Friday, May 20, 2011

Peter Gabriel 6: So

What with his old band suddenly becoming mainstream pop icons—helped along by their ubiquitous drummer—it was both odd yet fitting to find Peter Gabriel competing for pole position at the top of the very same charts. It helped, of course, that So was very accessible; while still chock full of unusual subject matter, its sound was very radio-friendly, thanks in part to co-producer Daniel Lanois. (The handsome cover shot was also a big departure from his previous portraits.)
Production is a big part of the stunning “Red Rain”. While it sports such a big sound, the band still consists of guitar, bass, drums and piano (plus the vocal, once described as a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Elmer Fudd). The song maintains its tension, breaking the ceiling in the brief section before the last chorus, and taking it down to its bare bones gradually to the very end. To call “Sledgehammer” an antidote to the tension is an understatement; this horn-driven ode to pleasure easily made the album a hit, helped by the video. Kate Bush returns for a duet on “Don’t Give Up”, a song pointedly about a man struggling under an economic situation but easily embraced as a universal pick-me-up. “That Voice Again” juxtaposes two musical sections for a rather straightforward song about relationships.
It was the first song on side two, however, that soon became one of the biggest romantic touchstones of the decade. “In Your Eyes” still works as a love song for the ages and for any age, and would be transformed in live performances (boombox not imperative). The spooky “Mercy Street” becomes even more mysterious and unsettling the more one learns about its inspiration, the troubled poet Anne Sexton. Luckily, the hilarious pomposity of “Big Time” brings some daylight back to the proceedings, helped along by yet another amazing video. But “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” revives another disturbing subject, that of the danger of obeying authority. Less clear is what the coda (“One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream”) has to do with it.
The LP ends there, but the increasing number of consumers who bought the album on cassette or compact disc got an extra in “This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)”, a collaboration with performance artist Laurie Anderson. But if you buy the CD today, there’s been a further change: “In Your Eyes” has been moved to the end of the program, after “This Is The Picture”, making for a much different finale.
Whatever the “real” track order, the ubiquity of the songs on So hasn’t diluted their quality since they first appeared. Lots of fans discovered Peter Gabriel via this album, and likely dug deeper into his catalog for more. From an economic as well as an artistic standpoint, he couldn’t ask for a better return.
Decades later it’s still his most popular album, and nostalgists cultivated a full wish list for its inevitable commemoration. As he was never one to adhere to calendars, it was only fitting that the 25th anniversary repackaging of So arrived 26 years after its initial release. A three-disc version added a 1987 concert from Athens, while the so-called Immersion Box also added a DVD of that concert, the album on vinyl, a 12-inch disc of three outtakes and, most intriguing of all to people like us, a CD called So DNA that traces each track from initial cassette demo through later incarnations. None of the packages contain any contemporary B-sides or remixes. (In a fascinating exchange with the excellent Super Deluxe Edition website, Peter explained some of his reasoning behind what was and wasn’t included. That site’s review of the DNA disc is essential reading.)

Peter Gabriel So (1986)—4
25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1986, plus 16 extra tracks
25th Anniversary Immersion Box: same as Deluxe Edition, plus 10 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs, LP, 12")


  1. It's true: I bought Shaking the Tree after this album, discovery that "Solsbury Hill" was by the same guy as "Sledgehammer". "Say Anything" was of course epic, as well as the rest of what I call "The John Cusack Relationship Trilogy" - Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity - both great soundtracks.

  2. don't give up has a wonderful life in espn's sportscentury documentaries from a decade ago. it is used in the muhammed ali film. watching him in the grip's of his disease while that song plays gives it a whole new shade of meaning.
    great album. fun. not too demanding. popular. very, very good.


  3. This album evokes great memories for me. It was a large part of the soundtrack for the summer after senior year of high school and the first semester of college.

    FWIW, my interpretation of the coda is that it is a reflection of the single-minded nature of the totalitarian regimes that exploit blind obedience. The propaganda and rhetoric of such governments often focuses on the idea that there is just one way to think, one party, one national will, etc. (e.g. Nazi Germany's "Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer" slogan) I have read that Milgrim's research was initially prompted by a desire to understand the social dynamics of such societies -- and the question of whether Americans would act differently toward authority than Germans had in the 30s & 40s.


  4. The Nazi connection is probably spot on -- especially that this album came out in the era of Amnesty International tours and musician trying to end apartheid. In that context, "one voice, one truth, one dream" suggests something else. But anyway.