Born February 13, 1950, Peter Gabriel began playing music as a drummer in rock and soul bands. In 1966 with classmates at the British secondary school, Charterhouse, he founded a songwriter's collective initially called the Garden Wall. Soon, however, the band became known as Genesis. That story you can read elsewhere in Counting Out Time.
Seeking new horizons however, Gabriel left the band in May 1975 to pursue a solo career. His first three albums were each formally titled Peter Gabriel, and even the 4th album was, untitles, although it was released in America under the name of Security. Gabriel has always surrounded himself with first-class producers (Bob Ezrin, Robert Fripp, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite) who pushed him into new frontiers. One remarkable story is the invention of Collins' famous bombastic drumsound, which became famous since "In The Air Tonight". Originally this style was developed for the third Gabriel-album, where Gabriel ordered Collins to do his job without any cymbals on his drumkit.
Gabriel's hits from those first four albums include "Solsbury Hill", "Games without Frontiers" (a Top Five in Great Britain), "Shock the Monkey" (which earned a Grammy nomination), and ofcourse "Biko", the first pop song which was talked about the effects of apartheid.
According to the discography by Gabriel's record-company in The States Gabriel's lyrics changed thematically during this period: "He abandoned the journey through the dark side of the psyche in favor of reaching out with awareness-elevating sentiment".
Following these four studio-albums, Plays Live, a two-record set recorded during Gabriel's fall 1982 North American tour, was issued. And in 1984, his score for the Alan Parker film, Birdy, was released as a soundtrack album. Earlier in his life, Gabriel had turned down a place in film school to follow his musical aspirations. However, he remained fascinated with the possibilities of linking visual images with music; in fact the possibility of working with films, was one of the reasons he mentioned when he left Genesis. It would almost take 10 years since his first ideas to make a movie of The Lamb, before the soundtrack-idea was realised.
Following the release of Birdy, Gabriel started to work on a much more mainstream oriented album. "When I completed the Birdy soundtrack, I wanted my focus to shift to songs rather than to remain on rhythm and texture", he explains. Gabriel later stated that So had emerged from a difficult period in his life and that it represents the maturity and openness with which he worked through the difficulty. In 1975 peter had all but given up in music, one prominent reason being to spend more time with his family. In 1983 his family left him largely in response to his immersion in work to the exclusion of all else. In that same year and again in 1984, Gabriel visited Senegal and Brazil, absorbing musical influences.
According to several sources, Gabriel - having therapy as well - also found the freedom to express his sexuality more openly, which was something completely contrary to the culture he was brought up in. After a brief reconcilatory holiday with his wife Jill and his daughters at the end of 1984, Gabriel was ready to work at becoming a commercially viable product. In the Spencer Bright biography Jill Gabriel recalled her husband's revitalisation: "Instead of going along with the idea that he is different, special, unique, precious, behind a wall, this last album was about him saying 'fuck that! i am going to...allow myself to succeed,' the challenge is breaking through". Gabriel has often stated that the progression from the third peter gabriel record to so (and beyond) follows his journey through these personal experiences and the therapy he embraced to see it through.
As became clear above, many things changed between 1982 and 1985. Another change from previous records is in the troupe of musicians employed. Tony Levin and David Rhodes remained. Jerry Marotta and Larry Fast were out. New man behind the drums was Manu Katche, but also Stewart Copeland (ex-Police) took place on the stool behind the kit. Gabriel was very uncertain about the decision to let Jerry and Larry go but the decision was 'a musical one' and the difference is audible. From Copeland's opening high-hat, the energy flows from this record, and more than any other Peter Gabriel record before or since, So is fun. So, released in May 1986, also marked the first occasion that gabriel resisted the urge to deface himself on the cover.
Critics were devided on So, since some were considering it as a coming of age in a commercial reality and others stated is was a cheap sell out, "hence the title s.o.". The truth is somewhere between these opposites. After several financial troubles, Gabriel was certainly determinated to create a record that would sell. Proof for this vision can also be found in the fact that no less than five singles were released from this album, some of them in several different formats (among them the CD-single).
Much of the argument between critics at the time was whether the succes had been achieved at the expense of artistic merit. Time has largely answered this question. Thriteen years after its release, So doesn't sound dated. The production by of Gabriel and Daniel Lanois still sounds very fresh. Maybe a Rolling Stone review from 1986 sums is up in the best possible way, by stressing that, however "Gabriel finally struck am-radio pay dirt this year with the bouyant, funky 'sledgehammer, this wasn't pandering to the mainstream charts for its own sake, but rather a lure to attract listeners into the ambient, multi-layered and undeniably complex atmosphere of So". That So was not just about sales-figures, appeared later the same year. As So was riding high on the American and British charts, Gabriel co-headlined the first benefit tour for Amnesty International in 1986 with Sting and U2.
As mentioned above, no less than five singles were released from So. Besides the African-inspired "In Your Eyes", the beautiful "Mercy Street" - inspired by a poem by Anne Secton (1928-1974) -, the pompous "Big Time", the political "Red Rain" and the autobiographic duet "Don't Give Up", there was that one single that changed everything and turned Gabriel from an art-rock musician into a mega-star: "Sledgehammer".
