The Over/Under: Peter Gabriel


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):

“Here Comes The Flood” (from Peter Gabriel):

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.

21 replies on “The Over/Under: Peter Gabriel”

It’s been so long since I listened to any Gabriel, but I always loved “Family Snapshot” and “Humdrum.”

“Sledgehammer” isn’t overrated, it’s just bad. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “I waited this long for THAT?”

Wouldn’t “Jane” rhyme with “again” if you were from Chobham, Surrey?

I like the list. But I don’t see that particular complaint as being fair?

I still listen to the first four Gabriel albums on a fairly regular basis. You can nitpick here and there, but it’s all pretty solid up through Security. I get the criticism of his “tribal” stuff, but I’ll take that over Graceland any day. Thanks for pointing out “Walk Through the Fire,” I never heard of that one.

I’ve been rediscovering the first Genesis LP lately, “From Genesis To Revelation.” The one most everybody (including the band) has disowned. It’s a perfect orchestral pop masterpiece, every song a gem, and the instrumental segues between many of the songs are lovely as well. The best thing Gabriel’s ever been involved with, in my opinion, and would be of interest to fans of The Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” and other such orchestral psych pop LPs.

Those first three solo albums were masterpieces. My personal pick for best underated song is “Intruder” from #3. It’s super-creepy and those walloping drums sound awesome.

You can also put Big Time in the overrated column. And Secret World in the underrated column. I think the guy is a genius in many ways and certainly a musical pioneer. It’s a shame we wait every 5 to 7 years to hear anything from him.

Perhaps it was a dark period in my psychological history when that song first came out, but ‘dont give up’ had and still has a deep impact on me. And i hate treacly ballads, and wilson philips. occasionally seemingly simple sentiments can be profound, often they are not. but gabriel’s voice is frickin awesome on this track, and the song’s pulse is an odd syncopated SIX, the kind of thing i am always absurdly pleased by when it sneaks past listeners and becomes a hit. i honestly don’t want to love that song but i do.

A couple of issues with this list. First…. isn’t historical context convenient? When these tracks were receiving radio play, many of them were a nice alternative to the schlock that was being served up at the time. I’m aware that radio-hit does not equal ‘cool’, but I think that Gabriel did a decent job of riding the commercial versus artistic fence a well as anyone in those days. Second… I actually thought that the lyric your writer flamed from ‘Don’t Give Up’ was a good line, especially in the context of the song. Ripping on individual snippets of a song can render anything from ‘Louie Louie’ to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ impotent on closer inspection. On the plus side, Sledgehammer and Steam both bite major ass regardless of context, so good on ya for calling those hunks of tripe out.

First off, I’m a huge Genesis fan (and Gabriel fan second)…so I’m a bit biased. Also, these are always subjective – though fun to ponder. No right or wrong. My perspective (as a ‘professional’ musician/songwriter)…

I never listen to Sledgehammer (except when it’s on radio)…however, it’s a brilliant pop record. An ‘average’ song…but BRILLIANT record. That is why they have 2 Grammy’s for Song of the Year and Record of the Year…2 different things. “Steam”, I agree… a Sledgehammer wanna-be. Rhythm of the Heat…I think for it’s time (way before Paul Simon), was very creative… a stream of consciousness…not a typical song that you can play on piano per se (would sound horrible)… simply a very creative recording.

My personal favs…San Jacinto…Family Snapshot…Humdrum…Here Comes The Flood (agree the acoustic version is MUCH better)…Intruder…In Your Eyes has been done to death, but it might be his best work. (Just because something gets airplay doesn’t automatically make it crap)….Biko…Downside Up….No Self Control.

The Genesis stuff I could rave about for pages…so I’ll spare everyone. 🙂

He’s a great artist…sometimes he writes great traditonal songs…other times he writes from a recording perspective…2 very different approaches…2 very different talents. Not everything will always be a gem…especially if you take chances. But I think we all can agree, he’s one of the most original pop/rock artists of our time.

I’m not a big fan of album #2…kinda weak compared to everything else (I think even Peter admitted that). Some nice spots, but overall, poorly produced and half-baked songs….I feel that was his low-point.

I’m not a fan, but “Games Without Frontiers” is one of the few songs of his that I love. I completely disagree with the comment about the lyrics too. They are the kind of unpretentious, simple, sincere rhyming that is reminiscent of the best nonsense poetry whilst remaining evocative of the theme of the song. That’s impressive, especially the unpretentious part given his other proclivities and that it’s in a song with French in it. Furthermore, you take into account the background of the title and it makes the “It’s a Knockout” line all that much more clever.

You Wrote:

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.

Okay, it’s one thing to have an opinion (which is how I take the whole Over/Under thing, nothing more and nothing less), but if you can’t figure out the, ahem, thrust of *that* lyric, that takes most of the air out of the rest of your critique PDQ, I’d say.

There are actually two versions of this song. The version on the soundtrack (production credit to Gabriel alone) and the single version, co-produced by Nile Rogers. The single is taken at a slower tempo and isn’t as intense, but still really good.

I guess we are all entitiled to our opinions.

I don’t agree with your comments re: The Rhythm of the Heat.
The African drum sounds weren’t ‘clichéd’ at the time, nor was Gabriel ‘trying to be relevant’. This was 1982, long before other artists e.g. Paul Simon started to include world music sounds. Gabriel was pretty much at the forefront of world music.

‘Don’t Give Up’: A classic, powerful song about a man struggling to hold it together after losing his job. Fearing for his family he is comforted by his wife who tells him ‘Don’t Give Up’ – no matter what – she will be there for him. Brilliant.

“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.”

???cant believe you made this comment?! “lyrically an embarrassmet” dude, it was the 80’s!! a hell of a lot of lyrics were filled with irony, double meanings and nonsense….lets be honest. Games without Frontiers is a total classic and in no way underrrated!

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