Peter Gabriel – “So” What?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Peter Gabriel (together with Sting) in concert on the beach at Brooklyn’s Coney Island. I had been hoping to see Gabriel for well over a decade but the timing just never worked out until now. It was worth the wait. Though Peter Gabriel first came to musical prominence with the prog rock band Genesis in the 1970s and then as a solo artist in the 80s, the British musician hasn’t lost a step. His soul-piercing, raspy voice is as bold as ever, and most of his songs are classic enough not to seem dated in the slightest.

So is Peter Gabriel’s most commercially successful work. It’s also his best. With only one song that’s anything less than a true classic – the still bizarrely good “Excellent Birds (This Is the Picture)”, So is a gem from top to bottom. Songs like “Big Time”, “Red Rain” and “Sledgehammer” rocked the airwaves and MTV bringing Peter Gabriel a level of fame and commercial appeal that he had never previously achieved.

Today is as good a day as any to break out a copy of this stellar album and give it a close listen. From the exuberance of “Big Time” to the ominous darkness of “Red Rain”, it covers an extraordinary range of musical colors and human emotions. And because this is a “must-have” record, here are some essentials about it that you should know so you can impress that good looking guy or gal at your next cocktail party.

1. So was produced by legendary producer Daniel Lanois.

Had Daniel Lanois never produced a good record, he would still have had a great career as a recording artist in his own right. His debut album, Acadie, is one of my very favorites. In fact, its leadoff track, “Still Water”, was covered by Joe Bonamassa and released on Joe’s Live at Radio City Music Hall DVD. But in fact, Daniel Lanois has produced many good records for artists that include U2, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and many more. One of his crowning achievements is Peter Gabriel’s So. Lanois would also produce Peter Gabriel’s follow up to SoUs. Though Us didn’t match the success of So, it’s a pretty sweet record too.

2. Peter Gabriel’s Previous 4 Albums Were All Called Peter Gabriel.

Peter Gabriel’s first four albums all had the same title: Peter Gabriel. If you think this might be confusing, you are definitely right. As you can imagine, the record company was not very pleased with this series of titles. Each album had a different image on the sleeve, and Gabriel wanted the albums to be identifiable by those images rather than by worded titles. However, by the fourth record, Gabriel’s label Geffen Records demanded that the American release have a proper title. He called the new album Security. Giving into the pressure to title his albums, his next three proper studio albums were given names. However, they only had two letters each: SoUs, and Up. It’s definitely fair to say that Peter Gabriel is a title minimalist.

3. The Album Featured an Eclectic Mix of Guests

So has an eclectic array of guest artists that includes Kate Bush on vocals, Stewart Copeland of The Police on drums, Youssou N’Dour on vocals, and Laurie Anderson on vocals. Each of these guests brings their distinctive personalities and flair to the album, adding to the color and texture. My favorite contribution is the guest spot from Kate Bush, who performs on the moving duet “Don’t Give Up”. The emotional ballad describes the feelings of a singer who has given up hope after losing his job. Kate Bush provides strong words of encouragement to the desperate man, urging him not give up because he has love and friends in his life to lean on.

4. The Song “Mercy Street” Is About the Poet Anne Sexton

“Mercy Street” is a dark but lush tune with bleak, beautiful imagery filled with desperation. The song is written about the famous American poet Anne Sexton who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book of verse Live or Die. Sexton had long suffered with depression and mania, and sadly committed suicide in 1974. The title “Mercy Street” comes from one of Sexton’s poems called “45 Mercy Street”. The atmospheric song features spacious metallic percussion and some of Peter Gabriel’s most passionate vocals. It’s a quiet, stirring and unforgettable moment.

5. Sledgehammer is the most played music video in the history of MTV

Peter Gabriel was a bit of an MTV darling due to his bold, daring music videos. “Sledgehammer” is probably his most famous solo work as both a song and a music video. The song is kind of one giant ridiculous sexual metaphor and the video is well worth a watch. I really can’t pick favorite songs from this album – almost all of them are perfect to me – but Sledgehammer is probably the album’s most classic cut.

6.  “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” Is About the Famous Stanley Milgram Psychology Experiment

If you’re not up to speed on the famous Stanley Milgram experiment, it’s well worth reading about. A professor at Yale during the 1960s, Milgram’s experiment was designed to investigate the phenomenon of obedience with the hopes of shedding light on how something as horrible as the Nazi regime could happen. The experiment was extremely controversial, and did seem to demonstrate that under certain conditions quite ordinary people could go on to commit horrific acts. Gabriel’s tune, though brief, packs a powerful punch and has an air of menace about it as the phrase “we do what we’re told” is repeated to goose bump-inducing effect.

7. “In Your Eyes” Will Forever Be Associated with John Cusack

Other than “Sledgehammer”, “In Your Eyes” is probably the most well-known cut from the album. A romantic love song filled with religious imagery and deep emotion, the song is probably most famous for its use in the John Cusack film Say Anything. It also features memorable supporting vocals from Senegalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour which help the song soar.

Okay, you’re up to speed now. Go listen to this incredible record!

– Tribut Apparel

Enjoyed this post on Peter Gabriel? Read a companion piece on Prog Rock that explores the foundations of his first band, the prog rock outfit Genesis, here.

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