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Thirty years later, Peter Gabriel's "So" still hits like a sledgehammer
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Peter Gabriel's landmark album, "So."
Of course, in typical Gabriel fashion, he's somewhat saying "So what?"
Gabriel isn't marking the occasion with any sort of special commemoration. Rather, he's on the road with Sting for their joint Rock Paper Scissors Tour, during which the two are commingling bands and performing on each other's songs. There are five on the set list from "So" -- including the hits "Sledgehammer," "Big Time" and "In Your Eyes" -- but the album is not Gabriel's emphasis this time around.
That hardly diminishes the impact the five-times platinum set made during the mid-80s -- and beyond -- however.
"I think most artists finish a project and they think it's the greatest thing they've ever done," Gabriel, 66, explains by phone from Italy. "And with ('So') I think we knew we had some great songs, really well performed, but I thought I'd had some of that before and it didn't translate commercially in the way this one did.
"I think a number of things linked up to connect me, if only briefly, with the mass market."
David Sancious, who played keyboards on the original "So" tour and is part of Gabriel's Rock Paper Scissors Tour band, adds that "So" "was a very important album for him. Commercially it was a big success, of course, but it yielded such a great collection of songs that are still great today. And I think we're at that point in our lives where it's kind of appropriate to look back at things we felt strongly and positive about. It means something -- maybe more than it did then."
"So" was Gabriel's fifth solo album after leaving the band Genesis and became the commercial highpoint of an already critically acclaimed career. The nine-song set hit No. 1 in his native U.K. and three other countries and No. 2 on the Billboard 200. "Sledgehammer" was Gabriel's first No. 1 hit and won a record nine MTV Music Video Awards. And Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 14 on its list of the Top 100 Albums of the 80s.
More than previous albums, Gabriel says the goal of "So" was "to write proper pop songs, albeit on my own terms." Co-producer Daniel Lanios, with whom Gabriel had worked on the soundtrack for the 1985 film "Birdy," recalls that, "I don't know if Peter specifically wanted to have hits," Lanois says, "but he didn't want to experiment just for the sake of it. He wanted something more immediate."
"So's" resulting hybrid of pop, R&B, jazz and World Music influences wasn't all that different from what Gabriel had done on his previous efforts, but there was more of a focus on melody and hooks -- none moreso than "Sledgehammer," which drew on Gabriel's love of R&B in general and Otis Redding in particular.
"A lot of those old blues and soul songs were quite raunchy and sometimes full of innuendo," Gabriel notes, "and I used to quite enjoy that and I thought, "Maybe I can do a version of that.'" The boarding school-educated artist's highbrow side came through in the lyrics, however, drawing on a quote by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
"I'm probably going to get it wrong, but it was something like 'Breaking open the ice, like an axe on the frozen sea,'" Gabriel says "And it just struck me that the tool metaphor was something I could play with, so that was the starting point, lyrically."
The video was a whole other adventure, however. Its early use of stop-motion animation was revolutionary in 1986, and a sensation that made it the most-played music video in MTV history. "It was old-style, manual animation; frame by frame, and it took ages," Gabriel remembers. "It was a one-month project and a week of shooting and exhausting hours -- fast and furious and a lot of fun, well worth all the effort."
Gabriel did celebrate "So's" 25th anniversary with a deluxe box set and tour -- somewhat bizarrely in 2012, on its 26th anniversary (but rest assured that he CAN count). The focus this year is, of course, on the tour with Sting, and eventually Gabriel plans to put out some new music; his last release was the 2013 covers set "And I'll Scratch Yours," while his last all-new collection was "Up" in 2002. But revisiting "So," all or in part, has been a rewarding exercise for him during the past 25 years.
"It's been quite interesting, and of course nothing ever stays the same," Gabriel explains. "Even when you try to recapture a moment you put today's time print on it. Fortunately that material holds up, and it seems to sound as good to people today as it did when it first came out."
Sting and Peter Gabriel: Rock Paper Scissors Tour
8 p.m. Thursday, June 30.
The Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75.
Some tickets remain at $48-$253.
Call 248-377-0100 or visit palacenet.com.
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