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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


I confess to never having been much of a fan of Peter Gabriel.

I had certainly never had much love for Genesis - with or without him for that matter - and not really for any of their solo endeavours.

However, Gabriel's 1986 album "so" has always been something of an outlier and more recently, it has prompted me to explore a few of his other works to try and understand why I should have let that album in but not the others.

I had been given a copy of his previous album called "Peter Gabriel" as of course, they all were so I mean "4" or "Security" as it was referred to in the US. I played it once and never again. It was a remarkably dense record which required simply too much effort.

As the years have passed, I have grown to appreciate far more the intricately crafted soundscape it presents with songs like "I Have The Touch" and "Shock The Monkey". It is, however, a deadly serious record that was perhaps simply too weighty for my then under-developed ears. The record deals with issue after issue covering the environment, politics and psychology - "San Jacinto" is a song that concerns itself with the infiltration of modern society into ancient Native American ways of life whilst "Wallflower" looks at the plight of political prisoners in Latin America.

It still does not present a comfortable listen, despite its introduction of authentic 'world' instrumentation and a well-intentioned lyrical intent, the album emits a relentlessly sombre musical atmosphere. It's like an arthouse film that you know is frightfully clever but you probably would have preferred "Police Academy".

Now, in fairness to my more youthful aural inclinations, I certainly was not rejecting the music of the time because it dealt with more serious matters. The 80s had no shortage of them that it wanted to discuss, be it Northern Ireland in The Police's still haunting "Invisible Sun" or homophobic isolation in Bronski Beat's beguiling "Smalltown Boy". But somehow, although the subject matter was serious, records like these never lost the sense that using music as a medium still worked better with a few earworms thrown in.

All of which brings us to "so" and the bag of surprises it proved to be.

Many albums from the 80s have very much fallen by the wayside because of their dated production and can only really be listened to now as curios. It was a decade when access to new kinds of technology was giving more artists the chance to get involved in music-making but, we can freely admit now, some once seminal recordings do now come across as thin and rudimentary in their construction.

However, this use of technology, the advent of digital recording techniques and greater production advancements has also left us with some of the best-sounding albums ever, such as Roxy Music's "Avalon" or Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms".

And I have to put "so" into this category. It just sounds so wonderfully expansive even today.

So what happened?

"4" was one of the earliest digital recordings and it has an incredible texture to it but has none of the accessibility of its successor.

Was he driven by the apparent success of his former bandmates with their more radio-friendly material - even I had enjoyed singles like "Paperlate". In a future twist of fate, "Sledgehammer" would knock their "Invisible Touch" from the top of the US charts.

What it is important to say is that Gabriel in no way compromised his own methodologies in making the album.

Firstly, he still deals with significant issues throughout the album setting his stall out with the immense "Red Rain". This epic sonic panorama covers most of the world's injustices be it torture or kidnapping, for starters.

Secondly, he uses his technology - and particularly his trusty Fairlight - to great effect in creating layer upon layer of sound with intricate textures and instrumentation. But always giving a sense of space to the whole experience, which may well show the influence of his co-producer Daniel Lanois, fresh from "The Unforgettable Fire".

Finally, his promotion of African and Latin American rhythms gives the album a sense of the unusual that sets it apart from many of its vinyl contemporaries that followed more conventional patterns.

Listen to the tom-tom that holds together the exquisite "Don't Give Up". It is an unexpected choice that keeps a sense of expectation throughout the song before the fretless bass joins as a portent of the positivity of the song's message. A similar atmosphere is painted through "Mercy Street".

The former song was written to express his disillusionment with Thatcher's Britain and was intended to take the form of a conversation between an unemployed man and his partner. It has come to be one of the most enduring songs of companionship ever committed to vinyl, despite its very political intentions.

It is alleged that originally Gabriel wanted to duet this with Dolly Parton but after she declined went to the collaborator from his previously biggest success, "Games Without Frontiers", the immaculate Kate Bush. There are excellent live versions with singers such as Tracy Chapman and Sinead O'Connor but the original is still the best. Bush's voice provides a sympathetic complement, waving away the sense of doubt in Gabriel's words with a velvet vocal reassurance.

