Tag Archive: Peter Gabriel


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.

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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.

Eponymous

"Doesn't that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?"

“Doesn’t that Bible of your have pretty specific things to say about killing?”

In the pilot episode of Firefly (which was not the first episode aired – curse you, Fox!), Kaylee is waiting outside Serenity trying to attract passengers before they ship out. A man named Book looks at the ship and decides to fly with them, offering real strawberries as his payment. He says he’s a Shepherd (which is basically a catch-all preacher/priest/monk), and he’s “been out of the world awhile; like to walk it for a spell, maybe bring the Word to them that needs it.”

I imagine Peter Gabriel, when he broke away from Genesis after being part of them since even before his adult life began, was much like Shepherd Book. Gabriel quit from Genesis in 1975 after the Lamb tour, and was quite suddenly out on his own without his fellow Genesites. After a short period of inactivity during which he got really bored, he went back into the studio, but this time he didn’t have four other people with an equal share of the decision-making. It was just him. He was out of the abbey and now walking the world “for a spell.”

His first solo album came in 1977, simply called Peter Gabriel. It featured the salient “Solsbury Hill,” which made great strides for Gabriel defining himself as a singular artist. Unlike his fantastical and mythological work with Genesis, “Solsbury Hill” was an autobiographical piece. It addressed the biggest question in his fans’ minds, which was “Why did you leave Genesis?” Watch for the part where he compares himself to Jesus Christ.

Since his next three albums would also be eponymous, this one came to be known as Car for its simple cover art of a man asleep in the passenger seat. The next two would feature Peter raking his fingernails across the cover while looking sinister, leaving white marks where his fingers had been (thus it’s referred to as Scratch) and a simple black and white photo of Peter that’s been messed with while it was developing, making his face look like it’s melting (thus the moniker Melt). His fourth also features an image of Peter, but you wouldn’t know it; the distortion of the image makes his face look like a latex mask. It too is eponymous, but by that time the American market was sick and tired of him not naming his albums, so they named it for him, calling it Security.

Peter Gabriel's four eponymous albums

Peter Gabriel’s four eponymous albums

We as a music-consuming public have a little problem with albums that are named after the artist creating them, especially if it’s not their debut album. When an artist doesn’t provide a way to distinguish one album from another, we make one up. Debut albums with no title make more sense. After all, this is the first statement you’re making as an artist, so it just seems natural that you would begin with “Hi, my name is…”

Peter Gabriel isn’t even the only one to do it multiple times. Yet the public always picks some other feature of the album and refers to that. Metallica is called The Black Album. The Beatles is called The White Album. Led Zeppelin’s first album is commonly called I, and their fourth IV, though that might be because their second and third are legitimately titled II and III. But all Seal’s self-titled albums are named by number, too. And Weezer has The Blue Album, The Green Album, and The Red Album, all of which are officially titled only Weezer. They were planning on not having a separate title for a fourth time in 2010, but they knew that since it simply had a headshot of actor Jorge Garcia on the cover, fans would just call it Hurley, so they gave in.

And in 1988, R.E.M. had a clever little romp when they named their I.R.S.-days greatest hits compilation Eponymous. This probably seems a lot funnier to a wordsmith like me, but I gotta get my jollies where I can.

Peter Gabriel’s first two albums were interesting but very scattered. Car has no idea where it’s going, and despite its bright moments, it also has some pretty deep pits. Scratch has more direction, being one of three albums produced by Robert Fripp in 1978, and part of a loose trilogy (the other two are Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall and Fripp’s own Exposure), but it has neither a defining single or great songs. Melt, however, proved him to be a heavy hitter in the music world, one of the heaviest. He didn’t need Genesis behind him to make great records, and he wasn’t just a One Single Pony in his solo career.

Next: what’s this “real world” of which you speak?

