintessential hippie.
The members of The Garden Wall finish their time at Charterhouse, art school, university, etc. A demo tape by the group makes its way to Jonathan King, a U.K. record producer and entrepreneur. He also happens to be a Charterhouse alumnus. Jonathan King bestows the grandiose name of Genesis on the group.
On 22 February 1968 Genesis release their first single, ‘The Silent Sun’, on Decca Records. After a second single does very little, the group replace drummer Chris Stewart with John Silver. This version of Genesis cuts their first album, ‘From Genesis To Revelation’ (1969) (US no. 170), with Jonathan King as producer. This effort is ‘poorly received’. Jonathan King loses interest and Decca allows the recording contract to lapse. Genesis almost breaks up.
Drummer John Silver is replaced by John Mayhew. A school-friend, Richard McPhail, allows Genesis to rent his rural cottage in October 1969 and it is here that the group writes and rehearses the material for their second album. Charisma Records signs the group and issues ‘Trespass’ (1970) (UK no. 98) in October.
Soon after this both Anthony Phillips and John Mayhew leave Genesis. Phil Collins becomes the band’s new drummer. They continue as a four-piece until guitarist Steve Hackett joins in December 1970. This produces the relatively stable Genesis line-up of Peter Gabriel (vocals), Steve Hackett (guitar), Tony Banks (keyboards), Mike Rutherford (bass) and Phil Collins (drums).
In 1971 Peter Gabriel marries Jill Moore. Her father is Lord Moore of Wolvercote. Peter and Jill have two daughters: Anna-Marie (born 26 July 1974) and Melanie (born 23 August 1976).
In the early 1970s Genesis release ‘Nursery Cryme’ (1971) (UK no. 39), ‘Foxtrot’ (1972) (UK no. 12), ‘Selling England By The Pound’ (1973) (UK no. 3, US no. 70) and the double album ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ (1974) (UK no. 10, US no. 41). These albums are all ambitious art rock outings. Genesis are more suited to crafting conceptual albums than hit singles, but some of the better known songs from this time are 1972’s ‘Watcher Of The Skies’ and ‘Supper’s Ready’, and 1973’s ‘Selling England By The Pound’ and “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ (UK no. 21). Peter Gabriel becomes an increasingly theatrical performer, dressing up in outrageous costumes and bizarre masks. By the time of ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ he is acting out the role of the title character and the band’s concerts are more like stage musicals. “We were trying to illustrate the stories,” Gabriel later explains. Peter Gabriel is so much the focus of the band that, for many fans, he is Genesis.
On 16 August 1975 Peter Gabriel announces he is leaving Genesis. Due to his dominance, it seems like Genesis have no future. However, drummer Phil Collins takes over as vocalist and Genesis move on to less experimental, more commercial music. To the surprise of many, it even looks like Peter Gabriel may have ‘overplayed his hand’ and got the worst part of the deal.
The reasons for Peter Gabriel’s departure from Genesis are rather complicated. On the face of it, the most obvious reason would seem to be ambition. As the band’s frontman, chief songwriter and ‘visually minded conceptualist’, there seemed no good reason for him to continue sharing the spoils with the rest of Genesis. However, there is a darker possibility. It is suggested that Peter Gabriel left Genesis because he wanted to be with his wife, Jill, during a difficult pregnancy and the birth of their first child, Anna-Marie. The demanding schedule of Genesis was simply not flexible enough to accommodate parental leave for their vocalist. Given the choice of the band or his family, Gabriel understandably chose the latter. This is hinted at in the official statement he gives the British press, which refers to ‘a desire to be with his family.’ This statement goes on to outline a third reason for his departure: “As an artist, I need to absorb a wide variety of experiences. It’s difficult to respond to intuition and impulse within the long-term planning the band needed.”
“Initially, I wanted to get out of the business,” Peter Gabriel later says of his mood after quitting Genesis. Instead, after regathering himself (and the birth of his second child), he begins a solo career. Peter Gabriel’s own work is different to his days with Genesis. The pomposity and bombast is stripped away. “I made a conscious decision to get away from the arrangements of Genesis,” he clarifies. He aims for something “more simple, more direct; the emphasis is on the songs.” Between the end of his time with Genesis and his first solo album, punk rock becomes the new style. However, Gabriel denies that this intentionally harsh and basic music inspires his own new direction – “It’s not a big influence on me” – but allows that “I like the energy” of punk.
Perhaps a more fitting explanation can be tied back to Peter Gabriel’s interest in drums. For all its lofty aims, some art rock lost sight of the basic joy of a solid backbeat. Both Gabriel’s earlier interest in soul and latter-day punk rock reconnect with a simple drumbeat – albeit in quite different ways. So, even if he is not playing drums himself, Peter Gabriel still thinks like a drummer.
