Saturday, 28 June 2008

Peter Gabriel: The Rhythmatist

Last weekend me and my family had the great good fortune to stay a few days in the country cottage of one of England’s finest composers. Quite apart from the lovely living arrangements, I even got to do a little writing in his office, having carefully cleared a space to spread my things, between the piano and the sheets of notation and the pocket metronome… The bookshelves in the cottage were fairly choice too, replete with good fiction and non-fiction, but I was especially interested in the selection of books on music. Typically, though, I zeroed in on a volume called Good Vibrations, about the history of rock/pop production techniques.
One section therein that grabbed me concerned the introduction to musical possibilities c. 1980 of the Fairlight, an early sampler which loaned itself to terrific aural experimentation. The first two musical types to invest their own money in this expensive device in the UK were Peter Gabriel, and Durham’s own Trevor Horn. And I remember, as if it were yesterday, the autumn/spring of 1982-83, running out to three separate long-playing records (vinyl, of course) that made stunning use of the new technology: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, Peter Gabriel’s fourth self-titled solo album, and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock, produced by Horn. (That last one, an early experiment in world music piracy, had some marvellous tracks, only partially marred by the presence of McLaren himself, such as the juju-inspired Soweto.)
Prior to those bits of shopping one of the big musical revelations of my young life was in late 1982 when I saw a South Bank Show on the recording of aforementioned Peter Gabriel IV. The picture it presented, enforced by amazing music, of Gabriel’s genius-like marrying of rhythmic and melodic and lyrical/cerebral qualities, was incredibly powerful to an impressionable youngster. I suppose I was particularly gripped by the description of how Gabriel’s bookish idea for a song provisionally titled ‘Jung in Africa’ became this thunderous track, The Rhythm of the Heat.
A few years later Alan Parker persuaded Gabriel to remodel the IV songs and a few others from his back-catalogue into a score for Parker's movie of William Wharton’s novel Birdy. This Birdy trailer - which also brings back a horde of memories for me in the proverbial Proustian rush - is a showcase for some of Gabriel’s choice cuts and the imagery of the film to which they were terrifically matched.
As it happened, Alan Parker went on to do me a couple of great good turns in life which I won’t ever forget. Gabriel, meanwhile, has remained one of my absolute favourite artists. This weekend I note there’s a new release forthcoming from Gabriel and Real World – Big Blue Ball, essentially a record of some diverse and glorious jam sessions at Gabriel’s studio over various summers 15 or so years ago. I’ll be buying that one, then.

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