Friday, January 16, 2009

Peter Gabriel

"WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" asked my son, pointing to the television where a tall, thin young man appeared wearing a black, one-piece jumpsuit, sporting white and blue pancake make-up with, for good measure, a green and yellow flower pulled over his head.

That, by boy, is Peter Gabriel, circa 1973, when he fronted Genesis, which, by then, had justifiably secured its reputation as one of the two greatest bands in the burgeoning progressive rock movement (the other, of course, being Yes).

We were watching a "lost" concert that had been restored and included in the recently issued box set, "Genesis 1970-1975," a five CD/DVD collection complete with new (and genuinely ear-opening) stereo mixes, some astonishing 5.1 DVD mixes and lots and lots of extras -- interviews with Genesis members past and present, including Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips; concert footage; television performances (including a 1973 appearance on the American show, "The Midnight Special," a late-night viewing ritual of my youth); and all sorts of odds and ends. For a devoted fan of early and mid-period Genesis (1970-82) like myself, the Gabriel-era footage is notable for several reasons. First, finding any footage at all of the Gabriel years has been all but impossible until very recently -- so it's just remarkable to watch these performances of such classic tunes of "Supper's Ready," "Watcher of the Skies," and "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight," in their entirety. You get to see guitarist Steve Hackett alternately crafting gorgeous classical lines, searing guitar leads and clever tapping runs that no other rock guitarist was even thinking about during that time, much less putting down on record. And, for me, best of all, is the chance to watch Phil Collins just play the drums. This is not the Phil Collins of "Sussudio" and Tarzan and all that bleech-y stuff you may now from the early 1980s forward. This is a chance to see why Phil was such an inspiration to so many drummers in the 1970s.

Plus, he's left handed. Even better.

But back to Peter . . .

I never subscribed and still don't to the common view that Genesis changed dramatically after Gabriel left in 1975, almost immediately after Genesis played its final show in support of "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway." Musically, Genesis's next two albums, "A Trick of the Tail" and "Wind and Wuthering" are two of the band's strongest -- indeed, "Wind and Wuthering" is my personal favorite because it showcases everything great about the band at its best. The compositions are full of humor, careful and clever arrangements minus the art school pretentiousness common on the first couple of its recordings, the absolute superb solo and ensemble playing, great lyrics and its two best instrumentals, "In That Quiet Earth," and "Wot Gorilla." That day would come when Hackett left two years later. But for the six or seven years that Gabriel fronted the band he helped form while a public (read: high school) school boy at the Charterhouse School in Great Britain, Genesis established the reputation it did largely because of the attention that his outrageous outfits drew from the music press. There was Gabriel in bat wings acting out "Watcher of the Skies," dressed as "Britania" for "Moonlit Knight," clomping around dressed like a wart on steroids for "The Colony of Slippermen," or wearing a fox head and red dress during "Supper's Ready" or "The Musical Box." Gabriel had once read that Genesis was "boring" to watch because the focus was on their intricate music -- everyone (naturally Phil) sat down when they played, even Hackett and bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford. "Boring," said Gabriel? "Well, top this!" And out came the fox head, the bat wings, the flower and all the other costumes that would launch Genesis's career.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Gabriel did not the lyrics while the others wrote the music. That only happened once, for the "Lamb," and he got so bogged down in the story's existentialism that Banks and Rutherford had to finish the lyrics for him. Gabriel did write the lyrics to many of the tunes, "Cinema Show," "Moonlit Knight," and "Get 'Em Out By Friday," and "Return of the Giant Hogweed," although he did not pen the lyrics to my favorite song of the Gabriel-era, "Watcher of the Skies." That was Banks and Rutherford. But Gabriel's contributions were numerous and strong. It is not too much to say that he laid the ground for the glam-rock movement almost by himself, before even David Bowie, another great talent, and Freddie Mercury of Queen. Come to think of it, if I had to pick the most distinct voices in rock music from the 1970s, I'd go like this, in no order: Gabriel, Bowie, Mercury, Roger Daltrey, Jon Anderson and Robert Plant. I started to write the "five" most distinctive voices; but I wasn't willing to cut out any of the above.

After Gabriel left Genesis, he went on to a great solo career, always pushing existing musical boundaries and becoming one of the first figures from the post-Beatles period in rock to move the genre into "world music." I don't have all that much of Gabriel's recorded output as a solo artist. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't appreciate his talents or the major contribution he made to rock music by making the lead singer something more than some skinny figure roaring through overheated tunes with a cucumber stuffed down his patents. By himself, he turned rock music into a form of performance art and proved that, in the right hands, what might sound ponderous, complex and serious could be witty, charming and full of life.


deacon blues said...

nice write up, professor. you going to send some stuff my way?

deacon blues said...

Nice write up, professor. I am sure those videos are very interesting, esp in 5.1.

mp said...

couldn't agree more! Both went on to be phenomenal, though Peter was "the show" Great write up!!

Unknown said...

couldn't agree more! Both went on to be stellar bands, but Peter took the show with him! and YES was my other favorite!