Peter Gabriel’s influence is so widespread we may take it for granted. When the rest of rock was simplifying in the new wave days, the former Genesis frontman blended synthesizers and a signature gated drum sound with an emotional honesty learned from soul music to create a sensibility that would influence artists from U2 to Arcade Fire to Depeche Mode. With extraordinary ambition, Gabriel transitioned from cult artist to multimedia pop star to global rock icon. His WOMAD festival has been a 33-year laboratory for musical cross-pollination. His brilliant stage shows inspired U2’s and Flaming Lips’ and expanded the visual vocabulary of music videos with clips such as “Sledgehammer,” “Shock The Monkey” and “Big Time.” In addition, he wrote songs like “Don’t Give Up,” “Red Rain” and “In Your Eyes” that put heart and soul on the radio at a time when those values were in short supply. Four decades on as a solo artist, Gabriel continues to push the boundaries of popular music and challenge audiences across the globe.
Here are 5 essential Peter Gabriel songs:
"Solsbury Hill" (1977)
"Solsbury Hill" captured the emotions of Peter Garbiel's departure from Genesis. As tension built during Genesis' A Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour (1974-75), Gabriel announced his resignation from the band he helped to create almost a full decade prior. Two years later, he would release his solo debut with the help of King Crimon's Robert Fripp, guitarist Steve Hunter and the heavily used session bassist Tony Levin. "Solsbury Hill" was the only single to come from the album, but would still keep Gabriel in the public spotlight as it reached the top 20 in the U.K. and peaked at #68 in the U.S.
"Games Without Frontiers" (1980)
A reference to a long-running European game show, "Games Without Frontiers" would become Gabriel's first Top 10 hit in the U.K. With a dark and ominous tone, the subject matter is much darker than that of a game show, with scenes of war and destruction portrayed in the music video. The single further showcased Gabriel's obssession with experimental and electronic instruments - including a programmable drum set, Moog Model 15 and a Fairlight CMI sampler – along with Kate Bush on backing vocals.
As lead singer in the British art-rock band Genesis, Peter Gabriel wore elaborate costumes in live performances. As a solo act he made arty rock music without broad theatrical devices. "Biko" is a moving tribute to Stephen Biko, a South African martyr in the struggle against apartheid. The 1980 song anticipated Gabriel's work as a tireless advocate for the human rights organization Amnesty International. "Biko" builds upon a funeral drum pattern that runs throughout the song. A heavily sustained guitar offers a 20th-century counterpoint to this elemental drumming. Gabriel's melody is as simple as his eloquent lyrics, first describing Biko's death and then declaring that brutality soils us all. The last verse accurately predicted the eventual end of the apartheid policy. The recording begins and ends with the sound of South Africans singing. In concert, Gabriel framed the song with the indomitable drumbeat, a poignant reminder that the struggle for freedom never stops.
One of Gabriel's most popular singles, "Sledgehammer" would reach Number One in Canada and the U.S. and match "Games Without Frontiers" when it would peak at Number Four in the U.K.. The music video would win a record-setting 10 MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, including Video of the Year where it beat out Genesis' "Land of Confusion."
Lyrically full of sexual innuendos, the backing instrumentals featured the Memphis Horns, the house musicians for the R&B and soul music label Stax.
"In Your Eyes" (1986)
Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" is a perfectly crafted love song: Its whispered organ chords, murmuring vocals and imperceptibly accelerating heartbeat tick-tock gradually give way to a radiant choral majesty sung by Youssou N'Dour. (On Gabriel's So tour of 1986, the former Genesis front man and the Senegalese master musician performed unforgettable vocal duets on the song's ever-intensifying climax.)
"In Your Eyes" reached cultural landmark status after being blasted out of a boom box held high by John Cusack outside Ione Skye's window in the 1989 movie Say Anything, Cameron Crowe's directorial debut. The song and image became a widely recognized shorthand symbol of youthful romance, to the extent of being parodied in an episode of 'South Park'. Initially overshadowed by other tracks from So (notably "Sledgehammer"), eventually "In Your Eyes" became Peter Gabriel's first U.S. gold single.
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