The Album as Construction Site: Peter Gabriel's 'Classic Albums: So'
Peter Gabriel's commercial breakthrough gets the Classic Albums treatment, to excellent effect.
The Classic Album series has always had to walk a fine line with its subject matter. It’s a series that explores the recording process behind well-known albums in some reasonable amount of depth, pulling together contemporary interviews with the key players from the recording’s history, and it has to appeal to music fans with potentially wildly-differing understandings of, and interest in, how music really gets made. There’s not really any real discussion of drum micing technique or which compressor got used on which track, but there’s enough detail to keep the narrative humming along. It can’t be easy to pull all this off and credit should go to the people behind the series for so often striking an agreeable balance.
When they get it right, like they do here, it makes for perfectly enjoyable watching while providing enough behind-the-scenes nuggets to make you feel like you’re a member of the party. And Peter Gabriel’s So is an album that lends itself to this treatment; the men behind the album can make a certain number of grand pronouncements about their intentions during its making and sound credible while doing so, and fans get to learn that Manu Katche’s drum track on “In Your Eyes” was painstakingly pieced together from almost 100 different takes and that Tony Levin used diapers to mute his bass strings on “Don’t Give Up”. And it's the album that firmly placed Gabriel in the mainstream, where he’s continued to exist with uneven results ever since.
Like the other titles in the series, So progresses song-by-song (leaving some out along the way), digging into the multi-track recording and picking a handful of details in each song to call attention to. The guides for this episode, Gabriel, producer Daniel Lanois, engineer Kevin Killen, and the topflight studio musicians who played on the album (drummer Manu Katche and bassist Tony Levin, with guitarist David Rhodes being conspicuous by his absence), are reliably excellent. They all clearly retain a fondness for the album, Lanois in particular, and that fondness clearly resonates throughout.
It’s admirable that the Classic Album series has such a clear affection for studio musicians; it’s a way to give some credit where credit is due and in the best case scenarios, like in the making of Steely Dan’s Aja album, you get to see them play, to boot. That’s not the case here but it’s a minor complaint, and besides interviews with Levin and Katche, trumpeter Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns, drummer Jerry Marotta, and bassist Larry Klein are also featured. Like Steely Dan, Gabriel worked with the best players available to him and his taste in musicians was excellent; it’s a treat to see so many of them included in the conversation.
The episode is maybe short on musical revelations; for an album as dense as So, and for one that was so meticulously labored over for so long (“I listen to these tracks now and I know these tracks were built by a young man who did nothing else with his life for a year,” says Lanois at one point), it would have been nice to spend some more time with the actual multi-track recordings. You do get to hear the soloed track of Stewart Copeland’s hi-hat on “Red Rain”, which is a treat, as well as the Linn drum pattern that served as the basis for “Don’t Give Up” and on which Tony Levin modeled his bass line, but there’s little else that might be considered revelatory.
With the best installments of this series, especially given the access to talent they have, you always wish they’d go longer and that’s certainly the case here. No matter how successful the episode is, things can’t help but feel a little perfunctory and with So, that’s particularly true. Everyone involved in the project is so articulate regarding their ideas and passionate about their craft you really wish they’d been able to go on at greater length.
There are some entertaining stories behind the album that are included throughout; record executive Gary Gersh talks about Dolly Parton, instead of Kate Bush, as the original choice for Gabriel’s duet partner on “Don’t Give Up” (Parton apparently didn’t know who Gabriel was at the time and turned the offer down) and Lanois remembers almost being fired from the session after he locked an unaware Gabriel in a barn on the studio property in the hopes of getting him to focus on finishing lyrics. And a particular treat in the disc extras is the time spent on the making of the groundbreaking video for “Sledgehammer”, where a significant amount of time is spent with two of the video’s animators, Peter Lord and David Sproxton from Aardman Animation.
As with almost all of the entries in the Classic Albums series, it would be helpful if some contemporary context for the album were provided; without it, the whole process feels sealed off in time and under glass. That may be by design, but the approach feels a bit dated. Still, it’s fortunate that the series exists at all and So is an excellent entry in it. With this album, Gabriel managed to go as commercial as he was able without pandering and while retaining some genuine weirdness and it’s a treat to get a view into its making.