After Peter Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, it took a while for his solo career to “gel”–to find a unified music style to bind it together. What finally allowed that happen was when he became one the first rock musicians to combine the rapid growth that music technology was making in the late 1970s and early ’80s, with Gabriel’s love of what has become known as “world music”.
Along the way, Gabriel’s engineer, Hugh Padgham, developed what became the drum sound of the 1980s by combining thick reverb with a fast acting noise gate. Remember when all of a sudden in the early 1980s, when drums (particularly snare drums) started sounding like booming cannons? That sound began on Gabriel’s Intruder album (Ironically, the drummer on that session was Phil Collins, who succeeded Gabriel as Genesis’ frontman, and would shortly enjoy ’80s superstardom of his own.)
For the album that preceded Intruder, Gabriel also wrote what is arguably the song of the 1980s: “Biko”, which put all of the sonic elements Gabriel had been assembling into one place: thumping drum sounds, droning synths, “found” loops of sound and powerful lyrics. Gabriel had been inspired by the death of South African activist Stephen Biko at the hands of Eastern Cape security police in 1977. The result was a song that foreshadowed much of the activism of rock music in the 1980s, as it shed light on the racism of South Africa, and led directly to “Miami” Steve Van Zandt’s “Sun City” project.
Not bad for seven minutes of recorded music.
Building The Template For MTV
Gabriel also had an interest in film and in theatrics. In the 1970s, he wore a variety of increasingly outlandish costumes while in Genesis. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, even before MTV debuted, he began making a series of groundbreaking videos. His 1982 video for “Shock The Monkey” was practically a template for aspiring MTV rockers: its editing mixed black and white and color film, and rather than simply present Gabriel singing on stage, or in front of the then-ubiquitous blown-out white backdrops, placed him in strange make-up, in some of nightmarish scenario. It’s difficult to make out what’s going on-but boy does it look simultaneously scary and cool!
Just Press Play
“Shock The Monkey” is one of 18-videos assembled on Play, Warner Brothers’ new DVD anthology of the best of Gabriel’s videos.
There’s some terrific stuff here, which charts Gabriel’s continuing mastery of the rock video, and ability to pick talented and sympathetic directors to work with. The videos can be viewed in isolation, or accompanied with introductions by Gabriel, some shot recently, and others dating from the 1980s. (There’s a great scene showing Gabriel in a junkyard with an engineer holding a microphone and recording Gabriel while he slammed car doors and smashed windows with sledgehammers. Gabriel is next scene loading the sounds into his Fairlight, one of the very first sampling keyboards.
Are there disappointments? Sure. Considering that the songs were remixed for 5.1 sound, I would have liked to have seen a video created that featured the extended version of “In Your Eyes”, featuring a transcendent improvisation between Gabriel and the Senegal singer that he helped discover, Youssou N’Dour. And the video of the duet that Gabriel did with Joni Mitchell, “My Secret Place”, would have been a nice inclusion–it was a late 1980s video that I recall quite fondly for its atmosphere.
There are two bonus clips not part of the proper assemblage of videos, which combined, how chart the progress of Gabriel’s career: there’s a fairly ridiculous video from the late 1970s (one of the few actually shot on video) of “Modern Love”, featuring Gabriel dressed in what looks NFL shoulder pads and other protective gear, being chased by long-legged girls who would endure a long period of unemployment before finding work in numerous videos by ZZ Top, Robert Palmer, and other mid-80s artists.
There’s also recent live footage of Gabriel’s early-80s hit, “Games Without Frontiers”, featuring Gabriel and a female backup singer touring the stage and singing on top of on his and hers Segways. I’m not sure if “get” Gabriel’s latest look: the shaved head is de rigueur these days, but what’s up with the white triangular beard? It looks more suited to being worn by Ian McKellen in The Lord of the Rings movies–on Gabriel it just looks strange, to say the least.
But looking odd is nothing new for Gabriel, ever since his Genesis days of outlandish costumes. And since leaving that seminal art rock group, he’s racked up an extremely successful and influential career. And there’s a wealth of footage on Play documenting it that any Gabriel fan would enjoy.