Tuesday, June 01, 2010

It Was 30 Years Ago Today...

Well, last Sunday, actually. On May 30, 1980, Peter Gabriel’s third album was released, the one widely believed to be his masterpiece, if not in terms of sales, than certainly of artistic vision.

1980’s Peter Gabriel was third album to be titled Peter Gabriel, even using the same typeface, his idea at the time being to have each album seem like subsequent issues of a magazine. As a result, the third album is unofficially called “Melt,” as the cover features what appears to be Gabriel’s face melting (courtesy of Hipgnosis). (He would have kept this going but his record company decided, with album four, that he should start naming them properly; so 1982’s Peter Gabriel ended up with the more or less official title of Security, likely because the cover picture appears to be a still from a bank security camera. Minimalist titles like So, Us, and Up followed. In fact, those are the only proper studio albums he has released since 1982; not the most prolific of artists, is he?) Five years into his solo career (Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, following The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour), his first two albums, Peter Gabriel (aka “Car”) and Peter Gabriel (aka “Scratch”) careened from style to style, sometimes successfully (“Solsbury Hill,” “Here Comes the Flood,” “D.I.Y.”), sometimes less so (most of “Scratch”). However, by album three, he had found a sound, a vision, and the songs that made them work. It could be called “world music,” although at this stage I’m not sure what world it would be; certainly not Earth. I first heard “Games Without Frontiers” on the radio circa 1980 or 1981 or so and thought it was one of the strangest—and coolest—songs I had ever heard. The rest of the album is only modestly less strange, but still very cool, and more than a little haunting.

“Melt” was produced by Steve Lillywhite, early in his production career, and the record boasts the sound—of which Lillywhite was a chief architect—of the “gated” drum sound; that is, a noise gate is applied to a conventional drum to change—or eliminate—the decay of the impact. Coupled with a lack of cymbals, it tended to add a unique, punchy, and at times almost electronic sound to acoustic drums. This became a popular sound in the early 1980s, and it is argued that this was the first album to use this effect. It is highlighted on the opening song “Intruder” (drums played by Genesis mate Phil Collins—the effect is also featured on Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”), a creepy creepy song about, well, an intruder. “I know something about opening windows and doors/I know how to move quietly—to creep across creaky wooden floors.” The obsession with obsessive personalities continues on “No Self Control” (“I don’t know how to stop!”). “Start” is a brief sax/synth instrumental that leads into the radio favorite (well, played on the radio once or twice) “I Don’t Remember,” featuring Tony Levin’s “Stick” (a type of mutant bass).

More deranged characters appear in “Family Snapshot,” an attempt to get into the mind of a Lee Harvey Oswald-like political assassin (“‘I don’t really hate you/I don’t care what you do/We were made for each other—me and you/I want to be somebody/You were like that, too’” After the heavy drama of “Family Snapshot,” side one (in the old vinyl days) ends with the light-ish “And Through the Wire” featuring guitarists Paul Weller (The Jam, whose classic Sound Affects came out in 1980) and Dave Gregory (XTC, whose extremely classic Black Sea also came out in 1980). Side two opens with the big hit (well, it occasionally got played—it rose to #48 in the U.S.) “Games Without Frontiers”—and, yes, that’s Kate Bush chanting “Jeux sans frontières” in the background), leading into “Not One of Us” (“You may look like we do/Talk like we do—But you know how it is...”). “Lead a Normal Life” is set in a mental institution. The album ends on a political note; “Biko,” about South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who was killed in police custody in 1977. The song begins and ends with a chant of the South African song “Senzeni Na?” (“What have we done?”) which was sung at Biko’s funeral. “Biko” was often played at the end of Gabriel concerts, and the audience were encouraged to chant along.

Speaking of which, several SU-ians and I journeyed to Rochester in 1986 to see Gabriel live on the So tour. Although he didn’t play “Solsbury Hill” (my favorite Peter Gabriel track), and I was not a big fan of So (it was his big mega-platinum albums with “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes,” and “Big Time”), it was still a phenomenal show.

So, let’s put on the great Peter Gabriel, melt a bit, and get so strange across the border...

The official pre-MTV video for “Games Without Frontiers”—ah, the state of video technology in 1980!