Saturday, 12 January 2013

Peter GABRIEL: Peter Gabriel


(#230: 14 June 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Intruder/No Self-Control/Start/I Don’t Remember/Family Snapshot/And Through The Wire/Games Without Frontiers/Not One Of Us/Lead A Normal Life/Biko

One of my favourite albums is Exposure by Robert Fripp. Released in 1979 and featuring many of the musicians who appear on Peter Gabriel’s third album, including Gabriel himself, it works less as a coherent record and more as a flip-through magazine with articles, or songs, some of which you might like and others which you might not. In its own fairly determined manner, it sets the stage for interactive CDs and DVDs to come; the door which opens and closes the album functions more as a brand, or a tag, than an aesthetic device, although Gabriel would furiously subvert this concept at the end of his third record.

There’s something for everybody on Exposure; nerdy hyper-rock ‘n’ roll (“You Burn Me Up, I’m A Cigarette”), post-Philly balladry (“North Star,” beautifully sung by Daryl Hall over what sounds like a souped-up 1968 Fleetwood Mac, or a 1968 King Crimson, come to think of it), stalking electronica (the title track, its one-word lyric screeched terrifyingly, Yoko-style, by Terri Roche of the normally placid Roches folk-pop group), ambient Frippertronics and Enolectronica (“Urban Landscape”), psychotic post-“21st Century Schizoid Man” prog-punk freakouts, usually screamed or co-screamed by Peter Hammill, Gabriel’s entirely likely seventies prog-rock double – “Disengage” or the apocalyptic “You May Not Have Had Enough Of Me But I’ve Had Enough Of You,” his argumentative vocal clashing with that of Roche, with Joanna Walton’s post-Paul Haines lyrics-about-themselves, which ascends to such a gruesome climax that there is the sound effect of turntable arm being rudely lifted and scraped across the record.

There are semi-abstract cut-ups, and most of these selections are bracketed by comments from co-conspirator Brian Eno, maybe sitting in a restaurant, making his own assessment of the record as it proceeds (“That was an incredible little piece. Really, really impressed by it…BUT it just has none of the qualities of your work that I find interesting…a-BAN-don it!”). This all climaxes with the voice of the late J G Bennett, rising out of an Evening Star cloud, musing about the effects that the rising oceans and dissolving ozone layer are going to have on the world in perhaps fifty years’ time (more or less, the time in which we now find ourselves), which in turn leads into the patient piano of Peter Gabriel himself, singing his own “Here Comes The Flood” (which had already appeared, with a different arrangement, on his own debut album). If it now sounds as though he is closing down the planet, its peace was chilling at the time. There is the feeling throughout that Exposure might be the last album ever made.

As it happened, it was intended to be the third part of a trilogy, also taking in Peter Gabriel’s second album (all of his first four albums, in the UK at any rate, were eponymous; he compared the scenario to different editions of a magazine) and Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs, but due to what Fripp calls the “delay by dinosaurs” of at least one of these records, the notion was abandoned. Still, Sacred Songs did eventually find a release, and it is an astonishing listen, perhaps the most musically extreme of the three albums; so it is possible to join some lines between them, with their recurring musical and lyrical themes.

But “the last album ever made” – I wonder how many albums at this time, 1979-80, were made with that scarily real thought in mind, that there might not be an “eighties”? Put in this perspective, the remarkable reinvigoration of various seventies-orientated musicians might be viewed as a last gasp, a final attempt to get “everything” into their latest record before they didn’t get a chance to make another one.

Hence, if McCartney II is disquieting in its own amiable, homemade way, then where does the third Peter Gabriel album come in? In fact it goes quite a distance beyond even the extremities of the McCartney record; was this, of all Peter Gabriel records, really a number one album? It has some of the least compromising music I’ve heard on any other number one album, before or since, and subverts most of what is “conventional” about the music, even though it goes some way towards inventing the standard eighties rock template.

