Peter Gabriel always stood out, even as a member of the band Genesis in the 1970s, but it was his solo career that made him a permanent icon in the music world. Lazily labeled as “progressive rock,” his music continues to demonstrate that he deserves to be in a genre all by himself.
I admit that scaling down my selection of songs to ten was a difficult task. At first, I thought about limiting it to the chart-topping hits he has had over the years; “Sledgehammer,” after all, proved that he could appeal to a wide audience. But that would have been the easy way out. Instead, I decided to focus on some of the songs that transcend the mainstream to really set him apart from his contemporaries.
So, with that in mind, here is my list of top ten Peter Gabriel songs many you have probably never heard. Please note that the order in which they are presented is completely arbitrary. I selected these songs because I believe they are definitive examples of Gabriel’s unique style and sound.
1. Come Talk to Me (Us)
Gabriel wrote this as a plea to his daughter. We have all had times when we found it difficult to communicate with others, especially the ones we love. Utilizing the effective combination of bagpipes and drums, Gabriel strikes up a militaristic cadence, inviting the listener to march against the walls that separate us until we see “all the barriers blown away.”
2. I Grieve (Up)
This song was first featured on the City of Angels soundtrack. Here, Gabriel addresses the suffering and loss we inevitably face as human beings in a world fraught with hardship. But what begins as a dirge-like lament is slowly transposed into a more upbeat song of hope. Yes, we grieve as we take the bad with the good, but, as he concludes, “life carries on and on and on.”
3. Mercy Street (So)
Dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, “Mercy Street” uses haunting lyrics and a deep, echoing, hollow sound to take us through the dark streets and back alleys of a troubled mind. Sexton suffered a lifelong battle with depression and wrote poetry as a form of therapy. She eventually committed suicide in 1974, just shy of her 46th birthday. Gabriel captures the longing and frustration of her life that often spilled over into her writing.
4. The Tower That Ate People (OVO)
Reminiscent of the story of the Tower of Babel, and part homage to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, this song is a critique of monuments born of man’s vanity. It is rather ironic, since it was featured as part of the soundtrack for the Millennium Dome Show in London. Based on what we know about Peter Gabriel, we can assume it may have been meant as a subtle commentary on the emptiness of the turn-of-the-century structure being celebrated.
5. The Barry Williams Show (Up)
A brutal send-up of TV “talk” shows hosted by greedy, self-serving egotists who care more about ratings than for the people they exploit. Sound familiar? While Gabriel accuses these charlatans of “making money from the sick,” he also reminds us that we, the viewers, are the ones who make these shows so popular. (One interesting note: Barry Williams, a.k.a. Greg from The Brady Bunch, has a cameo in the music video.)
6. Family Snapshot (Peter Gabriel – III)
This song was inspired by Arthur Bremer’s book An Assassin’s Diary. Bremer, you may recall, shot and paralyzed Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in 1972. His reason? He wanted to be famous. Gabriel’s song, however, seems to focus on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, though the actual event depicted isn’t important. The lyrics are the thoughts of a disturbed individual who was neglected by his parents and now longs for the attention he never received as a child. Throughout the song there is a constant shifting of moods, from the violent actions of a deranged killer to the quiet, desperate pleas of a lonely man whose childhood innocence has been lost forever.
7. San Jacinto (Security)
“San Jacinto” draws from an ancient Native American ritual in which a boy on the cusp of manhood would endure the bite of a rattlesnake to embark on his own vision quest and gain a certain “oneness” with nature. Gabriel uses this imagery to contrast the modern trivialization of Indian culture (“Geronimo’s Disco,” “Sit ‘n’ Bull Steakhouse”) with the spiritual ties the Indians believed they had with the land.
8. I Love to be Loved (Us)
The title pretty much speaks for itself. Since Gabriel dedicated this album to his ex-wife and two daughters, it stands to reason that most of the songs would be about relationships. In this song, he delves into the yearning all humans have for comfort, security, and, most importantly, love. The irony, however, is that even though we long to feel close to someone else, we sometimes fear the very thing we crave and push others away. The resulting loneliness can be a source of tremendous emotional pain.
9. It Is Accomplished (Passion)
This is a short instrumental piece from the score for Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. I never saw the movie, but I love the soundtrack. The merging of a simple, driving theme with relentless percussion is quintessential Gabriel.
10. Here Comes the Flood (Shaking the Tree)
Gabriel claims this song was inspired by a dream he had in which people could read each other’s thoughts. In such a world, those who have nothing to hide will thrive, whereas those who are more dishonest will be exposed in the ensuing “psychic flood” that washes over humanity. The song appeared on Gabriel’s first solo album, but the “stripped down” version on his Shaking the Tree compilation more effectively captures his original vision.
Needless to say, this list could have been longer. For those of you who are already Peter Gabriel fans, I hope you come away with a better appreciation for his artistry. If you are unfamiliar with his music, then perhaps this was enough to whet your appetite.