In “The Colony of Slippermen” and the beginning of the fourth side of the vinyl, Rael meets a group of grotesquely deformed men; the Slipperman costume Peter Gabriel wore for the Lamb tour was the same as what’s described in the song. Upon meeting one of them, Rael discovers that he is indeed one of them, all having fallen prey to the lamias’ charms.

Rael’s brother John makes his 3rd appearance – the first being during “In the Cage,” the second in “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging.” He, too, has become a Slipperman, and the only cure for their condition is… um, castration.

If you’ve never heard “The Colony of Slippermen” before and you’re learning about it for the first time now, I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too. I believe the modern way of conveying the sentiment is WTF??!!?!?

you have issues, my friend...

you have issues, my friend…

Against my better judgment, I’m gonna dip my toe into the ocean of psychosis Peter Gabriel is revealing here. So the progression goes Rael meets the lamia, Rael becomes a Slipperman, Rael visits Doktor Dyper to get castrated, Rael is cured. The rather obvious parallel to the lamia sequence is that there’s an inherent connection between sex and devouring, like a black widow killing and eating her mate. Likewise, the parallel to the Slippermen sequence is this: sex causes deformity, and elimination of the sexual urge cures the deformity.

Again, WTF??!!?!?

Anyway, there’re some bits about John abandoning Rael again when he’s needed, Rael having the chance to get out of this nightmareland and back to his beloved N.Y.C., and saving John from drowning only to find it’s not John but (GASP!) himself.

Honestly, the story of Rael and his journey lost me a long time ago. I agree with Tony Banks when he says that the story aspect of The Lamb is the weakest thing about it. It contains some simply amazing musical elements (the mind-bending heaviness of “In the Cage,” the timeless beauty of “The Carpet Crawlers,” the brief but epic keyboard solo in “The Colony of Slippermen,” others…) and the lyrics present some great ideas, but the actual plot is bizarre and directionless. I get that it’s a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress and that it’s more about the journey than the endpoint, but it winds up more like Naked Lunch without all the drug references.

Speaking of endpoints, the last thing that happens in the plot of The Lamb is Rael finding out that John is really himself. While this brings up questions of the definition of self and other existential issues, it’s quickly forgotten about with the instant segue into the capping track, “it.” The sweeping and epic tone of “it” are offset by its breakneck tempo; it’s easily the fastest song on The Lamb. The lyrics to “it” are very philosophical, descending into a soup of all the things it is. “It is chicken / it is eggs.” “It is real / it is Rael.” By the way, I’ve tried turning “it is Rael” into “it Israel” and making that mean something – it was futile.

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway marked a change in the way the band operated, a way that proved unsustainable. With Banks, Rutherford, Hackett and Collins composing the music without Gabriel’s input, and Peter writing the lyrics alone, it put strains on what was before a very democratic band.

Partway through the writing process, Peter got his ego stroked by William Friedkin; Having just directed The Exorcist to great success, he wanted to remake Hollywood by bringing in all new people, including Peter as an “ideas man,” based on one of his song intro stories printed on the back of Genesis Live. After the band made it clear that he couldn’t work on the album and be Friedkin’s hanger-on, Gabriel said goodbye to Genesis. Horrified that he might have been responsible for Genesis breaking up, Friedkin backed off, and Gabriel returned to work. But the rest of Genesis could sense the beginning of the end, because they then knew that this could happen at any time.

Add to that the birth of Peter’s first child and the innumerable difficulties with the delivery. Doctors initially didn’t think Anna-Marie Gabriel would survive. Quite naturally, that ordeal became the center of Peter’s world in both thought and deed, and that meant his work with Genesis was dwarfed. But rather than responding with caring and humanity, the other band members were very unsupportive. That, I think, sealed the deal on Peter Gabriel leaving. He had the courtesy to finish the album and the following tour, but it was a poorly-kept secret that this would be Gabriel’s last hurrah with Genesis.

