PETER GABRIEL: SO
Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois, Tony Levin
Director: Peter Gabriel
Audio: LPCM Stereo
Video: Color Widescreen, aspect ratio 1.77:1
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 94 Minutes
Release Date: October 22, 2012
“I’m on my way of making it…I’ve got to make it show, yeah! So much larger than life…I’ll make a big noise with the big boys…and I will pray to the Big God…as I kneel in the big church…”
Amid the huge hair, spandex, walkmans, and leg warmers of my high school days, we saw many British rockers make huge comebacks by reinventing their sounds to match the 80’s style. As the front man for Genesis for so many years, Peter Gabriel was the embodiment of British quirkiness, with outrageous costumes that made Elton John seem uptight, and songs that were more fascinating with every listen such as I Know What I Like in Your Wardrobe, Fifth of Firth, and his magnum opus The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. He left Genesis after that album, but until the So album, Peter Gabriel was largely regarded as a cult figure, a darling of critics, “alternative” before the term was popular, but unknown to the general public. In this new release from the ‘Classic Albums’ series, we get to know Peter and how he conceived his breakthrough album.
We meet the inimitable producer Daniel Lanois, who should be very familiar to U2 fans. He describes how the album took about a year to make, which apparently is the fastest recording Mr. Gabriel has ever done! Gabriel admits that he works very slowly, so he rented a farm house in the British countryside (reminiscent of many Led Zeppelin albums) and bought the equipment he needed so that he could take his time.
I had always assumed that “Red Rain” was a metaphor for acid rain, which was one of the hot environmental topics of the 80’s, but according to this documentary Gabriel had a dream about bottles and containers of blood, and that the song is more about mortality than anything else. While it was a big pop hit, there is almost nothing conventional about this song. Layer after layer was recorded, and in the days before digital, mixing was a nightmare.
Police drummer Stewart Copeland contributed his marvelous high-hat to many of the songs. Like most of the Classic Album programs, we see Gabriel performing the songs to huge audiences, music videos, and we also remixes in which we come to understand how the songs were assembled. As a musician I find that to be the most interesting part of these programs.
While Gabriel’s voice will never be among the most powerful in rock, he manages to compose and powerfully deliver unique songs with adventurous performances from some of the best musicians in rock. We meet American bassist Tony Levin, famous for his work with King Crimson and other Yes alumni, who demonstrates his great bass line for Sledgehammer and explains how he used an octave with chorus and played with a pick, which he normally never does. He and Peter also noticed that women were actually coming to their shows, which had normally been almost entirely male. Seeing Tony practice using drum sticks on his bass strings to get that special kick tone, Gabriel asked him to try cutting drum sticks in half, then taping them to his fingers, thus inventing what are today known as “Thunder Fingers.”
I find it very interesting that around the same time Genesis laid aside any pretension of being progressive, and became hugely commercial, Gabriel did the same thing. They both claimed that their love of American soul was a huge inspiration, and “Sledgehammer” is obviously Gabriel’s soul trip. As Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns added their trademark lines, he created a very original album that was also very easy to listen to and fit in with the 80’s vibe, whether he planned to or not. Of course, one of the funniest and most original videos of the decade did not hurt. It was very expensive, but worth every penny. Gabriel has always had a gift for bringing together many people who could help him fulfill his vision, even if none of them knew each other before. This may be his greatest talent.
As the program draws to a close, we hear a live performance of “In Your Eyes” with the percussion more pronounced, as enthusiastic African dancers reveal the joy that Gabriel intended the song to have. For an album with only eight songs, So is proof that an artist can be true to themselves and still be commercially successful.
Nothing special, but no problems either. A mix of recent interviews in poorly lit cluttered studios and 80’s concert footage and music videos that flows nicely.
Only stereo, but an adequate mix. It is interesting to hear different mixes of various tunes, if only fragments.
Since the program had to be under an hour for the television broadcast, plenty of other great footage had to be moved here, but all of it is worth viewing, especially for young musicians who might think that cutting and pasting in Pro Tools is actually “working.” Making music with analog tape was work, people. We learn more about "Sledgehammer", "Big Time" and "In Your Eyes", plus one on Gabriel's involvement in the Amnesty International concerts.
Still a fantastic song set, So deserved the Classic Album treatment. Viewers will also appreciate the time taken and the talent on display for Mr. Gabriel’s breakthrough album of the 1980’s.