“Don’t Break This Rhythm” - An investigation of the rock phenomenon that is Peter Gabriel by Ted Sayers. Photos by Guido Truffer, Alan Perry and Ted Sayers.
As a member of Genesis, Peter Gabriel was always considered to BE Genesis. As we all know, this was not the case. The band (at that time) were five musicians/writers and not just one with a rather talented backing band.
Various reasons have been given (both official and unofficial) for why Peter left the band, but these reasons whether true or false, are immaterial. The fact is that now he has left and began a solo career which now spans over eleven years.
His work with Genesis is well know to you, and if not, soon will be from the other articles in this magazine, but Peter’s solo work has never failed to diverge from his previous material. Indeed, his first solo album, imaginatively titled Peter Gabriel, was almost unrecognisable when compared with his past work with Genesis.
Peter officially left Genesis at the end of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway tour in mid 1975, but it was almost two years before he returned to the music scene. The release of Peter Gabriel (1) in early 1977 was rather devoid of anything which had previously been present in Genesis’ material. Gone were the fantasy images and rather poetic nature to be replaced by a more straightforward, down to earth rock’n’roll (even) style.
There are a vast array of “types” of music on his first album from the blues/jazz of Waiting For The Big One to the barbershop quartet of Excuse Me. Of Peter’s past, one thing most definitely remained; that was his clever use of words. Waiting For The Big One is packed with little puns and jokes.
Peter had collected an incredible mix of musicians, some of whom are still with him today. Tony Levin has worked with John Lennon, Robert Fripp (ex and now reformed King Crimson) and Bob Ezrin, who had produced Alice Cooper etc…
From the first album came two singles. The first was, and still is, Peter’s anthem: Solsbury Hill which was backed with the jerky paranoia of Moribund The Burgermeister. The second was Modern Love which had Slowburn as a B side. The gutsy rocker Modern Love was originally released with a picture of Peter naked on the label with a strategically placed hole but this was quickly withdrawn.
He toured Britain twice, in April and September 1977 also touring the USA and Europe. The stage show was stripped to the bare minimum with very few lights and his one concession to costume was when he donned a leather jacket for the encore of Back In NYC from The Lamb… The set also consisted of some new material and some cover versions.
Remarkably quickly for Peter, by mid 1978 he had released his second album , again titled Peter Gabriel. Around the same time came a tour of Europe and the USA and the release of D I Y as a single. This was backed with another rocker; Perspective. The single was a flop (in fact his only hit had been Solsbury Hill to that point), but he remained undaunted and remixed it and reissued it with a different B side; Mother Of Violence and a track which wasn’t on the album; Me & My Teddy Bear. “Teddy Bear” is rather strange but as the publicity blurb from his first album said; “Expect The Unexpected”. Again it flopped.
This second album lacked a little of the energy and excitement of the first but it still contains many of my own favourites such as; On The Air, Indigo, and White Shadow. The two latter tracks had been previewed on his 1977 tours.
The 1978 tour meanwhile, took him to the Knebworth Park Festival and a punk festival in Battersea Park in September 1978. Peter was an overwhelming success with his “punk” version of what he described as the B.O.F anthem none other than Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
At neither festival was he a headliner (it was Zappa at Knebworth and The Stranglers at Battersea) though at Knebworth he began alone, with a closely cropped head and a Teddy Bear strapped to his back to begin with Me & My Teddy Bear.
Peter then disappeared until the Reading Festival in 1979 when he played alongside Phil Collins on drums. He took the opportunity to premier two tracks from the next album that we would have to wait almost another year to hear. The songs were: Biko and I Don’t Remember.
In March 1980, he toured the UK but the release of the album was put back until June due to his American record label; Atlantic Records thinking that the record was “commercial suicide”. He eventually moved to Geffen Records in America. So, at the time of the tour all we had was his “hit” single Games Without Frontiers and its B side; Start/I Don’t Remember. The shows were superb. The lighting was still basic but very atmospheric - neon tubes. Peter and the band were all dressed in black boiler suits and during these concerts he premiered his new album.
The third album, again called Peter Gabriel finally saw the light of day in June 1980 when he routed the rest of Europe and the USA. It was his biggest success to date, and radically different and more atmospheric than the first two.
At the time I head an explanation of his imaginative choice of album titles. He said it was because he wanted his albums to be like a magazine.
He tried to follow the single success of Games Without Frontiers with firstly; No Self Control (B/W Lead A Normal Life) and then the anti-Apartheid anthem, Biko which was also his first 12” single. The B side was the previously unreleased Shosholsa and Jetzt Kommt Die Flut - a German version of Here Comes The Flood. Neither of these singles were of a particularly successful nature chart-wise.
To get back to the third album, it was noted at the time that it was mainly concerned with the outsider as Peter put it. All of the songs deal with characters who don’t fit into society’s pigeon holes and are therefore cast out. The prime example was Not One Of Us but there was also the assassin of Family Snapshot; the mentally subnormal of Lead A Normal Life and the criminal Intruder, to name just three. The most emotive track was Peter’s tribute to the black South African, Steve Biko, who “died” in police custody in 1977 - another outcast in his own way.
