First, there’s the voice. It’s a scratchy tenor. Peter Gabriel was only 28 when he recorded his second solo album. I’m sure his voice never sounded darker or more naturally menacing before or after. His voice never sounded so confident, so triumphant, so full of sex and violence. Gabriel’s second solo album (titled Peter Gabriel just like his 1977 debut and the two that followed in 1980 and 1982) was the first album I ever bought by the former Genesis lead vocalist.
The year I bought it from a Record Bar in the mall near my house must have been 1984. I climbed aboard the Gabriel bandwagon kind of late. (But before the mega platinum success of 1986’s So.) Since Peter Gabriel was my first taste of the man’s music, that might partly explain why it remains my favorite of all his stuff. But that fact does not explain why Peter Gabriel is still my favorite album of all time. But Gabriel’s voice does. And his songwriting. And his choice of musicians and producer. And that cover.
Second, there’s that album cover. Like Gabriel’s voice, it’s scratchy. It’s a black and white photograph featuring a semi-preppy looking Gabriel (in a golf shirt covered by a London Fog/Lacoste-style windbreaker) bending his fingers and scratching jagged edges of white from the top of the cover to the bottom. Gabriel’s hair is long but short. It’s a thick buster brown — just short enough to look right with the windbreaker and the golf shirt but long enough to show people that it’s still 1978. You can barley see his eyebrows. But you can see his dark eyes. And you can see a day or so’s growth of hair on his face too. I think the cover represents sex. The back of the album represents violence. It must represent violence because it still scares me when I look at today almost 20 years later. Gabriel, dressed in faded jeans, rain boots, and a dark pea or raincoat, is hunched over. He’s on an urban street somewhere — a street lined with fences, puddles of water and mounds of snow. Gabriel has his back to the camera and he’s hunched over. I don’t know why. He’s hunched over, and he’s stepping forward with his left foot and dragging his right one. I can’t see his face but it looks like his body’s contortion stems from some sort of attack. He looks like he may be in pain. If the back of the album doesn’t represent violence, it must represent pain.
Third, there’s the songs. They are all boiled down versions of white noise, red heat, purple funk, and colorless loss. “On the Air” blows up with Who-like guitar from Sid McGinnis while glistening synth bells from Larry Fast tinkle in the background. Gabriel is playing the part of Mozo, a pirate radio DJ broadcasting from his amateur radio in a cabin by the river. Mozo is lost and lonely and he’s screaming out via his microphone. He wants everyone to know “that Mozo is here”. Gabriel’s Mozo sounds like Ted Kaczynski to me minus the bombs and carnage. “DIY” is Gabriel’s very unpunk sounding tribute to the punk ethos that prevailed in the late ’70s. How unpunk sounding? Listen to Bruce Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan’s playing. But you can hear punk in Gabriel’s voice. Even when he just screams “Hey!” just before the song’s chorus, you can feel Gabriel’s rage and enthusiasm. “Mother of Violence” has some of the most achingly moving singing and melodies on the album. Mostly just piano, acoustic guitar and McGinnis’s steel guitar, this ballad cries. “A Wonderful Day in a One-Way World” is pop reggae while “White Shadow” is one of two show-off pieces for the album’s producer and co-guitarist, Robert Fripp. Fripp’s solo at the end of “White Shadow” blisters. One of his best on any record he’s appeared on, it’s underrated at worst and masterful at best. There are five other great songs on Peter Gabriel but there’s no real use in describing every one of them because there is a small part on the album’s finale that is, as they say, “worth the price of admission.” The lyrics on “Home Sweet Home” are nothing special. The words were taken almost straight from a newspaper story Gabriel read about a woman who jumped out of her window with her baby in her arms. The widower used the insurance money he got to gamble at a casino. He won big. So the story has a bitter/bittersweet ending. But it’s Gabriel’s voice that makes the song and makes the album. Near the very end of the song, Gabriel wails. He’s not singing any words, he’s just wailing and I’ve never heard any music before or since that makes my hair stand up like that. Chills. You get chills when you hear it and it’s just wailing. I think that’s the pain again. The pain of loss and the pain of having everything you ever dreamed of at the same time.
And fourth and last, maybe it’s just because it’s Gabriel’s last rock album. Starting in 1980, Gabriel started mixing the ethic world music influences of Africa into his music. Don’t get me wrong. I love all of those albums. The tribal drums with no cymbals. The singers from Senegal. It’s all great. But maybe that has become a musical crutch for Gabriel. Maybe it’s what people now expect of him. Maybe that’s his signature. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. But I loved it when Gabriel just had to rely on the old-fashioned instruments and musical conventions of rock and roll. Guitars, drums, pianos, and the odd synthesizer here and there. Peter Gabriel is rock. Peter Gabriel is pop. Peter Gabriel is raw. Peter Gabriel is creepy. Peter Gabriel is scary. Scary with acoustic guitars, pedal steel guitars, and a piano. That was it for me. Nothing will ever come close.