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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser