Monday, October 22, 2012

Say it isn't So - Gabriel's landmark turns 25(ish)

Such is Peter Gabriel's habitual delinquency that even his 25th anniversary release of So has slipped by a year.

He has a good excuse. Well, good excuses - namely the tale end of his New Blood project, along with the usual disparate interests and causes that have a habit of slowing his progress like weeds dragging a boat.

But, finally, So 25 is here, in a number of commemorative forms, from the basic CD reissued through a treasure chest of a box set, more of which in a moment.

Let's first consider the original form, released in the late spring of 1986, just as I was taking my A-levels. It was an album that turned Gabriel into a superstar, transforming him from that bloke who'd had slightly eccentric hits like Solsbury HillGames Without Frontiers and Shock The Monkey, and who, further back, had worn a variety of bizarre costumes as lead singer of Genesis Mark I.

The path to So had taken many forms. His first four title-free solo albums (later named by their Hipgnosis cover art to help confused Americans), were each like pieces of molten metal being banged into shape by a master blacksmith, perpetually hammering to find the optimum form.

The first ('Car'), released two years after leaving Genesis, was the freedom album, symbolised by Solsbury Hill (about leaving Genesis, the band he'd formed at school) and its sibling Excuse Me, a cod-barbership number which begins: "Excuse me/You're wearing out my joie de vie/Grabbing those good years again/I want to be alone".

The second ('Scratch') in 1978 had an edgier feel, thanks to Robert Fripp's production and staffing by predominantly American musicians, including Bruce Springsteen's keyboard player Roy Bittan, which fused an odd hybrid of punk and West Coast rock. For the third ('Melt'), Gabriel changed direction once more as he embraced his own version of synth-rock New Wave with guest spots by Kate Bush, Paul Weller (guitar on And Through The Wire) and former bandmate Phil Collins on cymbals-free drums (thus giving birth to the gated reverb sound that would become his signature as a superstar in his own right).

This third album, more experimental and slightly less accessible than the first two ended with Biko, the fist-pumping anthem about South African civil rights leader Steve Biko, and arguably the first example of a western rock star embracing what we now call "world music". This continued on Gabriel's fourth solo album ('Security'), which opened with the tribal drumming of The Rhythm Of The Heat and contained the story of Native American mysticism, San Jacinto (beautifully rearranged for orchestra on New Blood, Gabriel's recent symphonic retread).

Three years, a live album of the fourth album's tour, and the soundtrack to Alan Parker's Birdy had elapsed by the time Gabriel started work on So. Incredibly he'd been a recording artist for almost 20 years, having cut his first album with Genesis while at Charterhouse as he still harboured ambitions of being a drummer and soul singer (he was a passionate Otis Redding fan, a feature that lay largely publicly suppressed until So came along with the obvious Stax pastiche, Sledgehammer).

The years separating So from its predecessors may have been decades. With the assistance of Daniel Lanois, the Canadian who'd just produced U2's Under A Blood Red Sky with Brian Eno, Gabriel and an eclectic cast (including Stewart Copeland, Otis Redding's trumpeter Wayne Jackson and other members of The Memphis Horns, Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour, Simple Minds' Jim Kerr, performance artist Laurie Anderson and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers), Gabriel stepped out of the artistically-worthy but commercially flimsy shadows to become a proper, breakfast telly-patronising star, especially in America.

So wasn't, however, some crude attempt to go pop. It was an album made, still, on Gabriel's trademark awkward terms, but musically it took the singer further towards layered songwriting and recording than he'd ever attempted before.

Armed with new toys like the Fairlight CMI sampling keyboard, Gabriel indulged his laborious passion for texturing and, in particular, rhythm, which dated back to his schoolboy soul band drumming. Coupled to a voracious appetite for (and consumption of) oddballstories, the more obscure the better, and you had the makings of the most multi-dimensional album Peter Gabriel had recorded to date.

So's opener, Red Rain depicted a vision of vulnerability, though many have wrongly assumed it's a direct comment on the ecology. 26 years on, it is still powerful, even more so live, and its recent orchestral treatment by Gabriel for the New Blood project gave it an even greater sense of the epic.

For an album written and recorded in 1985, amid yuppies and the decadent red braces and puffball skirts of Thatcher's supposedly loadsamoney Britain, Don't Give Up was as caustic a song about Thatcherism's cause and effect as Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding had been about the leaderene's Falklands adventure. Featuring Kate Bush - whose memorable embrace with Gabriel for the song's video led to tabloid rumours of the two being an item - Don't Give Up had been inspired by the Great Depression, hence the 1930s gospel feel. It is said people contemplating suicide changed their minds thanks to the song's sentiment. Its poignancy touches still, today.

