Peter Gabriel - Biography

By Michael Keefe


            Born in London, England in 1950, art rock singer and song composer Peter Gabriel was the frontman for progresive rock band Genesis from 1967 through 1975 before leaving to pursue his solo career. Since 1977, Gabriel has issued seven critically lauded and commercially successful rock studio LPs, along with a number of soundtracks, live albums, collaborations, and compilations. He is also a strong proponent for world music, having founded the WOMAD festival and Real World Records. He's won Grammys for his music videos and soundtrack work, but Peter Gabriel is best known for his compelling, popular, and highly creative rock LPs.


            Peter Brian Gabriel was born February 13, 1950 in London, England. It was Gabriel's mother who fostered his love for music, teaching him to play the clarinet as a boy. He attended the venerable and priviledged Charterhouse School for boys, where he met the four other original members of Genesis: keyboardist Tony Banks, bassist Mike Rutherford, drummer Chris Stewart, and guitarist Anthony Phillips. The classic Genesis lineup, with Phil Collins on drums and Steve Hackett and guitar, solidified in 1971, the year Gabriel married his first wife, Jill Moore. He was the band's lead vocalist for its first six albums, beginning with the mediocre and poor-selling From Genesis to Revelation (1969 London) and through to the group's double-album masterpiece, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974 Atco), which went Top 10 in the UK and hit #41 in the US.


            Following a highly theatrical tour for that album, Gabriel left the band in 1975, wanting to move in new musical directions and having recently become a first-time father to daughter Anna (b. 1974), who was sick during her infancy. He and Jill's second daughter, Melanie, was born in 1976. That year, in Toronto, Gabriel began recording his first solo album, employing the prolific talents of guitar wizard Robert Fripp and bassist Tony Levin. Released in February of the following year, he elected to simply entitle the work Peter Gabriel (1977 Atco), citing its autobiographical nature. Because his next three full-lengths are also self-titled, they've each been given nicknames. With its cover art of the singer behind the wheel of a blue automobile, Gabriel's first eponymous LP is often referred to as Car. The music offers a wide variety of styles. Lead single "Solisbury Hill" is in 7/4 time, reflecting the artist's prog rock roots, but its largely acoustic instrumentation and use of an African talking drum marked new directions for Gabriel, foreshadowing his future allegiances to world music. Leadoff cut "Moribund the Burgermeister," meanwhile, is dramatic rock. "Modern Love" sounds like a mixture of early '70s David Bowie and The Who. Markedly different are tracks like the music hall of "Excuse Me," the musique concrete intro to the synth-heavy "Humdrum," and the bluesy, Tom Waits-like "Waiting for the Big One." The album concludes with the anthemic "Here Comes the Flood," a track that seemed to presage the sound of Pink Floyd's The Wall (1979 Columbia). The LP received quite positive reviews and charted well, hitting #7 in the UK and #38 in the US.


            After touring, Peter Gabriel immediately set to work on his second solo LP, again titled Peter Gabriel (1978 Atco), but also known as Scratch. Fripp acted as producer this time, only contributing guitar (and co-writing) to "Exposure." Tony Levin remained on board as bassist and top drummer Jerry Marotta lent his stick skills to the recordings. The opening tandem of catchy rockers "On the Air" and first single "D.I.Y." start off the album on a high note, although the momentum gets halted by the quiet and ineffectual "Mother of Violence," co-penned by Gabriel and his wife. The rest of the album is dominated by arty, mid-tempo rock numbers that lean heavily on keyboards. Few great highs are hit, but there are no further lows, either. Both ratings and sales for Scratch were just a bit lower than for the debut, but Gabriel's sophomore effort was by no means a slump. A good album that's actually more sonically consistent than its predecessor, it reached #10 in England and a respectable #45 in America.