More importantly, there is virtually nothing comforting or reassuring about the record. First track, “Intruder,” snaps into being with one of the most recognisable symbols of eighties rock, Phil Collins’ “gated” drums, but here put to much more disturbing use. Gabriel sings as though trying not to pull his own teeth out; he has broken into someone’s home, but admits that he is not doing it for reasons of poverty or desperation but because he enjoys breaking in, gets a kick out of the darkness and the suspense (“I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there/I like you lying awake, your bated breath charging the air”), and perhaps gets turned on by other, more disturbing things as well (“I like the touch and the smell of the pretty dresses you wear”). Where Genesis would paint such protagonists as cutout comedy characters (“Keep It Dark”), the highly aggressive and discursive approach of Gabriel’s music suggests a far deeper and less pleasant intent; why is he “slipping the clippers through the telephone wires”? Is he a state official searching for something to plant or incriminate; or is the whole scenario a metaphor for how he plans to “leave [his] mark” on the placid planet of pop?

Building up from percussion upwards, which appears to underline the structure of nearly all the songs on this album – a singularly African approach, and the reason for this will eventually reveal itself – the song is a gnarled gargoyle of a “rock song” prototype. Guitars and drums are thrown around in the mix at will. A strident chant recalls “Holidays In The Sun” as much as it reflects 1980 South Africa. There is whistling, rattling bedsprings of percussion; the whole is like a brighter-minded Scott Walker (it is no surprise that both guitarist David Rhodes and bassist John Giblin would go on to form part of Walker’s latterday repertory company) and what “Intruder” does to the atoms of a “song” is firmly answered and developed, especially during the guitar/percussion-dominant Bish Bosch.

Was “No Self-Control” really a Top 40 single, its video on Top Of The Pops, with Gabriel idling with hands in pocket or prostate on his knees, knowing that where he is, maybe what he is doing, is fundamentally wrong and perhaps fatal, but “I don’t know how to stop” keeps hammering its way back in, through a rhythm track largely dependent on marimbas, and a lyrical outlook that is again very Walker in its images (“Lights go out, stars come down/Like a swarm of bees,” the latter line answered by Collins throwing his drumkit downstairs, through Frippertronic banisters from Fripp himself). The song is stopped for him before he tears his throat out. A woman exclaims, or echoes, in the middleground.

“Start” is a brief instrumental passage for synthesiser and tenor saxophone, the latter played by Dick Morrissey, getting ready to play the same role on Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, which quickly turns into the hysterical “I Don’t Remember”; so many times does Gabriel sound on this record as if he is turning upon himself that it’s easy to overlook that this might be Steve Biko in Police Room 619, begging to be left alone. The music attempts to initiate Eighties Rock but keeps getting diverted – among the conspirators are Dave Gregory, then of XTC, on lead guitar – and the resentment and desperation pile up relentlessly, the song itself ending as a cacophonous free-form trainwreck.

A number one album??

“Family Snapshot,” a scratch mix of Arthur Bremer’s An Assassin’s Diary (he was the failed assassin of Governor George Wallace in the 1972 Presidential campaign) and Dallas 1963, works like a Genesis A-B-A (call a cab) epic thrust back into the real world; both beginning and ending of song are quiet and contemplative, and the middle section is comparatively conventional art-rock; more than rooting through someone’s wardrobe, this describes not only the internal thrill felt by the would-be assassin but also tries to find a compassionate explanation for why he is the way he is (the title is a sort of pun). The police procedural of “I Don’t Remember” (“tell me the truth, you got nothing to fear”) filtered through parental disapproval or indifference (“Come back mum and dad”); Gabriel is searching for something, or someone, but as yet it’s not clear who. Still, it is important to note that the song’s theme will recur in a 1981 Then Play Long entry, and that the 1981 song in question will in great part be influenced by something that happens in the space between the two records.

