We look back at Peter Gabriel's So, which turns 30 today.
To call this album iconic is an understatement. It was the record that propelled Peter Gabriel from a marginally-known avant garde musician to a fully capable pop star with worldwide recognition. The eccentric former frontman of Genesis had certainly created a handful of hits (most notably “Solsbury Hill”) since setting out on his own, and had garnered a cult following of fans with the acquired taste to stomach his stylistically wide-ranging solo records, but So was a powerhouse. It went quintuple-platinum in the States and triple-platinum in the UK, is widely considered to be Gabriel’s best and most accessible album, and was listed as one of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time. The album’s lead single, “Sledgehammer,” reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 and remained on the charts for twenty-one weeks. The music video for the same track won a record nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, and Gabriel was given the Video Vanguard Award for lifetime achievement at the same ceremony. Keep in mind, this was in a pre-YouTube era when those awards actually meant something and MTV was still a gargantuan presence in the culture.
But all of that is just data (impressive though it may be), and if you’re already aware of Peter Gabriel’s work then the above paragraph is probably review. What is far more interesting is how So came to be. The story of its creation is as eccentric and inconceivable as the artist whose face is on the cover.
Prior to the creation of So, Gabriel had produced the soundtrack to the 1984 film Birdy and released four solo records all titled, simply, Peter Gabriel. Fans attributed their own nickname titles to the albums over the years for sake of clarification (Car, Scratch, and Melt were the respective names for Peter Gabriel I thru III, whereas Security was a title chosen by Gabriel but forcibly assigned to Peter Gabriel IV by Geffen Records for the US and Canada releases). Without these nicknames as points of reference, it would have been challenging and utterly confusing to have an intelligent conversation about Gabriel’s S/T records. He has noted an aversion to titling albums because he feels it detracts from the sleeve art.
In 1985, Gabriel was ready to begin the writing process for his next album, which he was planning on calling (you guessed it): Peter Gabriel. He received some pushback on this decision from the label, as they were struggling to know how to properly market his records and differentiate one release from another. Thus, in what may have been a sort of winking “screw you” to the label, Gabriel gave his album an “anti-title” by naming it after one of the most common adverbs/conjunctions in the English language.
Production on So began in 1985 at Ashcombe House, a 25-acre estate built in the early 19th century located in Somerset, England, which Gabriel had been renting since 1978 and used as his family home (it was last on the market in 2003 for £1.6 million, by the way). There was a barn on the property which Gabriel had had converted into a recording studio split into two rooms; one for tracking vocals and the other in which the musicians would play. It was in this same barn that he had produced Security and the Birdy soundtrack, the latter in collaboration with Daniel Lanois who would also serve as producer on So. Prior to his decision to work with Lanois, Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers, both industry veterans with lengthy and impressive resumes, were also under consideration to produce the record.
The studio was equipped with, among other things, two analog 24-track machines. Gabriel would record a demo of each song on piano into the “B machine” which the musicians would then use as a guideline during rehearsals, listening to the demo in headphones while they played along and recorded their output into the “A machine.” Portions of the demo were later blended into the “A” recording, and the band could listen back to what they had recorded in the previous take and play over top of it. This made for a sort of back-and-forth recording method, playing and listening from one machine to another, then fine-tuning the parts and retaining what takes were usable, building the songs little by little.
While Gabriel had no trouble churning out new musical pieces, he struggled when it came to writing lyrics, citing that he was often dissatisfied with them, and his procrastination was so bad that it was delaying production. Killen had to take drastic and unconventional measures to keep Gabriel on track, such as destroying his oft-used telephone in the nearby woods, and, on another occasion, nailing the door to the vocal studio shut with Gabriel inside. While these adverse steps may be considered extreme, they did the job at “inspiring” Gabriel to finish his lyrics.
As production was coming to a close, Gabriel became consumed with the album’s track listing and what arrangement of the songs sounded best as a whole. He made a cassette tape for himself of all the songs’ beginnings and endings to see how they sounded flowing into each other. Originally, “In Your Eyes” was to be the closing song on the record, but because of its pronounced bass line, it had to be placed earlier in the track listing for vinyl releases because there was more room for the needle to vibrate on the outer ring of the LP, thus delivering a fuller range of the audio mix. “In Your Eyes” was made the first track of Side Two and So closed with “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds).” For later CD releases, the sound limitation was no longer an issue and the tracks were put back in Gabriel’s preferred order.
In early 1986, most of the band members had packed up their instruments and equipment, under the impression that the recording sessions were completed. They were nearly on their way out the door when Gabriel stopped them, asking if they would set back up to do a quick run-through of a song he had an idea for. That song idea would eventually become “Sledgehammer,” the biggest hit of his career and the track that spawned his most memorable music video ever. “Sledgehammer’s” sound was inspired by 1960’s soul music, particularly that of Otis Redding, and Gabriel brought in Wayne Jackson (who toured with Redding and has been dubbed "arguably the greatest soul horn section ever") on trumpet to contribute to the song’s prominent horn section. Another fact of note, Manu Katché’s percussion was recorded in one take, as he believed any further attempts would diminish his original interpretation of the music.
As to the music video for “Sledgehammer,” it featured a blend of claymation, pixilation (not to be confused with pixelation), and stop-motion animation brought to life primarily by the Brothers Quay. However, the dancing chicken section was put together by Aardman Animations’ Nick Park, who would later go on to create the claymation series Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. During the sections in which Gabriel himself appears, he would sit in a chair or lie on his back for as long as sixteen hour shooting days while the crew painstakingly painted his face, changed his hair, or rearranged the props surrounding him while he lip-synced the lyrics frame by frame. According to Aardman’s Mark Cosgrove, production on the video took about one week with several crews working on various scenes simultaneously. The director, Stephen R. Johnson, later collaborated with Gabriel on the music videos for “Big Time” and “Steam,” both of which also incorporated a wide array of outlandish, colorful imagery and the melding of several animation styles and special effects.
Production for So came to a close in February 1986 and had cost £200,000 to make (that’s roughly $627,000 adjusted to today’s dollar). It was released on May 19, 1986, to almost universal critical acclaim. Gabriel was praised for having blended the experimental touches of his earlier work with hard-hitting pop hits, as well as his ability to implement world instruments and exotic sounds while still keeping the album widely-appealing and accessible in tone. So was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, but lost to Paul Simon’s Graceland. “Sledgehammer” was also nominated for three awards as a single, but did not win. But then, after the stellar sales and piles of other accolades that the album has gained over the past thirty years, who really needs a Grammy?
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