            Peter Gabriel truly proved himself as a solo artist with self-titled album number three, Peter Gabriel (1980 Geffen). The record is also referred to as Melt, based on the cover portrait of the singer, the left side of his body melting like wax. The album was the breakthrough, star-making effort for producer Steve Lillywhite, who would also produce debuts by U2 and Psychedelic Furs that year. Marotta was again behind the drum set, but his cymbals were taken away, aiding the album's spare and less traditionally rock-oriented sound. Levin and Fripp each guested on a song or two, but synths, drums, and Gabriel's low-grain sandpaper voice are the star features of this dark, insular, and excellent album. Opening track "Intruder" creeps and insinuates itself into the listener's mind, while "No Self Control" and "I Don't Remember" are claustrophobic yet catchy. Fellow art rocker Kate Bush sings backing vocals on the former and is particularly essential to anti-war lead single "Games Without Frontiers," which reached #4 in the UK and #48 in America. Closing cut "Biko," about apartheid leader Steve Biko, has become one of Gabriel's best-loved songs. It also further attested to his interest in the affairs and music of the world. The LP went all the way to #1 in the UK and peaked at #22 on the Billboard 200, while receiving mostly very strong reviews.


            Over the next two years, Peter Gabriel recorded his fourth album. One of the first fully digital recordings, the album was again called Peter Gabriel in the UK, but was titled Security (1982 Geffen) for its US release. Jerry Marotta once again played drums, Tony Levin returned on bass, and David Rhodes made his debut appearance as Gabriel's guitarist, beginning a longstanding working relationship. With only eight tracks, and most of them over five minutes long, Security was more spacious and less immediate than prior Gabriel albums. These qualities led to some mediocre reviews, but it has stood well the test of time and remains an engaging listen. Music fans at the time seemed to think so. It hit #28 in America and went Gold, while reaching #6 in England. New wave radio and early MTV classic "Shock the Monkey" became Gabriel's first US Top 40 hit (peaking at #29). The synth-driven avant-pop number aside, much of the album featured African and Latin drums and ambient synth passages; sometimes in the same song. Also in 1982, Peter Gabriel helped found WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance), a festival supporting music from around the globe.


            The following year, the Security tour was immortalized on Plays Live (1983 Geffen), a double-album focusing heavily on Peter Gabriel's two most recent releases. The critics continued to be confounded with his musical direction, but fans took the album to #44 in America and #8 in England. Comprised of 16 tracks spread across two LPs and, on its first digital issue, two CDs, the live performances infused the Security material with added intensity and offered something of a hits compilation for newcomers to Gabriel's music. The track list also included one new song, "I Go Swimming". In 2002, the album was reissued (along with the rest of Gabriel's catalog), but only as a 67-minute single CD called Plays Live – Highlights (2002 Geffen), which omitted four tracks, including powerful opening number "The Rhythm of the Heat."


            Peter Gabriel's fans would have to wait through one more release before his fifth proper studio LP. In late 1984, Gabriel recorded the instrumental soundtrack to the film Birdy (1985 Geffen). Co-produced by sound sculptor Daniel Lanois, five of the record's 12 tracks employed reworked musical themes from earlier songs. A lovely and moody album, the soundtrack is aimed at those who appreciate Gabriel's less pop-oriented material.


            Based on Gabriel's '80s material to that point, few would have guessed how accessible and monstrously popular his next album would be. Also co-produced by Lanois, So (1986 Geffen) sold ten times as many copies as Security, going quintuple-Platinum in the US. In Some ways, Gabriel's fifth LP returned to the eclecticism and more upbeat feel of his debut. So presented a different palette of sounds than all his earlier efforts, though. Singles "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time" featured R&B grooves, big pop hooks, and hummable melodies. These elements carried "Sledgehammer" to Billboard's #1 and to #4 in England, while "Big Time" went Top 20 in both countries. Gabriel maintained his connection to world music with drumming duties shifting to Manu Katché throughout the album and vocals coming from Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour on the sunny and lightly bouncing "In Your Eyes," a #26 US single that played a pivotal role in the film Say Anything. The Brits were more partial to the somber yet beautiful Kate Bush duet, "Don't Give Up," a Top 10 UK hit. Other key tracks include the mercurial and crackling "Red Rain," the restrained and jazz-touched "Mercy Street," and "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)," a duet with fellow outré artist Laurie Anderson. Among the best albums of the 1980s, So was also greatly popular, going #1 in England and nearly matching that feat in America, where it peaked at #2.