You can take the boy out of art rock, but art rock is not entirely removed from the boy. Although the allusions to classical music may be ditched, experimental electronics are still part of the fabric of Peter Gabriel’s own sound. The more psychedelic purple prose may be excised, but there is still a chilly, almost clinically scientific intelligence at work. Peter Gabriel’s songs require some effort from the audience and there is a lingering sense that he always remains a step ahead.
Peter Gabriel’s voice is naturally quite high. Most of the time he damps it down, almost speaking rather than singing, to achieve a deeper tone. But in moments of high emotion, he gives vent to his upper range, producing a sound that is nearly a falsetto shriek.
Peter Gabriel employs an array of different musicians on his recordings. There is no sense of a regular backing band. With that acknowledgement, his most frequent musical collaborators seem to be David Rhodes (guitar), Larry Fast (keyboards), Tony Levin (bass) and Jerry Marotta (drums). Gabriel himself contributes piano, keyboards, percussion and, of course, occasional drums.
Peter Gabriel writes nearly all his own songs and usually acts as co-producer on the recordings.
In a seemingly deliberate show of perversity, Peter Gabriel’s first four albums are all titled ‘Peter Gabriel’. He says that this was meant to make them seem like ‘editions of the same magazine.’ Peter Gabriel tries to justify the decision: “In the old days I would go through my vinyl and identify each record by the picture, not by the title…It was the idea to just do away with titles…But, of course, it caused confusion in the marketplace…”
‘Peter Gabriel’ (1977) (UK no. 7, US no. 38) is his first solo album. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Peter Gabriel 1’. The cover shows the singer inside a rain-spattered car. This album is produced by Bob Ezrin. The first single is ‘Solsbury Hill’ (UK no. 13, US no. 68, AUS no. 45). It seems to chronicle a quasi-mystical encounter with an eagle atop the land mass of the title. “Climbing upon Solsbury Hill / I could see the city light,” sings Gabriel. Solsbury Hill is a real place in England. “The song had grown out of a meditation up there,” Gabriel states. The nearest large city to Solsbury Hill is Bath. Some pundits see the song ‘Solsbury Hill’ as ‘a metaphorical account of his split from Genesis.’ This seems a bit of a stretch. The nearest reference to that event is the line “I was feeling part of the scenery / I walked right out of the machinery” which, with some imagination, might fit the requirements. With its playful acoustic guitar and subtle orchestration, ‘Solsbury Hill’ proves a surprisingly popular slice of folk pop. Peter Gabriel could probably have made a career out of producing a string of similar pieces but he seems almost at odds with the song’s success, generally avoiding it and describing it as “one of the lighter ones.” By way of contrast, there is the brutish ‘Modern Love’, which, Gabriel concedes “can be a strain.” Over choppy waves of electric guitar he cries “For Lady Godiva I came incognito / But her driver had stolen her red hot magneto.” The album as a whole is characterised as ‘an intelligent and adventurous work.’
Art rock doyen Robert Fripp produces the follow-up, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (1978) (UK no. 10, US no. 45). The cover to ‘Peter Gabriel 2’ shows the artist seemingly reaching up to tear strips through the photograph. This set includes ‘Exposure’ and ‘D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself)’ but is ‘a less accessible work’. It is ‘chiefly introspective, experimental music.’
On 12 May 1979 Peter Gabriel appears at a benefit concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon for the family of Bill Duffy, a recently deceased concert lighting director. Gabriel’s rendition of The Beatles’ 1970 hit ‘Let It Be’ is considered the highlight of the show. Also on the bill are Steve Harley of ‘70s popsters Cockney Rebel and young artsy singer-songwriter Kate Bush. Duffy died in a mishap at a Kate Bush concert on 20 April.
‘Peter Gabriel’ (1980) (UK no. 1, US no. 22) is deemed an ‘artistic breakthrough.’ This disc is produced by Steve Lillywhite. Peter Gabriel’s face appears to be melting like candlewax on the cover of ‘Peter Gabriel 3’. The highpoint of the recording may be ‘Games Without Frontiers’ (UK no. 4, US no. 48, AUS no. 44), a piece that melds electronics with sinister kiddie rhymes: “Whistling tunes / We’re kissing balloons in the jungle / It’s a knockout / If looks could kill they probably will / In games without frontiers / War without tears.” ‘Biko’ (UK no. 38) is a tribute to Stephen Bantu Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), a slain South African anti-apartheid activist: “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire / Once a flame begins to catch / The wind will blow it higher.” This percussive chant is seen to be ‘one of the biggest protest anthems of the ‘80s.’ The underrated ‘I Don’t Remember’ (US no. 107) is queasy electronic rock with some superb guitar work from Robert Fripp. Peter Gabriel’s voice is bathed in anguish as he howls “I don’t remember / I can’t recall / I got no memory / Of anything at all.” ‘Family Snapshot’ appears to be an account of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963. It starts with a spare piano accompaniment and builds in orchestration and intensity.