“And Through The Wire” – lovers separated by the Berlin Wall? Another extended metaphor? – seems to offer its own modest proposal for Eighties Rock; both Rhodes and guest guitarist Paul Weller (WHAT? He was recording in the studio next door and Gabriel asked him to drop by and help out) are intent on carving paths between shiny yellow synthpop and what can (im)properly be described as punk rock, but the song’s overall momentum is one of stealth; there is a rhetorical tambourine (presumably played by drummer Jerry Marotta) and some of Gabriel’s most agonisingly tortured vocals; he is the Small Man in the Prog Box trying to rip the Box open. Marotta’s cowbell tick-tocks its way towards Armageddon.

On which subject, “Games Without Frontiers,” the album’s preceding Big Hit Single, redraws the imminent end of the world in terms of a crappily tacky seventies Euro-gameshow and is remarkable for the multiple activities going on within its fibres, particularly the many layers and juxtapositions of different types of percussion (including, with improbable logic, a basic drum machine), Seven Dwarfs whistling, not-quite-traceable noises from various keyboards and guitars (the song works because of its apparent absence of “centre”), and that woman again, the same one who was on “No Self-Control,” caressing in French. This woman has her own stories to tell, and although she will not appear on Then Play Long very often, when she does, she will make her presence firmly, and unforgettably, felt.

Although Fripp (with Rhodes) is the main guitarist on “Not One Of Us” rather than Weller, the song sounds like Peter Gabriel Does The Jam (“Us! You’re not one of US!” – completely Weller). Probably the record’s most straightforward rocker, it itself gives way to the not remotely straightforward “Lead A Normal Life,” a distortion of McCartney’s summer meditations (or perhaps a ray of early Genesis mimetic memory), with peaceful piano and marimba Muzak being counterpointed by aghast vocal warbles and howling, crying guitar lines, mixed far into the background; this piece points towards the nineties, let alone the eighties, given the preoccupations of another group, not necessarily fitter or happier, who would eventually record at Gabriel’s Bath studio.

Where is this all going, apart from the inside of Gabriel’s head?

To face the world, that’s where.

The final track on the album is bookended by samples of the South African song “Senzeni Na?,” which title, translated from Xhosa, means “What Have We Done?” (“Where Are We Now?” indeed). A song commonly sung at funerals and memorials, the opening sample is formally sung, the closing sample much looser and improvisatory…

…and it’s probably not just Robert Wyatt (who covered the song on his 1984 Works In Progress EP) who was prompted by the song to think of the Xhosa musician Mongezi Feza, a man whose lifespan was more or less concomitant with that of Steve Biko and whose demise, some whisper, was not dissimilar (though in truth was due to institutional ignorance, indifference and prejudice than actual violence). Pairing this with the prog/free jazz/New Thing milieu in which Gabriel’s Genesis initially flourished, it does make “Biko” sound much more of a statement of global intent; opening up the wound, exposing it to the world.

The song, as performed by its author (with, largely, Phil Collins on various drum programmes and African percussion instruments), is as patient with its architecture as its spirit is angry. Gabriel gradually builds up the scenario from Police Room 619 to the eyes of the world watching now, adding layers of instruments and voices with each cycle, each barline, and its buried euphoria, based as it is on unshakeable hope, systemically emerges into the open; this is a Pink Floyd determined to find a solution, perhaps – no, there’s no “perhaps” about it – also change things. If “Senzeni Na?,” according to its author, was to some extent inspired by “We Shall Overcome” – and remember how the latter closed Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra record a decade earlier, the melody performed by Roswell Rudd’s dignified but adamant trombone? – then it is no wonder that Joan Baez would go on to cover “Biko,” that this would not only be Gabriel’s key to the world but also the key that unlocked the floodgates of, for better or worse (I say better), eighties stadium global concern rock, not to mention “world music” (Gabriel initiated WOMAD and the Real World label) and, much more importantly, the initial key that would lead, a decade later, to Mandela being released and freedom finally coming (it’s impossible not to think that Jerry Dammers didn’t respond to this song on a pretty deep level in 1980, but we’ll be getting back to him eventually).

