I’m big on Peter Gabriel. Before I fully discovered David Bowie and when I needed a little break from Prince, Gabriel was my go-to male artist of choice. Discovered of course through my initial love of Genesis. After listening to their masterpiece, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, I largely lost interest in the band’s subsequent Gabriel-less albums and devoted myself to his solo output instead. I bought all four of his first solo albums on vinyl (some of the first in my slowly growing teenage collection) so it was a thrill when he released So in 1986 after a long hiatus whilst I was still discovering his back catalogue.
So is Gabriel’s most well-known solo album and his biggest commercial success. That doesn’t necessarily make it his best (PG III probably deserves that accolade) but it’s bloody good. It does however represent a significant development in his album titling process, gravitating from no title, other than just ‘Peter Gabriel’, for his first four solo LPs to two whole letters. He was to continue in this vein for his subsequent two studio albums: So -> Us -> Up (soundtracks, compilations and live albums excluded). He kind of ruined it after that, I was keen to see where he’d go from there.
But let’s actually focus on the music. Sledgehammer of course propelled the record towards blockbuster status, and was on constant repeat on MTV. (It also knocked his previous bandmates, Genesis’ Invisible Touch off the No 1 slot in the States.) But there were plenty of other hit singles: Big Time, an unashamed dance number and Don’t Give Up, for which I remember very clearly the moving and simple video of him and Kate Bush just standing there holding each other. Hard to imagine now how an artist could release and achieve airplay and chart success from a track as long and slow and intense as Red Rain, but he did.
What I love most about the album (and Gabriel in general) is his subject matter, the unashamed intellect and world view of the songs. There’s no moon/June/spoon love song clichés on here. He tackles topics and influences such as: Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment (We Do What We’re Told), economic hardship (Don’t Give Up), the poet Anne Sexton (Mercy Street) and Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia (In Your Eyes). Gabriel achieved new heights of slow, intense, thoughtful rock on this album. Not only that, but he introduced me (and no doubt thousands of others) to so-called ‘world music’. And Laurie Anderson. This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds) is still one of my favourite tracks on the album. But this is no mere tick-list approach to ‘issues’ based rock, Gabriel has always been authentic, in his music as well as his values with supporting human rights, apartheid in particular and world music artists in general.
Similarly to David Bowie, Gabriel is also good at picking high-quality artists to work with, and this album is a case in point, from Daniel Lanois producing, Stewart Copeland on drums, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson and Youssou N’Dour duetting, PP Arnold, and regulars of his: Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes on guitar, and Manu Katche and Jerry Marotta on drums. Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers also pop up on various tracks. Not to mention an early outing of Nick Park from Aardman Animations on Sledgehammer’s famous video, which did indeed sledgehammer its way into your consciousness and was on constant repeat on MTV in the late 80s.
So remains a classic, a commercial highpoint for Gabriel, and his most well-known album. I can’t help but wonder if it would have had quite the same impact if one of the album’s best tracks, Don’t Give Up, had been recorded with Gabriel’s original intended duet partner, Dolly Parton.
Best Bits: So many musical and lyrical highlights, but I’m going to go for the opening ‘hi there’ from Big Time
Genre: Classic Pop
Like This, Try This: PG I, II, III and IV