Monday, January 23, 2012

Top 50 Albums, #36 - "Peter Gabriel" (1980)

People who became Peter Gabriel fans with the release of “So” in 1986 (and I’m quite certain there were a lot of them) were probably shocked the first time they first heard his 1980 release, the third of four albums that were titled, simply, “Peter Gabriel.” Number 3 is the one with the melted face on the cover, and that photo (a manipulated photo from a Polaroid SX-70; anyone remember those?) is the perfect representation of the slice of vinyl within.

The tone of the album is set from the moment the first song begins. Thunderous drums (courtesy of Phil Collins, Gabriel’s old mate from Genesis) in a martial beat, followed by one of the most frightening vocals you’re likely to hear anytime, anywhere. The song is called “Intruder,” and it’s about as far away from “In Your Eyes” as one can possibly imagine. It begins like this:

I know something about opening windows and doors
I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors
I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers

Slipping the clippers
Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires
The sense of isolation inspires
Inspires me

To appreciate the full impact of the song, you have to listen to the way that Gabriel sings the words “telephone wires.” It’s the musical equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard, almost as if Gabriel was hiding behind a corner and decided to jump out and scream, “boo!” And that’s just the beginning – nearly every song on the album brings with it a feeling of being oppressed, of being dominated by someone from the outside who is pulling strings that the protagonist doesn’t even realize are there. To quote Dave Marsh, “when the music thunders with power chords, there’s no hint of resolution or redemption: just the sound of the weak being trampled by the strong.”

There are a lot of standouts on the album, but the ones that resonate most deeply are (in addition to the aforementioned track) “No Self Control,” “I Can’t Remember,” “And Through the Wire,” “Games Without Frontiers” (“If looks could kill…they probably will, in games without frontiers, war without tears…”) and “Not One of Us.”

And then there is the album’s closer, “Biko.” Gabriel’s tribute to Stephen Biko is one of his first forays into African rhythms, and one of the greatest songs in his catalogue. It moves slowly enough that you can hear every word, feel every beat, inexorably moving through the awful details of the story, but finally leading to these great lines:

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

And then finally, to the lines to which the entire album has been leading:

And the eyes of the world are watching now

And with that, the album is over. Sometimes, the best one can hope for in a world of oppression and being oppressed is to reach a point where hope is not entirely out of the question.

Peter Gabriel (1980) • Produced by Steve Lillywhite and Peter Gabriel

Intruder/No Self Control/Start/I Don’t Remember/Family Snapshot/And Through the Wire/Games Without Frontiers/Not One of Us/Lead a Normal Life/Biko

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