The Xhosa song returns, sounding like it could be sung forever, before Collins’ brutal electronic door slams on the song, and the record, but not on the hope, now available in full exposure. Of course – Gabriel struggles and stumbles throughout his third album because he’s afraid of being exposed, before he, shall we say, and not in that way, decides to expose his self, and make us realise that he was only singing about “himself” as a route to singing about everyone and everything else. A great, great record, and one which suddenly makes its predecessors seem very, very far away.

(And yes, we’ll be getting back to “Biko” at the other end of this decade, and John Giblin, and a group whom Gabriel invited to support him on his 1980 European tour, to help gain them more “exposure,” and yes, they had their own stories to tell about that later in 1980; they’ll get their place in the sun, right enough.)

6 comments:

Robin Carmody said...

A great piece about a great record.

Many thanks for this, and the McCartney II piece. The whole story is getting stronger, more total, more powerful as it goes on - justification for continuing, justification for the full narrative. Vindication of life, in some ways.

Richard Lesses said...

Somehow Brian Eno is at the center of all of this, and I can't quite figure out how. Between David Bowie and Talking Heads he produced Devo, and the eighties are unthinkable without taking into account all three.

MikeMCSG said...

Not going to say much here as I'll be writing about this one myself shortly but worth mentioning that "Family Snapshot" was a favourite of another group who will graduate to the number one spot in 1983.

Radio Ember said...

In terms of the "so that you might want to hear it" part of the blog's stated goal these past two posts haven't half been effective.

Tom Albrighton said...

This brilliant review perfectly illustrates why TPL had to continue. Thanks for writing it, and for deciding to carry on.

I got into Gabriel in 1986 (So), thereafter tracing his musical development backwards to its, er, genesis. Along that strange journey of reversed musical non sequiturs, this album received approximately ten grillion plays. You’ve explained the reasons why better than I ever could, yet I cannot stop myself from commenting. (No self control, you see.)

If you’d asked me to hazard a guess as to the peak chart position for this record (then or now), I’d have probably said #37. Maybe that shows the boost you can (or could) get from a (fortuitously?) zeitgeisty single like ‘Games Without Frontiers’. Would it perform as well in the era of track-by-track online previews?

More to the point, why was I getting into this in 1986, and not Brothers In Arms? I guess because it offers a succession of ‘outsider’ personae, factual and fictional, and that's an attitude that any teenager can readily inhabit. Arguably, it’s this ‘outsider’ stance that gives the album its coherence, which had been patchy on ‘Scratch’ and pretty much crashed on ‘Car’.

What makes this record so excoriatingly tight, though, is the tension between external and internal. Lyrically, ‘Intruder’ sets the tone with its tale of an outsider getting inside – embodied perfectly by Gabriel’s borderline-whisper vocal, delivered bang up to the mike, inside your head. Thereafter, we visit people stuck ‘inside’ unhappy families, sexual frustration, obsession, mental illness, inarticulacy, institutions and police cells, with only occasional, uncertain hints at release or redemption. (Apparently, on hearing ‘Lead A Normal Life’, Gabriel’s US label enquired in all seriousness about his mental health.)

Musically, the vast majority of the album has got the lid firmly on too. Collins’ merciless drums are boxed in both horizontally, by ‘that’ gated reverb sound, and vertically, by the complete absence of cymbals – a deliberate injunction from Gabriel, and as oblique a strategy as you could hope for.

The boxed-in sound picture is completed by endlessly cycling marimbas and spiny, wiry guitar. (Weller, surely, was recruited for his sheer tight-arsed attitude as much as anything else.) Things only really open up on ‘Start’ and, gloriously ‘Biko’ – and when release comes, it feels both real and hard-earned.

Bafflingly, the recent re-release of So neglected to include all the B-sides from that era, which include an extended (and remixed?) version of Biko, originally issued on the back of the 12” remix of ‘Sledgehammer’. What were you thinking, Pete?

intothefireuk said...

Simply magnificent, both record and review....