Category: Melt


Laser Beam

179 laser beam 02Peter Gabriel has a bit of a history of delving into fantastical, esoteric and sometimes downright bizarre subject matter. He did a song about leaving Genesis in which he draws a comparison between Jesus Christ and himself, sings about sentient plants who want to destroy humanity, and covers such subjects as voodoo, touch healing, and hermaphrodites. And let’s not forget the 90-minute magnum opus of weirdness that is The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

But once in a while, he turns his attention to the real world, tightly focusing like a laser beam on actual events. And he does it in a way that forces us to focus, too. The things he shows us may be horrifying in one way or another, but we’re completely unable to look away.

179 laser beam 01Jeux Sans Frontières was a game show on the BBC and in other European countries. Different teams representing their country of origin would compete in ridiculous, over-the-top games involving obstacle courses, all of them wearing goofy latex costumes of matching colors. It ran from 1965 to 1999, though just in specials for the last few years.

Seems quite innocent enough, right? But in the hands of someone like Peter Gabriel, it becomes a grand comment on the nature of war and how it’s simply a game to the people who orchestrate it. “Games Without Frontiers,” a literal translation of the French name of the show (it was called It’s a Knockout in the UK), uses sing-songy rhythms and unsettling guitar sounds to demonstrate its point, as well as a lyrical set-up like an international list of children playing Capture the Flag. The total effect is an incredibly creepy song, one that captures your attention and holds in its disturbing sway.

Guest vocalist Kate Bush appears on this song, repeating the tag line of “jeux sans frontiers,” which gets misheard almost as much as “hold me closer, Tony Danza.” For a long time, I thought it was “she’s so funky, yeah…” And the use of Kate Bush adds to the creepiness of the song, her voice being both bizarre and alluring.

Besides “Games Without Frontiers” and the previously discussed “Family Snapshot,” the other place on Melt where Gabriel laser-beams in and makes you stare at the horrifying truth of things is on cap track “Biko.” It starts off with clearly African voices singing in an exotic language one refrain over and over again. It’s the Zulu protest song “Senzeni Na?”, commonly sung at South African funerals where the person being buried was an anti-apartheid activist or martyr. This particular segment is a live recording of singers at the funeral of Steve Biko.

Biko was one of the strongest voices against apartheid in South Africa, and was the very definition of what the South African government at the time termed an “agitator.” He was arrested in late August of 1977, held in custody for several days, and taken in September by police to the Walmer Street prison in Port Elizabeth. There he was interrogated, beaten and tortured by police in room 619, and sustained severe head injuries. At that point, he was transferred to another prison in Pretoria (not a hospital), where he died a few days later.

“Biko” is not only the best track on Melt, but it’s also one of Peter Gabriel’s best-known and best-loved songs. He closes nearly every concert with it, and it has been a regular part of his repertoire since it was first released. It’s supported by a backbone of quiet yet sonorous drums and some tribe-style grunting, Later, the backing chords are provided by what sound like bagpipes. The song has a very slow pace, no guitar heroics to speak of – about 2 chords are played in the entire song – and doesn’t even feature Gabriel’s best singing. Nevertheless, emotions are high in this song which clearly emphasizes that less is more.

179 laser beam 03The song contains some powerful lyrics, but two of them jump out at me. The first is “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire.” The white officials and police could blow out Biko’s candle by silencing his voice, and use extraordinarily brutal and savage means to do so. But they couldn’t blow out the fire that silencing him would ignite. And with the freeing and election of Nelson Mandela, that fire finally consumed them and apartheid ended.

And the closing lyrics of the song are this: “The eyes of the world are watching now.” This isn’t just a historical observation; you’ll notice the lyric is not “The eyes of the world were watching then.” Steve Biko and his death were big deals, but “Biko” is talking about something far less temporal. And it’s not really a call to action or a mobilizing message to the masses – that’s not what Peter Gabriel does. Instead, he’s using his laser beam again, focusing on you and your own heart. What will you do? The next time you see injustice before your very eyes, whenever and however it may come to pass, what will you do?

It’s a hypothetical question, one which we can’t answer until it becomes real to us. And it will – at some point you will need to answer that question. For me, the first person to ask it to me was Peter Gabriel.

