The Over/Under: Peter Gabriel

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Has there ever been another musician who’s had two such brilliant and successful, but entirely separate, careers? Peter Gabriel left Genesis after 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, his sixth record with the band. The run from 1970’s Trespass to Lamb is unparalleled, and if Gabriel had disappeared after leaving Genesis, he would have been remembered as a genius. Then came a solo career that has been just as inventive, groundbreaking and brilliant as his work with Genesis. Gabriel didn’t leave the band for commercial success; the group enjoyed far more of it without him. And while their first few post-Gabriel records brought Phil Collins and Co. bigger sales and turned them into a full-blown arena act, Gabriel’s solo career started with a sputter (not to mention four self-titled albums). Gabriel left Genesis to grow musically and artistically, and he pulled it off. And by the early-’80s, when Genesis was putting out crap like “Illegal Alien,” Gabriel was at the height of his game. But like any artist, there are high points and low points, and sometimes the high points have gone relatively unnoticed, while the low points have been wildly successful and universally praised. So MAGNET writer Roob (you’d know him if you saw him) is here once again to set the record straight. Here are the five most overrated and underrated Peter Gabriel solo tracks.

:: The Five Most Overrated Peter Gabriel Songs
1. “Games Without Frontiers” (1980)
OK, I dig the Kate Bush vocals. I dig how the French lyrics she sings (“Jeux Sans Frontières”) sound vaguely like “Games Without Frontiers.” I dig the Frippertronics and Larry Fast treatments bouncing around in the background. I dig everything about this track musically. It was so cool to hear something this bizarre on the radio back in the early 1980s. But I can’t get past the ridiculous lyrics. I know it’s an anti-war anthem, so bravo for that. But the words are just ridiculous. Right from the start, Gabriel is forcing things (have you ever noticed that “Jane” does not rhyme with “again”?), and it gets worse with the second verse: “Andre has a red flag/Chiang Ching’s is blue/They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu/Dressing up in costumes/Playing silly games/Hiding out in tree-tops, shouting out rude names.” Musically adventurous, but lyrically an embarrassment.

2. “Sledgehammer” (1986)
Here are the two best things about “Sledgehammer.” First, it knocked Genesis’ wretched “Invisible Touch” out of the number-one spot on the Billboard charts. Second, the video was a groundbreaking piece of work that’s considered one of the greatest of the MTV era and changed the way bands approached music and video. Notice that none of that has anything to do with the music. Remove “Sledgehammer” from the video, and it turns out to be nothing special, just a middle-of-the-road Gabriel track.

3. “Steam” (1992)
Six years after “Sledgehammer,” Gabriel tried to repeat the formula: wild video, funky bass line, quirky vocal, layers of keys. But it came across as a “Sledgehammer” ripoff. The fifth word in “Sledgehammer” is “steam” (“You could have a steam train”), and I’m not sure what that means, but for the first time in Gabriel’s career, he seemed to be in a rut, copying himself, striving a little too hard for commercial success. Peter Gabriel product.

4. “Don’t Give Up” (1986)
Didn’t we go through this a few weeks ago with R.E.M.’s dreckful “Everybody Hurts?” OK, “Don’t Give Up” isn’t quite so wretched, but it sure is a low point in Gabriel’s vast catalog. And, yeah, I feel like crap for including two Kate Bush collaborations on the overrated list. I’ve worshipped Bush since seeing her perform “Moving” and “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” in 1978 on Saturday Night Live. The Kick Inside, from the same year, remains one of my 20 favorite records of all-time. But she deserves better material than “Rest your head, you worry too much/It’s going to be all right.” Paging Wilson Phillips, paging Wilson Phillips …

5. “The Rhythm Of The Heat” (1982)
The problem with non-African artists exploring ethnic rhythms and themes is that it can easily become trite, self-serving and exploitative. Where 1980’s powerful “Biko” had a genuine sense of purpose and an air of authenticity, the godawful “The Rhythm Of The Heat,” which opened the fourth Peter Gabriel album (a.k.a. Security), screams out disingenuous. The clichéd African drum pounding is just laughable, and the lyrics are lame (“The rhythm has my soooooooooul”). And what’s the deal with the jungle whoops in the background during the percussion coda? “Rhythm Of The Heat” was received as an edgy fusion of modern pop and African rhythms. In reality, it’s just an embarrassing mess—Gabriel trying too hard to be relevant.

:: The Five Most Underrated Peter Gabriel Songs
1. “On The Air” (1978)
After 1977’s somewhat disappointing first Peter Gabriel album (a.k.a. Car), Gabriel came back in full might with the drastically improved Peter Gabriel (a.k.a. Scratch). Opener “On The Air” was pretty powerful evidence that Gabriel had left Genesis behind and was a relevant solo artist. Built around two dueling keyboard aces (pianist Roy Bittan and synth magician Larry Fast) and Tony Levin’s beefy melodic bass, “On The Air” roared breathlessly, managing to be quirky and innovative and edgy while still being accessible. And rocking its dick off.

2. “Here Comes The Flood” (1979)
I saw Gabriel outdoors in the summer of 1981 at the old Dr. Pepper Music Festival at Pier 84 in New York City (the opening act was Riff-Raff, fronted by Billy Bragg), and after a phenomenal full-band set, Gabriel returned to the stage by himself for the encore. He sat down at the piano and proceeded to blow the place away with a solo “Here Comes The Flood.” One of the most unforgettable live music moments I’ve seen. Unfortunately, Gabriel’s studio recording of “Here Comes The Flood,” from the first Peter Gabriel, is clunky and overproduced. But stripped down to almost nothing, it reveals itself as a masterpiece. And that’s just like the version that’s on Robert Fripp’s Exposure. Just Gabriel on vocals and piano and a dash of Frippertronics. The lyrics are vivid and breathtaking. The best song Gabriel has ever written.
“Here Comes The Flood” (from Exposure):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/HereComesTheFlood.mp3

“Here Comes The Flood” (from Peter Gabriel):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/HereComesTheFlood1.mp3

3. “Moribund The Burgermeister” (1977)
Amid all the weirdness—Gabriel’s bizarre character voices, the shimmering Frippertronics, the howling background vocals—is a gorgeous melody and a pretty damn mighty track from the first Peter Gabriel. This forgotten gem is as close as Gabriel ever got to Genesis as a solo artist. Right in the “Harold The Barrel” wheelhouse. On first listen, “Moribund The Burgermeister” seems like a novelty track. Upon further review, it’s actually much more. Great stuff.

4. “White Shadow” (1978)
“White Shadow,” from the second Peter Gabriel, shows Gabriel at the peak of his game. Built around an alluring chord progression and making fantastic use of Larry Fast’s swirling synths, the song is an inscrutable pop masterpiece that builds and builds until it closes with a mind-blowing Robert Fripp guitar solo that winds itself around your brain and refuses to let go. Gabriel uses elements of prog here without losing a strong pop sensibility, and that’s really the genius of his first few solo records. And remember how on the original vinyl, the song lasted forever? The closing notes—a torrent of spiraling synths—continued into the run-off groove, and the only way to end the song was to lift up the needle. Freaking brilliant.

5. “Walk Through The Fire” (1984)
Phil Collins isn’t the only Genesis member who had a solo track on the Against All Odds soundtrack. But while the vacuous “In The Air Tonight” gave Collins the first of his six U.S. number-one hits, Gabriel’s fiery “Walk Through The Fire” quickly disappeared into obscurity. The song was recorded during the sessions for the third Peter Gabriel (a.k.a. Melt) and deserved a spot on it. A terrific, lean track from a guy who was occasionally prone to letting his best songs linger a few minutes too long.

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