In 1980 Peter Gabriel founds WOMAD (World Of Music Arts And Dance). This is a festival fostering interest in music from Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. Gabriel recognises there is more out there than the dominant American and British sounds familiar to most rock fans. He is fascinated by the different rhythmic structures of these other cultures. WOMAD festivals pop up regularly in various markets as an audience grows for what comes to be known as ‘world beat’ music.
By the time of ‘Peter Gabriel’ (1982) (UK no. 6, US no. 28), the U.S. promoters of Peter Gabriel’s work are getting tired of the ‘joke’ of the recurrent title and rename the disc ‘Security’ for the U.S. market. The rest of the world identifies ‘Peter Gabriel 4’ by a distorted, blurry, blue and white image of…a mask? Gabriel’s face? This set is co-produced by Peter Gabriel and David Lord. Peter Gabriel’s finest song, ‘Shock The Monkey’ (UK no. 58, US no. 29, AUS no. 25), is on this album. Thematically, it’s somewhere between berserk computerisation and Darwinian experimentation. “Something knocked me out the trees / Now I’m on my knees,” sings Gabriel, suggesting a descent from apes rather than an ascent. “Fox the fox / Rat on the rat / You can ape the ape / I know about that,” he asserts. This is the ultimate blend of the two sides of Peter Gabriel – the cool, scientific, electronic music and the animalistic, primal drumbeats. ‘San Jacinto’ is about the Native American communities on the other side of California’s San Jacinto Mountains, holding them up in comparison to the artificiality of Palm Springs. He goes “Past Geronimo’s disco.” This album is also home to ‘Rhythm Of The Heat’.
Peter Gabriel’s next release is music from the film ‘Birdy’ (1985) (UK no. 51, US no. 162). Soundtrack music proves a fertile field. After this outing, Gabriel composes soundtracks for more films over subsequent years.
In 1985 Peter Gabriel starts Real World Inc., ‘a corporation devoted to developing bridges between technology and multi-ethnic arts.’ This seems a fairly logical next step after WOMAD.
Returning to the mainstream, Peter Gabriel is conscious that he has exhausted the patience of the consumers with the identically titled albums. “I decided to go for the anti-title. There’s only two letters, ‘So’…” ‘So’ (1986) (UK no. 1, US no. 2) is Peter Gabriel’s best album. It is co-produced by Peter Gabriel and Daniel Lanois. Just as the artist stripped away the trappings of Genesis back in 1977, so does he attempt to reset his own career now. “[On ‘So’] there was less sort of esoteric songwriting. I think they were simpler songs,” Gabriel points out. Leading the charge is ‘Sledgehammer’ (UK no. 4, US no. 1, AUS no. 3) on which Gabriel gives full force to his love for vintage soul music, reinventing himself as a latter-day soul man. “The ‘Sledgehammer’ video…helped enormously,” he admits. As he sings, “You could have a steam train / If you’d just lay down your tracks / You could have an aeroplane / If you bring your blue skies back,” the stop-motion animation in the video has miniature versions of such conveyances swirling around Gabriel. “I wanna be / Your sledgehammer / Why don’t you call my name?” he asks over blasting horns. It’s all nonsense, but it’s rather exhilarating to see such a serious artist loosening up. That’s only a warm-up for the hilarious ‘Big Time’ (UK no. 13, US no. 8, AUS no. 37). “The place where I come from is a small town / They think so small, they use small words / But not me,” he squeals, “I’m smarter than that / I worked it out / I’ll be stretching my mouth to make those big words come right out.” The song is a melange of karate grunts, popping bass, chattering guitar and soulful organ leading to the climax, “And the bulge in my pants getting big, big, big…” It’s not all laughs. There is the ‘gothic love ballad’ ‘In Your Eyes’ (US no. 26, AUS no. 97) and the haunting ‘Mercy Street’. ‘Don’t Give Up’ (UK no. 9, US no. 72, AUS no. 5) is a depressing look at unemployment: “Moved on to another town / Tried hard to settle down / For every job / So many men / So many men no one needs.” The song is a duet, reuniting Peter Gabriel with Kate Bush, who is cast as the spirit of hope itself, offering reassurance to Gabriel’s narrator. The video for the song depicts Gabriel and Bush locked in a five-minute embrace. Lest it be forgotten, the cacophonous ‘Red Rain’ (UK no. 46) reinforces Peter Gabriel’s love for complex rhythms, not just their more straight-forward brethren.
Peter Gabriel and Jill Moore divorce in 1987. He begins a relationship with Hollywood actress Rosanna Arquette. This seems a rather volatile pairing. Some see their relationship lasting from the late 1980s to the early 1990s; others place it at 1992 – 1998. It’s probably hard to define because of its precarious nature.
In 1989 Peter Gabriel returns to film soundtracks for ‘Passion’ (1989) (UK no. 29, US no. 60), music for Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. Its spooky, vaguely Middle Eastern sounds are ‘the furthest Gabriel delves into world beat.’
Also in 1989 Peter Gabriel starts Real World Records, a label devoted not only to his own work but also artists who have benefited from WOMAD and Real World Inc. The label’s roster includes Afro Celt Sound System and The Blind Boys From Alabama.
‘Us’ (1992) (UK no. 2, US no. 2) is Peter Gabriel’s next album. Although ‘So’ was very successful, it was six years ago and ‘his mass audience has faded away.’ The single from the album is ‘Steam’ (UK no. 10, US no. 32, AUS no. 29). This is ‘a darker record’ due to ‘a number of personal upheavals.’ One of the best tracks is the trenchant ‘Digging In The Dirt’ (UK no. 24, US no. 52, AUS no. 23) where the singer endeavours to “Find the places I got hurt.”
In 1993 Peter Gabriel has an ‘on-off romantic relationship’ with confronting Irish singer Sinead O’Conner.
Peter Gabriel ‘spends the remainder of the 1990s working on multimedia projects for Real World.’
He returns to soundtracks for ‘Ovo’ (2000) (UK no. 24) and ‘Long Walk Home’ (2002), the latter being music from the movie ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ about Australian aboriginal children.
On 9 June 2002 Peter Gabriel marries Meabh Flynn, his second wife. She has already given him one son, Isaac (born 27 September 2001) and will go on to bear another, Luc (born 5 July 2008).
‘Up’ (2002) (UK no. 11, US no. 9) is a ‘dense, cerebral and often difficult’ album. A long break follows.
‘Scratch My Back’ (2010) (UK no. 12, US no. 26) is an album of cover versions of songs originally recorded by other artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed and Neil Young. A projected matching disc, ‘I’ll Scratch Yours’, is to feature other artists covering Peter Gabriel’s songs.
‘New Blood’ (2011) (UK no. 22, US no. 30) has Peter Gabriel covering his own songs. Some of his biggest hits and some of his more obscure pieces are all given elaborate orchestral arrangements. An accompanying film ‘New Blood / Live in London’ (2011) is also issued. Among the backing vocalists on ‘New Blood’ is Peter’s daughter, Melanie Gabriel (now 35), but it is Ane Brun who sings the Kate Bush part on this version of ‘Don’t Give Up’. Some things don’t change though. For the orchestral take on ‘The Rhythm Of The Heat’ Gabriel says “I really wanted to try using the underlying rhythm patterns as a jumping off point for the arrangements, effectively asking the players to take the role of the drum group in the original.”
‘Back to Front’ (2014) is a movie documentary of Peter Gabriel’s most recent concert tour.
Despite not being famed as a drummer himself, the ‘frustrated drummer’ Peter Gabriel continually chased that beat. From his early love for soul music; to his casting off the elaborate structures of Genesis to rediscover an earthier sound; to this work with WOMAD and Real World, promoting international rhythms from other cultures; through to his success with ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘So’. Yet Peter Gabriel also shied away from capitalising on such career highpoints as ‘Solsbury Hill’ and ‘Sledgehammer’. Then there were his market-confounding identically titled albums, a tactic he abandoned only to start using two-letter ‘anti-titles’ like ‘So’, ‘Us’ and ‘Up’. Peter Gabriel was a musician and singer who marched to a different drumbeat. Peter Gabriel was ‘an artist whose work was popular without being compromised.’ ‘One of the least compromising figures working in rock music, [Peter Gabriel] was always seeking to widen the frontiers of sound and visuals.’
- wikipedia.org as at 24 June 2013
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 90, 91, 92
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 141, 245, 285, 298
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 88, 89, 91
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.149
- ‘New Blood’ – Sleeve notes by Peter Gabriel (Real World, 2011) p. 3, 4
- ‘Rockaplast’ (German television program) – Peter Gabriel interview (1978)
- Notable names database – nndb.com as at 17 June 2013
- allmusic.com, ‘Peter Gabriel’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 1 August 2013
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine – Peter Gabriel interview conducted by Andy Greene (4 September 2012) (reproduced on rollingstone.com)
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 198
- lyricsfreak.com as at 30 July 2013
- songfacts.com as at 31 July 2013
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 56
- The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Peter Gabriel: Back to Front review – Depressing retrospective tour film’ by Mike McCahill (21 March 2014) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
Song lyrics copyright Peter Gabriel Ltd.
Last revised 2 January 2015