Crash, Ride, Hi-Hat

Roberto is the drummer on the Worship Team at our church. Nowadays, that might not seem like a big thing; churches not only have drummers, but 3 loud guitars, smoke machines, complicated lightning schemes and the most cutting edge worship music available. Some worship bands look more like they’re performing a rock concert than leading people in actual worship. They have “Worship” in their name for a reason, and a lot of worship bands would do well to remember that more often.

But at our church, the fact that we have a regular drummer every week, and he’s an integral and fully accepted part of our Worship Team, is a big step forward for us. One of the biggest problems we’ve ever had at our church is the long-standing resistance to change in the music from the older members of the congregation. Folks who had been at this church 30 years were threatening to leave; first it was because we used choruses (some of which were written in the ‘70s) in addition to hymns. Then it was because we used some choruses that weren’t lifted directly from scripture. Then it was because we started incorporating a drum kit into our worship. Then it was the electric guitar. And worst of all, a few people thought our church shouldn’t do these things because they were somehow un-Christian or satanic.

hmm, maybe it really is satanic... ;-)

hmm, maybe it really is satanic… 😉

Roberto is the one and only drummer our Worship Team has. No backups. When he’s not there, we just don’t have any drums, and the music suffers. In one of his most candid and naked moments, he told me about how hard it is to be such a visible figure of what some members of our congregation (even still) didn’t want. When he got down to specifics, he said what people had the biggest problem with was cymbal crashes. He uses them sparingly, but occasionally in practice he’ll cut loose with some crazy cymbal-snare-tom freak-out, like a little storm that lasts 5 seconds, reminding me distinctly of Neil Peart.

It’s mystifying to me. Cymbals? Really? Why, out of all the features of drumming, do you pick out cymbals to be the top church-disturbing thing?

If I step outside myself for a moment, I can actually see the elder church members’ point, and it’s because my mom has a form of the same point. (You’re not an elder, mom – didn’t mean to imply that) My mom was an MK – Missionary Kid, that is – in Guatemala, so she grew up in a church that was largely cut off from the American Christian experience. In a way, that makes it purer, but it also makes it slower to change. To her, church music is all about hymns. She loves hymns, and I’ve learned to love hymns because I love her. And since her love of hymns reaches so deep, to the very depths of her childhood, it makes her profoundly sad to see our modern church society where hymns are all but forgotten, even disrespected. So it makes sense for her to have some angst directed at what has replaced them. I get it.

But God would not have us be stagnant and unmoving. God is all about our growth and forward motion, both in our individual lives and as a Church (that’s with a capital C). And this has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but for those in the grip of grace, for those who trust in the Lord, there isn’t anything to fear from change. Change is good.

So what about cymbals? Were it merely on a practical level, without all this “IT’S SATANIC!!!” garbage, I think I could at least understand it. Cymbals are, by their very nature, crashing. That’s why one type of them is called a crash. Crashes are typically played on the first beat of a four-measure or eight-measure figure, like at the beginning of a verse or a chorus. And their primary function is to add punctuation to the beat, piercing your consciousness in the process. And let’s face it – old people don’t like having their consciousnesses pierced (or their eardrums). Maybe the reason certain elders of our church’s congregation have objected to cymbals (and drums in general) in the past isn’t “it’s unholy” or “we must avoid the appearance of evil,” but that they simply don’t like them. That, at least, makes sense to me.

Melt by Peter Gabriel is a landmark album for him in many ways, but the most radical is this: it doesn’t contain any cymbals. Not a single crash, ride or hi-hat, not a single hit of the brass anywhere on the album. This was intentional – Gabriel, though he’s a multi-instrumentalist, doesn’t play the drums, so he instructed Phil Collins (who guested on a few tracks) and regular drummer Jerry Marotta that this was his concept for the album. This made the music more primitive, more elemental, and recalled images of jungle tribesmen in Africa with painted bodies and feathers on their clothes. And even though Melt deals with real world issues like no other previous Gabriel album, the inflection of the whole thing is one of elemental human reaction, of listening to your gut above all other things.

Maybe I should sit those elder members of our congregation down and make them listen to Melt. After all, they wanted no cymbals! I kid…

Next: September ’77, Port Elizabeth, weather fine…

Penny For Your Thoughts?

