So, Peter Gabriel’s fifth album is 33 years old

After releasing a tetralogy of consecutive albums with the same exact title, Peter Gabriel, in 1986 the Bath-based performer stopped being the theatrical, slightly esoteric cult act and opened himself up to mainstream accessibility, broadening his appeal hugely. It was where his artistry became a complete picture.

We knew roughly who Peter Gabriel was, of course. The occasionally odd proggy art rocker who’d co-founded Genesis, only to leave eight years later in 1975 and inflict Phil Collins upon the world as a frontman, had a reputation for eccentricity, dressing up during the prog-rock act’s shows as, for instance, Britannia or a giant flower. 

The gist of that quartet of eponymous LPs (1977-1982, almost concurrently with Kate Bush’s first four. More on her later) was pretty much for Peter Gabriel to find himself as an artist. Sure, there were a smattering of solo hits along the way—Solsbury Hill, (the Bowieesque) Games Without Frontiers, Shock The Monkey—but So is where Gabriel brought his A-game. And how.

Gabriel’s fifth album was given the complex and elaborate title of So. So was a bit of a departure for Gabriel. Up to that point in his career he was probably admired more for his slightly earnest artistry, song-writing craft and musicianship, but not exactly known for chart-topping prowess. The huge commercial success of So changed everything. It was the album that elevated him – albeit very briefly – into the premier league, alongside the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Springsteen and, yes, that Collins bloke. 

The record still sounds supremely listenable today; it’s a near-perfect mix of art and commerce, fuelled by a handful of radio friendly hits that were turbo-boosted by innovative, much talked about promo films or inclusion in a cinematic box office draw. In fact, looking back 33 years later, Peter Gabriel would never look or sound more like a pop star than he did with So, and the period would be the pinnacle of his commercial success overall.

Nonetheless, the idea that the ex-public schoolboy would top the charts around the world, help change the face of music videos, and arguably dissuade countless people from committing suicide – a pretty extraordinary claim for a musician – was unlikely to have crossed many minds when, in early 1985 Gabriel stepped into the cowshed that had been converted into a recording studio in his garden at Ashcombe House, deep in the Somerset countryside.

So began with the collaboration of producer Daniel Lanois coming on board for the soundtrack to the film Birdy. Gabriel asked Lanois to lend a hand with the beginnings of his next project of new material. The initial sessions were Gabriel, Lanois and guitarist David Rhodes, and they dubbed themselves The Three Stooges. 

Eventually a large number of friends and fellow artists would appear on the album with a credits list that looks like a who’s who of significant sessioneers of the day: Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Stewart Copeland, Youssou N’Dour, Jim Kerr, Nile Rodgers, Manu Katche, L. Shankar, Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta and on and on. 

What would emerge from the intense months ahead, however, was a huge leap even for someone looking to take giant steps. The following year he’d pick up two Brit Awards, receive four Grammy nominations and headline Earls Court four times as part of 1987’s 68 date This Way Up tour. It was a more than healthy reward for the ten months (at least) and £200,000 that Gabriel invested into So’s creation, and one that reflected an artistic reinvention that remained largely uncompromising.

The album has an unashamedly quintessential mid-Eighties sound, with plenty of hammering synthesizers and slightly over-sequenced percussion. But, it does however, have a soul to it, with just the right mixture of diverse genres throughout that range from psychedelic to R&B to World Music.

Gabriel’s vocals are noticeably more mature compared to the brutal, high pitched yelps of the first two LPs. By 1986, his voice is more suited for the material, with Daniel Lanois’ solid airy production giving the tracks a considerable sonic boost. So is relatively brief with only 9 songs but it’s a concentrated smorgasbord of emotional power and typically charismatic delivery.

Red Rain opens proceedings with an extraordinary percussive build up with Police man Stewart Copeland in the hot seat, instantly creating a sense of drama with his evocative hi-hat work.

The song parallels a thunderstorm where it comes crashing in with the ominous landscape of thunder and lightning that couldn’t fail to capture the listener’s attention. It’s menacing and challenging as the Gabriel addresses societal problems, torture and the ever present threat of nuclear war. A descending melody line acts as a soothing metaphor for an apocalyptic image, while the lyrics could also be taken as an examination of a relationship (“I come to you defences down, with the trust of a child”) that perhaps predicted Michael Jackson’s struggles with the law. 

