Thursday, April 16, 2020

Albums of Influence: Security (a.k.a. "Peter Gabriel 4") by Peter Gabriel

Released on September 6, 1982, Peter Gabriel's 4th solo album was the peak of his creative career. He, somewhat perversely, wanted to call the album "Peter Gabriel" -- just like his last 3 records. Geffen Records, his American label, insisted the album have a proper and unique title, at least for the USA, for obvious reasons. Gabriel reluctantly agreed, and chose the title "Security". It was placed, via sticker, on top of the shrinkwrap of the LPs and cassettes (Dear reader, the compact disc had not yet been invented).

I was aware of Peter Gabriel primarly through his previous hit single, "Games Without Frontiers", from "Peter Gabriel 3" (a.k.a. "Melting Face"). I heard it on FM radio and found it oddly compelling. The oily, fluid bass guitar, the clanky drum machine against the tribal drums, the whistling hook, and the surrealistc lyrics all made an impression. 

When I heard his new single, "Shock The Monkey", and saw the video, I resolved to get the album. I was only able to find it on cassette (the worst audio format ever), but bought it all the same. 

"Security" was a continuation and refinement of what Gabriel had been working on since he left Genesis to be a solo artist.

The cover art, for example, is just like his previous 3 records: a dramatically distorted photo of his face, both mocking and hewing to the conventions of pop music stardom.

And that really is his face. It is a still grabbed from a video shot and directed by Malcolm Poynter, who says “ memory of this project, which was crucially pre-Photoshop, was us dragging around flexi mirrors and Fresnel lenses, and...having a very creative (if chaotic) time."

One can only imagine how Geffen records must have felt: That cover image, the title being the same as his last *3* records, and a "hit single" about animal experimentation.

The album starts with "The Rhythm of the Heat", which fades in what sounds like bamboo pipes, before Gabriel's alien wailing drops into dramatic and dynamic drums. The piece is, in some ways, very "Genesis-y" -- it's got a bit of music theater vibe about it, but is also creepy and unsettling. It's like a song version of the Wicker Man, all strange rituals on the edge of violence. 

Listening to his voice whisper "Smash the outside voices here! Smash the cannot steal away the spirits! Smash the cannot tear the day to shreds!" before he starts screaming about how "The rhythm has my soul!" and drums and chanting bring the song to a crescendo and climax was...potent. Like musical theater, it might be a little cheesy, but that doesn't mean it's not affecting, if you are in the right mood and open to the experience.

The second song on the album is "San Jacinto", a similarly elaborate composition that details a coming-of-age ritual and measures it against modern life ("each house a pool, kids wearing water-wings, drinking cool...past Geronimo's disco...").

Gabriel is interested in studying culture as an abstract. Everything is ritual, power structures, lore. He's long explored the idea that "modern" culture and "primitive" culture are basically the same. That nothing really changes, that one is not better than the other, and that perhaps we shouldn't be so proud of ourselves. That there are forces beyond our comprehension, or at least more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy."

"I Have the Touch" and "The Family and the Fishing Net", for example, are basically an alien or outsider observing business and a wedding and documenting what they see. The commonplace becomes exotic through distance and perspective.

"Shock The Monkey" kicks off side two. This was the album's single, and was about scientific experimentation on a monkey...from the monkey's point of view. Gabriel shot a pretty great video for it, where he manages to obliquely address the song's lyrics and get at his obsessions and album themes. It's a pretty solid pop song, and one of the more conventional productions on the record -- there's a steady beat throughout the song, you could probably dance to it, and it has hooks.

Similarly, "Wallflower" is a beautiful ballad, with Gabriel's lovely voice and chiming Yamaha concert piano (the same kind U2 used in the early days -- it's a very distinctive sound). If you can look past it being about tortured political prisoners, it almost sounds romantic.

The album was one of the first completely digital recordings, and also extensively featured the then state-of-the-art Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument), which allowed for sampling. Back in those days, people used it to make instruments, rather than rip loops off of records, and songs like "Lay Your Hands On Me" (about Jesus as a suburbanite) have all kinds of clanking cans, eerie blown bottles and pipes, and other "found sounds" that are melded into the track. 

Gabriel famously told the drummers not to "use any metal" on the album -- no crash cymbals, no hi hat. Just drums. This helps give the album a tribal vibe, and forces the drummers to play different kinds of beats. Some of the songs have artificial hi-hats and crashes, but Gabriel's rules and aesthetic help give the album a distinctive sound.

Gabriel has a deserved reputation for spending excessive time in the studio tweaking the minutia of his recorded work. Whereas this makes records like "Us" sound overcooked and flat, his attention (perhaps tempered by finite budget and cruder tools) made "Security" exciting, at least for its time.

After "Security", Gabriel decided to play it straight. His next album, "So", was a kind of commercial sell-out capstone to his previous four arty-but-unsuccessful records. "So" had a simple and memorable title, displayed prominently. The cover featured a beautiful black and white photograph of Gabriel's handsome, unobscured face by Trevor Key, and was designed by Peter Saville (see also: New Order). 

"So" featured songs that were shiny, simplified pop takes on his multi-cultural world music sound, with nearly all of the weird and dark stuff stripped away, or confined to one song: the album-closing "Milgram's 37", the chorus of which features people sing-chanting "We do what we're told to do". Perhaps it is Gabriel's sly commentary on capitulating to pop machinery.

Yes, "In Your Eyes" is nice, but it's pretty much "Wallflower" part 2, with the strange blood subtracted and replaced with treacle. "Don't Give Up" has a beautiful vocal from Kate Bush...but that's about it. The singles are lame, and are basically Gabriel singing about his dick, supported by gimmicky videos. This, from the guy that had done "Biko" just a few years prior.

Naturally, "So" was a smash hit -- the biggest of his career -- and marked the end of his truly interesting and challenging work. It sold 5 million copies in the USA alone. Finally, Geffen Records was happy.

Gabriel's soundtrack to Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" is also fantastic, but has no songs or vocals, and is largely about timbre and vibe. His subsequent solo albums were attempts at recapturing either the success and sounds of "So", or "Security", or trying to fuse them together. 

"Us", "Up", and the rest are totally fine. Gabriel has a great voice, writes good or great melodies, hires top-notch players, and meticulously crafts his records. But a certain fire, or perhaps perversity, seems lacking post-Security.

For me, all of that has only emphasized how great "Security" is.

Aside from lessons observed from Gabriel's career, "Security" showed me how you can make strange things into pop songs, and how the fire of personal obsessions can drive you to interesting places. 

And perhaps, how selling out can make you rich at the expense of your weird little soul.


"Shock The Monkey"

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