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The Genesis of Peter Gabriel: Celebrating 70 Years

Peter Gabriel turns 70 on February 13 and has spent nearly all of those years as a catalyst, innovator, and instigator, beginning with co-founding Genesis at the ridiculous age of 17.

He continues to tour and make music, although he does both at a pace that’s agonizingly slow for fans — his last album of all-new original songs came out in 2002 — and yet he remains a presence. He’s part of our musical landscape no matter how infrequently he shows up, and his soulful rasp of a voice remains one of the most distinctive in pop music.

That’s what a legacy will do for you and Gabriel has that in spades. With Genesis, he became a boldly theatrical performer, fond of wearing homemade costumes that almost defied description and an inventive songwriter who contributed greatly to the development of progressive rock as an art form.

His solo career has been built on a tension between the ideas of art and commercial success. He has certainly lived up to both ideals, frequently combining the two in remarkable ways, and that alone has defined him as a singular artist. He’s also pushed the boundaries of music technology, becoming the first to use the Firelight CMI digital synthesizer to build tracks via samples.

Gabriel made six albums with Genesis and has released nine solo studio albums, four film soundtracks, and six live albums. All of his studio records have their charms, often considerable, but some are next level.

Let’s start with the obvious.

So, released in 1986, is an undeniable masterpiece. Few records released in the last 40 years have achieved such a perfect blend of mainstream appeal and art-rock cred, and it reached No. 1 or 2 on nearly every major chart in the world, turning Gabriel into the unlikeliest of pop stars.

So was the perfect next step for Gabriel, building on the modest success of his first four solo albums — all of which were named Peter Gabriel and all of which contained incredible songs. But So was a defining moment, a collection of songs so potent that it almost scans as a greatest-hits album.

The record starts with “Red Rain,” a perfect song in every conceivable way and among history’s greatest opening tracks. It’s followed by “Sledgehammer” — which still holds the record for winning the most MTV Music Video Awards (9) — and “Don’t Give Up,” featuring Kate Bush (fun fact: Gabriel’s first choice to sing Bush’s part was Dolly Parton).

That’s a formidable three-punch combination but the album just doesn’t stop. It goes on to include “In Your Eyes,” a pop culture milestone thanks to John Cusack and his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, another massive hit in “Big Time” and the haunting “Mercy Street,” later deemed by NME to be one of the 10 most depressing songs ever written.

But let’s back up a bit. While So remains Gabriel’s best-known and best-selling album, he is by no means defined solely by it. Some Gabriel fans prefer only his work with Genesis, for example, and all of his records have moments of objective bliss.

Here are a handful of highlights.

In 1974, Genesis released The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, a concept album spearheaded by Gabriel.

Despite its incomprehensible storyline, it was the best record released by the original version of the band and side two is absolutely flawless. It may be among the top five most flawless sides of a record ever recorded — your biases aside — and its peak is “Carpet Crawlers,” a song essential to every music collection, regardless of genre affiliation.

“Here Comes the Flood” has been revisited a couple of times by Gabriel, who was unhappy with the original version.

In 1979, he teamed with Robert Fripp for the song’s definitive version on Fripp’s extraordinary Exposure album.

It’s a monumental and wholly prescient performance, mashing audio from a scientist warning about global warming — in 1979! — with Fripp’s groundbreaking Frippertronics loops and a spare, elegant effort from Gabriel that perfectly captures the song’s twin peaks of hope and hopelessness.

Biko, released in 1980 on his third solo album, is the rare political song that isn’t self-serving, condescending or pedantic.

Biko plainly lays out the tragic story of murdered South African activist Steve Biko and serves as an introduction to Gabriel the activist. It’s also an excellent example of how seamlessly he uses elements of music from other cultures, especially percussion, a neat trick he has been exploring his entire career.

“The Tower That Ate People,” from 2000’s odd concept album, OVO, is another example of Gabriel’s love of incorporating funk, pop, African music, and noise.

It’s as weird as anything he’s ever done, and that’s a pretty high bar.

Point being, Gabriel has never rested on his laurels; he has always strived for something better, or at least different. And while his recent output has either found him interpreting the music of others or reimagining his own work, he has repeatedly said that an album of all-new songs is planned for this year. At age 70, he’s still building on his legacy.

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11 Comments
  • Feb 25,2020 at 08:47

    I have a lot of “favorite” music but my “stranded on a desert island” pick is Peter Gabriel era Genesis, including the very first album, From Genesis to Revelation. I still watch those early videos with Peter in costume, acting out the songs while he sang. I love his solo stuff as well and his music has inspired my own poetry and artwork. I recently saw Steve Hackett’s “Genesis Revisited” show here in Portland, Oregon. It was one of the best shows ever but not quite the same with someone else in Peter’s place–although, it was well worth seeing. Unfortunately, I was too young to see any of the real shows back in the day, although I did start listening to them the year The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway came out. I was 13 at the time. I spent all my allowance on records, books, and candy back in those days and had quite a nice collection of LPs by that time. I still have them all too. I ate the candy though. :-)

  • Feb 23,2020 at 18:25

    Peter Gabriel is indeed one of the most creative musical artists on the planet. I was very lucky to experience several of his shows live in the 80’s/90’s. The Security show was by far the best. Wow! I can’t remember it fully, but do recall bits and pieces and I still have the ticket stub to look back upon it. I have everything of his on vinyl up to So and would love to get a original copy of Us. I also have several SACD’s that sound downright amazing.

    Thank you Peter for filling my ears with your brilliant work over the decades and Happy belated B-day!

  • Feb 21,2020 at 05:12

    Happy Birthday Peter. Thanks for all your hard work over the years. Just in case anyone doesn’t know, you can now get hi-rez downloads of Peter’s albums on Bandcamp. Is anyone still happy with 256kbps? Not this chick.
    Favourite Gabriel song: “Mother of Violence” or just about anything on the 2nd album (or the 1st or the 3rd etc..)

  • Feb 20,2020 at 10:06

    In addition, he is credited (along with Iggy Pop) inventing stagediving.

  • Feb 19,2020 at 23:30

    The best version of HERE COMES THE FLOOD, that I know, is in HORST KÖNIGSTEIN’s 1930ies TV-Revue HAUS VATERLAND (NDR 1983). PETER GABRIEL sits alone at a Grand Piano in an Old Factory Setting. He sings in two different Microphones. On of them has a huge echo. And the goose-flash-effect: He sings the whole song in German! “Ja, jetzt kommt die Flut, das Ende naht von Fleisch und Blut…”

  • Feb 19,2020 at 19:33

    yep, FAIRLIGHT :)

  • Feb 15,2020 at 08:34

    Dear Peter, I am your Faithful Fan already 40 years. Happy Birthday from Czech Republic! TomBa

  • Feb 13,2020 at 20:31

    One of my favorite artists ever. Happy birthday Sir!

  • Feb 13,2020 at 17:10

    You misspelled “Fairlight”. ;)

  • Feb 13,2020 at 16:16

    One of my all time faves. Living legend.

  • Feb 12,2020 at 17:59

    Happy birthday, Peter!

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