To me, The Lamb is kind of like a train wreck that explodes in glorious fireworks. It’s quite an awful sight, but a beautiful one too. It confuses me, frustrates me, fascinates me, and ultimately leaves me wanting more. Even though it never has a payoff, I can’t walk away from it – I don’t even want to, because it’s such a fantastic mess. It does what a precious few great pieces of art can, and that’s constantly being ALMOST within reach of its spectators… but not quite.

The Slipperman

The Slipperman

I’ve already noted Peter Gabriel’s tendency toward the dramatic and propensity for wearing costumes during Genesis performances. There’s the bat hat he wore for “Watcher of the Skies,” and the flower head and Magog, both for “Supper’s Ready.” There was also a character named Britannia he created for “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight,” and of course the famous fox head that started it all. But for the live performances of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” arguably Genesis’ most theatrical work, Peter only  donned two costumes for the entire 90+ minutes, and one of them was fairly nondescript.

The Rael costume involved little more than black jeans, a plain white t-shirt, and a black leather jacket. Peter used some make-up , mostly some black around the eyes to make him look more gaunt, but nothing else. As Rael, though, Peter didn’t look like Peter, which is of course the point of wearing a costume.

Rael

Rael

Even though The Lamb involved only two costumes, Peter’s showmanship wasn’t waning. While Rael wasn’t all that difficult, the other Lamb costume was his flashiest, his trickiest, and arguably his most famous. It was also something the entire band hated from the first time Peter wore it, especially Peter himself. The Slipperman was a bunch of green foams balls piled on top of each other, with holes for the arms and tights for the legs. It looked like a wretched, cancerous mass, barely distinguishable as a person. It worked very well in a story sense, since it matched the lyrics of “The Colony of Slippermen.”

His skin’s all covered in slimy lumps / With lips that slide across each chin / His twisted limbs like rubber stumps / Are waved in welcome, say “Please join in”

However, it was a nightmare in the practical sense. Peter needed a significant pause during the performance to get the costume on, which was the reason for “Silent Sorrow In Empty Boats,” a 3 minute instrumental that didn’t involve Peter. This was 1974, before the days of wireless mics or headsets. The only way for Peter’s voice to be amplified was for him to hold a mic like normal. The problem was the Slipperman costume didn’t really have a head. Not only was Peter blind, but he had to guess on where he was holding the mic. It’s amazing he could actually sing with that monstrosity on. Then after the song, the costume was a pain to get off and he needed the instrumental “Ravine” to go backstage and remove it. It was a lot of work for 8 minutes, but he did it every night.

Back to the story. After waking to find himself among people crawling on their hands and knees (who might be drug addicts) in “The Carpet Crawlers,” Rael finds himself in a room with 32 doors (“The Chamber of 32 Doors”). He gets out with the help of an old blind woman (“Lilywhite Lilith”) who was just leading him into the hands of Death himself (Anyway” and “Here Comes the Supernatural Anesthetist”). He survives his encounter with Death, and then comes across “three vermillion snakes of female face” (“The Lamia”). In a grand/weird/disturbing metaphor for sex, Rael gets into the lamias’ pool, shedding his shredded clothes, and the three lamia sensuously glide along his body. They then start to devour him, literally, taste-testing with their tongues and then nibbling his flesh. Rael is in ecstasy with this devouring, but the lamia convulse in pain and die. Then, in a final act of barbarism, Rael decides to eat the flesh of the dead lamia.

142 showmanship 03Clearly, this is the most disturbing thing on the record so far. Up until now it went from straightforward to surreal and slightly bizarre. With “The Lamia,” it takes a turn for the grotesque, and you don’t really see it coming. It reminds me of the first time I read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. The first few chapters are about a dude on a train and a street vendor selling a potato peeler gadget, and then suddenly Enoch is showing Hazel this mummified dwarf on display in a museum. My initial reaction was, “did that just happen??!?”

Next: jeez, what kind of sex are you having, Peter Gabriel? Never mind, don’t answer that…

There a several different arguments for what The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is ultimately about, which really means isn’t not about any one particular thing. That element makes for good art, but also makes my job much harder. The best I can do is provide insight, and you’ll have to figure the rest out on your own. You’re supposed to, though; when someone tells what a piece of art is about and you don’t come to it on your own, it’s not art.

