From the time he left Genesis in 1975, Peter Gabriel (born Feb. 13, 1950) forged a path all his own with his music, his performances, and a theatrical bent to it all. As the ‘70s wound down, he seemed poised to carry on with a focus on all three. The advent of MTV provided him with a new outlet for such things, and he embraced the growing American interest in “visual music” from a position of strength.
Gabriel never downplayed the music, though, and he made some of his strongest records in the early and middle ‘80s – material that made him an actual star and set him on a course as a leader in bringing social and political issues to the stage and on record. It was also not beyond him to write a great love song, and he made a few classics in that vein. Let’s take a look and a listen to some of his best work of the decade.
“Sledgehammer”: Gabriel’s biggest hit (No. 1 in the summer of 1986, replacing his old bandmates in Genesis at the top spot) is a Godzilla-stomp of a track that simply works, regardless of where it’s played – on the radio, on the old home stereo, through your old Walkman headset, or even on MTV, where the iconic video was broadcast seemingly every 20 minutes.
“Games Without Frontiers”: Abstract, subtly sinister lyrics sung over an instrumental mix that by turns sizzles, whistles and bleeps – “Games” is indicative of the cold angularity that runs throughout Gabriel’s third record (with the “melting face” cover), released in 1980.
“Don’t Give Up”: Kate Bush sang the “Jeux sans frontières” refrain in “Games Without Frontiers”; here, her role expands, even flourishes, as Gabriel’s duet partner, on possibly his most beautiful composition, with his most comforting lyrics.
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“In Your Eyes”: Yes, we all remember John Cusak wooing Ione Skye with his boom box in Say Anything..., but put this song on, sit back and close your eyes, and think of that person you yearned for but never connected with. Make your own movie.
“Biko”: The version of this elegy for anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko on the “melting face” record is intense, but cue up the cut that closes Gabriel’s 1983 live album Plays Live to hear and feel the breath of the song. Whenever he played the song in concert, you could feel it.
“Shock the Monkey”: According to Gabriel, the song isn’t about animals or animal testing, but about jealousy creeping into relationships. Yeah, we don’t hear that either, but the real mystery is how this got played on U.S. Top 40 radio in 1983 – even with MTV pumping oddities into the popular consciousness, “Shock the Monkey” stood out. It still stands out today.