George Wallace

George Wallace was a politician in the ‘60s and ‘70s who served as Governor of Alabama for the 3rd longest gubernatorial stint in post-Constitutional U.S. history, and was also a losing presidential candidate four times.

George Wallace was notorious as a strict segregationist, which basically reads today as “racist.” But back then, in the time and place he existed in, everybody was a racist – at least by today’s standards. Alabama in the early ‘60s was not a friendly place for black people. Wallace’s most famous incident was when he stood at the doors of the University of Alabama on the day black students were granted the right to admission into the university. And make no mistake – he was standing there in a symbolic gesture of blocking the students from entering. Alabama was being desegregated and a lot of people, Governor Wallace chief among them, were not happy about it.

Arthur Bremer

Arthur Bremer

In 1972, George Wallace was running for president again. He had just won his 2nd bid for governor, and his presidential bid was run on a platform of racism and mudslinging. On May 15th, he was at a mall campaigning, using his extremely vitriolic racist rhetoric. Arthur Bremer was there, too. Wallace gave his speech, but he wasn’t standing on a stage like politicians do today; rather, he was down among the crowd with a small circle of space between him and his constituents. Arthur Bremer pushed his way forward when Wallace was shaking hands after his speech, pulled out a revolver and shot Wallace four times, emptying his gun and injuring three others before being subdued. Wallace survived, but was in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

Bremer didn’t do it because of political rage at Wallace’s controversial stances, or out of some high-minded sense of right and wrong, or even as a hired assassin in a massive political struggle. He did it for a much more elemental, selfish and id-based reason – he did it because he wanted to be famous.

Bremer tried to time the assassination for when it would make the evening newscast. He picked a high-profile and divisive individual, one whose assassination would have a much greater ripple effect than someone who was universally well-thought of. There were better candidates, though. Bremer had first fixated on Richard Nixon, but decided it would be nearly impossible to get near him. And the kicker, he had even thought of a memorable catch phrase to recite when he pulled the trigger. “Penny for your thoughts?” This would further cement him in the public’s mind, perhaps especially because it was so cornball. He didn’t say it, though – the heat of the moment must have driven the phrase from his mind.

Bremer wrote An Assassin’s Diary, published in 1973 shortly after his attempt on Wallace’s life. The book details not only the facts of the incident on May 15th, but also provides a chilling first-person perspective on his motivations and thought processes. In it, Bremer explains that he wasn’t particularly opposed to Wallace’s campaign positions, and didn’t really care about politics at all. Rather, he had an attachment to Wallace, and Richard Nixon before him, because killing such a note-worthy and famous figure would in turn make him internationally famous.

His logic (if you can call it that), seems sound. You usually don’t talk about John F. Kennedy without at least mentioning Lee Harvey Oswald. Likewise, no one talks about Abraham Lincoln without bringing up John Wilkes Booth (except Steven Spielberg). Killing someone famous makes you famous. But why would someone even want to become famous for something as heinous and terrible as murder? Everyone looks at you as the epitome of evil and all that is wrong with the world, at least for a time. Look at George Zimmerman.

There are two reasons for this. One: killing someone is a much easier and faster way to become famous than building something yourself, like the person you want to kill. Destruction is always easier than creation, but it pays much smaller and less satisfying dividends. Two: people who do these types of things don’t care why they’re famous. All that matters is that when people hear your name or see your face, they have an instant and inescapable association with it. The specific nature of the association is not nearly as important as its existence. And the stronger the association, the better.

Peter Gabriel read An Assassin’s Diary, and the result is the song “Family Snapshot.” Gabriel never mentions Bremer specifically, and even the scenario laid out in the song doesn’t resemble the Wallace assassination attempt. Details are mentioned, and it much more closely mirrors Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The song is in first-person except for a brief section that’s in second-person. Here, the killer addresses his target, explaining that they were “made for each other,” but not in the romantic you-complete-me way. Bremer thought that his and Wallace’s destinies were destined to intersect in this particular way. And in a disturbingly twisted way, he was right.

It’s ironic, though, that so much time has passed and virtually nobody knows who George Wallace is anymore, let alone Arthur Bremer. All he wanted was to be famous, and it didn’t work.

