I have loved Peter Gabriel for most of my life and on some level have only in recent years realized the degree to which that’s true. It’s a funny thing about inspiration, something I talk about often when teaching jazz history or other sorts of history/appreciation courses – the narratives favor clear-cut lines of influence, but not only is it often presumptuous to assume we know who influenced whom, we don’t even reliably know our own influences sometimes. So it has gone as I have taken decades of nourishment from Peter Gabriel’s work as a singer, songwriter, keyboardist, activist, documenter of human vulnerability, and proponent of awareness of global music. I seldom, however, thought to mention him when discussing his influence on my own music, even though I know see that it was significant.
Well, lifetime Peter Gabriel super-fan or not (and acknowledging my wholesale omission of his catalog as the frontman of Genesis), I’m going to see him tonight on the first stop of his American tour, my first time seeing him live. I’m super-stoked, and as such am offering up a list of some of his tracks that have particularly resonated with me.
1 ) “Biko” by from Plays Live
This lyrically subtle anti-Apartheid anthem makes me tear up literally every time I hear it, and while the studio version is great too, I find live versions of it particularly moving and a TV clip of one such performance in the ‘80s was my first exposure both to the song itself and to the depth of his expressiveness. I picked this (from his first live album) among numerous available options.
2 ) “That Voice Again” from So
This song, meanwhile, is virtually buried among some of his biggest chart successes (“Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “Don’t Give Up,” and “In Your Eyes”) on this hit-packed album. It is, however, an exceptionally insightful examination of how mental health struggles interfere with personal fulfillment, and that’s not to mention the also-exceptional groove that bassist Tony Levin and drummer Manu Katché lay down.
3 ) “Games Without Frontiers” from Peter Gabriel (Melt)
When I was pretty young (pre-MTV obsession) and this song was on the radio I would just bop to it, singing “She’s . . . so funk-u-lar” – cute, right? Of course the song (while still, indeed, “a bop” as the young folks might say) is a heavy examination of jingoism and international relations through the lens of kids.
4 ) “Shock the Monkey” from Peter Gabriel (Security)
Speaking of MTV-obsession, this funky and somewhat unsettling song was in heavy rotation when that obsession began for me. I found it at once appealing and unsettling, which was a pretty new experience for me at the time, and having since been exposed to plenty of powerful-but-not-happy music, I am even more fond of it.
5 ) “In Your Eyes (Live in Athens 1987)” released on Fatteliku by Youssou N’Dour or 25th Anniversary edition of So
Lest you think that #2 above meant that I wouldn’t find a way to get this superlatively moving song in here somewhere. I favor the live versions of this song, partly because of the energy (in no small part due to the inevitably spirited playing of Levin, Katché, and guitarist David Rhodes), and partly because of the inclusion of the cut-for-time-on-the-studio-version intro, ending, and funky electric piano breakdown of David Sancious. And as much as I love Paula Cole’s feature spot in the ‘90s (prior to her own emergence as an artist), the live versions that feature the wonderful Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour (as on the studio version) particularly knock me out, with this one being characteristically passionate.
6 ) “Modern Love” from Peter Gabriel (Car)
“Solsbury Hill” is the song that led me to pick up Gabriel’s debut solo album when I was maybe 15 (I still sometimes have dreams about visiting the short-lived New Haven record store where I found this in the crate), but I fell in love with most of it, particularly this high-energy proto-new-wave rocker built on Gabriel’s soaring vocals and a comparably soaring Levin bass line, one of the first bass performances (alongside The Who’s “The Real Me”) that really grabbed me.
7 ) “Digging In the Dirt” from Us
I view this one as of a piece with “That Voice Again” in addressing mental health issues so directly. It helps that this is also so funky, certainly, and as such I’d probably still love the song if it was about cars or chewing gum. But I still marvel at how a song this vulnerable got such heavy airplay.
8 ) “Olive Tree” (single, eventually to be part of i/o)
This recent single (from his monthly releases in 2023 to culminate in a full album) is, according to PG, “about connection, both how we interact with nature and the other species around us, but also a greater sensitivity to the potential for broadening human experience.” It is also a return to form in the sense that Gabriel’s singing sounds as powerful as it did in his purported heyday, and Levin, Katché, and Rhodes are right there with as much pocket as ever.
9 ) “No More Apartheid” from Sun City (by Artists United Against Apartheid)
I’ve written elaborately about how much the lead, multi-artist single from this important album moved me and still does. When I picked up the album, I found out how much other potent music rounded it out, including a classic Gil Scott-Heron track and a fascinating if at times befuddling Miles Davis performance, and this song by Gabriel in collaboration with Indian violinist Shankar (previously known as L Shankar, currently going by Shenkar). I’ve tried not to overuse the word “anthemic” but this track is just that, with Gabriel’s mostly-wordless vocals nonetheless serving a call to action.
10 ) “Downside Up” (featuring Melanie Gabriel) from OVO
For all the extroverted passion in so much of Gabriel’s music, his capacity for tenderness is also well-documented on classic tracks like “Don’t Give Up” and “I Grieve.” This gorgeous example (also worth checking out in its orchestral-reimagining from New Blood) features lovely duet vocals from his daughter Melanie.