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