Last week, my partner and I made the brief stroll from our one-bedroom guest cottage with a Barbie-sized kitchenette and a double mattress that fills up most of the bedroom to have dinner with my parents in their two-teeny-bedroom-one-teeny-parlor-one-humongous-kitchen-and-dining-area home in Cork County. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the comings and goings of the altrockchick.
“So what are you cooking up for altrockchick.com?” my father asked. It sounded like he had an agenda lurking beneath that question, but I let it pass.
“I don’t know. I’m in one of those phases where I look at my list and say “meh” to everything. Maman, do you have any ideas?”
My mother had a mouthful of pasta at that moment so good old dad mercilessly capitalized on the opportunity.
“I’ve got a great idea. It’s high time you got off your high horse and did Blonde on Blonde.”
“Forget it, dad. I’m done with Dylan.”
“Well, I think it’s the least you can do in exchange for me letting you stay in the cottage instead of sweltering on the Riviera.”
I laughed. “Fuck, Dad, you’d have to put me up at the Ritz for a whole year to get me to do Blonde on Blonde. And even then you wouldn’t like the result.”
“Ok, I think Bob has a wide selection to choose from. There’s John Wesley Harding, Blood on the Tracks . . .”
“Give it up, Dad. No more Dylan. Plus jamais. Pas de chance. That’s all, folks.”
“Just my luck to have an ungrateful daughter.”
“You should thank me—your lifelong losing streak is still intact. Maman?”
“Yes, I have something you might find more to your liking. When we were in the pub the other day, I heard ‘Solsbury Hill,’ and I don’t think you have reviewed that album.”
“No, I haven’t—but I like your idea a whole lot better than Dad’s.”
“It’s his first album—the one right after he left Genesis, with him asleep at the wheel.”
My mother wasn’t just displaying her generally anal nature with those explicit instructions. Because of her experience as a translator, she values precision in communication. As the family’s #1 progressive rock fan, she knew that Peter Gabriel’s first four solo albums were all titled Peter Gabriel and wanted to make sure I understood exactly which one she had in mind.
The worst idea Peter Gabriel ever had was to hawk his first four solo efforts in what he called “magazine format,” all titled Peter Gabriel. His insertion of edition numbers beginning with the second album didn’t help matters much, which is why we have 1 = Car, 2 = Scratch, 3 = Melt, 4 = Security (the latter was titled Security on the U.S. and U.K. releases). That was not only rude but exceptionally bad marketing. If you’re trying to establish or broaden your audience, you don’t want to alienate potential buyers by increasing the hassle factor. “Hello, record store? Do you have the Peter Gabriel album where his face is all melty?”
The best idea Peter Gabriel ever had was to leave Genesis. His departure was occasioned by a confluence of personal and professional factors, but the bottom line was he was no longer in sync with his mates. As things turned out, the breakup was a win-win for both Gabriel and Genesis, as both Car and A Trick of the Tail earned positive reviews and commercial success. Gabriel even won the French equivalent of a Grammy, le grand prix de l’académie Charles Cros.
I’m guessing that such an unexpected honor had to do with the shared production approach used to record the album—Gabriel decided he would produce the more “European” numbers and quiet parts while Bob Ezrin would handle the American rhythm sections and overtly rock passages (Ezrin had worked with Alice Cooper and Kiss). Combined with Peter Gabriel’s rather feverish and occasionally oddly focused creative urges, Car (I’m going to stick with that title for the sake of convenience) is an exceptionally diverse collection of musical styles and sounds (Rolling Stone called it a “grab bag”) performed by top-of-the-line musicians including Robert Fripp and Tony Levin. Despite the lack of a unifying theme and a few production mishaps, there is a sense of unity to the album in that it reflects the unique imagination of the artist himself.
Only Peter Gabriel could have come up with this stuff.
Go ahead—name another artist who read a book about epidemics in the Middle Ages and wrote a song about it. According to Songfacts, Gabriel wrote “Moribund the Burgermeister” about an outbreak of Sydenham’s Chorea (St. Vitus’ Dance) . . . but the Smithsonian argues that the diagnosis may have been premature:
Six-hundred and forty-two years ago today, citizens in the German city of Aachen started to pour out of their houses and into the streets where they began to writhe and whirl uncontrollably. This was the first major outbreak of dancing plague or choreomania and it would spread across Europe in the next several years.
