There are a handful of days that shape your life. For me, one day was in the spring of 1986. My older sister brought home a vinyl record that changed everything. “He used to be the lead singer of Genesis,” she said. Former lead singer of Genesis?
I knew better than to ignore my sister. She introduced me to my all-time favorite band, the Police. To her, Sting may have been a teenage idol, but to me, Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland were nothing short of gods. Before such things were easily obtainable on luxury box sets, I scoured New York City on weekends looking for rare vinyl b-sides and live bootlegs. If it was out there, I devoured it. And yes, Phil Collins sat right beside them, my Justice League of music deities. To this day, careless Collins-bashers bug the heck out of me. Go spin Three Sides Live. Try to resist that action-packed drum duet on “Behind the Lines”. Or better yet, take in Collins’ solo version on Face Value. Not even that tight Earth, Wind and Fire horn section could steal the show from Collins’ quietly spectacular skin work. Former lead singer of Genesis she said? Count me in. And sure enough, from the opening seconds of So, I was hooked. Ever since, I have been exploring the incredible music of Peter Gabriel, including those great old Genesis albums. But it always came back to that record on my sister’s turntable. That album changed my life, and it’s no small part of why I listen to music today.
Imagine my delight hearing the opening bars of the first track, “Red Rain”, as it fades in none other than Stewart Copeland on one of his unmistakably crisp hi-hat patterns. Mind you, Stewart did not actually play drums on the track. Those duties went to Gabriel’s loyal sideman Jerry Marotta. No, Stewart was just on the hi-hat. Three years after the Police’s swansong, Synchronicity, Gabriel, a former drummer himself, recruits Stewart simply to sit on a drum stool—far away from his toy splash cymbals, airtight snare, and echoed Octobans—and play the heck out of what he plays best, the hi-hat. Production genius. Too much importance on a hi-hat? I don’t think so. Gabriel was making a statement. Three years earlier he tried an experiment on his third eponymous record: an album with no cymbals at all. The results were huge. Listen to guest star Phil Collins’ thundering big toms on the spooky and ominous “Intruder”. Or Collins’ furious rack tom turnaround on “No Self Control”. The experiment unearthed a new power to the instrument and refocused the pulse of Gabriel’s music. Two albums later, Gabriel’s back to reintroduce himself with the hi-hat. He got the top man for the job, and gave him the opening line.
Lyrically, “Red Rain” was also a segue; a political statement to open Gabriel’s most personal, introspective and intimate album to date. Gabriel has always imbued his music with a political conscience. His haunting “Biko” (1983) was a tribute to the South African political prisoner Stephen Biko and a calling card for Amnesty International for years (it was also my own inspiration for founding a local chapter at my high school). To this day, Gabriel calls attention to the ever-present Amnesty International booths set up at his concerts. And so it is no surprise that “Red Rain” is a disturbing apocalyptic metaphor as a strong statement against capital punishment. And with a passion fitting for the message, this track flat out rocks. I once read that Eddie Van Halen loved to blast “Red Rain”, firing up his juiced up red and white criss-crossed Kramer strat to play along. And when it comes to flat out rock and roll, Eddie’s not a bad reference. Just listen to that bass groove, which Tony Levin literally beat out of his Musicman Stingray bass with drum sticks taped to his fingers (he later patented an accessory aptly called “Funky Fingers” for the technique). Make sure your speakers can handle the low end. This one’s deep.
Of course, “Sledgehammer” was the smash hit that put So on the map. Everyone remembers the music video that transformed those three-minute promo shots into an actual art form. But close your eyes and pump up the volume on this monster of a rocker and you’ll discover that the songwriting and production are the real story. A few years earlier, Phil Collins hit the charts with the Motown cover “You Can’t Hurry Love”. At the time, I read that Gabriel also wanted to explore the Detroit sound, but was conscious of the phony press-contrived rivalry between the two solo careers of Genesis frontmen, which would only detract from any effort after Collins’ success. Perhaps that’s why, on this track, Gabriel detours south through Memphis for a brilliant pop update of the Stax soul sound. Just listen to the hot wire of those shimmering horns, and the gospel back-up vocals that lift us through the final refrain.
And what about this rhythm section? Are you kidding me? I defy you to find a hotter snare drum in the land. Back in college, my friend Mike locked himself into a room to nail down each those tremendous snare fills. He emerged days later declaring victory. I’m still fighting the worthy battle. And that bass? That bass! I mean, can you feel the tone? Levin has played some great lines in King Crimson and prior Gabriel albums. He showed his consummate taste on John Lennon’s brilliant Double Fantasy. But on “Sledgehammer” he arrived, carrying one hell of a piece of lumber. This track is a massive shot of adrenaline. And like a ringleader of master musicianship, Gabriel struts through a litany of droll sexual innuendos with the soul of Otis Redding and the bravado of James Brown. It reminds me of that old Maxwell tape advertisement with the guy in the chair and the speakers blowing back his coif. Awesome.
