“Sometimes, when you look around, everything seems still and calm on the surface. And then you detect a little disturbance and you know for sure that underneath the surface lies some other secret world.” — Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel is an extremely passionate musician and songwriter who has earned international acclaim, not only for his music but also for his human rights work and his promotion of world music.
Born on February 13, 1950, Gabriel grew up on a farm in Woking, Surrey, England. His childhood was full of outdoor exploration, which greatly fueled his creative imagination. Gabriel’s father had an electrical degree and a love of technology, while his mother was a talented pianist. This early exposure to technology and music would form the foundation of his lifelong passions.
From an early age, he was also influenced by nature and this fascination with the natural elements – Earth, Air, Fire and Water – became pillars in his creative journey. In particular, his connection with water can found as a theme in his art.
“I think there is a deep urge for humans to live by water,” says Gabriel whose home in the English countryside is surrounded by water. These themes come through clearly in songs like “Washing of the Water” with its evocative lyrics:
River, oh river, river running deep
Bring me something that will let me get to sleep
In the washing of the water will you take it all away
Bring me something to take this pain away.
In fact, what originally engaged me with Gabriel’s work was his instinctual use of the four elements as a creative influence and his lyrical ability to brilliantly weave his physical and emotional connection with nature through his personal stories.
Music is the audio foundation and environment through which Gabriel’s stories exist. “Songwriting is what drew me into music,” he says. “The craft and the process of putting together a good song seemed both exciting and magical.”
The Magical Musical Journey
Gabriel’s musical journey began when he first picked up a clarinet as a child. Piano and dance lessons were also a part of his childhood. At age 12, he was already experimenting creatively with music, playing various instruments and writing songs. At 13, he began four years of study at Charterhouse, a prestigious boarding school in Godalming, Surrey, England, considered a prep school for England’s elite universities.
During his time at Charterhouse, Gabriel used music as an emotional and creative outlet, playing drums and piano, and singing. There, he met his future bandmates Mike Rutherford, Anthony Phillips, Chris Stewart and Tony Banks. At the young age of 17, he formed the legendary progressive rock band Genesis.
In 1967, Genesis began creating pop songs that reflected the influence of The Beatles and soul music. However, by 1970 their musical abilities developed further as they grew into a progressive rock band. The band’s lineup was further strengthened with the addition of guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins.
With its focus on musicianship and songwriting, Genesis drew a following. Their theatrical stage shows — including a compelling stage design accented by Gabriel’s flamboyant presence and his penchant for costumes that reflected the lyrical and musical ideas of the songs — garnered international attention. Genesis shows often featured a white backdrop with black lights to accentuate Gabriel and his costumes, and silhouette the band.
The years 1970 to 1975 were defining ones for Genesis. An unparalleled use of acoustic and electric instruments coupled with the theatrics of a brilliant frontman set them apart. In 1973, the band released Selling England by the Pound, which included the hit songs “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” and “The Cinema Show”. The 70s also heralded the band’s concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, with story and lyrics created entirely by Gabriel. To this day, Genesis remains one of the most popular rock bands in history, selling in excess of 150 million albums.
Despite the band’s success, Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, apparently due to creative tensions. His sudden exit from the band brought many questions from fans. Overall, the creative process within the band had become too constricting through the attempts of each member to have equal input. Furthermore, Gabriel’s growing interest in film and other side projects was not welcomed. The process of writing all of the lyrics for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway gave Gabriel a glimpse of solo life, which ultimately fueled his decision to leave Genesis.
Most musicians can relate to the allure of going solo. Creating music in a group can be a whirlwind learning experience and extremely rewarding. However, any musician can attest that the prospect of total creative control can be the tipping point towards striking out on his or her own. With that comes the realization that the drive to move forward and create rests solely on your own shoulders. I believe that the decision to “go solo” takes an immense amount of courage .
Since becoming a solo artist, Gabriel has released eight solo studio albums, along with several compilations and live albums. His 1977 self-titled debut included the song “Solsbury Hill”, which explored his exit from Genesis and newfound freedom. By his third self-titled release, Gabriel had produced some of his most famous songs. In 1986, he worked with the brilliant Canadian Producer Daniel Lanois on the album So. With hits such as “Red Rain”, “Sledgehammer”, “Big Time”, and “Mercy Street”, this quickly became his most successful album.
Recently, Gabriel released his first album in eight years, Scratch My Back. It features a distinct collection of cover songs written by artists ranging from David Bowie, Paul Simon and Neil Young to Radiohead and Arcade Fire.
“Peter surprises me because he seems to have heard everything, but you never catch him listening,” says studio director Mike Large. “He’ll have heard all kinds of music but I’ll have never been able to work out when he’s heard it.” Gabriel’s concept for the album is for the featured artists to exchange the favor by covering one his songs in return.
He has also composed several soundtracks for films, including Birdy (1984) and Passion (1989). He has contributed songs for films such as Philadelphia (1994), City of Angels (1998) and, recently, the Oscar-nominated song “Down to Earth” written for the film Wall-E (2008).
World Music, World Hope
Gabriel launched own high-tech recording studio in the early 80s, created as an environment for him to record his own material and that of world musicians. In fact, Gabriel’s love of world music has inspired him to work with musicians from all parts of the globe. He created the world music festival WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) in Europe and the record label Real World Records, two projects that have helped showcase world musicians to a mainstream audience.
In 1986, Gabriel participated in the Conspiracy of Hope concert tour for Amnesty International. This was a distinct turning point in his life, heightening his global perspective and leading to his passionate and ongoing work for human rights. Four years later, he co-founded WITNESS, a program that uses online and video technologies to shed light on global human rights violations. Recently, along with Nelson Mandela, Gabriel co-founded the international group The Elders, which aims to help with major global problems such as climate change, poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Gabriel has been awarded numerous Grammys throughout the years. In 2007, he was given the Ivor Novello Award for lifetime achievement for his music and video work. He has also been awarded the Man of Peace award of the Nobel Peace Laureates, as well as being named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his philanthropic efforts.
Peter Gabriel is one of a few select artists who, over the course of more than four decades, has used music as an inspirational tool to connect people and help those in need. He has always defined himself as an artist who creates from a genuine place. Throughout his career, music has been his ultimate means of communication in bridging the emotional and natural differences between our many cultures.
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Peter Gabriel. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Peter Gabriel in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows. To experience some of Peter Gabriel’s music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse at his large body of work. Below that, you will find 2 excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
- “Solsbury Hill” on Peter Gabriel 1 or Car
- “Games Without Frontiers” on Peter Gabriel 3 or Melt
- “Supper’s Ready” on Foxtrot (Genesis)
- “Digging In The Dirt” on Us
- “Red Rain” on So
“Peter Gabriel” Joi @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.