· music ·

I’ve just caught up with a great Classic Albums documentary about Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’. I loved that album to bits, and have listened to it fairly regularly since 1986, which certainly makes it a classic in my opinion. There can’t be many albums featuring such a high density of musical talent: quite apart from Peter Gabriel, ‘So’ was produced by Daniel Lanois (a wonderful artist in his own right), and features Tony Levin, Manu Katché, Laurie Anderson, Youssou N’Dour and Kate Bush.

It was a really fascinating documentary, and I loved the way they isolated parts of the mixes so that you could hear how it was all constructed. Peter Gabriel’s deep ‘shadow vocal’ on ‘Mercy Street’ was particularly lovely to hear, since it’s (deliberately) rather hard to pick out in the mix. I have to say that ‘Mercy Street’ is among my all-time favourite tracks by any artist. The mood and texture of it is so dark and yet so lovely, and the lyrics (inspired by a poem by Anne Sexton), are sensitive and evocative. Phrases like ‘There in the midst of it so alive and alone/Words support like bone’ are beautiful.

Another track I love is ‘Don’t Give Up’ which is a duet with Kate Bush. Musically, I couldn’t help adoring it because it was by my two favourite artists, but it also featured an amazing video in which Gabriel and Bush stand in an embrace for the entirety of the song, in front of a film of a solar eclipse. I had (still have, actually) an enormous musical crush1 on both of them, so this was a kind of perfect storm of fascination for me in my late teens. I think I would have been equally enraptured to have taken the place of either of them in the video and been held while being sung to.

I was therefore rather startled to learn in the programme that Peter initially wanted Dolly Parton to sing the female part.

Wait. What?

I have a lot of respect for Dolly Parton, even though I’m not keen on her music, but I imagine that Don’t Give Up would have been a very different song with her singing on it. And a very different video. Anyway, the actual track is a fantastically optimistic, comforting song, even though it is quite dark in places, and there have been many times in my life when listening to it (and thinking about being hugged by Peter Gabriel and/or Kate Bush) has been a great solace to me. I also really like the fact that Peter gives the female voice the part of the strong, encouraging one.

The whole documentary was fascinating, and full of funny stories about the rather lengthy recording process. Daniel Lanois recalled nailing the door to the studio shut with Peter inside when he got frustrated with how slowly things were progressing. And Peter told the story of recording ‘This Is The Picture’ with Laurie Anderson in only 48 hours (which included making the video), which resulted in him falling asleep mid-take, sitting bolt upright in a chair.

It’s an album that doesn’t seem to age. I refuse to believe that it’s 26 years since it was released, but I’m sure I’ll be listening to it for at least the next 26.

  1. OK, possibly not just a musical crush. ↩︎