Monday, 20 August 2007

Top 100 Albums - #71: Peter Gabriel 1 (1977)

Peter Gabriel's fifth appearance on the chart is his first solo offering, released nearly two years after leaving Genesis in 1975. Gabriel founded Genesis in 1967 with classmates Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Anthony Phillips and Chris Stewart. Taking their lead from psycheldelic contempories Procol Harum, Genesis became famous throughout Western Europe through Gabriel's flamboyant costumes and the use of ultraviolet light in concerts. After their first two albums were slated, the band found fame and form with Nursery Crime (1971). This and its follow-ups, Foxtrot (1972) and Selling England By The Pound (1973), established Genesis as quintessentially English rockers, coated in a rich combination of psychedelia and eccentricity. But tensions soon emerged. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) was a postmodern, dystopian double album rock opera, chronicling the story of an immigrant called Rael trying to survive in the nightmare that is New York City. The tour saw Gabriel dressed even more ostentatiously - to hide his stage fright - and the group's collective attitude was undermined by his insistence on writing all the lyrics. Breaking point came with the difficult pregnancy and birth of Anna Gabriel. When Gabriel refused to record or tour with the band in order to look after his family, he realised that he had to leave.

Two years on, we come to this. 'Moribund The Burgermeister' opens the show and from the start it looks like a hard listener. The title is verbose, for a start. After the lengthy-ish intro, however, we begin to get going. Gabriel half-whispers, half-screams the lyrics as one started off as a brooding little tune has turned into a fully-flung rocker. The lyrics may be difficult to understand, and are even mythical in places. Nevertheless, given the space it needs, this is a great song. If nothing else, it's a good break from the Genesis sound while retaining the best aspects of Gabriel's previous work.

'Solsbury Hill' was the first single Gabriel released as a solo artist (with 'Moribund' as the B-side). Everything is here to make this a classic - great acoustic guitar, lovely flutes - played by Gabriel himself, I dare say - , Gabriel's angelic voice and splendid vocals. From any other artist, you might expect a song about going solo to be a clunky affair used to slag off their former bandmates. With Gabriel, what you get instead is a lyrical delight. You only have to look at the second verse to see how talented he is: To keep in silence I resigned/ My friends would think I was a nut/ Turning water into wine/ Open doors would soon be shut.

'Modern Love' is another hard-rocking joy, replete with loud guitars and swirling keyboards. The lyrics are less cohesive and clear here than on 'Solsbury Hill', and like on the opener they do go down the mystical path a bit too far; I worship Diana by the light of the moon/ When I pull out my pipe, she screamed out of tune is the kind of couplet you'd expect on a Led Zeppelin album. But this aside, it's a catchy, intelligent song, and Gabriel is on proper form with the vocals. He's at the top of his range without straining or strangling a cat.

So far Gabriel's experiments with different genres has paid off. 'Excuse Me' is the first point at which he comes unstuck. With its doo-wop, almost barbership introduction and general kookiness, it's listenable, but that doesn't make it good. Gabriel is trying too hard to show that he call do a lot more with art rock than just prance around in a flower costume. It might grow on you, but many will not take the chance.

Much better is 'Humdrum'. This is quieter, eerier and has some wonderful keyboard echoes on it, courtesy of producer Bob Ezrin. Even though the lyrics are difficult to follow, there is some quality to the music which leads them to grip you. You listen so intently that duff lines like You got me cookin'/ I'm a hard boiled egg are overlooked, almost corrected by the general feel of the piece. This means that that the good lines, like Empty my mind/ I find it hard to cope/ Listen, my heart/ Don't need no stethoscope, get through. The ending, with its Nick Mason-like drumming, is the beginning of the path down the anthem trail, which we will revisit shortly.

The first song on this album which comes close to an anthem is 'Slowburn'. Beginning with some rather standard-sounding piano, it swells with guitar and burgeons with the drums to create a song which pulls you in all the right directions and in all the right ways. There are some intriguing lines in here - We tried a handful of bills and a handful of pills/ We tried making movies from a volume of stills - but again the main focus is on the music. And in this case, the music is good enough to make that okay.

The last proper slip-up on the album comes next. 'Waiting For The Big One' clocks in at an epic 7:13. It's a jazz number with blues influences which feels like it's lifted straight out of a late-night cabaret. What this means is that it's gentle, muffled, and very, very slow. In fact, 'slow' does not do it justice. For a piece which only has two verses, it feels strung out ad infinitum. You are made to fell like this will never end and so only the dedicated fan will avoid skipping over this one.

From the worst track on the album to what is undoubtedly the best, the most anthemic. 'Down The Dolce Vita' opens with a full orchestra to set the grandiosity, before giving way to some great drums and disco-tinged guitars. The lyrics, to the attuned ear, are some of the clearest on the album. It's a gem which never fails to surprise you, and always comes at you at an unrelenting pace. It doesn't force the music down your throat, but it grips you by the scruff of the neck right until the drums die down.

We then segue straight into the closer, 'Here Comes The Flood'. So far, Ezrin's production has been near flawless. Here is the first time that he slips up. This feels very overproduced - even to those not attuned to spotting this will admit the 1990 version is better (see my review of Hit, #72). In its favour, this is a deeply emotional song, with lyrics which both flow along melodiously and hook you in. The trouble is that Ezrin has layered so much stuff on top of them that it sound that it is pulling at your heartstrings in such a superficial way. It's as if he wasn't sure that this was a good song, and threw the stuff in to be sure.

When compared to the work Genesis were churning out at the same time - A Trick Of The Tail (1976) and Wind And Wuthering (1977) - Peter Gabriel 1 achieves the task of setting a departure from 'the Genesis sound'. This was the thing Gabriel most needed. It doesn't matter that he was unsure where to go at first: the experimentation comes as a refreshing relief instead of sounding like a cry for help. On one or two songs - 'Excuse Me' and 'Waiting For The Big One' - the experiments go awry, and lyrically this isn't the clearest record he would ever put out. Nevertheless, while Peter Gabriel 1 is by no means a perfect album, it still stands as a testament to Gabriel's abilities and, for the dedicated listener, hints at greater things to come.

3.77 out of 5

1 comment:

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