"Peter Gabriel - The Elusive Genius." A Retrospective by Alan Hewitt.

It is difficult to believe that it is over twenty eight years since Peter "walked out of the machinery" and began his own search for a musical identity which is uniquely his own. As a follower of that career through its various guises, I thought it high time to take an affectionate look back at his recorded output to-date.

Part One: The studio albums.

Peter Gabriel 1 (Car) Charisma Records CDS 4006 February 25th 1977. *****

Peter Gabriel 1 (car) cover

It is almost impossible now to describe the excitement that this album generated all those years ago. For someone such as I who had not been fortunate enough to see Peter with Genesis, this was very much a leap in the dark - for him as well as for me! The leap was well worth it however. From the very outset of the album with the schizophrenic outing that was Moribund The Burgermeister, this was an album that challenged the listener's preconceptions not only of Peter Gabriel but also the subjects which he chose to examine through the tracks on it. Modern day obsession with consumerism is wittily examined in Modern Love, to the demands of modern life that leads to the Slowburn of the soul; this is an album that shows how much Peter was prepared to stretch himself and also his audience and age has not diminished its potency either!

Key Tracks: Solsbury Hill, Here Comes The Flood.

Peter Gabriel 2 (Scratch) Charisma Records CDS 4013 June 3rd 1978. **

Click to enlarge

Barely a year separates this album from its predecessor and yet they are poles apart musically. This is very much the "difficult" second album. It has certainly always been a difficult album for me to listen to. An album full of anger and angst with little of the wry humour which marked out the first album. Over all this album is simply too intense to make easy listening and I don't mind that but there has to be some form of redemption otherwise the exercise descends into one of being music to slash your wrists to and sadly this album falls into that category. Live favourites such as DIY and On The Air are really saved by the performances of the musicians whereas the studio versions come across as soulless automata which is sad because in the live context this album works even better than its predecessor.

Key Tracks: On The Air, DIY, Perspective.

Peter Gabriel 3 (Melt) Charisma Records CDS 4019 May 30th 1980 *****

Peter Gabriel 3 (Melt) cover

A welcome return to form with this album. In my mind, this is the perfect Peter Gabriel album; it has the lot. Drama; in the claustrophobic world of the Intruder and the awesome evocation of life tragically cut short that is Biko as well as the wonderfully observed Games Without Frontiers an evocation of the stupidity of nationalism. Character portraits are vividly brought to life in both Intruder and Family Snapshot both of which give a dramatic insight into the obsessive lives of the characters they portray. Every track is drawn taut and there is simply no room for the listener to even draw breath before the next adventure begins!

Key Tracks: Biko, Games Without Frontiers, Family Snapshot.

Peter Gabriel 4 (Face) Charisma Records PG4 10th September 1982 ******

Peter Gabriel 4 (Face) cover

To my mind, this is the last truly great and innovative studio by Peter, which is why the rating system has gone slightly haywire here! His search for new sounds and ideas took him all over the world and the resulting fusion of sounds and atmospheres on this record is breathtaking! Every track on this one was to be performed live by Peter during the massive tour that followed the album's release and it is difficult to say which versions worked better. Every single track is perfectly crafted and delivered with a fervour which few rock albums before or since have even come close to matching. There is humour and drama in equal measure on this album which is a series of deeply observed pictures which challenge the senses at every turn - the perfect album!

Key Tracks: Entire album.

Peter Gabriel So Virgin Records PG5 19th May 1986 ****

So cover

Trying to follow the sheer density of PG4 was to be an impossible task and with the next album, Peter managed to finally marry the difficult blend of "artistic" and "commercial" material whilst losing none of the potency of either. Many fans were disappointed that on this album Peter finally had chart success - so what! The songs that dominated the charts both at home and abroad were not simple bubble-gum pop. Don't Give Up; a plaintive examination of how unemployment drains the soul; Big Time takes a wry swipe at fame and those who are obsessed with it. After the gloom and doom of PG4 this album was a welcome breath of fresh air and deserved its success.

Key Tracks: Sledgehammer, Mercy Street, Don't Give Up, Big Time.

