Peter Gabriel is a living legend who barely needs an introduction. He became well-known as the lead singer of Genesis, and after that went on to have a successful solo career, gaining fame for using new music technology in innovative ways, and hitting major commercial success with his fifth solo album So in 1986.
An estimated 16 million Gabriel solo albums have been sold to date, including seven million of So alone. Gabriel has been nominated for 21 Grammy Awards and won six. He was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame twice: with Genesis in 2010, and as a solo artist in 2014.
Gabriel has also written the soundtracks for four movies and songs for almost twenty other movies, and is a champion of world music and world music artists. He’s also a human rights activist who won the Man of Peace Award in 2006, which is related to the Nobel Peace Prize.
One side-issue that Gabriel has also become famous for is procrastination. He once said, “Speed is not my strength: diversions are,” and his name has become synonymous with the fact that many rock artists have been taking increasingly long to release new albums.
Gabriel took six years between So and the follow-up Us, released in 1992, and another ten years until the release of his next album of new material, Up, in 2002, which is still his most recent.
At the time, Gabriel declared in interviews that another album of new material, called i/o, was close to completion, and would, in a sudden dramatic reversal of a long-standing habit, see the light of day within two years.
However, the years went by without any sign i/o. Eight years later, in 2010, there was an album of covers sung by Gabriel with an orchestra, Scratch My Back. Gabriel toured the album, also performing orchestral reinterpretations of his own songs, which were released a year later, in 2011, on New Blood.
Over the years he occasionally discussed the possible release of a new studio album, but i/o seemed to have become a never-ending procrastination story. With Gabriel turning seventy in 2020, it was widely assumed that that he had more or less retired.
Gabriel’s surprise announcement on November 8th, 2022 that he was planning a tour of Europe and North America to support the release of i/o, came therefore as a big shock. If the album is indeed released in 2023, it will be an impressive 21 years since Up.
During 2023, Gabriel has been releasing one track from the album with every full moon, in at least three different versions: a Bright Side mix by Spike Stent, a Dark Side mix by Tchad Blake, and an immersive mix by Hans-Martin Buff. With Peter Gabriel in the news again, and regularly releasing new material, this is the perfect time to look at his achievements, past and present
Peter Brian Gabriel was born on 13 February 1950 in Chobham, in Surrey, England.. The young Gabriel learned to play piano, drums, and the flute. At the age of 13, he went to the Charterhouse boarding school in Godalming, Surrey, where he was a drummer and vocalist in several bands.
By 1967, Gabriel had teamed up keyboardist Tony Banks, drummer Chris Stewart, guitarist Anthony Phillips and bassist Mike Rutherford,
and worked on original material. A former Charterhouse pupil called Jonathan King paid for and produced a number of sessions, and suggested the name Genesis.
The resulting album, with new drummer John Silver, was called From Genesis Revelation and released on Decca in 1968. It was not successful. Silver was replaced by drummer John Mayhew, and the quintet recorded the album Trespass in 1970, which laid the blueprint for Genesis’s unique prog rock sound.
After the release of the album, Anthony Phillips left the band, and Mayhew was asked to leave. The remaining three members recruited drummer Phil Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett as replacements. With this the classic Genesis line-up was in place.
GENESIS AND GOING SOLO
Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Michael Rutherford, Steve Hackett and Collins recorded three studio albums that built on the blueprint of Trespass: Nursery Cryme (1971), Foxtrot (1972), and Selling England By The Pound (1973).
All Genesis members contributed to the music, but many fans regarded Gabriel as the band’s leader, which began to cause friction. This friction deepened with the band’s next album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974), which was based on a concept and lyrics by Gabriel. In 1975, Gabriel left Genesis.
By 1976, he started work on his first solo album, with Canadian producer Bob Ezrin. Gabriel’s self-titled debut solo album was released on February 25th, 1977, and contains a ragbag of styles.
The folk-influenced second track, “Solsbury Hill,” which is partly in 7/4, was the first single, and has over time become Gabriel’s most popular song.
Other notable tracks are “Modern Love,” “Humdrum,” and most of all the album closer, “Here Comes The Flood.” Gabriel was unhappy with the bombastic production, and after the song was presented in 1979 as a piano ballad on Robert Fripp’s Exposure solo album, he has performed it in this minimalist setting.
Towards the end of 1977, Gabriel set about recording a follow-up album, with Robert Fripp producing and playing electric guitar.
