I recently watched an excellent documentary about the making of Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album “So” on the BBC iPlayer, rich with interesting facts and curious anecdotes, some of which I wanted to share.
“So” was a bit of a departure for Gabriel. Up to that point in his career he had been hugely successful, but probably admired more for his artistry, song-wrtiting craft and musicianship, but not known for his chart-topping prowess. That and occasional oddness. In fairness, he probably never aimed for chart topping hits, not even with “So”, but the album broadened his appeal hugely. The track listing is as follows:
“Don’t Give Up” (featuring Kate Bush)
“That Voice Again”
“In Your Eyes” (featuring Youssou N’Dour)
“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)”
“This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” (featuring Laurie Anderson)
Of those Red Rain, Sledghammer, Don’t Give Up, In Your Eyes, Mercy Street and Big Time can all be regarded as hits or classic tracks that have stood the test of time. Whilst Mercy Street and In Your Eyes could be considered to be more like the usual finely crated songs expected from Gabriel, Big Time and Sledgehammer in particular gained Gabriel a new audience. Sledgehammer came with a then groundbreaking video, shot in stop motion, which involved days of gruelling shoots, where Gabriel had to remain incredibly still in front of the camera, whilst floating clouds where painted on his face and all kinds of bits of plasticine smashed into or went through his head whilst he mouthed the lyrics to the song. I believe the video is still the most played ever video on MTV. It also came at a time when MTV was riding a wave, drawing a new audience of young kids and teens – I myself can remember watching Sledgehammer and being fascinated. By today’s standards the animation looks somewhat clumsy, but at the time it was ground-breaking.
For me, one of the most curious facts about “So”, is that Gabriel originally wanted Dolly Parton to sing the duet in “Don’t Give Up”. He contacted her management, but they never got back to him – it is assumed that they didn’t know who he was, which is slightly astounding. I guess these days a quick internet search could have dispelled any notion that this guy from Great Britain was an amateur. It is however really hard for me to imagine Parton singing on the song – I’m very glad her management never got back to him.
A testament to the longevity of “So” is that it comes in at 14 in the Rolling Stone 100 Best Albums of The Eighties list.