"Sledgehammer" was a number one hit in the U.S.A. and lead the attention not only to the single, but also to the album by means of a video... The videos from So established Gabriel as a leader in video production and 'Sledgehammer' has won the most music video awards ever, including a No. 1 position in Rolling Stone's top 100 videos of all time (October 14, 1993). It also won nine MTV Awards (more than any video in history), including Best Video and the prestigious Video Vanguard Award for career achievement in 1987.
On the waves of the single success Gabriel won his first Grammy in 1996 (for the album), and received grammy nominations for Album of the Year and for "Sledgehammer," Rock Vocal, Record, and Song of the Year.
Since many of the songs on So are already familiar ground to many of us, I'd like to elaborate a bit on one of the more unknown songs: "We Do What We're Told". This song wasn't even featured on the vinyl version of the album, and it's the shortest song (from a lyrical point of view), but the story behind it is one of the most interesting.
This song originates from the very early 80s (and maybe even before), when Gabriel presented it live as a form of "audience participation time". He asked the audience to sing along the one sentence "We Do What We're Told", which of course they did... What the crowd didn't know that the title for this bit was "Milgram's 37" and that it was a song about blind obedience, which made the participation much more sinister. "The essence of obedience is", according to Stanley Milgram, "that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself responsible for his actions."
Stanley Milgram of Yale University investigated the human tendency to adhere to other's wishes or orders, even when those orders directly violate one's own ethical standards. Milgram's study has become one of the most celebrated and controversial social experiments of our time. In 1961 Stanley Milgram performed experiments based on the following protocol: 40 subjects were recruited to participate in a "learning experiment" looking at the effect of punishment on learning. At the laboratory, the subjects were met by a grey-lab-coated experimenter and another "subject", a 47 year old accountant (in fact the accountant was an actor and an accomplice of the experiment). Experimental roles were then "randomly" designated, although the draw was rigged so that the accomplice always became the "learner" and the real subject the "teacher". The accomplice was strapped into an electrical generator with the subject watching. the idea was that whenever the "learner" made a mistake on the questions to be asked, the "teacher" would then deliver a shock through the generator to the "learner". The subjects were told that, while the shocks were painful, no permanent damage would result. Once the "learner" had been strapped in, the subject was led to an adjoining room where the switches for the generator were housed, but where the "learner" could not be seen. There were thirty switches from 15 to 450 volts with rather helpful labels above stating at increasing voltages: "slight shock", "danger: severe shock" and "xxx". Again all of this was fake, but looked impressive and (more importantly) realistic, particualrly to the subject.
As the experiment progressed and the accomplice continued to get answers wrong, the subjects were instructed to increase the voltage with each wrong answer. The accomplice would scream and yell more loudly with each successive shock. At 300 volts, he began pounding on the walls and stopped attempting to answer the questions. At this, subjects usually turned to the experimenter who firmly stated that no answer was the same as a wrong answer and that stronger shocks should continue, even though the "learner" was now silent. If a subject attempted to stop the experiment they were flatly informed that "it is absolutely essential that you continue". If the subject refused to cooperate further or once the maximum shock had been administered, the experiment ended and subjects were debriefed on what was really going on.
The results of the experiment astounded Milgram. No subjects stopped before the pounding on the wall, although five stopped at that point. Only fourteen subjects refused to administer all the shocks. This left twenty-six (65%!) who administered all thirty levels of the shocks! This does not show that the subjects were cold hearted or cruel. On the contrary, depite their willingness to obey, they suffered greatly in delivering the shocks, visibly horrified at what they were "required" to do.
Milgram made many variations to the experiment and it has been replicated on many different subjects at different times (including a study in sydney in the early 1970s) with rarely any change in the results. It is most likely from one of these replications that Gabriel discovered the number 37. The title comes from the number of subjects who delivered the full thirty shocks in the experiment (ie. the 26 from the original study).
Gabriel was so much fascinated by this expermient that he contacted Milgram to seek permission to use exerpts from a film of the experiment for use on stage or in future music videos.
As said above, there were several early versions of "Milgram's 37", before it ended up on So. The primary difference between prototype and released versions is the absence of the "one war...." ending, which pointed out that obedience could lead to several outcomes. Nevertheless the essence of all versions stayed the same: after all no one at the concerts (until '86) would have known the song and would have a limited understanding as to why they were participating, which was exactly the way Gabriel wanted it to be: ignorance lead to obedience. Maybe this is the reason why Gabriel didn't want the song to be released on the LP-version, which was much more common in those days than the CD-version.
As stated on the beginning of this chapter, the Milgram-experiment was controversial, but so was Garbiel's song. The repeated lyric of "we do what we're told" was a reason for Peter Hammill to criticise the song. He argued that the song oversimplified a complex study into one of the very essences of our humanity and that "another kafkaesque vision" neither inspired people to find out more about the experiment, nor did it change the perceptions of those who were aware of the study. While this is fair comment on the released studio version, the pulsating rhythms and the droning crowds of the original live versions may serve as a more relevant message: whether it's an experiment, a rock concert, or a perceived atrocity, it could easily be you.
Written by Jan-Jaap de Haan