To this day, experts aren’t sure what caused the frenzy, which could drive those who danced to exhaustion . . . More modern interpretations have blamed a toxin produced by fungus that grew on rye. Ergot poisoning, or ergotism, could bring on hallucinations, spasms and delusions thanks to the psychoactive chemicals produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, writes Steven Gilbert for the Toxipedia . . .
St. Vitus’ Dance later came to mean Sydenham chorea, a disorder that struck children and did cause involuntary tremors in the arms, legs and face. However those twitches were not the kind of dancing described in the outbreaks of dancing mania.
Fungus on rye . . . where have I heard that before . . . geez, I hope it’s not a sandwich . . . oh yeah—LSD! I don’t remember writhing and whirling uncontrollably when I had my one-and-only acid trip, but I had a lot more external stimuli and entertainment options at my disposal than the inhabitants of Aachen had in 1374.
Those merry pranksters meant one and only one thing to Moribund the Burgermeister: the disruption of law and order! And though he wants to be seen as a tough guy, he’s just a mama’s boy way out of his league:
Caught in the chaos in the market square
I don’t know what, I don’t know why, but something’s wrong down there
Their bodies twistin’ and turnin’ in a thousand ways
The eyes all rollin’ round and round into a distant gaze
Ah, look at that crowd!
Some are jumping up in the air saying, “We’re drowning in a torrent of blood!”
Others going down on their knees, seen a saviour coming out of the mud
Oh Mother! It’s eating out my soul
Destroying law and order, I’m gonna lose control
At least Moribund knows on which side his bread is buttered, as his only decisive act is to order one of his underlings to “seal off the castle grounds.” Though he claims in a low, growly voice that “I will find out” who or what is behind this civil disturbance, he does what every politician does when things are going down the shithole—he blames it on an unidentified “subversive element.” A verse later, he hits on that old standby the devil, but he’s just flailing, trying to cover his ass and deflect blame. There’s a reason why Gabriel christened him “Moribund,” for he is as brain-dead as they come.
The music that accompanies this tragi-comic tale involves fabulous instrumentation and an ingenious mix of soft-loud enhanced by temporary key changes. The gentle tribal drums of the verse help convey the uncertainty one feels when facing the unknown, and the synth does what a synth should do in a weird situation—sound weird. The orchestra is used to great effect here, punctuating the sense of drama and strengthening the build. As for the chording . . . wow. The quiet verses are in Eb and feature relatively simple chords (Eb7, Ab, Bb7) eliminating the third; the louder verses with the orchestral overlay suddenly and briefly shift the key a half step to E major while smoothly returning to the Eb/Ab base. The “chorus” is a masterwork of tension and release, opening with a half step from Gdim to G#m before sliding a full step down to F#m, then back to half steps in a different key with E-D-D#-Gm for “I will find out”. “Moribund the Burgermeister” is a daring opening track indeed, but in the end I find myself admiring Gabriel’s various vocal changes and laughing at his portrayal of this law-and-order goofball.
In Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel by Daryl Easlea, Gabriel explained what “Solsbury Hill” is all about: “It’s about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get, or what you are for what you might be. It’s about letting go.” Easlea translated that statement as “a thinly veiled reference to his departure from Genesis.” Maybe, but I don’t think the song would have become a classic if it was just about some guy leaving a band. “Solsbury Hill” is a story of the universal pattern of loss and change we all experience during the journey of becoming our true selves.
While the opening number could have certainly fit on a Genesis album, “Solsbury Hill” has a more earthly feel with its lively and a little-bit-off 7/4 time signature, simple chord structure and pleasantly melodic acoustic guitar leading the way. Though Bob Ezrin ordered guitarist Steve Hunter to use a 12-string, Hunter ignored the instructions and used a 6-string Martin and finger-picked the voicings (using the Travis-picking style) with a capo on the second fret. He had to repeat his performance three times because that’s what Ezrin wanted. Up to this point in his career, Martin had been known as a kick-ass electric guitar player, but he accepted the challenge and delivered a memorable performance (Ezrin added a chorus effect later to give the sound a bit more jangle). Other than the synth horns before each verse line, the power chords on the fade and the subdued rhythms coming from a shaker, a synth and Allan Schwartzberg beating a telephone book with a drumstick, there isn’t much in the way of embellishment in “Solsbury Hill,” and the acoustic guitar keeps its place as the dominant sound throughout the song.
