(#330: 31 May 1986, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Red Rain/Sledgehammer/Don’t Give Up/That Voice Again/In Your Eyes/Mercy Street/Big Time/We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)/This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)
Interviewed in the October 2011 issue of Uncut, Peter Gabriel said that the only compromise he made in the making of his fifth solo album was to agree with Peter Saville’s notion for a vaguely romantic and moody monochrome cover pose (although the cover shot was actually taken by Trevor Key, who once photographed the cover of Tubular Bells) since he was told that “my usual obscure LP sleeves alienated women.”
Now he certainly had less to worry about in that department than Phil Collins, whose records were mostly bought and listened to by lachrymose, drunken middle-aged male divorcees in wine bars. If you look at the cover of So, however, and temporarily mistake it for an album by, say, Richard Marx, you are not going to be wholly convinced by listening to it that it’s not.
This business of updating images and making them appear modern is a recurring feature in TPL 1986. If 1986 was indeed “the year that saved music,” when there was something new and different to hear and/or see practically every day, let alone every week, then how come most of its non-compilation number one albums are by familiar figures from the seventies, or, in one case, the sixties? Given that the album chart has an already-demonstrated tendency to think and move at the speed of a dinosaur – and given the crop of new names who do turn up in TPL 1987 – one might regard this as inevitable. But it also suggests something more sinister; that contemporary consumers just want the same old music by the same old people, tarted up here and there to make it seem of the now and relevant.
So, typically, is probably 1986’s most complex instance of this tendency, and again it beats No Jacket Required hands down; whereas Collins’ idea of communication is to stand on the lawn in the pouring rain at two-thirty in the morning, sobbing in self-pity, Gabriel is more concerned about the problems inherent in communicating with other people; many of So’s songs involve a second voice, or at least the acknowledgement of a second voice, even if, as in “That Voice Again,” it’s the discouraging voice of his parents or teachers that he remembers from childhood and stops him from listening in the present tense (hence it is a natural follow-up to “Don’t Give Up,” with the latter’s “I was taught to fight, taught to win”). If the album had ended, as originally planned, with “In Your Eyes” – different from the George Benson song, and in the States the “Our Tune” of thousands – there would also have been a clearer hope, instead of the troublesome way in which the album does end.
But where Peter Gabriel 3 was a dark and densely challenging record which reluctantly let in the world at its close, So stands in the light and wonders, half-apologetically, whether it’s all worth it. “Red Rain” – about a nightmare Gabriel had involving bottles of wine – has a clear subtext of global trouble (and a more specific one of South African apartheid), but apart from his extreme vocal similarity to the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan in the choruses, the song does not really connect, despite (or perhaps because of) the presence of three worlds of drums (Jerry Marotta’s kit, Chris Hughes’ Linn programming and Stewart Copeland’s onomatopoeic hi-hat). The music sounds expensive, meticulously tailored and finally uninvolving; Daniel Lanois co-produces throughout, but I do not really think that there is much palpable evidence of his touch here, other than the semi-spoken need to break through to a North American audience; in fact Lanois had worked with Gabriel on his Birdy soundtrack in 1984, and along with old faithful David Rhodes, the three worked up songs and rhythms – Lanois dealt with Gabriel’s famously procrastinatory approach to lyric-writing by locking him in his room until he had finished the lyric.
“Sledgehammer” was the probable main reason why So is in this tale, and it remains debatable whether it’s a sellout or pop’s best compendium of John Thomas analogies. Certainly reading the lyric is rather like scanning the storyboard of its video, as if the latter were in the singer’s head before the song, but actually Gabriel intended the song as a comparatively lighthearted tribute to Otis Redding; it was seeing the latter on stage at the Ram Jam Club in Stockwell – 390 Brixton Road, to be precise - back in 1966 that convinced the teenage Charterhouse pupil Gabriel that he should pursue a career in music. Furthermore, Gabriel contacted Wayne Jackson, Redding’s original trumpeter, who then reconvened the Memphis Horns to back the singer on both “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.” “Sledgehammer” is either a brilliant act of subversion on horny man-pop or Steve Winwood on steroids; I still can’t decide which.
Although it is hard to imagine anyone other than Kate Bush singing the female counterpart on “Don’t Give Up,” Gabriel initially had a Nashville country ballad framework in mind, and his first choice of co-singer was Dolly Parton. She, wisely, turned it down, and the episode indicates that Gabriel perhaps did not have a clear idea of what he wanted with this record. Nonetheless, I agree with Dave Marsh that it is equally hard to imagine this song being conceived or performed by an American; there is a characteristically British (or English, anyway) air of weary acceptance about both Gabriel’s lyric and performance; he is stoical, steadfastly refuses to blame anybody outright or sink into self-pity. But his pain remains apparent, and when he approaches the bridge he is clearly in two minds about whether or not to jump.
