How Peter Gabriel’s melting face set the pace for the ’80s
Peter Gabriel’s third solo album sounded like nothing that came before it, but it had some crucial commonalities with what followed it. Not only did it break new ground for Gabriel, it helped define what the ’80s would sound like.
Since splitting from Genesis in the wake of 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel had labored to move forward, embracing the blooming new wave/post-punk aesthetic. But for all the forward motion on his first two solo albums, there were still touches of his proggy past to be found (not that there’s anything wrong with that). His third album — untitled like its predecessors but informally dubbed Melt on account of its cover image — definitively cuts the cord connecting Gabriel to his ’70s work and hurtles him forward into uncharted territory.
Sure, Gabriel still had some prog compatriots by his side. But Robert Fripp, who’d been on hand for the previous two albums as well, had already proven himself an agent of change through his own solo sessions. And former bandmate Phil Collins was perhaps putting the biggest foot forward of any of Gabriel’s co-conspirators.
The first sound on the 1980 album is Collins’ pounding, minimalist drum intro to “Intruder.” Before Gabriel (or anybody else) even enters the picture, Collins creates one of the most influential sounds of the young decade. One of Gabriel’s motivational gambits for achieving an unprecedented feel on this record was to prohibit drummers Collins and Jerry Marotta from using cymbals. To make up for the missing frequencies, Collins and producer Hugh Padgham concocted a “gated reverb” effect that provided a huge, short, cannon-blast snare sound. After Collins brought this technique into the next Genesis record and other projects, it became one of the most widely emulated drum sounds of the era.
In fact, between the drums, the bare-bones arrangement, and Gabriel’s creepy vocal, the song about a stalker sneaking into someone’s home sounds like a direct inspiration on Public Image Ltd.’s 1981 post-punk milestone The Flowers of Romance, itself renowned for its radically new sound. And that record’s producer/engineer, Nick Launay, has acknowledged the influence.
An even more direct inspiration to the future can be found in the contributions of Fripp and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin. The latter would play with Gabriel throughout his career, but the idiosyncratic art rock/new wave amalgam that Fripp and Levin would soon create with a rebooted King Crimson certainly has some roots here.
But Gabriel enlisted some of the new kids to aid the cause too. XTC guitarist Dave Gregory plays on “I Don’t Remember” and “Family Snapshot.” Ostensibly about an interrogation and an assassination respectively, they add to the overall geopolitical vibe of the album. And The Jam’s Paul Weller adds his axe to “And Through the Wire,” the closest thing to a conventional rock song on the record.
Speaking of geopolitical vibes, they’re all over the two most popular tunes on the album. The archly infectious “Games Without Frontiers,” with its slinky groove, eerie whistling, and Kate Bush’s whispered French interjections of the title, is a wry anti-war song that gave Gabriel his highest chart position ever in England and renewed radio exposure in America. The profile of “Biko” grew over time, but in 1980 the protest song about the death of South African apartheid activist/martyr Stephen Biko was way ahead of the “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” curve, not to mention incorporating “found” pieces of South African folk songs six years before Graceland.
VIDEO: Peter Gabriel “Games Without Frontiers”
“Biko” became a Top 40 U.K. hit, and Gabriel donated the profits to a South African anti-apartheid organization. Perhaps more importantly, the song raised international consciousness about both its main character and his cause, helping to inspire future efforts like Artists Against Apartheid, and became a true political anthem, helping boost South African morale in the battle that was eventually won in the ’90s.
Gabriel would have bigger successes to come, but any album that can help tilt the scales against injustice and inspire Public Image Ltd. to boot has got to sit solidly in the “win” column.