Been Feeling the Rhythm
Peter Gabriel, a mainstay in pop, rock, progressive-rock, and world-music circles for the past 30 years, is known far and wide for his riveting and highly theatrical live performances. It was fitting, then, that he was among the pioneers of the short-form music video format that MTV popularized (and then forgot about). Equally fitting, Gabriel’s first DVD-based collection of his conceptual clips is a musical, visual, and technical tour de force destined for a prominent spot in the annals of music video. Every detail of Play: The Videos is cutting-edge and artistically spot-on, from the packaging to the disc menus to the sound mixes and the videos themselves. No, it’s not absolutely everything the man ever lensed, but it’s darn near close.
This set is explicitly not about live performance. Gabriel’s documented that elsewhere, and well (in 1994’s Secret World Live and 2003’s Growing Up Live, though the latter title’s “Games Without Frontiers” is tucked among Play‘s extras). Three of the clips on Play feature live audio—“I Don’t Remember” and “Biko”, with Gabriel’s band, and a 2003 rendition of “Washing of the Water” with Jools Holland—but that’s only evident to the naked ear in the case of “Biko”.
The disc’s 26 clips are explosions of color and perspective that showcase the talents of a range of visual artists and directors, including Stephen R. Johnson (“Big Time”, “Steam”, and “Sledgehammer”, the last of which includes animation by Wallace & Gromit’s Nick Park), fellow musicians Godley and Creme (“Don’t Give Up”, “Biko”), Matt Mahurin (“Red Rain”, “Mercy Street”), Francois Vogel (“Growing Up”), and Sean Penn (“The Barry Williams Show”). Many of the inclusions are quite rare (chiefly “Lovetown”, “Mercy Street”, and “Shaking the Tree”) and three have never appeared before at all: “In Your Eyes”, “Solsbury Hill”, and “Washing of the Water” are new to this disc. I should note that Play‘s version of “Games Without Frontiers” falls victim to some revisionism. Gone are the kids-as-generals at the table; present are new and compelling sequences drawn from the work of Michal Rovner. John Downer’s “Digging in the Dirt”, a glorious love affair with insects and time-lapse photography, is not to be missed.
Watching these songs, it’s fascinating to note the evolution of Gabriel’s musical and onscreen personas, which progress from more abstract and distant to more immediate and more personal (to say nothing of the progression from younger to older). The videos are not arranged chronologically, however, though you can sequence them that way if you wish using an intuitive programming interface I’d not seen before this disc. Gabriel opens the collection with the most emotionally direct and piercing of the bunch, “Father and Son”, from 2002’s Up. The song and its title speak for themselves, and Gabriel’s daughter Anna directed, cutting between shots of Gabriel at the piano and grainy, black-and-white footage of Gabriel, his father, and his young son.
You can view the disc with its insightful song introductions on or off. The intros are mostly by Gabriel and are culled from all over, and those for “I Don’t Remember” and “Shock the Monkey” offer tantalizing glimpses of a young Gabriel witnessing the dawn of the digital recording and sampling age. (Security, from 1983, stands among the earliest all-digital rock recordings.)
“Shock the Monkey”, in particular, is far better than I remembered. (Of course, its oscillating lights and white face paint scared me back in ninth grade.) Gabriel’s power is intoxicating, and nowhere is his visual intensity more concentrated than in this video, whether he’s racing through woods in abject fear, rising fully clothed from a murky lake, or staring us down as landscapes spin behind him. Another of the disc’s most precious gems is not even technically part of the show: a 1977 promo for “Modern Love” in the bonus features. The production values are atrocious. It seems to have been shot in a train station at night and Gabriel spends the entire clip decked out in a mishmash of body gear salvaged from a sporting-goods store. But none of that matters. Gabriel’s passionate posturing and the utter uniqueness of his artistry pervade the piece; he carries it on attitude alone. (It helps, of course, that the song, from his Bob Ezrin-produced debut, is first-rate.)
If there’s a clunker here, it’d have to be Sean Penn’s “The Barry Williams Show”. It’s executed as well as could be, but the song’s message and its visuals just feel superfluous—they’re exactly what you’d expect from a song and video taking an easy shot at U.S. daytime talk shows (wherein, in Penn’s interpretation, the host gets his due, drowning in the blood of those he routinely exploits).
Vogel’s “Growing Up”, on the other hand, is a 21st-century update on the kind of zany, visual head-trip people associate with Gabriel courtesy of Johnson’s “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”, and the bubble-themed big-city piece should reaffirm Gabriel’s status as an multimedia innovator, not least for its post-industrial soundscapes and for Tchad Blake’s wild surround mix.
Which brings us to Play‘s sound. Everything here is presented with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 (left, center, right, and left/right surround) or DTS 5.1, and nearly every track received a fresh 5.1-channel mix exclusively for this release. This means listeners have the option to hear, through a compatible surround receiver and multichannel speaker system, 26 sonic re-interpretations of Gabriel’s songs. What’s more, nearly all the new mixes come courtesy of longtime Gabriel associate Daniel Lanois and engineer Richard Chappell. As a producer, Lanois has infused the work of everyone from U2 to Bob Dylan with earthy, atmospheric soundscapes, and he’s an obvious fit for Gabriel (he also co-produced So and Us).
You can always opt to listen to the stereo versions you’re already familiar with, of course, which I’d recommend when watching the videos. In my viewing, the surround mixes distracted from the videos, pulling my attention away from the two-dimensional screen and into the environment around me. For the surround versions, then, turn off the TV, turn off the lights, hit “play all” or program just your favorites, and prepare to lose yourself.
The surround tracks were mixed not merely for novelty, but with the intent of drawing us into the very soul of the music. The mixes don’t attempt to recreate actual performances, as ambient classical-music presentations might. Rather, they’re about rethinking the nature of performer and audience: We listen from within the performances rather than passively watching/listening from without. They highlight at all turns Gabriel’s fascination with voices, percussion, and deep, deep bass. Lead vocals are usually centered not just between the front left/right speakers but within the room (I dare say within our heads, headphone style), while backing voices emanate from all directions, most explicitly on “Blood of Eden”‘s haunting circle of voices.
As a bonus of sorts, the DTS track is actually encoded for DTS 96/24, which any DTS-capable DVD player and surround receiver can decode, but which DTS 96/24-specific hardware can render with even higher fidelity (96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity, to be precise). Whatever format you’re set up for, this disc will sound amazing. Picture quality, too, is top-notch, both vibrant and pristine. Many videos are full-screen (4:3 aspect ratio) but the widescreen ones are anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 viewing.
The DVD packaging features a 20-page, full-color, full-page booklet with complete video and audio production credits for each clip, representative pictures from all, and even a one-page introductory essay from Gabriel. Icing on a very big cake.