His concern for the fate of his homeland was expressed also in the funky "Big Time" which was his attack on the materialistic nature of the growing bands of Yuppies that were so dominating the media consciousness of mid-80s Britain.

Whilst having a far less pointed lyrical focus, the big hit of the album "Sledgehammer" also borrowed its rhythm from the dance floor. It uses an old-school horn section (led by veteran, Wayne Jackson, from Otis Redding's band) to drive the song and give it a "soul" feel that again feels unexpected from the normally dour Gabriel.

And if that wasn't enough he used one of the most colourful and innovative videos ever created to promote the track. It is still the biggest ever winner at the MTV Video awards and its groundbreaking use of animation has been much imitated ever since. It makes you reflect on how long it has been since pop promos were the source of water-cooler moments. "Sledgehammer" was indeed a landmark.

It still holds the record for most played video on MTV.

And then he goes and saves the best until last.

Though in truth that depends which version you're now listening too...

Gabriel agonised over the sequencing of his tracks wanting each album to feel complete - greater than the sum of its parts. If you have an original pressing then you will find that "We Do What We're Told" is the final track - his collaboration with Laurie Anderson "This Is The Picture" was only a bonus track on the CD and cassette can you believe. "We Do What We're Told" is perhaps the single track that is most redolent of his previous work - languid rhythms with a sloganeering warble over the top - unsurprisingly it was first put together for the previous album. It is beautiful but typically obscure.

And this was never the plan because the final track was intended to be the immense "In Your Eyes" - a song that seems to have grown in the world's affection consistently since its release - not least after its key exposure in Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything" a few years later.

So powerful was the bass line as part of the record's texture that it had to be placed at the start of Side 2 because the grooves were deeper at the outer part of a vinyl disc so the stylus would vibrate more. More recent versions on CD and vinyl have rectified this at Gabriel's insistence

If this isn't an excuse to buy the new half-speed mastered pressing then I do not know what is. Because for an album that has been so painstakingly constructed, it should be heard in the order it was always intended by its author.

"In Your Eyes" simply soars. It grows and swells adding layer upon layer of beautiful sounds. The bass of course underpins everything but the choral arrangements (Jim Kerr from Simple Minds is lurking among the backing vocalists and this was at the height of his epic success) linked with the vocal intervention of Youssou N'Dour singing in his native Wolof just adds to its magnificence. The song is intricate and yet burns with a passion not normally associated with this artist.

I read recently that the song was inspired by Gaudi's Sagrada in Barcelona which would explain the building of textures throughout the song. It is truly wonderful because it comes across as entirely sincere.

All in all, this is what makes "so" such an astonishing record. It is so essentially thoughtful. Nothing is not taken care of or given proper attention. The production has not felt the passage of time in any way, exuding quality despite now being 35 years old. This is of course par for the course for his work. And yet it is almost as if he had taken on a bet to write something with more hooks and more recognisable melodies. He will have taken home his winnings in an armoured truck because, the resulting album feels almost giddy - unshackled and joyous.

However, if you were a Gabriel fan before then, I doubt you would have been disappointed either. There are the familiar themes - world music, epic sounds and statement lyrics. There has been no compromise on what Gabriel has always thought to be important in making records. He just seemed to want to do something more expressive with a more optimistic outlook and he pulled it off in spades.

I am still not a huge Peter Gabriel fan though I have grown more respectful of his whole body of work now but "so" is majestic and should be in every record collection. It is varied yet consistent, intimate yet panoramic and experimental yet accessible. I can think of few albums that have managed these dichotomies so successfully.

It was a surprise then and a surprise still.

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Mar 21, 2021

Spot on. It is magnificent. I have an HD download in fidelity so high you can virtually identify the make of sticks Manu Katche is using. He has done many great things but this one is the pinnacle. However, if you haven't heard it, give New Blood a listen. It's orchestral re-workings are outstanding...

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