For this album, Peter had an almost new set of musicians including Kate Bush, Phil Collins, Paul Weller (“The Jam”) and someone who was to become a great friend; David Rhodes. David is still with Peter today but at the time he was guitarist with a band called Random Hold who had been Peter’s support act on the 1980 UK tour, or the “Tour of China 1984” as Peter called it.
The gaps between Peter’s album began to grow and it eventually wasn’t until July 1982 that he performed again. Following Peter Gabriel 3 was going to be a difficult job but by July 1982 he was ready to try and headline at the first night of the WOMAD Festival at Shepton Mallet. There he played a set comprised of all but one of the tracks from his forthcoming LP. The missing track was the powerful Wallflower. The set also contained both Biko and Shosholosa. Peter took full advantage of the arrival on stage of the band Ekome, who were a Bristol - based “African “ band. That night waspure magic. Never before had I enjoyed a concert so much without knowing any (apart from two tracks) of the music.
Peter Gabriel 4 was released in September 1982 and wasn’t the big success that PG3 had been. This time there were only two singles - Shock The Monkey/Soft Dog, a previously unreleased instrumental and I Have The Touch/Across The River - an instrumental Peter co-wrote with Stewart Copeland, and L Shankar for the WOMAD Festival album. Like the album they weren’t successful.
For me personally, Peter Gabriel 4 was/is his best album to date. I account
for its lack of commerciality by the fact that it is rather heavy in lyrical
content and contains some very dark images both musically and lyrically. The
album contains Lay Your Hands On Me which is the track during which he places
himself at the mercy of his audience by falling backwards into the front rows.
Peter undertook a US tour in late 1982 but didn’t play any European dates (apart from WOMAD) but in October 1982 we in the UK did get the only full Genesis reunion at Milton Keynes. On a wet and windy Saturday, Peter played the concert in aid of the organisers of the WOMAD Festival who had made appalling losses. I won’t comment here other than to say that October 2nd was a bad choice weather-wise, but WHAT a concert!
While touring the US, Peter had recorded four concerts for a live album which appeared in 1983. Plays Live was a double LP which captured Peter in full force and as a bonus it contains the only (lyrical) version officially recorded of I Go Swimming, a track he first performed during the Tour Of China back in 1980.
He toured throughout 1983, calling the tour “Playtime 1988”. At the open air show at London’s Crystal Palace in aid of the Anti-Apartheid charity, the Lincoln Trust, he was joined onstage by Phil Collins who played drums during Peter’s set. A live version of I Don’t Remember was released as a single to little interest. This was backed by live versions of Solsbury Hill and on the 12” by that track and Kiss Of Life the latter had not appeared on the Plays Live album.
He also released a track called Walk Through The Fire in 1983. It forms part of the soundtrack to the film Against All Odds. The B side was The Race which was written by Larry Carlton but the 12” single contained a remix of I Have The Touch. Peter then began work on a film soundtrack of his own. The final product, for Alan Parker’s film Birdy, was a mixture of old and new material reworked to create a set of atmospheres rather than a set of songs.
There followed an agonising wait of almost two Years until 1986. Peter then achieved his biggest success to date. The single Sledgehammer, was a top ten single throughout the world. It was backed with Don’t Break This Rhythm and the single was soon followed by the new album; So. This latest album is the culmination of Peter’s artistry. It contains a great mix of emotions and atmospheres and these songs were backed with some exceptional and highly imaginative promotional videos - the most obvious being for Sledgehammer itself.
The success of this single was followed by more with Don’t Give Up, a duet with Kate Bush backed with In Your Eyes and on the 12” with the Laurie Anderson duet; This Is The Picture, previously only available on her album. This in turn was followed by Big Time which also contained the unreleased track; Curtains. The only single not to achieve a degree of chart success was in fact Red Rain which was coupled with an instrumental version of I Go Swimming that was titled Ga Ga.
Peter toured most of the world throughout 1986/87 with one of his strongest line ups so far and he filmed one of the last concerts of the tour in Athens for release on video. Late in 1987, Peter reissued Biko as a live 7”, 12” and CD single to coincide with the release of Sir Richard Attenborough’s film Cry Freedom which was of course, the life story of Steve Biko. The single was coupled with the Sun City LP track No More Apartheid and on the CD single there was the 1985 remix of I Have The Touch. Sadly this record was not a hit.
The light show on this most recent tour was a marvel in its simplicity and its effectiveness. Swooping lighting rigs like giant praying mantises attacked him during No Self Control and the poignant Mercy Street. Incredible though the lights themselves are, it is still very basic.
Peter has taken his time in everything he has done in music. It may even have cost him some of his well-deserved commercial success. He has never flinched from taking chances and today he is respected for being one of the most innovative artists around. His mixture of funny and intellectual images is highly original.
And now, almost two years since So was released, we wait and see if he can better it. One thing is certain, we should still “expect the unexpected”!!