The next section (“Cuckoo Cocoon” and the intro to “In the Cage”) have one interesting interpretation: heroin. In the plotline, this is Rael’s entrance to this other world, a world that’s bizarre, hellish and nightmare-filled, but populated by his innermost fears, desires and drives. But alternatively, “Cuckoo Cocoon” could be about Rael’s first taste of heroin. The description of a soft feeling all around him (“wrapped up in some powdered wool”) and the awareness that it’s too good to be true (“I feel so secure that I know this can’t be real, but I feel good”) are similar to the sensations of a heroin high. I wonder what Lou Reed would think of this, being a sort of PhD on this subject.

Rael then drifts to sleep and wakes up with “sunshine in [his] stomach,” which is an arty way of saying he’s gonna puke. Again, this is consistent with heroin. I’ve never been on the drug myself, but I imagine everything is worse when you come down from a high. Nowhere else on the entire album can a case be made for the songs being about heroin (with the possible exception of “Carpet Crawlers”), but it’s interesting, anyway.

Then we get into the real meat of “In the Cage,” and come to the place where the themes of The Lamb really take shape. Now that the “high” of “Cuckoo Cocoon” has worn off, Rael discovers his situation to be startlingly and distressingly changed, the powdered wool turning to cold stone. Stalactites and stalagmites close in on him to form a sort of cage, and Rael is trapped.

It’s is here that Brother John makes his first appearance. As Rael’s despair is growing, he sees his brother outside the cage and calls to him for help. But like the callous, selfish child he is (and as we all are), he turns away. The name “John,” which is one of the most common male given names in history, suggests John’s anonymous nature and his ability to be any one of us, someone we’re meant to use as a stand-in for ourselves. Even some religious imagery is employed with John’s tear of blood; in some Catholic traditions, Jesus is said to have cried blood at his crucifixion.

“In the Cage” is one of the big showpieces on The Lamb, which is mostly made up of shorter songs (or at least “shorter” by Genesis standards). It clocks in at over 8 minutes and features the first of several spectacular synth solos courtesy of Tony Banks. For that little piece of keyboard awesomeness, we have only Tony to thank. Peter Gabriel penned almost all of the lyrics for The Lamb, leaving the rest of the band to come up with the music. It was a very different way of composing for them. Genesis was used to writing songs using a more organic, natural method – all of them sitting with their instruments and creating ex nihilo, contributions coming from all members. Here, Peter went off into his own space in a singular fashion, and the music was composed as a four-piece.

Peter must have liked that I’m-the-boss mode of songwriting, because The Lamb was his last album with Genesis. He soon embarked on a very successful solo career spanning another 30+ years, and most people know him more for his ‘80s solo singles than anything he did with Genesis. In fact, he’s mostly just known as the dude with the train tracks around his head.

When I first heard “In the Cage,” it was on the Phil-era live album Three Sides Live. “In the Cage” was the first part of a medley that included segments of “The Cinema Show” and “The Colony of Slippermen.” Before I bought that 2-tape copy of Three Sides Live, I didn’t know any of these songs existed. Now, I appreciate it (as well as the late ‘70s live Seconds Out) as Phil’s interesting take on Peter songs. Some Genesis fans think it a sickening travesty that Phil would even touch Peter’s songs, and it does seem strange considering the wildly different direction Phil steered Genesis into during the ‘80s. A few of the more vocal (read as “stupid”) Genesis fans would have rathered that Genesis just dissolved after Peter left.

But not me. It can’t be denied that Phil Collins is a consummate performer, an expert showman and a dynamic frontman. He’s the Dave Grohl of the ’70s – the drummer behind a shiny star of a lead singer that becomes an even shinier star once the first star makes its exit. And as such, Phil does Peter in a way that Peter never could (and wouldn’t really want to); the result is fascinating. He’s added colors of interpretation to each pre-Phil song he’s chosen that simply weren’t there before, and that’s worth something. He doesn’t subtract anything from Peter’s base – just makes it different.