Released in June 1978, Gabriel’s second album was again self-titled, because he wanted the focus to be on the artwork, and felt that printed titles distracted from this. Instead he looked at every release as another issue of the same magazine.
To distinguish between the albums, fans started calling the first album Car and the second album, Scratch, in references to the cover art. These informal titles have gradually become formalized and are now used on streaming platforms.
Gabriel’s third solo album was the Big One from a creative point of view. It has become known as Melt, again because of its cover, and as the first album on which Gabriel truly developed a unique direction in music.
Recordings took place at Gabriel’s home studio in Ashcombe House near Bath, with Steve Lillywhite was producing and Hugh Padgham was at the desk. Gabriel’s writing process now started from the drums, and he worked his way upwards from there.
Looking for a new drum sound on his album, Gabriel asked drummers Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta not to use cymbals. This creative restriction made an extremely lucky accident possible, that would change the world of music.
It happened at Townhouse Studio 2 in London, with Phil Collins on drums. The studio had just bought an early SSL desk, the first desk with compressors and noise gates on every channel, and a two-way talkback mic. Padgham noticed the enormous highly compressed drum sound coming back via the talkback mic, and how it was further enhanced by a noise gate.
The famous ‘gated drum sound’ was born, and made possible by the fact that there were no cymbals. The gated drum sound was not only the foundation of the album opener, “Intruder,” but Phil Collins and Padgham soon used it again on Collins’ monster hit “In The Air Tonight.”
Peter Gabriel’s third solo album was released in May 1980, and critically immediately well-received. It was a significant commercial success, going to number one in the UK and France and 22 in the US. The single “Games Without Frontiers” went to number 4 in the UK, and “Biko” has become one of Gabriel’s most important anthems.
Gabriel’s interest in world music led him to found the WOMAD festival in 1980. WOMAD stands for ‘World of Music, Arts and Dance,’ and the first festival took place in 1982, with the participation of a large amount of world music artists.
Gabriel had meanwhile been busy working on his fourth solo album at his Ashcombe House studio near Bath. Composer David Lord engineered and co-produced the album with Gabriel. Two influences that Gabriel had started to explore on his third album, were center stage on his fourth: world music and the sampling technology of the Fairlight.
Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album was eighteen months in the making, in part because of Gabriel’s indecisiveness. While the album again had no title in most territories, Gabriel was persuaded to call it Security for the US market. Over time, the album has become regarded as one of Gabriel’s best and most pioneering solo efforts.
Gabriel’s next album was a dramatic departure, and the result of film director Alan Parker asking him to provide the music to the movie Birdy. Gabriel enlisted Canadian producer and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Lanois to help him.
Gabriel using existing tracks and also wrote some new material, and the result was a soundtrack album, Birdy, released in March 1985, that alternated between slow, dark ambient moods and occasional intense percussion moments.
In the beginning of 1985, Gabriel started work on So, the album that would take him from cult artist to one of the world’s most famous rock stars. Gabriel again asked Lanois to help with production.
Although Gabriel still drew on the world music and new music technology elements of his previous albums, his focus this time was on writing more traditional songs that would suit him as a singer, and that honored the soul and rhythm and blues music that had influenced him in his childhood.
For the public, the first sign of Gabriel’s dramatic shift in musical direction came with the release of the album’s lead single, “Sledgehammer,” in April 1986, which hit the music world like, well, a sledgehammer, and opened the path for Gabriel towards major stardom. The song has become an all-time classic and yielded Gabriel three Grammy Award nominations.
So was released in May 1986. With “Sledgehammer” high in the charts around the world, So went to number one in many countries, including the UK. It reached to number 2 in the US. So was nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of the year.
Gabriel built on the success of So in several different ways. He used his new-found star profile to support humanitarian causes,
he invested part of the large amount of revenue that rolled in as a result of having a worldwide hit album in building his dream studio.
Real World has a huge, square feet, light-filled studio, with a floor surface of more than 2000 sq ft, which is about 200m2, and 10 meter high ceilings. The studio is set up as a combined writing, recording and mixing space.
The first music that Gabriel recorded at his new studio was for the Martin Scorsese movie, The Last Temptation of Christ. After the movie’s release in 1988, Gabriel spent several more months further developing the music. He was helped in all this by David Bottrill, who had worked as Lanois’ assistant on So.