A mini masterpiece of intense percussion, drums, bass and glistening piano/synths, Red Rain is the perfect track to begin the album and ends with the kind of piano/vocal coda that Simple Minds excelled at. The influences were now flowing both ways. 

Sledgehammer was the last song written and recorded for So. Firmly implanting itself into the public consciousness with a kinky catalogue of sexual innuendos and double entendre that would make a madam blush. Its atypical cheerfulness of may come from the fact that Sledgehammer is mainly in a major key, a rarity for an R’n’B-influenced track. It captures the vocalist at his most soulful, and was the gateway to entice a mainstream audience into the album, creating a revival tent of sorts with Gabriel preaching the gospel for his version of adult oriented rock music.

The song bounces and struts with a sexual urgency never before seen from Gabriel. The band sounds like they’re having the time of their lives: the bass guitar pumps and slides over the fretboard, the guitar supplies a groove – and what a groove – that is impossible not to dance to. Hell, even the drummer, Manu Katche’, sounds like he’s taking a break whilst Levin, Rhodes and Gabriel take centre stage. 

Veteran trumpeter Wayne Jackson’s horns are music punctuation for a mighty composition, David Rhodes’ rhythm guitar part is eccentric and the Farfisa organ bizarre. And that opening sampled bamboo flute was even emulated by hundreds of keyboard players across the land. 

The groundbreaking video, directed by Stephen Johnson (who had used similar techniques for Talking Heads’ Road To Nowhere from the previous year), required 100 hours of Gabriel’s time, and it shows. With delicious irony, this Otis Redding-inspired slice of bombastic brilliance dislodged Genesis’s Invisible Touch to become a No.1 hit on the US Billboard charts in July 1986. 

Don’t Give Up, one of the album’s calmer, sombre moments, was inspired by a BBC programme Gabriel had caught.

“The lyrics were inspired by two things: one was a TV programme on how unemployment has affected family life, and the other was a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange during the Dust Bowl Depression. The basic idea is that handling failure is one of the hardest things we have to learn to do.

“I started off on that song singing both parts myself, but I thought it would work better with a man and a woman singing, so I changed the lyrics around. At one point I tried to work it up in a gospel/country style, and there are still echoes of that approach in Richard Tee’s piano-playing.”

After approaching Dolly Parton to sing the chorus (she declined), the actress called in to complete the duet was of course his old chum Kate Bush. The song relies on her, it works because of her contribution. She was something like a phenomenon by the time she stepped in to record her haunting vocals. 

I call her an actress because that’s what’s required of the part, to sell the song. In a sense that is true of any singing but with a duet it’s about the story that is being told through the song as well as in the song, the unspoken connection between the voices – and the channelling of emotion from the voices when partnered. And then everything that makes up the song, the melody, the lyrics, the phrasing. And what a song. Don’t Give Up —and other choice Gabriel and Bush cuts—would be played incessantly by David Bowie during the making of his more reflective 1999 album Hours.

Lanois remembers that Bush “was royalty” and that people were in awe of her as she nailed the session. She was critically and commercially revered with a catalogue of landmark records. Her aesthetic – her approach to pop music as something of a conceptualist – seemed to marry up well with Gabriel’s out there instincts and motives in music.

That Voice Again is a yearning, piano-dazzled love song that explores the concept of conscience, examining the “parental voice in our heads that either helps or defeats us.” Co-written with Rhodes, the track sees Gabriel demonstrating some exquisite vocal delicacy while torn apart by a nagging self-doubt. 

Mercy Street references the life of poet Anne Sexton, and was originally set to one of several Forró-inspired percussion compositions that Gabriel recorded in Rio de Janeiro.

Its sombre, stately pull is driven by that Brazilian/African groove (which predates Paul Simon’s Graceland by six months or so) and shows evidence of Lanois’ influence; its opening ambient textures resemble Brian Eno’s Under Stars which Lanois co-produced. Gabriel’s low-octave vocals apparently had to be recorded first thing in the morning for maximum resonance.