Peter Gabriel US Virgin Records PG 7 28th September 1992 ***

Us cover

A disappointing album given the inordinate length of time which it took to emerge. Some strong ideas are still to be observed; the poignantly observed Come Talk To Me is a classic and Blood Of Eden gives a new twist on the sexual psyche but tracks such as Digging In The Dirt and Kiss That Frog are sadly derivative of what has gone before while tracks such as Fourteen Black Paintings really have no place on a Peter Gabriel album. Peter was obviously struggling for originality on this album and it is the first time that it can be said that Peter was no longer cutting edge in his music. This album falls between the twin stools of commercial success and artistic enterprise and sadly it doesn't really satisfy either one.

Key Tracks: Blood Of Eden, Come Talk To Me, Secret World.

Peter Gabriel UP Real World Records PG11 23rd September 2002 ***

Up cover

The waiting for Peter's next studio album became interminable but eventually, amid much hype; UP was released in September 2002. Ten years is a LONG time to wait for any album and this was the second time that Peter had made such a demand on his fans and there were great expectations resting on this project. I must admit, I have had to re-assess my initial opinion of this album in the light of repeated listenings and also seeing the album presented on the concert stage. I still think that Peter took far too long to produce this album and the end result certainly falls considerably short of the hype which was attached to it by the critics and many of Peter's more obsessional fans. UP is not Peter's greatest work - far from it! There are flashes of the old magic still to be seen however, but these are sandwiched between mediocre tracks which really have no place on an album of Peter's. I Grieve and Signal To Noise were already familiar as soundtrack cuts and as such, they are still the best tracks on this album. However, Sky Blue and More Than This have been consistent growers too. The main problem with this album is that sadly it sounds as if it has had the spirit played out of it in the rehearsal room; it is perhaps Peter's least spontaneous album with much of it sounding extremely contrived and over-thought out and these flaws are laid bare by the live performances where the initial spirit of the tracks can still be seen. Still an album that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the dross which populates the charts but not the work of an artist at the top of his game I'm afraid.

Key Tracks: Signal To Noise, I Grieve, Growing Up.

Part Two: Caught Live.

Peter Gabriel: Plays Live Charisma Records PGDL1 9th June 1983. ****

Peter Gabriel Plays Live cover

Peter's live performances are legendary and deservedly so. Even so, he has until recently at least, been surprisingly reluctant to commit those performances to record. Plays Live released in 1983 was the first attempt to recapture the magic that is the essence of Gabriel live. As such, the album really is a wonderful resume of his solo career to date with a set which drew on the strongest material from his first four solo albums as well as giving us the bonus of the still unreleased I Go Swimming which brings a moment of humour to the proceedings. Poorly edited especially on the re-mastered release which used the "Highlights" version instead of the proper album for some unknown reason, and unnecessarily overdubbed; nonetheless, a vital document of the period.

Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live Virgin Records PGDCD8 1993 ***

Secret World Live cover

Ten years and only a mere TWO proper studio albums separate this album from its predecessor. Taken this time from two gigs in Italy which were also filmed for the accompanying live video/DVD, this was the creative apogee of Peter's live performances where sound was matched by equally inventive visuals. As a representative of the kind of show that you would have seen on the 1993/94 tours, this one is hard to beat and is another essential addition to any PG collection.

Peter Gabriel: Encore Series Recordings 2003/2004 *****

Click to enlarge

Well, Peter seems to have overcome his reluctance to give the fans a live souvenir from his shows of late! Perhaps inspired by the success of Steve Hackett's "Live Archive" series of albums, Peter took this to the ultimate level with the release of an entire series of recordings from his North American tour in 2003 and his European tour the following year. These are "warts and all" desk recordings of the gigs and as such are ever fans' dream and finally beat the bootleggers at their own game. Packaged in basic sleeves the recordings present each show in its unadorned entirety and as such are a gift to fans who were at specific shows or for sad cases like me who collect everything - excellent stuff!

Part Three: Compilations And Soundtracks.

Peter's work on various soundtracks has occasionally been viewed as a distraction from his work on his "proper" albums. Nonetheless, over the years he has contributed material to some extremely challenging projects and some less successful ones too!