Passion was released in June 1989, as the first on Real World Records, another new Gabriel venture. Passion earned Gabriel his first Grammy Award, for Best New Age performance, but it was not anywhere near as commercially successful as So.
In October 1989, Gabriel started work on his sixth solo album, which was released three year later as Us. Naturally, the album was recorded at Real World, with Lanois again producing, and Bill Bottrill at the controls.
When Us was released in September 1992, it was immediately apparent that it was very different to So. The pop leanings had made way for a far more personal record. Us has been called Gabriel’s “difficult album,” and it was not surprising that it was less commercially successful than So.
However, Us made it to number two in both the US and the UK charts, and resulted in four Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards, the latter for the videos for “Digging In The Dirt,” and “Steam.”
In the thirty years since the release of Us, Gabriel has been pre-occupied with many activities other than making music, which explains the fact that he has only released one solo album since then. In the nineties, Gabriel stated that music only pre-occupied one third of his time, and the rest of his focus was on humanitarian work and his Real World label.
In 1997, Gabriel was invited to provide the soundtrack for and co-write a multimedia event called The Millennium Dome Show, that was performed 999 times over the course of 2000. The corresponding soundtrack album, Ovo, was released in June of the same year.
Gabriel had to interrupt work on his seventh solo album to have the time to create Ovo. In fact, in line with his self-declared love of diversions, he accepted another diversion when he was asked to provide the soundtrack for the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The atmospheric and brooding end result was released in April 2002 under the title Long Walk Home: Music from the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Gabriel had started writing material for the follow-up to Us as early as 1995, with writing sessions in Meribel in France, Senegal, and in a boat along the Amazon river. He used a portable recording set-up, manned by Richard Chappell, who had become his engineer and general right-hand man.
Gabriel’s new album was finally released in September 2002. Up was commercially far less successful than Us, though still reaching to number nine in the UK and number 11 in the US. Gabriel toured Up with a spectacular live show, with one of the many highlights being the moment he and his daughter Melanie were walking and singing literally upside down during the track “Downside Up.” The tour was documented on the DVDs Growing Up Live (2003) and Still Growing Up: Live & Unwrapped (2005).
Gabriel’s activities have become increasingly disparate in the 20 years since the release of Up. On the musical front, there have been many awards and guest performances, and in 2008 he co-wrote and performed a song for the animated Wall-E movie called “Down To Earth.” It won a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
As mentioned above, in 2009 Gabriel released the covers album Scratch My Back. It contained orchestral arrangements, by him and John Metcalfe, of songs by David Bowie, Lou Reed, Radiohead, Arcade Fire and others. It reached to number 12 in the UK. He toured the covers album over two years with the New Blood tour, and in 2011 released New Blood, containing orchestral arrangements of a selection of his own songs.
In 2019, two Gabriel compilation albums were released, furthering the impression that he was slowing down and that there might not be another new studio album. The first was Rated PG, which contained ten songs Gabriel had written for movies, from “Walk Through The Fire” for Against All Odds in 1984, via “Taboo” for Natural Born Killers in 1994, to “Everybird” for Birds Like Us in 2017.
And Flotsam and Jetsam contains an amazing 62 tracks, with six hours of music, including B-sides, remixes, soundtrack songs not included on Rated PG, extended versions, single versions, live versions, instrumental versions, dance mixes, and more.
Once again stepping over Gabriel’s extensive non-musical activities over the last two decades, we come to the momentous day of November 8th, 2022, when Peter Gabriel officially announced i/o The Tour with European and American legs.
In a recent interview in Uncut magazine, Gabriel explained that his writing process is still similar to in the past, “I’d say 80% of my go to is the piano or a rhythm machine. As an old drummer, a groove will still get me going. But sometimes a sound will trigger something and take you somewhere else. One of the things that tech has given us is very fast access to huge amounts of sound.”
Gabriel’s hints that he may continue releasing one song every full moon even after the whole of i/o has been released. With Gabriel also touring for a large part of this year, fans may find 2023 to be the most exciting year of Gabriel’s career, in which there is more new music, and he engages with his audience more than ever before.
All this is obviously made possible by the latest technology, and while it may seem odd for a man of 73 to be at the forefront of it, his leading position is entirely in line with the rest of his rich and varied career, during which he has consistently been an innovator, and even managed, for a while, to combine his vanguard role with that of a global pop star.