Peter Gabriel is being awarded the Polar Music Prize 2009 for his ground-breaking, outward-looking and boundary-busting artistry. As a composer, artist and person, Peter Gabriel has not only had a significant influence on the development of popular music – he has redefined the very concept. Peter Gabriel does more than just intertwine music, voice and images – his music is at once a megaphone for the global society and its most unflinching critic. Peter Gabriel’s artistry presents us with world music in its most meaningful sense.
I began as a songwriter, and that is what I will do until I drop.
Peter Gabriel was born on the 13th of February 1950 in Chobham, Surrey, England. His father Ralph was an electrical engineer. His mother Edith came from a musical family and taught Peter to play the piano at an early age. After prep school, from the age of 13, Peter was sent to the historic and well-reputed Charterhouse boarding school in Godalming, where he formed Genesis in 1967 together with four schoolmates.
Gabriel’s early musical influences were many: rhythm & blues and early soul, The Beatles, the psychedelic pop scene at the time, but also the classical music and the English hymns sung in the numerous services at school. In his first school bands Peter played the drums. In Genesis he became the singer – and sometimes played the flute, the oboe, the tambourine and a foot drum.
The debut album From Genesis to Revelation (1969) with its light pop sound and string arrangements didn’t get much attention. But over the course of a year Genesis quickly evolved into a progressive rock band with complex song structures and elaborate instrumentation. Trespass (1970) was folk-based progressive pop built on lush melodies, primarily carried on acoustic guitar and piano and experimenting with time signature changes.
For Nursery Cryme (1971), drummer Phil Collins and guitarist Steve Hackett joined the band. The songs were long epics composed by the whole band and told surreal stories of fairytales, fables, classical myths, eccentricities and quotes from literature. The number of records sold wasn’t huge, but the live shows became ever more brilliant and attractive to the press.
Foxtrot (1972) was an early Genesis’ art rock masterpiece and contained one of the group’s most accomplished works, the 23-minute multi-part epic “Supper’s Ready”. Selling England by the Pound (1973) became Genesis’ first commercial success. Its single “I Know What I Like” even hit the charts.
In 1974, Genesis recorded the ambitious double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a concept album for which Peter Gabriel wrote the story and most of the lyrics. In contrast to the lengthy tracks featured on earlier albums, it consisted of a large number of short tracks, connected by the story of Rael, a young Puerto Rican living in New York City, and his search for freedom and identity.
The working process – with Gabriel working on the lyrics by himself and the band working on the music – created some tension. Peter also became a father for the first time, his daughter was ill and he wanted to spend more time with his family. After a world tour in 1975 with more than 100 concerts where they performed the double album in its entirety, Gabriel left Genesis.
Peter Gabriel stayed away from the music business for a year after leaving Genesis in 1975. His first solo album, produced by Bob Ezrin (Kiss, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd) was released in 1977 and included “Solsbury Hill”, his “declaration of independence” from Genesis.
Between 1977 and 1982 Peter made four solo albums, searching and developing a personal, more subtle style, including avant-garde, electronic and world beat influences. None of the albums were titled, named only Peter Gabriel, except in the U.S. where his fourth album was named Security. Robert Fripp produced the second album which included “D.I.Y.” (1978). The third (1980), produced by Steve Lillywhite, yielded “Games Without Frontiers” and “Biko” and showed Gabriel striving to break rock conventions. Drummers Jerry Marotta and Phil Collins were prohibited from using cymbals, and the album is also often credited as the first LP to use the “gated drum” sound.
Gabriel’s fourth album (1982), on which he took more production responsibility, became his breakthrough as a solo artist. It featured the song “Shock the Monkey”.
Peter Gabriel’s fifth studio album was in production for three years. Before its release in 1986, Peter initiated and financed the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Festival in 1982, designed to bring African and Far Eastern music – which had increasingly influenced his work – to Western ears. In 1984 he scored Alan Parker’s film Birdy which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
In 1985 he founded Real World, aimed at developing cross-cultural projects in technology and the arts. That year he completed So with producer Daniel Lanois. It was released in 1986 and became a huge commercial and artistic success, largely because his Stax homage “Sledgehammer” and its innovative video that combined animation with live action. The video set a new standard for art in the music video industry and won nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987.
Real World Studios
With the success and income from So, Peter Gabriel could fulfill his dream; to build a studio exactly as he wanted it to be – close to his home and not just for himself but for musicians from all over the world. With WOMAD across the street in the little village of Box in southwestern England, Peter set up Real World Studios in the old water mill in 1986 – a recording complex with the latest technology and an environment for collaboration and cross-border experiences.
As So was riding high on the charts, Gabriel co-headlined the first benefit tour for Amnesty International in 1986 with Sting and U2. Another Amnesty tour followed in 1988 with Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman and Sting. In 1989 he released Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, the score for Martin Scorsese’s film, on his new label Real World Records. Gabriel collaborated with musicians like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal. The soundtrack won a Grammy.
It was six years from So to Peter Gabriel’s next pop music album. Us was released in 1992 – another two-letter word for a strong collection of songs, this time darker, more emotional and personal. Musically, Us is a mix between the modern ambient and ethnic Passion and the rhythmic, soul influenced So. Content and lyrics were inspired by the divorce from his long-time partner and wife, the mother of his two daughters, the breakup up of the relationship after that and his experiences of therapy.
Gabriel was awarded three Grammy Awards, all in the video category: Best short form video in 1993 and 1994 for “Digging in the Dirt” and “Steam” from Us and Best Long Form Music Video in 1996 for “Secret World Live,” recorded during the tour that followed.
In 1993 Peter Gabriel embarked on the most ambitious WOMAD tour to date – across the U.S. with Crowded House, James and Sinéad O’Connor. After the release of the double-disc Secret World Live in 1994 and the interactive CD-ROM Xplora1, based on Us, he concentrated on developing more multimedia projects for Real World and started working on a new studio album.
In 2008 The Big Blue Ball was released, an album by multiple artists which grew from the ”recording weeks” at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the summers of 1991, ’92 and ’95, featuring artists like Wendy Malvoin of Wendy & Lisa, Sinéad O’Connor, Karl Wallinger, Natacha Atlas, Papa Wemba and musicians from Africa, Asia, Europe and America.
The album Scratch my Back (2010) features orchestral covers by Gabriel of songs originally performed by Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Paul Simon and others. The idea is that the artists covered will record their versions of Gabriel’s songs on an album named I’ll Scratch Yours.
In October 2011, Gabriel released New Blood, a collection of his own songs in pure orchestral arrangements, without any guitars, drums or electronic instruments. Live Blood was recorded in London in 2011 and released in April 2012.