Big Time is Gabriel’s amusing, self-mocking, Randy Newmanesque satire on success and celebrity. Musically, it’s a potent mixture of driving Copeland drums, treated rhythm guitar, synth bass, quasi-industrial samples and some great Hammond organ by Simon Clark. 

So is often criticised for its ambition; in 2002, one critic even called it a “ruthless bid for mainstream success,” and one suspects much of this ire is directed toward splashy singles like Sledgehammer and Big Time, whose soul-stung funk admittedly sounded (and still sounds) very 1986.

Gabriel responded by conceding that “this drive for success is a basic part of human nature and my nature.” It’s worth noting that a much rockier demo version of Big Time – featuring Jerry Marotta on drums – included with 2012’s slightly late ‘25th anniversary’ Immersion Box is far weirder—more David Bowie-esque art-disco than anything overly MTV-friendly.

We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37), with its ghostly, robotically repeated title, is described by its author as an interlude, and, aptly clinical in feel, concerns social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience experiments (the same electro-shock treatments of the 1960s that Lou Reed’s parents subjected him to, in an attempt to cure his latent homosexuality) and was originally recorded for PG3 (a.ka. Melt) in 1980.

Rich and dark, it has a sense of Pink Floyd-esque foreboding to it (and I always think of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill when I hear that opening minor chord), lyrically it’s intentionally a little half-baked – it’s a little hard to see what ‘One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream’ has to do with the experiment.

This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds) is menacing and somewhat prophetic. The icy, taut lyrics encapsulated modern life, a collaboration of two visionaries, having been co-written over 48 hours in Laurie Anderson’s apartment for pioneering video artist Nam June Paik. As the Excellent Birds of its subtitle, the track featured on Anderson’s 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. 

Interpolated into This is the Picture, and featuring a typically kooky cameo from Laurie herself (as well as Chic’s Nile Rodgers), it’s an enigmatic experiment in atmosphere, rather like the surreal dream that occurs after the conscious sign off and you surrender to the unconscious world. 

Included on So a mere two days before the album was submitted to the record label, it also reassured long-time Gabriel fans he had lost none of his wayward avant-garde tendencies.

In Your Eyes is PG’s greatest love song, which achieved genuine classic status after being featured in Cameron Crowe’s movie Say Anything. Inspired by Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and its architect Antoni Gaudi, it brings with it an overwhelming sense of redemption and closure, and is additionally distinguished by the sense of relief felt as the song slips into its chorus – “In your eyes / The light, the heat / In your eyes / I am complete” – and Youssou N’dour’s exuberant scat cameo a minute before the fade, his voice wailing in rapture, occasionally punctuated by doo-wop singer Ronnie Bright of The Coasters.

Apparently Gabriel was obsessed with the the sequencing of So: he made up endless cassettes featuring just song endings/beginnings, testing all the different permutations. He always wanted In Your Eyes as the closer, but was persuaded otherwise when told that its drums and bass wouldn’t hold up very well at the end of a long side of vinyl. He finally got it where he wanted it on subsequent remasters.

The Iconic So captured all of Gabriel’s gifts and distilled them into a masterwork. The brilliance lies in the combination of era encapsulating melodies and unlikely genres that attracted a wide-ranging new audience, perfectly timed to capitalise on the emerging CD-owning yuppie room. On 27 May 1986 it entered the British charts in pole position, knocking Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music’s Streetlife: 20 Great Hits collection off the top spot after an impressive five week run.

Those fortunate enough to catch his live performances during the period will testify to the charisma and power of his presence on stage. His 25 June 1987 concert at Earls Court Arena, on my very last day before adulthood, was my first time seeing him, and my fifth concert overall. Sadly I was three days too early if I wanted to witness the splendour surprise of Kate Bush’s unannounced appearance during Don’t Give Up.

Today, Gabriel continues to trail blaze and produce music, albeit slowly; following up So with Us (1992), Up (2002), and a litany of miscellaneous side projects, soundtracks and covers albums that don’t begin with the letter U.

Uncanny.

Steve Pafford

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