The Dream, Betty Swanwick

The Dream, Betty Swanwick

The cover of Selling England By the Pound features a painting by Betty Swanwick, one called The Dream. Her style is noted as being “quintessentially English,” according to the British Council for Visual Arts. Peter Gabriel must have thought so, too. In his quest to make Selling England more applicable to a British audience, he chose an image for the cover that evoked the fussiness and the passive grandiosity that Brits do so well. In the forefront of the painting is a man sleeping on a park bench in the middle of a garden. While Selling England was still in production, Peter saw The Dream and thought it’d be perfect. A big reason, I think, was that the song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” featured the lyrics “When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench…”

Peter asked Betty to add a little something to the painting to make it even more applicable to the song – a lawn mower standing up next to the park bench. It looks like it’s really supposed to be there, perfectly married to the song. The Dream visually tells a story of a man who simply wants to be left alone, but has other people constantly making demands of him. The same exact theme is presented in “I Know What I Like.” THAT is truly a piece of synchronicity (unlike The Dark Side of the Rainbow), and the larger framework is the British character.

That character might also be the character of mankind in general. We don’t want anyone ordering our lives, and yet we spend so much time trying to order other people’s lives, particularly those of people we love. Jesus said we should take the plank out of our eye before we try to take the speck out of our brother’s (Matthew 7); to me, one of the things that means is “don’t mess with someone’s life unless you don’t mind them messing with yours.” We’re meant to live in community with one another, so in a way no one’s life should be un-messed with – but it always needs to be done lovingly (I can’t stress this enough), and treading where you’re not welcome is the epitome of un-love.

At Peter’s request, Betty added the lawn mower to the painting, and I can’t for the life of me find anywhere a picture of the painting in its original form. I suppose the original The Dream has been lost. It’s no big tragedy, I guess, because the addition of the lawn mower fits in perfectly with the tone of the piece, but it makes my obsessive-compulsive self very sad.

The “In Your Wardrobe” subtitle is confusing. The best explanation I’ve heard is the “wardrobe” refers to the works of C. S. Lewis and his magical gateway into the alternate dimension of Narnia. This sorta fits with the main character of “I Know What I Like” desiring escape from the demands of the world, but that’s stretching it quite far.

The third track is “Firth of Fifth,” so called for the Scottish term for coastal waters. We would call it the Mississippi River or the Chesapeake Bay, but Scots and some Brits would say Firth of Chesapeake or Firth of Mississippi. A rather famous firth in Scotland is the River Forth, also known as the Firth of Forth. The next logical firth would be… Peter must have dislocated his shoulder he was patting himself on the back so hard.

I first experienced both “Firth of Fifth” and “I Know What I Like” back in 6th grade, during my Genesis OCD phase. But I only knew about them as parts of “Old Medley,” the 20 minute track that opened the second volume of Genesis’ live album from the We Can’t Dance tour, The Way We Walk. The rest of both Vol. 1: The Shorts and Vol. 2: The Longs was made up of Phil songs, but “Old Medley” was composed of all songs I had never heard before. “Old Medley” contains key sections of “Dance On a Volcano,” “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” “The Musical Box,” “Firth of Fifth,” and “I Know What I Like,” and it also features snippets of “That’s All,” “Illegal Alien,” “Your Own Special Way,” “Follow You Follow Me,” and “Stagnation,” all sung over the main keyboard hook of “I Know What I Like.” In fact, it was reading the liner notes and seeing the authors of those old songs that gave me my first indication that Peter Gabriel used to be a part of Genesis.