In which case, Bush’s warm reassurances are the only real response to his internalised agony; she is gentle but insistent, she reminds him that there are others, that when he thinks “I can’t take any more” it is like saying “God, I can’t do this any more” and she has to tell him, over and over, that he is not alone. But there is the ghost of that old Then Play Long stalwart, “My Elusive Dreams”; they wander from town to town, don’t really find what they’re looking for. But then again, nobody dies…yet (the harmonically ambiguous figure played by Richard Tee’s electric piano and Tony Levin’s bass towards the end suggests that danger has not been averted).
As mentioned above, “In Your Eyes” perhaps would have closed a happier So, since it is about the only instance on the record where Gabriel is unquestionably, and without qualification, happy; he can barely stand for his awe (“I see the doorway to a thousand churches”) and so has to rely on his backing singers (one of whom is Jim Kerr) for support. Youssou N’dour’s ecstatic Wolof scatting entry at the end is mixed too low, but like “Biko,” the world can now be approached without much in the way of doubt or uncertainty.
But then side two continues with “Mercy Street,” a quiet, hesitant meditation on the life of Massachusetts poet Anne Sexton, who took her own life at the beginning of October 1974, aged forty-five, which bears, I suspect, more than a hint of the pain evident in her posthumous collection The Awful Rowing Towards God (“Let’s take the boat out”); I wonder if Sexton’s late sixties jazz-rock/poetry group Her Kind ever made any recordings, and what a fifty-three-year-old Plath might have made of observations like “Pulling out the papers from drawers that slide smooth/Tugging at the darkness, word upon word.” The confession box, the forbidden kisses, the mercy, “nowhere in the suburbs/in the cold light of day.”
Then Stewart Copeland offers a cheery “Hi there!” and “Big Time” smashes into existence, an exercise in free enterprise irony as clear and subject to misreadings as “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money).” Gabriel has said that the song was intended as a satire and a cloak for his doubt whether he really wanted to be that famous. On close reading and listening, I can’t see how the song could be taken as anything other than ironic (and a less-than-subtle extension of the central penile metaphor of “Sledgehammer”), but that thwacking beat – so similar to “Land Of Confusion” – was persuasive, and the promises sounded tempting to those young conservatives who chose to bang the song around their Porsche speakers and not listen at all closely. On the other hand, however, one could interpret the song, with all its Hammond organ and PP Arnold contributions, as a prequel to “Don’t Give Up” – it’s the Mod sixties, and young Peter is dying to escape the “small town” where he comes from and make it in the “big city”; “Don’t Give Up” is what happens a generation later when the hope runs dry (a similar London de-evolutionary process via the pop song could be conducted, starting with Des O’Connor/Jim Dale’s idiotically optimistic “Dick-A-Dum-Dum (King’s Road)” and culminating in Brian Protheroe’s terminal “Pinball.” The protagonists of both songs are incurably, and wilfully, alone).
But then, with a subtle start, comes the reminder that we are listening to a Peter Gabriel album. The original LP actually ends with “We Do What We’re Told”; the background to Professor Stanley Milgram’s experiments is outlined here. Music and voices are bitonal, robotic, nightmarish; OK Computer finds another potential starting point, and the closing chant of “one doubt/one voice/one war/one truth/one dream” can usefully be borne in mind when considering #331 (and the “one doubt” will end up corroding that record). It is as if Gabriel has already seen the future, and knows that it is not worth having.
However, the record (first generation CD copy) now ends with, of all kindred spirits, a perky Laurie Anderson; Gabriel guested on her original “Excellent Birds” (which is to be found on 1984’s superb Mister Heartbreak) and here blended it with his own observations; he sees “pictures of people, rising up…/falling down” and actually he is not that pessimistic – he sees that change is coming and can happen. “When I see the future,” he says, “I close my eyes.” The supporting cast includes Manu Katche, Tony Levin, L Shankar, Bill Laswell, Larry Klein and Nile Rodgers. The music, as a whole, does not live up to these promises; there is the mid-eighties disease of politesse, of restraint as emotional muffler, at the use of what was then just beginning to be called world music as a panacea rather than the key to another universe. Gabriel did not wish to be pinned down to promises of “Sledgehammer 2”; his next, non-soundtrack album would not appear until 1992, and he would never again be as big - in the "Big Time" sense - as he had been in 1986. Yet his approach might be one of double-bluff; yes, I look and sound smoother, but don’t be fooled, and how long have you got to find out, and whom do you please if you can’t, or won’t, please everyone?
Next: “Though I saw it all around/Never thought that I’d be affected.”