Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Top 100 Albums - #21: Peter Gabriel 3 (1980)

At number 21 is Peter Gabriel 3, Peter Gabriel's third solo offering and his highest entry on the chart.
After departing from Genesis in 1975, Gabriel spent the best part of two years in self-imposed isolation at his Surrey home. He spent his time growing vegetables, playing the piano, practicing yoga and raising his new-born daughter. In 1977 he finally returned to the studio under the supervision of Bob Ezrin. The resulting record, Peter Gabriel 1 (1977, #71), was a menagerie of different styles which came together to successfully distance Gabriel's sound from that of his former bandmates. After a short tour, he released Peter Gabriel 2 (1978, #85), produced by Robert Fripp. This was a more transitional affair, with Gabriel still unclear of where he was going musically. Gabriel spent the rest of 1978 and the best part of 1979 on tour, bumping into his old bandmates along the way. He made a guest appearance with Genesis in New York for one date in their tour for And Then There Were Three (1978) and played a set at the Reading Festival where Phil Collins played the drums.

Fittingly, it is with Collins that we start. 'Intruder' is one of the first tracks in music history to employ 'gated reverb' on the drums, the sound that would define Collins' solo work. In layman's terms, the drums are recorded in a very echoey room, captured on condenser microphones and then passed through a noise gate, which cuts out when the sound rises too high. The mood thus created is ideal for the lyrics about someone breaking into a lady's house at night. Amid the atonal guitar chords, Gabriel begins with some distant screams, and then delivers the verses as if he is right next to you in the darkness, whispering in your ear. It's genuinely unnerving.

On 'No Self-Control', this dark mood is taken further. The opening is very distinctive, as the synthesisers dash back and forth between each ear, until your eyes are following them. Then the sinister xylophones come in, which are kooky but sound like they are made of human bone. In the midst of this, Gabriel is a demon unleased, crammed full of claustrophobia and paranoia. The drums on the chorus ring out like machine gun volleys, and in the verses the repeated line I don't know how to stop locks you in to the darkness. Kate Bush provides light relief on backing vocals, but this remains a thick and murky marvel.

'Start' is a short instrumental, lasting 1:21 and segueing into the next track. Although it is a segue piece, it's impressive in its own right. Dick Morrissey's saxophone solo, which dominates it, is very well-written, adding a sad jazzy twinge to the atmospheric art rock on offer elsewhere. It also serves as a 'breathing point' between the terror of 'No Self-Control' and the angry angst of 'I Don't Remember'.

This, on the other hand, cannot be reduced to filler, and it certainly doesn't give you room to breathe. Just like on the opener, the drum beat is relentless, pounding through your skull like a carpenter's chisel while John Giblin's bass rumbles on. Gabriel is at the top of his game, both lyrically and vocally. In the first verse he sets out his new image in complete defiance of the old:

I've got no means to show identification
I've got no papers, show you what I am
You'll have to take me just the way that you find me
What's gone is gone and I do not give a damn

These lyrics work with the scary instrumentation to produce a real gung-ho triumph. Gabriel's first two albums had some great songs on them, but none of them were as upfront as this in distancing him from the light, airy psychedelia that he helped to create in Genesis. This is so completely removed from that sound and era, that it has the initial effect of shocking you. But then as you listen all the way through you are reassured, then pleased, then delighted that the new Gabriel is even better.

'Family Snapshot' is not as gung-ho, and nowhere near as upfront. But it still manages to be brilliant beyond measure. Gabriel is underrated as a pianist, and the intro to this song is among his finest and most ethereal. He would later reuse this riff on Birdy (1985), the soundtrack to the Alan Parker film of the same name. There it is stark and delicate, but here it blends with his calming, raspy voice. Having started slow, it gradually rears its head in rage, carrying so much power without being overwhelming on the ears. The lyrics are based on the book An Assassin's Diary by Arthur Bremer, which chronicle an attempt on a politician's life from the point of view of the killer. Gabriel conveys this theme well, so that you don't have to have read the book to know what is going on. In the climax, the whole thing shrinks down, so that it is just Gabriel and piano as at the start. He croaks lines about a lonely childhood with a gifted honesty which made Us (1992, #39) so wonderful. It is a magical track which was well ahead of its time.

'And Through The Wire' relies more on rhythm than on lyrics, meaning that it cannot match the previous two tracks for quality. On the other hand, this is more catchy and pulsating than 'Family Snapshot', with its solid refrain and call-and-answer of I want you. Where previous tracks were led by drums or keyboards, here you do notice the guitar more. Dave Gregory provides a jagged rhythm part which brings out the chorus, giving it more life. You still notice the drums - Jerry Marotta is not the most understated player of the skins - but this feels more rounded than we have become used to.

The classic mid-album dip arrives on the next two tracks, long overdue. 'Games Without Frontiers' feels like it was written as a quick single, rather than to compliment the feel of the album. It is also the second track to feature Kate Bush, but while on 'No Self-Control' she provided a safety valve, here she sounds inane and superfluous. The result is that the rest of the otherwise passable music is fatally compromised. This in turn makes Gabriel's lyrics hamfisted, and when you are writing about war that is the last thing you want to happen.

'Not One Of Us', on the other hand, has a much more simple problem - it's too damn long. This could have been a good track, if the twisted effects at the start had been put to better use and condensed. Instead, they have the effect of stretching this song beyond the normal realms of patience, so that you are put off even before you get to the tedious chorus.

To get this album back on track, we need a good'un. And that is exactly what we get, in the shape of 'Live A Normal Life'. This makes no bones about being stripped-out and quietened-down for the sake of refocussing the listener. The piano sounds buoyant and the percussion is esoteric, but the dark underbelly is still there, albeit in the distance and muffled beneath effects. When Gabriel finally comes to the surface for air, he doesn't make all that much sense, but he does enough for you to give him another chance.

He doesn't disappoint. We close with 'Biko', one of Gabriel's first songs about human rights; the subject is anti-Apartheid activist Stephen Biko, who was brutally murdered by his interrogators in September 1977. Although it begins with some placid African singing, soon the track goes a lot more Western, the drums are shorter and Gabriel takes control. This is the longest track on here, at 7:33 long, but he has more than enough to say on the subject to sustain your interest. His lyrics are potent and charged, but he sings them with an air of calm defiance:

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

All the ingredients of this album come together properly on this track, making it a good closer. And while the ending is a little messianic, this is a lot less patronising that other such efforts of the 1980s (including that of a certain Mr. Geldof).

Peter Gabriel albums are rarely the place to look if you want consistency. There is always a lot of experimentation and tinkering going on, exemplified by the gaps between albums as his career progressed. But where other albums could feel like a bag of random bolts, Peter Gabriel 3 sounds like a well-oiled machine. It feels more unified and together than anything Gabriel has put out before or since (with the possible exception of Up (2002, #22)). But magically, it manages to feel as collected and strong as it does without coming across as cynically calculated. There is almost no filler here to pad out the themes - because it just isn't needed. And while you do get a couple of less than brilliant tracks, they are not outright howlers. If Peter Gabriel 1, 2 and 4 (1982, #80) are records which you listen to in small chunks, Peter Gabriel 3 is an album you can easily listen to all the way through without getting bored or irritated. It is a feast for the senses, a classic in its time and in ours.

4.00 out of 5

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