On “Don’t Give Up”, Gabriel matches the energy of the first two tracks with pure emotional lyricism. I am absolutely certain that this song saved lives. It has always been there for me in my darkest moments. Haunted and defeated, Gabriel portrays a frail man at his depths. On the chorus, Kate Bush penetrates the resignation with her angelic voice showering a ray of hope: “Don’t give up / You’re not beaten yet”. It’s hard not to empathize with the gut wrenching desperation as Gabriel climbs to a higher register in the bridge section and cries out “Got to walk out of here / I can’t take anymore / Going to stand on that bridge / Keep my eyes down below / Whatever may come / And whatever may go / That river’s flowing / That river’s flowing”. Poetry. Levin lays an exquisite musical bed with a somber bass line over a slow shuffling rhythm, and on the musically redemptive bridge, Gabriel once again draws upon the blues, soul, and gospel influences in an uplifting piano accompaniment. For years, this song has welled up tears and sent chills down my spine. (If you’re already a fan, check out the remarkable cover on Willie Nelson on Across the Borderline, with Sinead O’Conner brilliantly cast in Kate Bush’s role. The quiet power of Nelson’s rendition proves that Gabriel’s songwriting is every bit the match for the outstanding production by he and Daniel Lanois).
One of the greatest love songs of all time achieved cult status the minute Lloyd Dobler held up that boombox outside his girlfriend’s window in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. But “In Your Eyes” is so beautiful that it defies limitation to that pop culture association. As he matured from his epic fantasia tales with Genesis, Gabriel’s lyrics grew sparer, packing a bigger punch with a deceptively simple sentiment. He crafts his lyrics, which are probably more difficult for him to write than the music that leaps from his fingertips. And what a payoff. How can you beat this for an opening verse: “Love / I get so lost sometimes / Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart”. If you’ve heard this song, and those lyrics haven’t struck a nerve with you at one time or another, you simply aren’t human. And although the chorus calls upon a familiar metaphor that might collapse in the hands of a less sophisticated artist, Gabriel surrounds the genuine sentiment with a pancultural jamboree of African drums and the high-registered scat of vocalist extraordinaire Youssou N’Dour. Coincidentally, this record lost the 1986 Grammy Award for best album to Graceland, Paul Simon’s own cross-pollination of pop and third world musical influences (breaking my heart at the time). But brilliant as that album may be, So was the more personal record. You could relate to its vulnerability. These are the songs that Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming would put on a mix tape.
Gabriel is most poetic on “Mercy Street”, a wistful and melancholy tribute to the late poet Anne Sexton who authored an off-Broadway play by the same title in 1969, five years before she lost her battle with mental illness and took her own life at the age of 46. Creating a moody dreamlike ambiance, Gabriel almost speaks his subtle melody and abstract imagery, which draws upon themes of sex and religion: “Tugging at the darkness / Word upon word / Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box / To the priest—he’s the doctor / He can handle the shocks / Dreaming of the tenderness—the tremble in the hips / Of kissing Mary’s lips / Dreaming of mercy street”. It sounds like a soft fog on a dark quiet lake, as we are drawn in by a bright janging triangle and low tribal congas. True Gabriel collectors have already discovered a masterful remix of this masterpiece on the CD single of “Blood of Eden” from Gabriel’s follow-up album Us, which features a deeper groove of rhythms and samples of Shankar’s violin from Passion, Gabriel’s masterful soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ.
There are other highlights. The urgent “That Voice Again” brings more imagery of our very essence: “It’s only in uncertainty / That we’re naked and alive / Hear it through the rattle of a streetcar / Hear it through the things you said / I can get so scared / Listen to the wind”. Once again, the music is a completely original mixture of rhythms, with the fantastic hi-hat and splash cymbal work of Manu Katche taking the spotlight. “Big Time” is a funky carnival, with comic relief centered around Gabriel’s tongue-in-cheek hubris of rock star success: “The place I come / Is a small town / They think so small / They use small words”. It is a nice set off to the moodier tracks, and I can still recall my wonder of discovering the English import maxi-single of the song that included extra gems like the light melody of “Curtains” and the slow building “Across the River”, a tune actually co-written by Stewart Copeland.
Music is a powerful thing. At its best, it speaks to your heart, mind, and soul. It makes you shake your bones. It makes you weep. It inspires you. It opens new dimensions. It is layered; buried with treasures to uncover over time. It is personal. Like a great love, it excites you at first, befriends you over time and is ultimately inseparable from your very being. For me, no album fits that bill like Peter Gabriel’s So. Just recently, I purchased the digitally remastered compact disc, and fell in love all over again. Did I mind buying this album on vinyl, then compact disc, and then again on a remastered compact disc? Not at all. All things considered, it just may be the best value that I’ve ever known.