Big Time was an oddly prescient swipe at rock superstar egotism, caricaturing pop success on an album that would turn Gabriel into a major star himself. So, he has said, "was the end of the idea of me being a sort of cult artist at the fringes of the mainstream, especially in America. There wasn’t an option to go and hide in the shadows any more."

The album reached number one in seven countries including the UK, and went on to sell five million copies in the US alone. It regularly shows up in lists of the best albums of all time. Part of this success is down to one song in particular.

Even he'd wanted to, Sledgehammer would ensure his place in pop history forever. With its unreservedly simplistic Memphis soul sound, and borderline BBC ban-sexuality (remember, the BBC were still blacklisting records in 1986 for the slightest hint of deviance. Shame they weren't applying the same prurience to their presenters....) Sledgehammer blasted Gabriel onto charts around the world.

It gave Gabriel his first ever US No.1 single (which was, ironically, later knocked off the top by his old band's Invisible Touch), helped significantly by the stop-frame promo made by a then-unknown animator from Bristol called Nick Park. Today, Sledgehammer is still the most-screened video in MTV history.

Sledgehammer and Big Time may have been the album's tempo tracks, but Gabriel's interest in the obscure was never far away. Mercy Street took So into a colder space than Sledgehammer and Big Time, focusing on the story of troubled poet Anne Sexton, and her struggles against depression and suicide. We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37), in a similar vein, recounted the controversial electro-shock obedience experiments by Yale scientist Stanley Milgram, while This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds), a collaboration between Gabriel and performance artist Laurie Anderson, took the album into Gabriel's occasionally abstruse areas of departure.

For the most part, however, everything about So seemed to say "different" and "new". Even the choice of a simple, black and white cover shot by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn suggested a clean approach for the 36-year-old Gabriel. As his old band Genesis had found, making the transition from mythical creatures and Victorian whimsy to saying "I love you" in a song hadn't been easy for these former English public schoolboys and their somewhat repressed backgrounds that had been liberated by The Beatles, the Stones and Motown.

Having seemingly avoided emotion on any of his previous works, Gabriel ended So with one of the 1980s' most uplifting songs about romance, In Your Eyes. Combining jaunty, danceable African rhythms with a backing chorus featuring Youssou N'Dour, it coincided with Paul Simon's Graceland (released just three months after So) as one of the first mainstream pop records to reach into Africa for inspiration - and be a hit. Gabriel had been involved in the burgeoning World Music scene for some time, having launched WOMAD in 1982 (nearly bankrupting him in the process) to provide a showcase for music from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In Your Eyes became a bigger hit thanks to Cameron Crowe's rom-com Say Anything. During a pivotal scene, in which John Cusack holds up a boombox to Ione Skye's bedroom, he plays In Your Eyes. In America, at least, it remains a song to fall in love to.

A couple of weeks ago, Gabriel's Back To Front tour of the US to celebrate So's anniversary came to the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, during which the performance of In Your Eyes prompted a cameo from Cusack...and his music machine...

What makes So remarkable, 27 years after it was written and recorded, is just how timeless it sounds. So much from the 1980s has dated; rock songs with over-chorused guitars, dance songs with fake brass as if played on a My First Botempi keyboard, and the sheer party streamer fakery of it all. Sledgehammer had real, Stax horns on it; Don't Give Up had a genuinely supportive warmth to it; and In Your Eyes remains, to this day, a song to lift the spirits.

So why re-release it? Good question. With record sales in terminal decline, rock's biggest stars are plundering their libraries and exploiting the heritage appetite left-right-and-centre. Hardly a classic album can pass a major milestone anniversary without it being re-packaged, re-boxed and re-toured.

For So's slightly belated anniversary, Gabriel has produced a similar choice of packages as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and others have done with their reissues, offering a choice of remastered version of the original album, a three-CD pack containing the original plus a double live album from the So tour, or, for the ├╝ber fan, the So 'immersion' box set, comprised of the remastered album, the So DNA CD - a "unique insight" into So's creation featuring bits of tracks while they were still in development, the Live in Athens 1987 DVD executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the So - Classic Albums DVD documentary, along with a high quality vinyl version of the album, a 12-inch disc containing unreleased songs, a high-definition digital download and a luxury book about the album.

The ideal Christmas gift? Maybe not for some people. Blogger Paul Sinclair recently wrote an open letter to Gabriel to complain about the lack of 5.1-channel mixes of So, amongst other absent format choices. Gabriel wrote back, at length, ending: "While I accept we may not have made all the right decisions, I do resent any implication that this is a cynical or exploitative project."

Gabriel concluded by writing: "It's something that all of us involved are proud of, and I really hope will be appreciated for what it is".

While you can debate the merits of artists going to such elaborate lengths to repackage such epoch-making albums, there is certainly something to celebrate about So. An '80s album that was of its time but hasn't aged one bit. Now, how is that so?

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