The remainder of The Longs (with the exception of a sweet drum duet  between Phil touring drummer Chester Thompson) was songs that exceeded 10 minutes in length, and only from as far back as 1983. At the time, these were my favorites, so it makes sense that I would come to like the Gabriel years even more than Phil’s heyday. Even though Phil holds a special little place in my heart, and always will, it’s albums like Selling England By the Pound that will be Genesis’ lasting legacy. If I were playing Desert Island and could only pick one Genesis album out of all of them, it would probably be Selling England.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, or giant hogweed

An important concomitant of prog rock, of which Genesis is a seminal band, is lyrics that would fit into literature, fantasy and sci-fi. In one of their weirder moments, Genesis has a song about giant sentient plants that want to kill humanity called “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” It’s based on a real plant (heracleum mantegazzianum) that causes ugly, red welts when its sap comes in contact with human skin, and can cause blindness if it gets in your eyes. And we’ve already explored “Supper’s Ready” and its various mythological and biblical themes.

But there’s always been another side to Peter Gabriel and his lyrics. Sometimes he turns his focus to the real world, and unlike the more fantastical elements of Genesis’ music, he has a very critical eye for reality. With fantasy, he takes more of a storytelling role. The dichotomy there makes sense – the real world dissatisfies him, and he usually tries to retreat from it. But once in a while, he feels like telling you about it.

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound – 10/12/1973

Like a good creator of art should, though, he couches his social commentary in metaphor, symbolism and indirect language. We’ve already seen his criticism of the British housing system in “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” and he continues his lament for his homeland in “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” from Selling England By the Pound. The album gets its name from the song, which in turn borrows from a slogan of the British Labour Party. At the time of the album’s recording, Harold Wilson was campaigning with the Labour Party for Prime Minister, which he would win. That was the time of the three-day week and the 1973 oil crisis.

Peter decided the title of Genesis’ new album would be Selling England By the Pound to offset what critics had said about Genesis being US-centered, playing to the American markets and ignoring where they came from. The inclusion of England in the title probably did that, but it’s ironic that their next album had Broadway in the title, referring to the street in New York City.

“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is, at first glance, one big hot mess. The imagery is very vivid, but it seems like its making up characters with without a story. But I was a teenager when I first heard this song, and it was a long time before I checked out what its seemingly random metaphors actually meant.

The first line, which Gabriel sings before the instruments come in, is a small tip-off, though. “’Can you tell me where my country lies?’ / said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes.” Where’s his country? What happened to England? I think Peter is referring to an “Olde England,” a place that books still talk about but has gone the way of the dodo. It’s a place of King Arthur and Robin Hood, of Bilbo Baggins and the Green Knight. It doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it only existed in the minds of storytellers long gone. But nevertheless, “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is Peter’s lament of modernity imposing it’s hard, cold edges on the flower petals of the past.

“Moonlit Knight” is among the densest song Genesis has ever done, and that’s saying a lot. The lyrics make mention of “the Queen of Maybe,” which is most likely a reference to the Queen of May, a symbol used in ancient England to represent the hope of a good harvest. “Old Father Thames” is the spirit that lives in the river of the same name which flows through London. “Citizens of Hope and Glory” is a nod to the English hymn “Land of Hope and Glory.” There are also references to Wimpy Restaurants, the Holy Grail, Green Shield stamps, and two figures from the Morris dance (the “Hobby Horse” and the “Fool”). Peter was playing pretty safe with this song – it’s so layered in subtext and metaphor that almost no one can tell what the hell it’s about.

Steve Hackett

And I just gotta take a second to point out how awesome Steve Hackett is, and what a FRICKIN’ SHAME it is that Eddie Van Halen gets all the credit for tapping. Steve was one of the first to do tapping while Eddie was popping pimples and cheating on his history exams. That’s not a dig on Eddie – it’s music fandom’s fault, not his. If I really wanted to dig on Eddie, I’d point out that his greatest contribution to the art of the guitar was the elephant sound… but I digress. Anyway, let’s give Steve Hackett his due credit, because Lord knows he didn’t get it during his Genesis stint, or even after.

Next: Betty Swanwick’s lost painting.