            Although Peter Gabriel's artistic life was at an all-time high, his marriage was not. He and  Jill Moore divorced in 1987. Gabriel and actress Rosanna Arquette moved in together soon thereafter, and it's been rumored that "In Your Eyes" was written for her. Also in 1987, Gabriel won an MTV Music Video Award for "Sledgehammer." Two years later, he issued his second soundtrack LP, Passion (1989 Geffen), the mostly instrumental score to Martin Scorcese's film The Last Temptation of Christ. Gabriel's enthusiasm for world music stands at the fore on Passion, where African and Middle Eastern beats and melodies conspire to create the feel of ancient Jerusalem. Thanks to Gabriel's synths and Rhodes's textured electric guitars, the album also possesses modern overtones. A stirring and heady album, it is among Gabriel's finest works. It received strong reviews and charted relatively well, hitting #29 in England and going Gold in America.


            The following year, Peter Gabriel's first hits compilation appeared. Shaking the Tree (1990 Geffen) collected 16 of his best and most popular tracks to date, including re-recordings of "Here Comes the Flood" and the title track, which had appeared the year before on co-creator Youssou N'Dour's album The Lion (1989 Virgin). Shaking the Tree was an immediate success in the UK, where it topped out at #11. In America, it reached only #48, but has gone on to sell more than two million copies. Around this time, Gabriel and Arquette broke off their relationship.


            From 1989 to 1992, Peter Gabriel worked on his sixth proper album at his new Real World Studios, which is associated with his label of the same name. Gabriel's new full-length, Us (Geffen), finally surfaced in September 1992. Rhodes, Levin, and Katché were again on board. In many ways, Us is a continuation of So, but without enough of the dynamics and mood changes that made the prior album so engaging. Like its predecessor, it contains a pair of uptempo, radio-friendly songs in "Digging in the Dirt" and the funky "Steam," but neither are as infectious as "Sledgehammer" or "Big Time." Still, "Steam" hit #10 in England cracked the Top 40 in America. Most of the rest of the album is mid-tempo, synth-heavy, adult alternative pop/rock with an arty, yet borderline New Age bent. The pretty "Come Talk to Me" features vocals from Sinéad O'Connor, with whom Gabriel became romantically linked. Despite tepid reviews and merely modestly popular singles, the album hit #2 on both sides of the Atlantic and went on to platinum sales in the US. That same year, aiming to capitalize on Gabriel's popularity, his old label issued Peter Gabriel Revisited (1992 Atlantic), a 15 track release gathered from his first two albums. This constituted all but five of the original batch of songs, but the compilers still picked a few duds. This material is far better represented by hearing each of Gabriel's earliest solo LPs in their entirety.


            1993's Us tour was captured on Secret World Live (1994 Geffen), Peter Gabriel's second two-disc live album. Along with his band of Rhodes, Levin, and Marotta, Gabriel had star vocal backing from American singer-songwriter Paula Cole and African singer Papa Wembe, along with avant-pop violinst Shankar and doudouk (an Armenian flute) player Levon Minassian. The tracklisting leans heavily on cuts from Us and So. Critical opinion was divided on the album, but it reached a respectable #23 in America and hit #10 in England. The corresponding video release earned Gabriel a Grammy in 1995.


            Peter Gabriel maintained a markedly low profile for the remainder of the 1990s, focusing primarily on his Real World label, which has issued albums by Pakistani Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Indian-English world-pop artist Sheila Chandra, and self-explanatry fusion act Afro Celt Sound System.


