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Fine Wine and Peter Gabriel

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Kenan Hebert beat me to the punch with a review of Peter Gabriel’s new single and video, The Barry Williams Show, which, in his view, “stinks to high heaven.”

Not a man to mince his words, our Kenan. But good news for me, because it leaves me with plenty to say, since he’s, well, wrong.

I’m a longtime Gabriel fan, which is a somewhat inherently redundant statement, given that practically any Gabriel fan is a longtime one given that his last studio album came out ten years ago. But I’m talking Genesis era Gabriel. “A flower!?” era Gabriel. Gabriel back when he hadn’t figured out how to keep the religious imagery even slightly in check, giving us apocalyptic (literally) visions like Supper’s Ready, and not-even-veiled-at-all Christ figures like Rael in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. (I’m an atheist, for the record, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good imagery.)

So it was with great enthusiasm that I approached Gabriel’s new album, Up, and the first single.

Which brings us back to The Barry Williams Show.

Kenan makes the obvious point: that writing a song about trashy talk shows is, well, a bit behind the times. True enough. But irrelevant.

Yes, the material has been done before. Yes, the topic is not exactly a fresh or new one. But these same arguments would have led us to dismiss “In Your Eyes” all those years ago — it’s just another love song, and geez, how trite can you get with the whole “eyes” thing, really?

This, of course, would have missed the point that “In Your Eyes” wasn’t just a love song, it was in some sense arguably the love song. In the realm of modern pop, it achieved a level of perfection that made it the apotheosis of its form.

And it is just so with The Barry Williams Show. While Springeresque talk hosts are hardly a topic with the emotional resonance of, say, true love, the analogy still holds — particularly when you look beyond the surface of the song and observe its more general statement on humanity and our ills. Gabriel has taken a concept, drilled to its core, and handed that hot, powerful essence to us in a tune with hooks that will leave it bouncing through your head after the first listen.

And with Sean Penn’s able assistance, that sonic essence gets an equally powerful visual kick with the video. Gabriel appears as a fiendish, black-clad narrator, reminding me of early Genesis concerts where he would adopt outlandish, bizarre costumes for each song. Except here, I was struck with the feeling that he was wearing a Peter Gabriel costume. And looking rather fine at it, if in a decidedly evil way.

Gabriel serves as guide to the world of Barry Williams, as expected, a pitch-perfect rendition of a bottom-feeding talk show host (who is played splendidly by an actor I think might be Peter Gallagher in the video, but I may be mistaken). We see the twisted guests, the open fistfights, and the overall vileness of the genre. And then, this being Gabriel, we are naturally treated to an ambiguous, and disturbing ending. For me, it packed a punch — bad media hasn’t been this much of a guilty musical pleasure since Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” (which, I’ll admit, I still listen to sometimes while pounding out TTLB).

Interestingly, the video and song have apparently been banned from daytime presentation in the U.K. — they’ve been relegated to after-9pm only. Certainly, the imagery and lyrics are adult in theme, but I’m a bit surprised at the heavy-handed approach. Whatever do they do with Eminem over there?

Bottom line: with the beauty of the ‘net, you don’t even need to decide whether Kenan or I make the better arguments. Go judge for yourself. And perhaps you’ll be as convinced as I that the old guy has still got it.

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About N.Z. Bear

  • You have to spell my last name right.

    And love songs are different. They never go out of style.

  • Eric Olsen

    Well, he doesn’t “have to,” but he should. I changed it.

  • No, he has to. If he doesn’t he will develop itchy, festering sores on all sorts of unmentionable parts of his body. So sayeth our Lord Jehovah.

    So, you see, it’s not really a matter of choice.

  • Yipes. The hazards of reviewing, indeed.

    Sorry, Kenan. And thanks, Eric!


  • myron

    The ‘Lamb’ wasn’t about Christ, it was about death. And why do you people wear your atheism as some fat nudist wears his nakedness? Atheism is as much a belief system, and I wish it would be treated as such politically. Would you all do us a favor and prove to us how god does NOT exist? Can’t do it , can you…
    Yes I listened to Aflowah?! Gabriel too, and yes it was the best pop music of the time, but the times we live in prove what a miserable waste of time listening to that was. And how more irrelevant can these British thieves be? “I stole rock and roll and it lead me to inlightenment?” Please…

  • Scott

    The ‘Lamb’ was about a lot of things and most of them Peter really could not explain himself, since he had a concept for the album, however, he had to rush the lyrics and content and the tensions in the band at that time were so great that Peter secluded himself from the other members of the band and had the lyrics entirely in another room. The band did not really see the the concept and lyrics until after they had much of the music written, so it never really came to be what Peter envisioned.

    Even now, he says that the story and concept are at best ‘fragmented’ pieces of a bigger idea he had envisioned. Rael was a ‘Christ’ like figure, but to say the album was about Christ would be too general and not correct.

    Gabriel usually states that the album is a coming of age concept with the Puerto Rican street kid character Rael, who faced with the realities of the world and “meat grinder” ways of society, escapes through his imagination and transports himself into another world which allows him to be the hero by saving his brother John. His vivid imagination allows him to get through the harsh realities of his surroundings in inner city in New York and in the process it makes him the hero in his mind and the minds of the listener.

    Much of the album has to do with overcoming fears of society, sex, and death. Fear and metaphors based around fear have always been Gabriel’s primary motivation when he writes lyrics about most subjects

    Even on the new album ‘Up’, he still explores these themes with songs like “Darkness” and “No Way Out”. ‘Us’ dealt with overcoming the fear of loving and intimacy in his closest relationships.

    I don’t agree that the times we live in now have anything to do with the relevance of early Genesis songs being a waste of time. It is art and it was the reflection of the times in many respects Nothing is wasted in listening to it if one enjoys it. Many things are borrowed or stolen in the art world, this is politely called inspiration and every humanbeing does it to some extent.

    Even Christ was guilty of this.

    Much of his work was through inspiration from God. Hmmm how original was this? So maybe now in these times we live in that makes him irrelevant, since it was so long ago and none of the concepts were really his?

    Instead they were coming from God that none of us knows really exists. I do agree that the Atheist waving flag is a bit like putting a label on yourself which narrows your view of life and perhaps death.

    I don’t believe Peter has ever stated that writing Genesis songs lead him to enlightenment. He has been lucky enough to be able to earn a living doing what he enjoys in life and the bottom line is if you don’t like it switch the channel.

  • Can’t argue with Scott’s treatise about The Lamb. For all of its confusing imagery (The Lamia, in particular, along with the Slippermen), it still stands out as a masterpiece of its era.

    As to “A Flower?” If you want apocalyptic imagery, this is definitely the song for that, as we see the Book of Revelations come to life in the song. I still play this one, and I can’t recommend enough the Genesis Archives 67-74 boxed set for the definitive live version of it.

    I can’t wait to see Peter at MSG on November 21st.

  • Hombrero

    The actor who plays the talk show host is Christopher McDonald.