“I think we all knew it was good. But it was only when we started getting hits, which is sort of a rare thing in my life, that you start thinking, ‘Maybe we’re gonna sell something here.’”
Peter Gabriel was one of the founding members of late ‘60s prog rock pioneers Genesis and released four untitled/self-titled solo albums in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, which spawned hits like “Solsbury Hill” and “Shock the Monkey.” But it wasn’t until 1986 that the British rocker enjoyed the greatest success of his career.
So is Gabriel’s best-selling album — topping the U.K. chart while going five times platinum and peaking at number two in the U.S. — and contains, arguably, his two best-known hits. (“Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes.”) In other words, it’s an ideal subject for the Classic Albums documentary series.
The nearly hour-long doc features Gabriel along with a handful of musicians, producers and engineers who worked on So. Rolling Stone magazine senior editor David Fricke also pops up to discuss the album’s impact. Cards on the table: I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Peter Gabriel fan — nothing against the singer, his peak just came before my time — and I wasn’t overly excited about watching an hour-long rock doc on an artist I wasn’t particularly attached to. After watching this one, however, I wish there were more rock docs! (Obviously, we’d have to continue to be selective because I don’t think anyone wants to sit through a documentary chronicling the making of Ke$ha’s 2010 opus, Animal.)
There are breakdowns and anecdotes attached to most of the album’s nine songs. My favorite tidbits involved the singer revealing that he originally wanted to duet with Dolly Parton on “Don’t Give Up” (he wound up recording the track with Kate Bush), Gabriel sleeping in the studio overnight so he could record a low harmony on “Mercy Street” using his “morning voice”, and the revelation that there were originally 96 different versions of “In Your Eyes.”
However, the most interesting material arises whenever the doc focuses on the working habits of Gabriel, an admitted procrastinator and perfectionist. (There’s a reason there were 96 different versions of “In Your Eyes.”) For example, Gabriel bought studio equipment, rather than renting it, and brought it to his home base in Somerest’s Ashcombe House because he knew he’d otherwise spend a fortune on recording sessions.
More specifically, I most enjoyed the comments from producer Dan Lanois, who seems weary to this day about the year-long process of creating So. (Apparently, that was the fastest album Gabriel had recorded up to that point. Yikes!) Lanois also talks about calmly smashing a phone Gabriel was constantly using to delay work and coaxing the singer into a room before nailing the door shut so that Gabriel would be forced to write lyrics. Don’t misunderstand: there’s no malice in these stories. It’s clear they’ve been laughing about this stuff for years.
Plus, it’s hard to argue with the results. The talking head interviews are interspersed with clips from live performances and some of Gabriel’s music videos, which were among the most popular of their time. (And featured some in-hindsight unfortunate fashion choices.) Gabriel titled his album So because he felt like his previous, untitled efforts represented a singular statement, and he wanted a simple title to contrast with So’s complexity. (Also, the singer was cannily aware that a shorter title meant the graphic would be bigger for marketing purposes.)
The documentary does an exceptional job of capturing the parts of Gabriel that make him a great artist, as well as the savvy that has accounted for his longevity. One collaborator states that with So, Gabriel “didn’t want to record music to fit into the masses, he wanted the masses to come to him.” Given the album’s success and long-lasting impact, it’s safe to say he succeeded.
So: Peter Gabriel is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080i image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 31 mbps. Most of the video presentation consists of talking head interviews, but they contain strong detail and are impressively sharp. (They also contrast quite nicely with some of the grainy still photographs we are shown, as well as the ‘80s-era videos.) The exterior shots of Ashcombe House are strikingly lovely and better than you’d expect from a music doc that originally aired on TV. If anything, the video presentation on this Blu-ray is a bit overqualified.
The LPCM Stereo track is all-encompassing all the time. Obviously, this includes the parts where we hear clips from some of the tracks, but the dialogue from the talking head interviews surprisingly comes out of the rear speakers as well. (Usually that stuff is relegated to the center/front.) My favorite portions involved whenever Gabriel or one of the producers isolated a particular part of a song — the bass line for “Sledgehammer”; the gospel piano on “Don’t Give Up” — which came through cleanly through the speakers and made you appreciate all the work that goes into producing a record. Other portions of the track aren’t quite that clear, but the sound in this doc is still strong enough to envelop you.
The bonus material on this disc (35:33) is presented in HD and is basically a collection of “deleted scenes” from the original TV broadcast. Features a Play All option.
“Big Time” (4:15) Gabriel wanted something funny and sarcastic in the album to balance out all the heartfelt stuff. This song included a saucy lyric about a bulge in his pants the producers (rightly) assumed wouldn’t fly inAmerica.
Amnesty Tours: (8:19) The singer talks about his involvement with human rights issues, including the Conspiracy of Hope Tour in 1986, which featured headliners like U2 and Sting, as well as Human Rights Now!, a 1988 concert that also featured Bruce Springsteen. Features clips from both shows.
The Making of “Sledgehammer”: (12:19) The documentary didn’t spend too much time on Gabriel’s most famous music video, so the impressive stop motion clip gets its due here. Colleagues rave about Gabriel’s sneaky sense of humor and a couple of Aardman Animation artists are on hand to discuss the painstaking process of making the video (which was largely bankrolled by Gabriel himself). Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park is not present in this doc, but he helped animate some dancing chickens in the video.
In Your Eyes: (10:40) A much more in-depth look at Gabriel’s best-known hit among John Cusack fans.
This documentary is obviously a must-watch for Peter Gabriel fanatics, but I believe it also appeals to people (like me) who are only casually familiar with his music. On broader terms, it’s also an interesting look at the process of creative people collaborating — and butting heads, and smashing phones — to make art.
The fact that this is a fine-looking and fine-sounding Blu-ray disc doesn’t hurt either.