            Finally, at the dawn of the 21st century, Peter Gabriel emerged with new material. OVO (2000 Real World), however, is not a standard entry into the Gabriel discography. Instead, it's the audio accompaniment to a video installation he was commissioned to construct for the Millennium Dome Show in London. He employed a highly ecclectic cast of supporting musicians, including Woodstock-era folkie Ritchie Havens, Cocteau Twins vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, and alternative hip-hop singer Neneh Cherry. The music was as diverse and lacking in cohesion as its team of creators, perhaps only making sense in the context of the video it was meant to soundtrack. As a stand-alone CD, however, it doesn't hold together well, and was poorly received.


            Two years later, Peter Gabriel fans anxious for quality new work were doubly rewarded with Long Walk Home (2002 Real World/EMI), his instrumental soundtrack to the film The Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Up (2002 Geffen), Gabriel's seventh proper studio album. Like Passion, Long Walk Home pairs native sounds with moody synth tones. In this case, Gabriel fused Aboriginal music to his ruminative ambient music, although with a stronger leaning on the latter element. Of greater consequence was Up, Gabriel's first new rock album in a decade. Self-produced, the very moody record features Gabriel's same core band, along with a host of other contributors, including Shankar, Lanois, and even a 1996 vocal from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The album sounds like a melding of the dark and edgy feel of Gabriel's third album (Melt) and the more atmospheric influence of Us. The result is a highly insular, yet deeply rewarding, listen. Critical opinion was mediocre across the board, with Rolling Stone only coughing up two stars, while the newly influential Pitchfork awarded the album a very solid 7.2/10. The fans gobbled up enough of the long-awaited album to take it to #9 on the Billboard 200 and to #11 on the UK charts. Though, only one single managed to chart, with "More Than This" hitting #47 in England. In an already very busy year for Gabriel, he also married his second wife, Meah Flynn, in 2002. Their son, Isaac, was born that same year.


            Peter Gabriel's second career-spanning compilation emerged the following year. Hit (2003 Geffen) was made available as a single-disc, 15-cut collection of radio-released songs, primarily from So and later, and including a new song, "Burn You Up, Burn You Down." A two-CD edition dipped into less popular, but certainly just as essential, material. Strangely, the enduringly popular "In Your Eyes" was allocated to this second, bonus disc, while the low-charting "Blood of Eden" made it onto the main disc. Still, the track selection is otherwise quite good, which makes it surprising that Hit managed to reach only #100 in the US, although its peak at #29 in the UK was a decent showing. Clearly, most casual Peter Gabriel fans already owned Shaking the Tree and were satisfied with that earlier compilation.


            After a five year spell where little was heard from Peter Gabriel, he returned with a new song, the quiet-to-bouncy and gospel-tinged "Down to Earth," from the soundtrack to Pixar's animated film, WALL-E (2008 Disney). That same year, a project which had begun in the early '90s was finally brought to completion by producer Stephen Hague (OMD, Pet Shop Boys, etc.). Like, OVO, Big Blue Ball (2008 Real World) is a collaborative effort between Gabriel and many other artists, such as old friends Sinéad O'Connor and Papa Wemba, plus World Party's Karl Wallinger, US singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, Middle Eastern-flavored electronic pop singer Natacha Atlas, and many others. The few tracks on which Gabriel sings combine rock, electronics, and world music, much like Us. A re-worked "Burn You Up, Burn You Down," is among the Gabriel-sung tunes. Other predominantly world music tracks, performed primarily by guest artists, make it clear that Big Blue Ball is not a proper Peter Gabriel album. It is, however, an enjoyable album that combines well Gabriel's talents as performer, producer, and talent scout. As of summer 2008, a new Peter Gabriel rock album, I/O, was rumored for release in 2009.


            As a founding member of Genesis, and throughout his long solo career, Peter Gabriel has remained an influential pioneer. His music has inspired many artists, from contemporaries like Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson to 21st century indie pop band Vampire Weekend, who reference a "Peter Gabriel song" on their self-titled debut. Gabriel has also championed music from around the globe, both through the WOMAD festival and his Real World label. He's also won several Grammys for the groundbreaking videos to his songs. Though his own output has slowed significantly since the early '90s, Peter Gabriel remains a vital force in the world of music at large.

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