The Sledgehammer Hits the Big Time
Peter Gabriel built his reputation upon outlandish extravagances, like dressing up as a gigantic flower during concerts, and making music videos made up in whiteface, talking to a monkey. But this is what the charisma of Peter Gabriel is founded upon—doing weird things. He isn’t a musician who’s going to wow us by overpowering us (Led Zeppelin) or by being cooler than us (The Rolling Stones) or by being crazier than us (George Clinton). He’s someone who impresses us by his musical experimentation, combining dissimilar genres of music into creative and successful expressions of artistry. This is what made his 1986 magnum opus So such an exhilarating thrill ride.
So is the album to which Back to Front owes its gestation to, as it was recorded during Gabriel’s two year world tour in support of the 25th anniversary of his landmark record. Featuring the likes of the super-hit “Sledgehammer”, the sarcastically materialistic “Big Time” and the eye opening “In Your Eyes”, So is not only Gabriel’s bestselling album, but it’s also his most perfect. It’s not overly prog-rock because he was more comfortable with making a pop album by this point, and he finally learned to reconcile the dark, brooding nature of his character with the overly spasmatic and jovially flamboyant facet of himself. With So, Gabriel infused African tribal music, and ‘60s soul, into pop music and art rock. Naturally, a sound like this would require a fine-tuned and extremely well-produced structure to it that would allow the songs to come to life. Ultimately, Back to Front fails because it doesn’t capture the sonic dynamics of Peter Gabriel albums and live albums in general.
I’ve always held a silent bias against live albums, primarily for the fact that they don’t really offer anything new. Being live renditions of songs we already know, I’ve always found it hard for live albums to justify their own existence. Since we already know the songs on a live album, the artist has to do something different enough to stand out from the studio versions of the songs. Back to Front fails to do that; it fails to distinguish itself from all the other times we’ve heard his hits. In short, it doesn’t do anything different or drastic enough to warrant its existence.
The highlight of the set is the novelty of Gabriel performing So from start to finish, as well as an acoustic version of a few of his older hits such as “Shock the Monkey”. Novelty alone isn’t enough to save Back to Front from redundancy, however. Classics such as “Red Rain” and “Sledgehammer” just don’t have the punch and the vividness to them that they originally did; they seem much more restrained and diluted, as if they don’t come to life as fully as they did in the studio. One of the better examples is “No Self Control”, which is transformed into a stripped-down lounge-singer version of the original. It lacks the aggression and urgency that originally made it a standout track on Peter Gabriel. “Sledgehammer”, in particular, is a very by-the-numbers live rendition, except that unlike the original version, it doesn’t make me want to get up and dance.
But then again, Back to Front is a very generic, by-the-numbers kind of live album. It’s quite literally, Peter Gabriel playing his songs live on stage; there is no extra flair to it, like KISS’s Alive, or the unbridled explosiveness that could be found in the Who’s Live at Leeds. It’s not a bad album, as the songs that he plays are enjoyable and great songs, but because the live performances of these songs lack charisma and vitality, it begs the question: was a live album really necessary?
The album fails to really grasp the extravagance and manic-depressive nature of Gabriel’s music, as well as his quirky charisma with which he used to initially carve out his following. But, the fact remains that the only people who will care about Back to Front are Peter Gabriel fans, as it won’t bring in any new fans by itself. The generic nature of the performance doesn’t do So justice because the performance is the most straightforward and basic that it could possibly be. The purpose of a live album shouldn’t be to merely go through the motions—it should offer excitement and a new dynamic that isn’t found on the original album. Between Back to Front and its source material, the original proves to be the superior. Ultimately, this is a bland live album, one that fails to fully captivate and inspire, which is a rarity for Peter Gabriel.