Peter 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.
Jeux 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.
The 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.