“Family Snapshot” goes through phases that mirror the state of a killer’s mind. It starts with quietness and calm, then gets more nervous and jittery, the drumming becoming gradually more frantic. It builds to a tension-filled climax, and then when the shot is fired, the music instantly converts back to the calm, beatless quiet, where the killer reflects on his early life and what brought him to this point.

This is clearly a new approach from Peter Gabriel. “Family Snapshot” and Melt in general see PG acting like the doctors in A Clockwork Orange, forcing Alex’s eyes open while horrors unfold on the screen in front of him. But instead of standing at a distance and scribbling on his clipboard, Peter’s there with you, holding your hand, and whispering, “Look…”

Next: the “gated drum” technique.

Treasures

Peter Gabriel - Melt - 5/23/1980

Peter Gabriel – Melt – 5/23/1980

I have no idea what I would do if someone broke into my house. The closest it ever got to that was when a woman knocked on our sliding glass door at about 2am. My wife heard it first. Scared out of her wits, she tried to look up the police – we didn’t have smartphones yet, and the idea of calling 911 apparently didn’t penetrate either of our 2am hazes. I had to deal with the potential intruder. It was a short black woman with wide eyes and no shoes, definitely drunk. Clearly not a robber, she was saying something to me that took me a few tries to figure out. She thought I was a friend of hers, Bernie or something, and she wanted to sleep there for the night. I told her in no uncertain terms to go away. I don’t think my wife or I slept much after that.

As traumatic as that was, it’s not even a thousandth of what it must be like to have an actual intruder in your house, one with evil intent to your possessions. It’s something no one ever wants to think about.

Unless you’re Peter Gabriel, that is. And if you’re Peter Gabriel, not only do you like thinking about it, but you like forcing your listeners to think about it, too. “Intruder” leads off PG’s third eponymous album commonly called Melt, with plodding and doom-filled drumming, then what sounds like glass being delicately cracked, like a window that’s being broken as quietly as possible.

Peter sings this song like a sociopathic lunatic, provoking a reaction of tension-filled dread from the listener. Like Hannibal Lecter’s icy, smiling stare, it’s the quietness of Peter’s voice punctuated by moments of frothing madness that make for the most terror. “Intruder” is one of the most terrifying songs I’ve ever heard, bested in that department only by Bach and his “Toccata & Fugue.”

When I visited my family a few Christmases ago, the men had a discussion about intruders (which is to say they had the discussion and I listened silently), which led into gun control. My brother-in-law, who was going through a gun-crazy phase at the time, wanted to acquire a classic, noisy shotgun. He had a theory that if anyone ever broke into his house, all they would have to hear was the loud CLICK-CLACK of a cocking shotgun and they would high-tail it out of there, but not before making a mess on your floor. He said the gun wouldn’t even have to be loaded, because all you need is the sound to get the intruder shaking in his probably stolen boots.

I think there’s something to that, but like I always do, I’m looking for the root. If you want a shotgun to ward off intruders, you obviously think it’s a real possibility that you will at some point have an intruder. Delusion and paranoia are extremely likely, but let’s assume that attitude has a basis in reality. What is that basis? Do you have a lot of valuable stuff that would attract an intruder? A fancy car, an opulent house, an unnecessarily loud stereo system? Why do you have those? Greed? Inadequacy? A need to feel successful?

Religion would classify those things as “treasures,” and my religion teaches me that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In a sort of pre-emptive strike, Jesus said to “store up your treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and thieves do no break in and steal.” In short, don’t have too much stuff. Why? ‘Cause having too much stuff chains you to this world, and that’s not where you wanna be forever. (Matthew 6:19-21)

But enough of that.

Peter Gabriel adherents had never really heard anything like “Intruder” from him. It was a revelation of one of Peter’s abilities, one that had only been touched briefly upon with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It’s the ability to show you extremely strange and horrifying images and make you want to keep staring at them. Previously, he had done this with fantasy and fiction, but with Melt, he was making you look at the real world. “Intruder,” “Family Snapshot,” and “Biko” deal with fully real moments of violent horror and what they mean to your actual life. No more hiding behind constructs like Blackstone Enterprises or Magog or even Rael, as transparent as he was. Now, it’s just Peter.

Next: portrait of a killer.