There was a period through the mid 80’s and into the 90’s where Daniel Lanois was responsible for producing some of the most sonically majestic records of that era. He crafted memorable albums for a diverse range of artists including Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy); The Neville Brothers (Yellow Moon); Emmylou Harris (Wrecking Ball); and with Brian Eno a string of U2 albums (Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby), but it was with Peter Gabriel where Lanois first cemented his place as a producer in his own right.
Daniel Lanois’ working relationship with Peter Gabriel began when they collaborated on the Birdy soundtrack in late 84. Gabriel was so happy with the result that he invited Lanois to produce So the following year. The album’s resounding success established both men’s reputations – Gabriel as one of rock’s most innovative creators musically and visually, and Lanois as a producer par excellence (with Gabriel also taking production credits).
So was a departure from Gabriel’s previous releases. It was the first to have a title other than ‘Peter Gabriel’ as had been the case with his first four releases – distinguished by fans via each album’s image (Car, Scratch, Melt, Security) and it was also the first of his album covers to feature a standard portrait photo of Peter. The first three albums were all designed by Hipgnosis, with the distorted image of Gabriel on Security taken from an experimental video directed by Malcolm Poynter. According to Peter he’d been advised against using obscure images in his album artwork because ‘they alienated women’.
There was nothing alienating about So – experimental and adventurous yes, but it’s also his most accessible work. I can still recall the first time I heard So – it totally blew me away that day and still does. It’s bold, tender, muscular, fat, sexual, aggressive and introspective. It’s ponderous and humorous, an album that yearns and burns while sweeping you up in an ambitious soundscape with its extraordinary scope. I’d never heard anything like it before. It is one of the all time great albums.
Red Rain sets the tone with Stewart Copeland playing high hat and Jerry Marotta covering the remainder of the percussion. Like much of the album Red Rain is propelled by its complex rhythms. Peter had already been a champion of world music for a number of years by this stage and So was heavily influenced by Brazilian and African rhythms. Peter’s lyrical imagery of the song was courtesy of a series of dreams where people were drowning in either red wine or blood. Water and flooding have been recurring themes in Gabriel’s work going back to the haunting Here Comes The Flood from his first solo record and carried on beyond this album with songs like the disarming Washing Of The Water from Us. The water theme also occurs elsewhere on So with references like “let’s take the boat out” on Mercy Street and being born “on the lakeside” in Don’t Give Up where “that river’s flowing”.
The gentle percussive intro on Red Rain gives way to a thunderous blast of sound signifying the opening of the heavens and the ensuing torrent. The effect is so vivid that it feels as though you’re being swept up in the momentum until Gabriel gives in to the deluge of “red rain coming down, red rain coming down, red rain coming down, red rain coming down” and then as the storm subsides Gabriel is spent as he succumbs with “over me in the red, red sea; over me, over me” until finally the resignation in his last utterance with “red rain”. Every time I play it I have to turn it up louder at the end to hear those final moments filled with emotion. It gives me goose bumps every time.
The intense experience of Red Rain is supplanted by the evocative sound of a Japanese flute played in a short stanza so calming and so quiet that it’s barely audible, until that wall of brass hits you like a Sledgehammer. The album’s second song is all sex, strutting and posturing over a classic R & B groove with a horn arrangement to match led by Wayne Jackson (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave). Sledgehammer is a tribute to the classic R & B from the Stax and Atlantic labels that Gabriel adored as a teenager. According to Jackson when they finally came to add the horns to the track Gabriel and Lanois were so excited by what they heard “they were running around the studio like fairies!”
Lyrically the song is a hoot, with Peter boasting about his prowess in visual metaphors and doing it in such a way that you can never really take him seriously. Or is that just me? Maybe the chicks really go for that stuff. If you were ever unsure about Peter Gabriel’s sense of humour then this song and its accompanying video would dispel any doubts. In the pre digital era this visual stop motion masterpiece is still one of the most creative and original pieces of musical eye candy ever conceived. Thirty years on it is still the most played video in MTV history.
The tempo changes dramatically with the album’s third track Don’t Give Up with Tony Levin’s stunning bass line giving the song its reverberating pulse. According to one of the album’s engineers the song took months to complete and didn’t come together until Kate Bush entered the studio to perform her part. Kate’s sympathetic performance is so heartfelt that she owns it and comes very close to stealing the song from Peter, though the aching cry in his voice is every bit as convincing as he articulates the anguish in the lyric. The one thing that I can’t get my head around is that Peter originally wanted Dolly Parton to sing with him, but she turned him down. Obviously she hadn’t heard the lyrics to Sledgehammer at that stage.
