Peter Gabriel - Play: the Videos
Pretty much all of the
superstar acts of the 1980s took advantage of video and the explosion of MTV
(back in the days when Music Television still played music...).
However, very few artists expanded the medium as much as Peter Gabriel.
Gabriel had been lead singer
of a little known prog rock band called Genesis. That group gained its multi-platinum popularity as an arena rock giant after Gabriel left the fold
and more accessible (read: ordinary) drummer Phil Collins took over the vocal duties.
When Gabriel went solo in 1977 he took that band's more eccentric
sensibilities and forged them onto his own work. He never was willing
to sell out to become popular or be easily understood. (Also
heightening his inscrutability was the fact that his first three albums were
all called Peter Gabriel. Even his fourth album was called that
everywhere else in the world, but his American record label insisted on
adding a sticker to the album with the title Security, a name that
appears nowhere else in the original packaging.)
However, musically he stayed
adventurous but did appreciate the importance of a good tune. Not only
that, he was one of the earliest artists to recognize the potential of music
as a visual medium. He started recording music videos for his songs
years before MTV debuted, at a time when only bands with big hits really
ever got a chance to take advantage of the medium. Play collects most of
Gabriel's clips, made over almost thirty years of sporadic record making.
Some of the early video
stuff hasn't aged all that well -- I'd bet that Gabriel wishes that the
could take back the cabbage lady from the 1977 pre-MTV clip for "Solsbury
Hill." Yet, it is still interesting from a historical perspective to see
the shifting cutting edges of video promotion; when this stuff came out it
was undoubtedly state-of-the-art. Also, the song was so good that you
can't help watch it no matter how goofy some of the visuals were, with the strange
sci-fi touches contrasted with Alice in Wonderland-style goings on in
huge British castles. (Gabriel had obviously studied George
Harrison's then-groundbreaking-but-now-unbearably-twee video for "Crackerbox
The clip here for "Games
Without Frontiers" is different than the mad dinner party promo that we've
been used to seeing all of these years. Not completely different, some
of the stuff -- like the video monitors of Gabriel in different emotional
states and the weird doll head -- are still there, but the dinner
party scenes appear to have been replaced by vintage stock film footage. Other earlier songs like "Shock the Monkey" and "I Don't
Remember" created many of the music video cliches to come, lots of sweeping
camera views of squalid rooms, blank masks, people nearly lost in
backlighting and dripping water. Yet, he knew when to downplay the
theatrics, a live performance of his tribute to South African freedom
fighter Stephen "Biko" contrasted a shadowed Gabriel with scenes of actor
Denzel Washington portraying the man, which came from the 1987 film Cry
The most important stuff
here is from Gabriel's 1986 breakthrough album So. The one that
everyone knows is Gabriel's revolutionary stop-motion video for
"Sledgehammer," a promo that was so weird and so fascinating that it became
ubiquitous that summer. Looking back at it with nearly 20 years of
hindsight it still holds up, it is clever and colorful and fascinating.
Even the technology, which has only gotten better in the years since, still
looks reasonably up-to-date. "Big Time" is essentially just a retread
of "Sledgehammer," however it was still well-made and still unique enough to
stand on its own.
There is also a rarely-seen
concept video for "In Your Eyes," which I believe was never
released at the time. They eventually released a live performance of the song,
two years later when the song returned to the charts because it was
prominently included in the movie ...Say Anything. Oddly
enough this was the first straight love song that Gabriel had written -- on his fifth solo
album (not to mention all the Genesis stuff.) Honestly, the live
clip we've been seeing for so many years is a little dull, despite a guest appearance by Senegalese
singer Youssou N'Dour. The concept
video -- which does fall back on some of his old tricks, stock film (it
draws liberally from an early 60s promotional short called Design for
Dreaming), backlighting, his face projected onto things, lots of
symbolic candles -- is much more interesting to watch and I'm glad it was
rescued from obscurity.
Interestingly, though, for
all of the revolutionary videos spawned from So, the most touching
clip here is one of the simplest. In "Don't Give Up," Gabriel and
guest duet partner Kate Bush (who also sang on "Games Without Frontiers,"
but did not appear in that video) stand with a solar eclipse in the
background on a dark hill and the camera slowly
circles them as they cling to each other desperately. This captures the meaning
of the song -- a ballad about dashed opportunities in times of economic
hardship and whether or not love can survive the bad times -- in a subtler
and more emotionally satisfying way than the more adventurous clips.
In fact, there was another, more effects driven clip for the same song on
Gabriel's earlier PV clips collection which would have made a nice
bonus for contrast, although the one here is better known, and for good
Gabriel has only released
two studio albums in the years since, and the newer videos like "Steam" and
"The Barry Williams Show" (no, it's not about Greg Brady) are well-made without the sense of being
groundbreaking which Gabriel's videos always had. In fact, "Steam "
in the Dirt" both feel oddly like more rehashes of the "Sledgehammer" video,
even though they are significantly different. However, one of the most recent
videos, the quietly powerful "Father, Son," packs as much of a punch as any
of his earlier clips. With so much time and
technology to choose from, most of Play: The Videos has aged
surprisingly well. (6/05)
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: June 14, 2005.