And very unlike most Genesis songs, the lyrics are fairly accessible and down to earth, with restrained and appropriate use of symbolism. I’ll provide a full interpretation of the lyrics in a sec, but I think that from a career perspective, the most important line in the song is “My friends would think I was a nut.” Colloquialisms like that were pretty rare in Gabriel’s Genesis songs (a few appear when he was playing a character); here the line serves to tell us he isn’t just a guy who wears weird costumes and sings in riddles but a regular bloke we could relate to.
The use of a character to relate the story of “Solsbury Hill” is a common poetic device used to provide some distance between songwriter and subject, a necessary move whenever the subject matter is deeply personal (I wish someone would have told John Lennon about that before he recorded “Mother”). We find our hero taking a stroll around Solsbury Hill when an unexpected visitor drops by:
Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing, stretching every nerve
I had to listen, had no choice
I did not believe the information
Just had to trust imagination
My heart going “Boom-boom-boom”
“Son”, he said,
“Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home”
The eagle has come to symbolize many things, but since Peter Gabriel isn’t American, we can eliminate the eagle = power option. As usual, the bible contradicts itself, describing eagles in Leviticus 11:13 as “an abomination among the birds,” then later in Isaiah 40:31 in more spiritual terms: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Peter Gabriel’s eagle is closer to Isaiah’s, but I think Amanda Buck’s phrasing hits the mark: “In time, the glorious freedom she felt when taking to the air brought on an instinct to reach higher places, to be free.” In this case, the eagle is a metaphor for breaking free to achieve one’s potential. At first, our hero doesn’t believe that such a transformation is possible (the classic human reaction to almost any kind of change), but he opens himself to the possibility that while the experience defies both logic and common sense, intuitive imagination might be a valid path to the truth.
But before he begins to spread his wings, our hero feels the need to leave the heights of imagination and return to the humdrum of daily existence:
To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Though my life was in a rut
‘Til I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going “Boom-boom-boom”
“Hey”, he said
“Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home”
Hey, back home
One of the main reasons we resist change has to do with the expectations of others. “You’re not the same person I used to know” is leveled as an accusation rather than a celebration of human growth. It’s also hard to break existing relationships (even if they’re lousy or harmful relationships) because in an other-directed society we know who we are in relation to others; if we lose them, we fear we will lose ourselves. Wary of the likely reaction to his spiritual revelation, our hero chooses to suffer in silence while trying to figure out how to let go of a deeply unsatisfying but safe life. He finally decides that he’s had it with “feeling part of the scenery” and “walked right out of the machinery” (of work, society, of the humdrum), drawing comfort from the eagle’s message.
I’ve read some interpretations that claim because the eagle called him “son” followed shortly by a reference to “turning water into wine” that our hero thinks of himself as Christ-like. Given Gabriel’s ambivalence about religion (and the fact that right-wing Catholics are all over his ass), I think the reference to “son” translates to “kiddo,” and turning water into wine is used in the secular sense to highlight his fears about how his mates would react to his enlightenment: “Yer gettin’ all high-and-mighty, aren’t ya?”
Gabriel gets a bit more oblique in the last segment, shifting at times to what appears to be the subjunctive tense in his description of our hero’s escape to freedom:
When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I wanna be
And liberty, she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going “Boom-boom-boom”
“Hey”, I said
“You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home”
Our hero now sees the world for what it is: an elaborate illusion created by people who have allowed others to define them and have no idea who they really are inside (“empty silhouettes”). In such a world, even freedom is an illusion because the definition of freedom itself is limited by the expectations we have of others. The line “No one taught them etiquette” is ironic, for he’s not talking about silly rules like where the fork goes or whether or not it’s gauche to put your elbows on the table but the motivation behind those rules—to demonstrate respect for others. He doesn’t need to be the replacement self he’s always displayed to the world and he doesn’t need the possessions that formed part of his former identity. I’m not sure who the “they” are who have come to take him home, but the more salient point is that our hero is headed home to become his true self. “Solsbury Hill” is a celebration of the true meaning of individual freedom—-that we all have the right to reach our fullest potential.
“Solsbury Hill” was one of the singles taken from the album, and did modestly well in the U.K. (#13) and sorta okay in the U.S. (#68). The other single, “Modern Love,” failed to chart anywhere—despite a solid guitar riff, a catchy chorus and a thrilling performance by Tony Levin on the bass. I think the problem was that the only people who could relate to the lead character’s frustration with modern love were English majors and art students and they were too busy writing essays and sitting in museums sketching Modiglianis to bother to listen to it. Nearly everyone in the post-sexual-revolution era can identify with the chorus refrain, “Modern love can be a strain,” but it’s a lot harder to relate to a guy still stuck on the idealized form of love represented by Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa.
If you’ve never heard the album and heard the sounds of a barbershop quartet harmonizing through your headphones at the start of “Excuse Me,” you may think “What the hell . . ?” I had a similar reaction at first and I’m fairly certain that “Excuse Me” was the primary inspiration for the “grab bag” label applied by Rolling Stone. But after listening to the album a few times, I said to myself, “Wait a minute—Car is kinda like A Night at the Opera—something for everybody.” The analogous track on the Queen classic is Brian May’s “Good Company,” another old-fashioned ditty with a Rudy Vallee flavor. If you listen closely, you’ll hear gentle laughter in the space between the barbershop quartet and the song proper, so I suggest you take their lead and have fun with the song. Tony Levin stands out here, first as the leader of the quartet and later as the man on the tuba, but Peter Gabriel’s vocal mix of playfulness and melancholy is a perfect fit for the odd-duck character who just wants to be left alone.
Side one ends with the musically brilliant and lyrically elusive “Humdrum.” It’s a fascinating composition, musically and lyrically divided into two parts. The first part in G minor deals with the mundane and is rhythmically divided between a quiet part of implied rhythm with chordal punctuation followed by a brief transition featuring the flute before the more emphatic flip to greater volume and a more defined Latin beat. The second part in E major is marked by flowing synth and a more “philosophical” view of the situation.
The situation in question is heterosexual love; the first part describes the end of a relationship from the man’s perspective:
I saw the man at J.F.K.
He took your ticket yesterday
In the humdrum
I ride tandem with a random
Things don’t run the way I planned them
In the humdrum
Hey Valentina, do you want me to beg?
You got me cooking I’m a hard-boiled egg
In the humdrum
Empty my mind, I find it hard to cope
Listen to my heart, don’t need no stethoscope
All this happens in the humdrum of modern life, and the narrator seems to resent the fact that his relationships “don’t run the way I plan them,” and that his feelings are trivialized—his beating heart becomes another bit of meaningless noise swallowed up in the humdrum.
The narrator turns philosophical in the second part, musing on the nature of the mating call:
Out of woman come the man
Spend the rest of his life gettin’ back where he can
It sounds like Gabriel (through the narrator) is arguing that the male sex drive is—on at least one level—an attempt to return to the safety of the womb. I’m not a guy (duh), but having fucked dozens of men, I never once felt that any of those guys were trying to crawl back into Mommy. They came there (figuratively and literally) for pleasure and/or to try to impress me with their virility.
From that point on, I have no idea what the narrator is going on about, with images of tadpoles, amoebas and Icarus swirling through my head. The most lucid explanation I found came from someone with the user name “EnduringChill” on songmeanings.com:
“Our amoeba” makes me think of when a child is first created… a single-celled organism, or an amoeba. It “our” was replaced by “my,” though, I doubt I would think of this connotation. The last line means in German “My little beautiful love.” This might be referring to a father’s love for his child.
Undeniably, my favorite lyrics are: “Lost in the echoes of things not there, watching the sound forming shapes in the air.” Peter Gabriel’s lyrics are always excellent at painting pictures in my mind like this.
Whether the second section is a “mind painting” or a hint that the breakup involved the delicate subject of having children is anyone’s guess, but the music on “Humdrum” is so compelling that I find myself entirely comfortable with the ambiguity.
