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Music Review: Peter Gabriel – Melt (1980)

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I am certain that if there were a musical lexicon, next to the definition of the word eccentric would be a photo inset of Peter Gabriel, most likely adorned in the outlandish silver and blue face-paint of his early concert persona. Peter Gabriel is, by any stretch of the definition, musically eccentric.

Take, for instance, his first four solo albums, all titled merely Peter Gabriel, with no further subtitles or written descriptions to differentiate one from the other. Fans and critics alike have had to describe these albums by the pictures on the covers: there is Gabriel’s first solo effort, Car (1977), then Scratch (1978), Melt (1980), and finally the 1982 release which features a cover picture so bizarre and beyond description that Geffen Records felt compelled to add the title Security on the U.S. release (the U.K. version remained without a title). But in the song “And Through The Wire”, Gabriel’s states his belief, “I talk in pictures, not in words”; so, perhaps the subtitles were simply extraneous to him at that point in time.

From a compositional standpoint, the idiosyncratic Gabriel hasn’t merely chosen the path less traveled, he’s clear-cut a gaping glade clean through the forest. Whether as the outrageously caparisoned frontman and storyteller of Genesis, or as a visionary solo artist delving into world music and visual media, Gabriel is not only singing from leftfield, he’s up in the nosebleed bleacher seats with the field barely visible below. And it is precisely because of the unconventional vocals, the quirky beats, the irregular time signatures, and the unorthodox subject matter of Peter Gabriel’s third solo release (popularly christened Melt) that makes it an essential listening experience.

You have to hand it to Gabriel. With the release of Melt in May of 1980, he came out with one of the best albums of 1980s only six months into the decade. It is certainly on par with other stellar releases from the period, such as U2’s Joshua Tree, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, or Gabriel’s own So album from 1986. But whereas So was more commercially successful (with the MTV hits “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”) and far more huggable for the masses (don’t we all get nostalgic when we hear “In Your Eyes”?), the thorny Melt pricks one’s sensibilities and is satisfying from a visceral standpoint, with a psychological depth and intensity to the storytelling few albums from the 80s could match.

The first thing one notices about the album is Peter Gabriel’s wide-ranging vocal assault. With yelps, yammers, grunts, growls, howls and whistles, Gabriel moves the songs along at a fevered pitch. Gabriel’s gravel and satin voice, one of the most distinctive in rock music, is more an instrument in the songs than mere accompaniment to the music, a trait shared by Van Morrison at his scatting best. With such an unmistakable signature, Gabriel’s word-pictures will not be mistaken as the work of some other artist.

Another notable feature of Melt is the percussion. There were no cymbals used during recording — a point Peter Gabriel applied emphatically during studio sessions — which gives the songs a totemic, animistic thrum and rumble, and permeates the album with an unrelieved edginess that sometimes nears hysteria. To replace the traditional rock array of hi-hats, crashes, and ride cymbals, more exotic percussion was used: xylophone, surdo, bones, tambourine, cowbell, claves and various synthesized vibe and drum treatments. In addition, Gabriel and ex-Genesis bandmate Phil Collins (who appears as drummer or percussionist on the songs “Intruder”, “No Self Control”, “Biko”, and “Family Snapshot”), along with producers Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padham, are credited with developing the “gated drum” sound, a dramatic reverb effect that produces a booming but highly-compressed punch to the drums. Collins was to feature this sound on his Face Value album (the memorable percussive explosion on the hit song “In the Air Tonight” is a perfect example of the “gated” effect).

But aside from the vocal stylizations, studio techniques, and musical innovations, it is the qualities of the compositions on Melt that draws one in. Several critics have made mention of the fact that Melt is, for all intents and purposes, a “psychological treatise” on the human condition. Compulsion, obsession, isolation, schizophrenia, amnesia, prejudice, bigotry, institutionalization, anger, war, murder – the skewed stuff that stirs the uneasy mind, the tumultuous travesties of the modern tragedy — herein lie the darker dimensions of thought and action, delivered with an actor’s flair by the ruminating and lugubrious Gabriel.

“Intruder” begins the mind games with the grating, metallic grind of clippers on twisted wire, discordant keyboards, and Collin’s strident drumbeat. The song is a flesh-crawling ode to home invasion, and details the perpetrator’s joy of slipping in undetected and causing mayhem. In Gabriel’s study, this villain is not so much interested in robbery, but in the flawless execution of the break-in, and the more ominous undertones of what the intruder is actually seeking: “I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there/I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air.” The eerie ambience is enhanced by a skeletal xylophone solo and a bit of whistling-with-criminal-intent made famous by Peter Lorre in the movie M (1931).

The next song, “No Self Control”, mirrors the troubled tendencies of “Intruder”, but amps up the mania, as well as the volume, with Gabriel’s recurring avant-garde partners-in-crime Robert Fripp on guitar and Kate Bush on backing vocals, along with a vicious turn on drums by Collins (this was back when he was simply an exceptional musician and not a MTV media darling). Gabriel repeats the mantra “I don’t know how to stop” as the song’s compulsive anti-hero descends from personal prepossessions and foibles to dangerous obsessions and less-than-subtle hints of violence.

