2005 We Are Family Humanitarian Award Honoree
One of very few performers to emerge from a full-blown '70s art-rock group and become a critical favorite, Peter Gabriel (born February 13, 1950, England) is a remarkably creative singer and songwriter whose dedication to music of all forms--particularly world music--ranks among the very highest. From 1966 through 1974, Gabriel was the lead singer of Genesis, and with his animated, theatrical style established himself as the most charismatic frontman of the progressive rock era. Upon his departure from the group following 1974's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, many expected his solo career to simply echo his earlier work; instead, Gabriel shifted into an experimental pop mode and aligned himself with several of the U.K.'s most admired members of the rock avant-garde. Displaying marked artistic growth which each successive release, the singer was wise enough to take advantage of the growing importance of rock video and--even wiser--never forget that all great pop songs need distinct melodic hooks. With his artistic ambitions running closely parallel to his considerable songwriting talents, Peter Gabriel has recorded some of the most distinctive and revelatory pop music of the last 25 years.
Gabriel's 1977 solo debut, Peter Gabriel, was the first of three consecutive albums by the singer to bear that name; the fourth was titled Security by Geffen Records upon its 1982 U.S. release, but internationally stands as his fourth eponymous set. "I thought it would be like a magazine cover," he explained later, "something like Time or Newsweek. You have the same format and the same logo, only a different picture. Sort of like, 'Well, who's on the cover this year?...The only difference is I'm on the cover every year." Where Genesis's lyrics had often taken focused on mythological and fantasy-based concepts, Gabriel's own seemed much more reality-oriented, often shaded with a subtle but noticeable apocalyptic tinge. "Home Sweet Home" from his second album, for example, was based on a newspaper account of a young British mother who leapt to her death from her high-rise apartment, holding her baby in her arms.
It may forever be to Atlantic Records' regret that the company refused to issue Gabriel's third album in 1980; though they had deemed it too non-commercial, Mercury Records didn't--and when that company finally released it, the album was the singer's first to crack the top 40. Fueled by the radio hit "Games Without Frontiers," a top 5 hit in Britain, the record also featured "Biko," Gabriel's homage to murdered South African activist Steven Biko, which has since been covered by Simple Minds and Robert Wyatt and become one of the singer's signature tunes. Gabriel's ascension to the mainstream continued with 1982's Security, which boasted his first ever U.S. top 30 hit, "Shock The Monkey," a compelling song that became an MTV standard due to its remarkable video, one of the genre's finest. By the next year, Plays Live--a double-LP concert set recorded on the singer's 1982 North American tour--served as a fine retrospective of Gabriel's career to that point, and allowed him to move on to other, more esoteric concerns.
With the 1984 soundtrack to Alan Parker's film Birdy, the singer made a bold artistic move that essentially signaled a new phase of his career. Bearing a notation on its back cover reading, "WARNING: This record contains re-cycled material and no lyrics," the album was a fascinating combination of older material that Gabriel had pilfered from his back catalog, remixed without the vocals, and combined with a few new instrumental tracks. It was one of the first indications that the singer was shifting his critical attention to sound, rather than simple songs. So, officially the first Peter Gabriel album bearing a title, remains the singer's all-time bestseller, a triple-platinum collection highlighted by the singer's number one hit "Sledgehammer," the top 10 hit "Big Time," and "In Your Eyes." His most fully realized work, So blended the danceable pop of his hits with soft, melodic material such as "Mercy Street," dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, and "Don't Give Up," which prominently featured singer Kate Bush. It sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and became Gabriel's last pop album for over six years.
In the period that followed, the singer put his rock star career on the back burner and became involved in an extraordinary number of activities centering on music and political issues, including Amnesty International (he was part of its 1988 Human Rights Now! tour), and further work with WOMAD (World Of Music Arts And Dance)--which he co-founded in 1980, and with whom he established his Real World Records world music label in 1989. And though he stopped making pop records, Passion, his beautiful, sonically adventurous 1989 soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation Of Christ, won a well-deserved Grammy in 1989.
In 1992, Gabriel made his long-awaited return with Us, and found himself in such demand the album debuted on the charts at number two. While tracks such as "Digging In The Dirt" were being played hourly on MTV, he lined up the first American WOMAD concert tour; headliners on the 10-city tour were typically eclectic, including Crowded House, P.M. Dawn, Ziggy Marley, Sheila Chandra, the Drummers Of Burundi, and Russian folk artists the Terem Quartet. Also performing, of course, was Gabriel himself--who had brought Sinead O'Connor along on the tour to provide accompanying vocals (she contributed to Us's "Blood Of Eden") and sing her own material. "There is more 'world music,' as it is known, here than in other countries," Gabriel told the Los Angeles Times at the time, "yet it's more segregated than in any other country I can think of."
Following 1994's tour-documenting Secret World Live set, Gabriel's involvement in multimedia grew, resulting in several highly lauded interactive projects, and the fascinating Ovo project, featuring music he'd composed for Britain's Millennium Dome Show. In 2002, Gabriel produced the soundtrack for the film The Long Walk Home and finally--after what seemed an interminable delay to fans--Up, his official "follow-up" to 1992's Us. A highly theatrical show accompanied the album's release and was warmly received by critics--most of whom continue to see Peter Gabriel as that rare artist to whom commercial success simply matters less than personal satisfaction.