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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge