By ProgBlog, Feb 14 2016 08:04PM
It was Peter Gabriel’s 66th birthday yesterday and the twittersphere was replete with felicitations. Gabriel’s part in the pantheon of progressive rock is firmly cemented: lead vocalist with early Genesis; world music luminary; sonic innovator. I’d like to add that I believe his anti-apartheid stance and his concern for our treatment of the planet are also very prog; promoting environmental issues and equality are key progressive traits, born of late-60s idealism.
There are many more differences between the music on his first solo album Peter Gabriel (1977) and his collaborative previous release, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) than there were between Trespass (1970) and The Lamb. Early Genesis followed a distinct trajectory from compositions that featured 12 string guitar and piano or organ in equal measure overlain by lyrics that were seeped in mythology and allegory, where Gabriel often comes across as vulnerable and tentative. On The Lamb, Gabriel oozes confidence, perhaps aided by the adoption of the Rael persona and the music is heavier, more muscular, involving more riffs than before even though it’s still very melodic. Banks’ use of synthesizer, absent on Foxtrot (1972) and debuting on Selling England by the Pound (1973) is predominantly used for angular runs (such as on In the Cage and Back in NYC.) On reflection, I suggest it’s primarily the synthesizer that’s responsible for the majority of motifs that I’ve detected forming a sonic bridge between Selling England and The Lamb.
The Lamb may be made up of short pieces but it does have an overriding linear narrative that puts it in the long-form category, Supper’s Ready was originally a series of musical ideas that were fitted together to make one piece, similar to Van der Graaf Generator’s A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (from Pawn Hearts, 1971) where sections are discrete but seamlessly segue into each other; as a distinct modern musical trope this idea was adopted by The Beatles for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), an idea that was mimicked by any number of proto-progressive acts and one that could be used to define the genre in its infancy. I believe that the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967), not fully formed prog by any means, is another good example of a well-defined full album-length concept comprised of disparate songs and this, rather than a nebulous concept like Dark Side of the Moon (1973) or the philosophical musings of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), has more parallels with Rael’s journey of self-discovery.
The shorter songs on Peter Gabriel are not conceptually linked but all display thoughtfulness in their composition. This may have been Gabriel’s return to ‘the machinery’ after a hiatus but it was on his terms, informed in part by the years he’d spent in Genesis but reflecting other influences. I don’t think it conforms to the original definition of prog but it is undoubtedly progressive. It’s probably art-rock, with more immediacy and a more contemporary feel. It’s as though Rael showed Gabriel what he was able to become and I think the first solo effort has a New York vibe to it, even though it was recorded in Toronto and London! One similarity between The Lamb and Peter Gabriel is the humour in the rhyme, the use of couplets, half rhymes and rhymes within a single line (the rhyme is planned, dummies) evident, for instance on Moribund the Burgermeister “Bunderschaft, you going daft? Better seal off the castle grounds...” or Humdrum “I ride tandem with a random/Things don’t work out the way I planned them.” However, there’s a less obvious break with prog on Peter Gabriel that hits you the moment you take the album out from wherever you’ve stored it: the cover photo of Gabriel in the passenger seat of Storm Thorgerson’s Lancia Flavia.
It’s probably incidental but the album contains a couple of automobile references, in Excuse Me where Gabriel muses “who needs a Cadillac anyway” and a more technical, almost Ballardian reference to a “red hot magneto” on Modern Love. Despite Nick Mason’s association with motor racing and Rick Wakeman’s collection of cars in the mid 70s, cars don’t often make an appearance in prog rock songs. Is this surprising? Rock ‘n’ roll and the associated ‘live fast, die young’ ethos seem inextricably linked with motor cars and there have been hundreds of songs written about driving and automobiles. This is hardly astonishing as the development of the two aspects of (American) youth culture, music and driving, were contemporaneous; the end of post-war austerity and the invention of the American Dream issuing in a world of leisure and consumerism. Singing about driving could be rebellious but whatever the message, songs about cars pervade much of rock music from Chuck Berry’s No Particular Place to Go (1964) and The Beatles Drive My Car (1965) to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album (1975) and there’s a strong association, at least amongst British TV viewers, of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (1977) and F1 racing. The movie Grease with its cod 50s rock ‘n’ roll appeared in 1978 and has become the most popular musical film of all time. There even seems to be a morbid glamour that has attached itself to automobile accidents, brilliantly explored in JG Ballard’s collection of related stories The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and full length novel Crash (1973), epitomised by the death of James Dean in his Porsche 550 Spyder in 1955, the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris in 1997 and even the assassination of JFK in his open topped limousine in 1963 (partly the subject of Gabriel’s Family Snapshot (on Peter Gabriel III, Melt, 1980.)
The lyrics of Adrian Belew on Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984), the second and third releases by the 1981 – 1984 incarnation of King Crimson are something of an exception when it comes to prog and cars. Beat was inspired by Jack Kerouac so road trip references abound in Neal and Jack and Me: “I’m wheels, I am moving wheels/I am a 1952 Studebaker coupe... ...I am a 1952 Starlite coupe”. Crimson journeyed into experimental industrial music on the second side (aka the Right side) of Three of a Perfect Pair, starting with homage to the scrapped car, Dig Me which calls to mind Christine (1983) the Bill Phillips film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel and hints at Ballardian prose. I don’t suppose any of us should be shocked that tyre manufacturer Dunlop used a portion of 21st Century Schizoid Man for adverts in 1996...
A cosmic take on the idea of cruising along was released as a single and appeared on Rain Dances (1977) by Camel in the form of Highways of the Sun. It doesn’t matter if they’re in an old sedan that’s lost a wheel or a ship that’s got no sails, this is hardly the same vision as that visualised by heavy rockers Deep Purple, on Highway Star (from Machine Head, 1972) with its imagery of sexualised power. Hard rock seemed to go for this form of association, the video of ‘fast’ women, hot cars and hard guitars, apparently reinventing scenes of bikini-clad women draped over cars at a motor show for the MTV age... and critics called prog musicians dinosaurs! Even Roger Waters got in on the act with the cover artwork for The Pros and cons of Hitch Hiking (1984.)
One oddity is White Car from Drama (1980) by Yes. Lasting only 1’20” this song was allegedly brought to the band by newcomers Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. It’s likely to be seen as throw-away because of its brevity but in that time it opens out to reveal a cinematic scope, with nice keyboard orchestration and poignant percussion. I don’t know what the lyrics allude to but I think of a classic Rolls Royce on a road atop of Yorkshire or perhaps Devonshire moors. It’s dramatic, and maybe that’s where the album title comes from; it’s certainly not car as analogy for sex object!