Reviews

Peter Gabriel: Play: The Videos [DVD]

Michael Mikesell

The godfather of art rock once again surpasses expectations with a near-comprehensive compilation that's a feast for the senses.


Peter Gabriel

Play: the Videos [DVD]

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2004-11-16
UK Release Date: 2004-10-25
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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.

10

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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