Peter Gabriel : Birdy Charisma Records CAS 1167 18th March 1985 ***

Bridy cover

Peter's first essay at the film soundtrack art was well chosen. Alan Parker's film Birdy; portraying the story of a Vietnam veteran's life after the war was a suitably dramatic and atmospheric one for Peter to get to grips with. The film itself is dramatic without becoming overpowering or cliched. There is little room for sentiment in any of Parker's films and Gabriel's score, which cleverly utilises several tracks from his own recorded output, manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of sentimentality and mawkishness to give a bleak soundtrack which echoes the bleakness of the life unfolding through the film. An excellent start!

Key Tracks: Floating Dogs, Birdy's Flight, Slow Marimbas, Under Lock And Key.

Peter Gabriel: Passion Real World Records RWLP1 5th June 1989 *****

Passion cover

Peter has never been one to take the easy road but one must wonder what his thinking was when he opted to commit himself to this film project. One of the most controversial films on the subject of Christ ever to be made, it created a storm of outrage upon its release and in many cases, cinematic release was withheld from it. Sadly, the bigots missed the entire point of the film. Nonetheless, Peter's soundtrack to it is an undoubted masterpiece. I have never seen a film where the music of its soundtrack so perfectly mirrors the images on the screen and the end result is a perfect marriage of sound and vision.

Key Tracks: The Feeling Begins, Of These Hope, Troubled, It Is Accomplished.

Peter Gabriel: Shaking The Tree Sixteen Golden Greats Real World Records PGTV6 15th November 1990 **

Shaking The Tree cover

Aaah, the Christmas market, don't you just love it?! This was Peter's first attempt at a Christmas compilation album and as such, it gave the chance for the floating voters out there to get a sample of the musical excellence which existing fans already knew was the staple of any Gabriel album. However, as always with Peter; there was more to this compilation than met the eye. Not content with merely packaging the album cuts, several of the tracks on this compilation were re-mixed or re-worked versions making it an interesting investment for old and new fans alike.

Peter Gabriel: Ovo Real World Records PGCD9 6th June 2000 *

Ovo cover

With fans eagerly waiting for his first studio album since 1992's US; the announcement that Peter was to be involved in the Millennium Dome project was met with a certain degree of frustration and scepticism by this listener. Personally I still think that this entire project was a colossal waste of money in a city which is already the recipient of far too much taxpayer's money as it is. Sadly, the album from Peter delivered nothing exciting as far as I was concerned. I admit, that being the soundtrack to an extremely visual project, the album was hampered by my refusal to visit the Dome to see the complete package. The tracks which have surfaced from it in Peter's subsequent live shows have redeemed it to some extent but nonetheless, for me personally this remains the least satisfying of any of Peter's albums.

Peter Gabriel: Long Walk Home (Music from the film Rabbit Proof Fence) Real World Records PGCD10 2002 ***

Long Walk Home cover

Viewed by many as a poor man's "Passion" this soundtrack accompanied another film which deserved wider dissemination than it actually received, here in the UK at least. Once again; an uncomfortable subject; the treatment of Aboriginal children in Australia in the mid part of the Twentieth Century, does not make for a popular film. Nonetheless, it is exactly such projects that often bring the unacceptable face of humanity into a sharper perspective and when the visuals are augmented by a soundtrack as evocative and atmospheric as this one then even better. Film music is usually subservient to the image but not here, and once again, Peter has proven his mastery of this demanding field of endeavours.

Peter Gabriel: Hit Real World/EMI Records 07243 595237 2 9 15th November 2003 ***

Hit cover

Yet another stab at that all important Christmas compilation market. Unusually this time though for this was a double album. The first disc titled "Hit" and the second titled "Miss" this was a genuine musical CV of Peter's work to date including tracks from both his studio albums, re-mixes; film soundtrack work and live versions of several tracks to boot. With the exception of the superb Burn You Up Burn You Down which for my money should have appeared on 2002's UP album there is little here to excite existing fans of Peter's work but as a neat resume of his achievements to date for new fans, this album stands up rather well actually.

So, there you have it; a necessarily brief look at the albums by Peter and I am sure that there will be many fans who disagree with the comments made here, that's not a problem and if it makes some of you put pen to paper with your own thoughts on this or any other related topic- send 'em in and we shall gladly print them. In the meantime, enjoy the music - that's what matters!