By contrast, I’m not the least bit comfortable with the musical arrangement of “Slowburn,” a song that sounds like it’s entirely unsure of what it wants to be. The soft-loud shifts are more jarring than dramatic, and neither dynamic goes particularly well with the attached lyrics. Too bad, because the song opens with a balls-on description of life in a crumbling relationship:
We’re character actors from the Tower of Babel
Bewildered, burnt out, hardly able
To sit astride the high wire cable
It’s hard to balance, a little unstable
Add to that the couplet “Words fell like hailstones bouncing at our feet/Covering our feelings with a frozen sheet” and you should have one helluva song, but alas, ’twas not to be.
The “grab bag” hypothesis is strengthened considerably by the inclusion of the piano bar ditty “Waiting for the Big One.” Here Peter Gabriel transforms himself into Randy Newman, playing a hapless character who finds himself broke and hoping that The Big One will render all his financial missteps irrelevant:
Once I was a credit to my credit card
Spent what I hadn’t got, it wasn’t hard
No trust in judgments no trust in money
Someday I’ll find myself like a bee finding honey
But in the meantime, I’m gonna have me some fun
Waiting for the big one.
Since Gabriel mentioned Los Angeles in “Excuse Me” (his version of sin city), I’m assuming that he had enough experience with the place to lock into the whole “fuck it, the San Andreas Fault is going to wipe us all out” attitude of some Californians. What I like about this piece is that he avoids the temptation to go apocalyptic on us, his ass remaining firmly planted on that barstool.
Well! The bar felt cozy and comfortable, so I decided to stay a while! There I was, enjoying a nice quiet drink when all of a sudden the entire London Symphony Orchestra barged into the place with sheer Wagnerian force, immediately followed by loud electric guitars in rock-funk mode. “What the fuck?” I cried. “It’s ‘Down the Dolce Vita'” a voice cried through the din. Unable to squeeze through the wall of a gazillion musicians and their bulky instruments, I was forced to listen to the whole damn thing. When it was over, I turned to the bartender and screamed, “What the hell was that?” “Who knows?” he shrugged. “Gabriel had some crazy idea to put together a stage production about some guy named Mozo but you know what? The guy isn’t even in the song. Nobody knows what the fuck it’s about.” I had another drink to calm my nerves and began to question my assertion that releasing his albums in “magazine format” was the worst idea Peter Gabriel ever had.
Given that jolt to the senses, it’s a little harder to fully buy into Peter Gabriel’s contention that Bob Ezrin overproduced “Here Comes the Flood.” For the most part, the arrangement is relatively gentle in comparison to “Down the Dolce Vita,” though we do reach over-the-top once we get to the chorus. That said, the quieter versions of the song (one recorded by Robert Fripp with Gabriel on vocals, a few piano-only live performances and the take recorded for the compilation Shaking the Tree) have become the gold standard. I’ve included links to the original and Shaking the Tree versions below for your convenience.
All the hoo-hah over the production has obscured the vital message contained in the song—a message that should have resonated during the pandemic and still has not resonated in the face of human-caused global warming: humanity can only survive planet-wide threats if we stop competing with one another and commit ourselves to a common cause:
Lord, here comes the flood
We’ll say goodbye to flesh and blood
If again the seas are silent
In any still alive
It’ll be those who gave their island to survive
Drink up, dreamers, you’re running dry
Gabriel underscores the point by arguing that the flood will also mean the end of pretense. All the positioning, bluster and game-playing we engage in to protect me-me-me will be rendered irrelevant, leaving us with only one option: to join together as one.
When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You’re a thousand minds, within a flash
Don’t be afraid to cry at what you see
The actors gone, there’s only you and me
Even if all the other songs on the album turned out to be turkeys (which is not true), “Solsbury Hill” and “Here Comes the Flood” would qualify Car as an album for the ages.
Going solo has never been a guaranteed path to success. Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey and Debbie Harry are just a few of the artists who tried to leave the parental nest and failed to make much of a splash. I think the problem those three artists ran into was a lack of compelling material that sufficiently differentiated them from the work of their bands. Peter Gabriel overcame that obstacle with his irrepressible creative nature and a deep desire to realize his potential. He didn’t fully realize that potential in Car, but he certainly identified himself as a creative force to be reckoned with in the future.