“I Don’t Remember” features an instrumental intro called, simply enough, “Start”, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the entire soundtrack of the Ridley Scott movie Bladerunner (1982); in fact, one wonders if the composer Vangelis didn’t lift the concept wholesale to help pen his piece. As far as “I Don’t Remember”, the amnesiac lead character actions are perhaps reflective of the previous track “No Self Control”, as our impulsive anti-hero slips into benighted forgetfulness as his mind shuts down during an interrogation after committing a heinous and particularly troublesome crime. Or not. Like many of Gabriel’s nettlesome compositions, the lyrical intentions are up for conjecture, but this theory does present a seamless transition from one song to the next, and the two do seem akin.

In “Family Snapshot”, Gabriel sings a song of assassination, offering a brilliant character study of a publicity-seeking loner who kills a public figure. The murky, almost meaningless, motivations used by the killer in an effort to excuse his crime (“I need some attention/I shoot into the light”) sadly reflect the individual in modern society’s almost desperate need for his or her fifteen minutes of fame. The killer is neither dogmatic nor political in his aim (“I don’t really hate you/I don’t care what you do/ We were made for each other/Me and you”); he merely uses his victim as a foil to gain the spotlight.

The original inspiration for the song was the interviews of Arthur Bremer (published in the book Assassin’s Diary in ’73). Bremer, who was more interested in fame than politics, had attempted to assassinate Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972 (Bremer was also the inspiration behind Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), but Gabriel notches up the intensity and drama by grafting scenes of the 1963 Kennedy assassination onto Bremer’s accounts. Gabriel’s use of internal monologue and suspense is superb in “Family Snapshot”, as he ratchets up the musical intensity, notch by notch, until the gun is fired, leading to a reflective denouement which acts as part of the impotent assassin’s rambling confession.

Like “I Don’t Remember”, the angry “And Through the Wire” is open to interpretation, meaning anything from a long-distance relationship with a woman, to Gabriel maintaining his strained friendship with Phil Collins after the break-up of Genesis (which required “underground” means of dialogue to escape the incessant jabber of the gossip rags). But clearly, the song deals with the telecommunication overload of modern life, which was discernible even in 1980. Paul Weller of The Jam and The Style Council offers a gut-wrenching and jagged guitar line that propels the song.

The albums only “hit” (it went to #4 in the UK and #48 in the U.S.) is the decidedly bizarre “Games Without Frontiers”, an allegory with allusions to game shows, and children behaving in the manner of warlike nations — or vice versa. The absurd nature of children at play is actually a metaphor for adult immaturity and bellicosity reflected in breast-beating nationalism and overweening patriotism (the children’s names indicate their countries of origin: Germany, Russia, Britain, China, Italy, etc.). The song features off-kilter beats, jangling guitars, swelling synths, cabaret whistling and Kate Bush’s deliciously haunting, repetitive chorus “jeux sans frontières” (“games without frontiers”).

“Not One of Us”, once again featuring the brash and biting guitar work of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, is a song that speaks bluntly of xenophobic attitudes spawned by ignorant and unreasonable fears. The simple arithmetic of bigotry, “There’s safety in numbers/When you learn to divide”, and the dimwitted denial of reason, “All shades of opinion/Feed an open mind/But your values are twisted/Let us help you unwind”, are ironically skewered as Gabriel grabs prejudice by its dark roots. The rambunctious rhythm, slashing guitars and frenetic vocals of Gabriel creates a manic and guttural tribal chant of hatred as the song reaches its final crescendo.

From the unreasoned and fear-driven edge of insanity, Gabriel returns to quiescence with “Lead a Normal Life”. The song is lush and mellifluous, but the pastoral mood proves illusory — a pleasant façade shrouding institutional grates. For we find ourselves in the asylum, where one eats with a spoon because “they don’t give you knives.” But the park-like views of the trees are nice, and through the medicated haze your keepers expect you will one day “lead a normal life”.

The final song on the album is the stirring, anthemic “Biko”. Steven Biko was a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In 1977, Biko was arrested on trumped up charges under a South African terrorism act (basically, he was arrested for protesting while black). He was beaten so badly during a police interrogation lasting over 24 hours that he lapsed into a coma. He died within days due lack of medical care (the police would later claim he committed suicide). As is the way of injustice, the police were cleared of the crime by the South African courts. But the horrid event gained worldwide attention due in part to Gabriel’s profound lament, and the grand lyric “And the eyes of the world are watching now”, proved prophetic. Gabriel began to sing “Biko” to end each of his concerts, and one of the most powerful protests songs of the 80’s became a catalyst for change in South Africa. From an anti-apartheid standpoint, it certainly has more emotional punch than the tepid “I Aint Gonna Play (Sun City)” by Little Steven and his coterie of “We are the World” rejects.

In hindsight — from our lofty but precarious perch some 30 years later — Melt can rightly be judged as Peter Gabriel’s finest solo work. It perhaps didn’t sell as many albums or was as commercially accessible as So, nor was it rooted as deeply in the affections of old Genesis fans like Gabriel’s first solo effort from 1977 (the album subtitled Car, which I esteem greatly and remember fondly). However, Peter Gabriel’s third solo album is a more serious work than the other two I have mentioned. There is nothing humorous or cute here (no tuba solos or videos with defeathered, headless chickens dancing on stage, for instance). Melt is fully realized and conceptually brilliant, a stark look at man’s inhumanity to man, and the madness that stirs in the minds of many.

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  • http://johngarza.com John Garza

    Excellent review!! MOast worhty of an outstanding album, ahead of it’s time!! Thank you elf for so eloquently describing a true work of art!