Happy 30th Anniversary to Peter Gabriel’s So, originally released May 19, 1986.
In his previous gig as lead singer of Genesis, Peter Gabriel often appeared on stage dressed as a sunflower, in a red dress wearing a fox head or some other elaborate costume that no doubt induced rolling eyeballs from his bandmates. Conventional and predictable are two words you would absolutely not use to describe Peter Gabriel or his fifth studio album So for that matter.
When he was their frontman, Genesis’ music reflected Gabriel's musical sensibilities and when he departed the band, he maintained his eclectic sensibilities throughout his solo career.
So is the most commercially accessible LP in his discography and also the first one to have a proper title. Up to this point, all of his albums were titled Peter Gabriel, with each receiving a nickname based on the cover art. Gabriel has often said that having a proper title on the album takes away from the beauty of the cover art. His fourth album was titled Security only in the United States because his label Geffen Records refused to release it without a title.
Gabriel began recording So with producer Daniel Lanois in 1985 at his home studio. Although the songs were less experimental, he fused African and Brazilian styles with the elements of his art rock past, and the end results were something magical. He managed to perform the difficult task of staying true to his style of music while making the album more listenable to a wider audience.
For better or worse, the popularity of So was buoyed by the release of the album’s first single “Sledgehammer.” It was accompanied by, at the time, a groundbreaking, multiple MTV Award winning music video. “Sledgehammer” was released a month before the album and ironically it was the last song recorded for the album. Gabriel refers to the song as an homage to the music that he grew up with and his all-time favorite singer, Otis Redding. To capture the feel of the late ‘60s Stax recordings, Gabriel used trumpeter Wayne Jackson, member of The Memphis Horns, who toured with Redding. Legend has it that Jackson recorded his trumpet solo in just one take.
Upon hearing “Sledgehammer” for the first time, I was curious about what the rest of the album would sound like. I thought most of the songs would be in a similar vein, but I was pleasantly surprised when I put the needle down on the record and I heard the opening cymbals (courtesy of Stewart Copeland) on “Red Rain.” Who knew that a song about torture, kidnapping, and parting red seas could sound so amazing. Gabriel has stated that the song is also the continuing story of Mozo, a character from his first two albums.
The third track, “Don't Give Up,” is a political statement decrying the rising unemployment that prevailed during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of England. It also has a very interesting story attached to it. When Gabriel wrote the song, his original intent was to have it be a duet with Dolly Parton. When Parton declined, Gabriel turned to his friend Kate Bush, who immediately agreed to sing the song. As much as I would have loved to hear Parton's vocal on the song, Bush's delicate reading creates a undeniable sense of beauty that makes the song work.
The running order for So has regrettably changed over the years. When it was first released, the opening track on side two (or track 5 for you CD owners) is the timeless “In Your Eyes.” The song is also famously featured in the 1989 movie Say Anything and features the iconic image of Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusack) holding up a boombox while this song is emanating from it. Gabriel has said that he and Cusack "were sort of trapped together in a minuscule moment of contemporary culture." The song is also noteworthy for the powerful singing of Youssou N'Dour. “In Your Eyes,” which has been described as Gabriel's greatest love song, is indeed the unsung hero and crowning jewel of this record. “Mercy Street,” an ode to the late poet Anne Sexton and “Big Time” are great examples of Gabriel's amazing range as an artist and by no means album filler.
Rounding out So is “We Do What We're Told (Milgrams 37)” and “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds).” The latter track is a duet with Laurie Anderson, featuring Nile Rodgers on rhythm guitar. The song is a mixture of “Excellent Birds,” a track from Anderson’s 1984 album Mr. Heartbreak and a recording from Gabriel called “This Is the Picture.” The two got together when they were approached by video artist Nam June Paik to collaborate on a song and make a video for a TV special.
After 30 years, So has sustained the reputation of a great album that does not sound the least bit dated by 1980's production values. Rolling Stone placed it at #187 in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all-time and at #14 in the 100 Best Albums of the 80's. It catapulted Gabriel into international superstardom. At one time, “Sledgehammer” was the most played music video in the history of MTV, but Gabriel's talent and influence is so much greater than just that video. Go ahead. Play this album again. Hopefully you have a version that offers the original running order, with “In Your Eyes" in its proper place. It really doesn't matter though, for by the time “Sledgehammer" finishes, you'll be sucked in, just as you were the first time you heard it.