[Review] Peter Gabriel: So (1986)

Peter Gabriel’s so-phisticated response to the Afrobeat awakening.

Kronomyth 7.0: There’s Winston Rumfoord, dressed in drag.

Beginnings are cumbersome things, and I rarely get a proper grip on the world around me. I have for years denied the existence of coffee cup handles, preferring to pinch them near the rim as a crab might. When I cut my food, I hold my fork with a fist in a scene reminiscent of Thanksgiving with the Van Helsings. All of which makes for a rather long and unnecessary introduction where a simple So might have sufficed…

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, a wise physician of the soul once wrote. As a fourteen-year-old facing the Orwellian uncertainty of 1980, so much depended on the red wave of “new” musical ideologues: Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads. Their music was an attack against what I perceived (and still perceive) to be insidious social and political forces that prosper the few and imprison the rest. Yes, I was a lot of fun at parties, even back then. Scary Monsters, Big Science, Remain In Light and Peter Gabriel’s third album were the future of the revolution, and I wanted in.

Fast forward a few years, and the revolution had fizzled. Anderson, Bowie and the Heads were making movies. Gabriel had receded into his library to write long, philosophical tracts on Security. With fewer heroes to pin one’s hopes on, I slept, roused only briefly for Roxy Music’s daydream, Avalon. In 1986, however, the revolution returned from a long vacation, couched in the positivism of Afropop. Graceland, Back In The High Life and So shook us from our Western slumber and showed us there was a bigger world than our own.

At the time, So was the very symbol of sophistication, both in its painstakingly assembled music and its groundbreaking music videos for “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.” In the mind of a teenager, the four years since Gabriel’s last record seemed an eternity.

“A teenternity!” squeals the imp, pauperizied prince of portmanteaus and the alliterative alliances they produce.

Here were eight slices of heaven. On Security, Gabriel could only envision a clash of technology and sociology. On So, these once-opposing forces formed a powerful alliance. Gabriel and producer Daniel Lanois filtered their new worldview through a painstaking editing process that made Avalon and Let’s Dance sound positively spartan. “Big Time,” “Sledgehammer,” “In Your Eyes” and “That Voice Again” produce a joyful noise, punctuated by computers, synthesizers, strings, sticks and drums. It was as though a treasure chest of music, hoarded for years, had been unlocked and spilled into the speakers. Even the quieter pieces (“We Do What We’re Told,” “Mercy Street”) are bejewelled.

Despite the years, there was a connection between Security and So. “San Jacinto” and “Lay Your Hands On Me” showed Gabriel building stormclouds of sound; on “Red Rain” those clouds burst forth. Likewise, the unconventional rhythms of “I Have The Touch” find a purer expression on “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes.” In retrospect, it’s tempting to see Security as a transitional record, a broader foundation built upon the groundbreaking efforts of Gabriel’s third album, with So as its mansion, four years in the making. In one seeming stroke, Gabriel vaunted himself into elite company, which at the moment included his previous bandmates, although I would tell you that Invisible Touch couldn’t hold a candle to So.

In my eyes, So set a new global standard for pop music and boded well for a compassionate, ethical future. Unfortunately, Peter Gabriel was sucked into his chrono-synclastic infundibulum again, re-appearing at spaced intervals to change the course of human events but slightly (like Vonnegut’s Winston Rumfoord) before disappearing again. And So it goes.

Original LP Version
A1. Red Rain
A2. Sledgehammer
A3. Don’t Give Up
A4. That Voice Again (Peter Gabriel/David Rhodes)
B1. In Your Eyes
B2. Mercy Street
B3. Big Time
B4. We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)

Original CD/CS bonus track
9. This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds) (Peter Gabriel/Laurie Anderson)

All songs written by Peter Gabriel unless noted.

The Players
Peter Gabriel (vocals, piano, CMI, Prophet, Linn, percussion, synth, backing vox, CS80, horn arrangements), Manu Katche (drums, percussion, talking drum), Daniel Lanois (guitar, tambourine, surf guitar, horn arrangements), Tony Levin (bass, drumstick bass), David Rhodes (guitar, backing vox, additional arrangement ideas) with P P Arnold (backing vox), Michael Been (backing vox on B1), Jimmy Bralower (Linn kick on B3), Ronnie Bright (bass vox on B1), Kate Bush (guest vox on A3), Simon Clark (Chorus CS80, Hammond, CMI, bass), Stewart Copeland (hi-hat, drums), Djalma Correa (surdu, congas, triangle on B2), Coral Gordon (backing vox), Chris Hughes (Linn programming), Wayne Jackson (trumpet, cornet, horn arrangements), Jim Kerr (backing vox on B1), Dee Lewis (backing vox), Larry Klein (bass), Jerry Marotta (drums, drumstick bass), Don Mikkelsen (trombone), Youssou N’dour (guest vox on B1), Mark Rivera (alto, tenor and baritone sax, processed sax), L Shankar (violin), Richard Tee (piano). Produced by Daniel Lanois and Peter Gabriel; engineered by Kevin Killen, B2 engineered by Ary Carvalhaes and Jairo Gualberto; original track recording by David Bascombe; additional engineering by David Bottrill and David Stallbaumer; New York overdubs engineered by Bruce Lampcov.

The Pictures
Photography by Trevor Key. Design by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens.

The Plastic
Released on elpee, compact disc and cassette on May 19, 1986 in the US (Geffen, GHS/M5 24088), the UK (Charisma, PG/PGCD/PGMC 5), Germany (Virgin, 207/407 587 630), Japan (Virgin/Charisma, 28VC-1088), Mexico (Virgin, LAE-684), Russia (Melodiya, A60 00427 007) and Yugoslavia (Jugoton, SCHAR73168) with lyrics innersleeve; reached #2 on the US charts (RIAA-certified 5x platinum record) and #1 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-issued on compact disc on December 1, 1987 in Japan (Virgin/Charisma, VJD-32010).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc on February 17, 2002 in Japan (Virgin/Charisma, 32VD-1021).
  3. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 2002 in the US (Geffen, 069 493 272-2) and the UK (Virgin, PGCDX 5).
  4. Re-released on super audio compact disc in 2003 in the UK (Virgin, SAPGCD 5).
  5. Re-issued on remastered compact disc in Japan (Virgin, VJCP-68527).
  6. Re-released on 25th anniversary edition compact disc in 2012 in the US (Real World, PGCDRRUSS).
  7. Re-released on 180g vinyl half-speed remastered elpee and 2LP in 2016 in Europe (Caroline/Real World, PGLPR5/X).

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