That Voice Again was co written with guitarist David Rhodes and closes out side one. It’s a judgmental song about the nature of relationships and how a person’s attitude can skewer that relationship. It’s the last song that was written about a character called Mozo that Gabriel had invented years before. The original idea was that the story would form the basis for a film with a number of songs written to help tell that story including Here Comes The Flood and Red Rain. The film was never made, but with Peter’s notorious slow work ethic it may yet surface – one day.
Side two opens with the glorious In Your Eyes. The song’s sweet romanticism is echoed through Manu Katche’s wondrous percussive rhythm and the euphonious piano chords in deference to the beat. Those singular chords are a gorgeous piece of melodic minimalism that’s very much a hallmark of Lanois’ work. With his production it’s what he leaves out that gives the music so much room to move and In Your Eyes is a classic example with Gabriel providing some of his most direct imagery yet:
Love I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are
All my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside
There’s no ambiguity here, In Your Eyes is a song of unvarnished vulnerability and ultimately the affirmation of the power of love:
In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete
In your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution of all the fruitless searches
In your eyes
Peter Gabriel says that he wanted to create a love song that was both romantic and religious in the African tradition. With guest vocals courtesy of Youssou N’Dour complimenting the song’s irresistible ancient rhythm and lyrical conviction I’d say he succeeded spectacularly.
With it’s powerful, uplifting message Gabriel initially wanted In Your Eyes to close the album, but the limitations of vinyl pressing techniques in ensuring optimum bass recording (with deeper and wider grooves) meant that the song had to open side two rather than close it. Later digital versions of the album placed the song last in the running order as Peter originally intended.
The sensual, dreamlike Mercy Street follows In Your Eyes and was inspired by the poet Anne Sexton, whose work includes a piece called “45 Mercy Street”. In Sexton’s poem she wanders the city streets looking for her childhood home – looking for 45 Mercy Street. The poem was written after Anne had received psychiatric treatment and was trying to reconnect with her childhood, one that was not as idyllic as she remembered it. In Gabriel’s song he examines the bigger picture of the cityscape:
All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head
Before moving to the personal:
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest – he’s the doctor
He can handle the shocks
Whether you’re familiar with Sexton’s work doesn’t matter, Gabriel is delving into an emotional core where again the music mirrors the journey brilliantly with its hypnotic syncopation (based on a Brazilian rhythm) and the longing of his voice as he too looks for mercy. This beguiling song has always intrigued me and as sad and haunting as it is this stunning piece of work remains one of the album’s highlights.
So then changes gears in a big way with Big Time. From the spoken “Hi there” of the opening this bombastic ode to 80’s excess and self importance is fabulous fun:
The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small they use small words
But not me – I’m smarter than that
I worked it out
I’ve been stretching my mouth
To let those big words come right out
Like the album’s other trumped up slab of funk Sledgehammer, this cartoonish caricature was equaled by its accompanying video. Again, like Sledgehammer claymation techniques were used for Big Time and once again Gabriel found himself with another monster hit on his hands.
We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) dates back to the Melt album and is an atmospheric piece based on Stanley Milgram’s social psychology experiments of the 1960’s. The song taps into two of the prevailing themes on So, alienation and the challenges to our freedom.
The album closes with This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds). Excellent Birds was a song Peter co-wrote with Laurie Anderson originally appearing on her Mister Heartbreak album two years earlier. The version on Anderson’s album (also featuring Gabriel on vocals) is more angular and sounds like a collaboration with Art Of Noise. Apparently Peter only decided to include the song on the album 48 hours before it was submitted to his record company. Incredible that even after working on So for almost a year Gabriel was still uncertain about its final makeup right till the end.
Daniel Lanois later recalled that So took up 12 months of his life and there were periods of frustration as Peter prevaricated over decisions and, in particular, the composition of the lyrics. He said of the making of the album: “I don’t know if Peter specifically wanted to have hits, but he didn’t want to experiment just for the sake of it. He wanted something more immediate.”
It was immediate all right, the album made Peter Gabriel a star overnight at the age of 36, a decade after leaving Genesis. Until the release of So Gabriel had been seen as an eccentric exponent of art rock, partly a legacy from Genesis, but also a reflection on his sonic experiments in new technologies and musical forms.
The release of So changed everything. Whether Gabriel’s assertion that “I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys” was a prediction of So’s success we’ll never know, but it certainly gave Peter Gabriel accessibility and brought him a wider audience. The one thing that didn’t change was Peter’s work ethic. While he’s been involved in a variety of projects since, Gabriel has still only managed to release two further solo albums of new material in the last 30 years – Us in 1992 and Up in 2002. Mr. Gabriel, we’ve suffered long enough for your art, you’re long overdue.