Mossman on music: So '80s!

The 25th anniversary of Peter Gabriel's classic album.

Peter Gabriel says he was advised to do the iconic black and white cover for So because “my usual obscure LP sleeves alienated women”. His four previous records were all called Peter Gabriel, written in an identical font, with various parts of his face melted or obscured. The makeover in 1986 marked his transition from the lofty realms of experimental music to jacket-and-jeans mainstream pop. Eighties music fashions were so pervasive that if you wanted hits, there was nowhere else to go.

All these heavyweight musicians of the ’60s and ’70s emerged, one by one, into the pop video age and a whole generation of us didn’t know them any other way. To a five-year-old child, Paul McCartney was the man who sang the Frog Song. Paul Simon was the funny man in the video with the big man, singing about the “roly-poly little bat-faced girl”. Peter Gabriel had dancing chickens in his video, and a toy train that drove right round his head!

You knew instinctively that much of this stuff was serious music; through the half-understood lyrics of "Call Me Al", I came to ask the adults why you weren’t supposed to buy the apples with “Cape” stickers on them. Looking back, there was something truly heroic in these venerable musicians rolling their sleeves up and clowning around with puppets while other bands – hello, Stones – looked like they wanted to crawl under the duvet and wait till the ’80s were over.

Peter Gabriel left Genesis and went solo in 1975. There were collaborations with the cerebral Robert Fripp (on the first and second albums called Peter Gabriel), early excursions in world music (on the third) and pioneering experiments with digital recording and the Fairlight sampling computer on the fourth. But he wasn’t overburdened with hits. Significantly, it was a video that gave him his first number one – "Shock The Monkey", with the white face makeup and the funny macaque – which only got to number 58 in the UK charts but topped the MTV chart for nine weeks.

For a while, videos sold music (remember that Not The Nine O’Clock News spoof “Nice Video Shame About The Song”) and Gabriel was happy to go there. He’d always been the visual one in Genesis – the band often had no idea what costume he was going to walk on stage wearing: The Flower? The Magog? The Slipperman? Brittania? The dress-wearing, fox-headed beast from the cover of Foxtrot?

"Sledgehammer", which still remains the most-played music video of all time, featured claymation and stop motion by Aardman Animations, who went on to make Wallace & Gromit – the dancing chickens were Nick Park’s early outings in plasticine. Gabriel lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours and filmed the video one frame at a time. It wasn’t so different from the meticulous, painstaking way he put his records together, sampling, deconstructing and rebuilding sounds.

From the interest in “world music” to his hunger for new technology, the ’80s was Gabriel’s age, he just had to wait for it. His clean melodies and high, constipated voice sound pre-tooled for the decade now. Solsbury Hill (from 1977) would sit comfortably alongside the songs here on So – Gabriel took shades of English pastoral from prog rock and simmered them down into a pure, pagan pop tune. You can hear the same minimalism on "Don’t Give Up" (with Kate Bush), which he describes as “the story of a man and a woman faced with losing a job”. This is an timeless protest song, all hooded multitudes and burned forests – more Lord of The Rings than Arthur Scargill, and infinitely more powerful, especially if you’re five.

For more precise Gabriel politics, turn to the Live In Athens gig included in this box set and listen to him dedicating "Games Without Frontiers" to “the 43,000 victims of a totally unnecessary war in Nicaragua”. Elsewhere – dish that he was – I’m not sure anyone’s going to want the five picture postcards of Pete in various states of close-up and crowd surf. As with all box sets the most valuable disc here remains the plain old album – short by today’s standards, just nine songs, but still powerful. These enduring, philosophical, grown-up pieces of music will always be coloured by the crazy visual world that accompanied them. Gabriel made the most of the ’80s, even if he knew he’d never be a real, proper popstar like Nick Kershaw or A-ha.

"So" [25th Anniversary Edition] is out now on Real World Records


Peter Gabriel at the Hop Farm music festival, Kent. Photo: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State