Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1980)

Peter Gabriel, 'Peter Gabriel' (1980)As most know, well before he sledgehammered his way to pop stardom via MTV in the mid-80s, Peter Gabriel spent the late 60s and early 70s fronting the U.K. band Genesis during its formative prog-rock years.

After leaving Genesis in 1975, Gabriel began his solo career with four studio albums, all confusingly self-titled. While all have nifty moments scattered throughout, Gabriel’s third outing -- the “Melt” record produced by pop-minded Steve Lillywhite (XTC, U2) -- has always stood out for me as the best of the quartet.

The record kicks off with “Intruder,” introduced by a pounding “gated” drum sound played by Gabriel’s former bandmate, Phil Collins (and which would come to be associated with much of Collins’ solo work). What follows is a kind of dramatic monologue by the titular character, creepily whispered over a suspenseful amalgam of percussion, guitars, synth, and piano.

“No Self-Control” follows, a more upbeat but equally anxiety-filled track that rapidly builds into a kind of horror-movie like crescendo, with Kate Bush’s backing vocals adding chills along the way. A short instrumental, “Start,” comes next, briefly combining synths and a Dick Morrisey sax solo in a kind of maudlin yet moving meditation. That segues into the rocking “I Don’t Remember,” a loud, chant-like petition sung by an amnesiac.

Then comes the record’s finest moment, the mini-opera “Family Snapshot,” another dramatic reading, this time sharing the thought processes of a political assassin. The narrative gets a bit literal in places, but is nonetheless effective, and provides the perfect setting for Gabriel’s brand of theatrics. It’s an unforgettable track, starting softly as we meet the character and learn a bit about his motivations, building to a loud climax as he strikes, then returning to a quiet coda to reveal the real reason for the shooter’s desire “to be somebody.” Side One then closes with “And Through the Wire,” a pleasant bit of pop the meaning of which is a bit elusive to me.

Side Two opens with the quirky “Games Without Frontiers,” also prominently featuring Bush on backing vocals. The highly original, anti-war track marches along in a military-like fashion, the association encouraged further by some Bridge Over the River Kwai-type whistling. Next is “Not One of Us,” a sometimes-groovy, sometimes-frightening observation about exclusivity, the pounding, tribal-sounding coda of which aurally approximates a bloodthirsty mob running down a hapless scapegoat.

The brief “Lead a Normal Life” that follows is a pleasant, mostly instrumental track that offers a somewhat superficial, haiku-like portrait of mental illness. The record concludes with the seven-plus minute “Biko,” Gabriel’s commanding condemnation of apartheid that memorializes Steve Biko, the activist who died while in police custody in 1977. The context has fallen away, but the message of protest against authoritarian regimes is still forcefully delivered, a remarkably successful pairing of politics and pop.

A consistently satisfying collection of arty pop/rock, Peter Gabriel (1980) is a real achievement, the product of an artist who after a lengthy apprenticeship had finally discovered a suitable form of expression.

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