Peter Gabriel has forever been immortalized as the first leader of Genesis, one of music’s finest prog-rock bands. His ambition was always present during his tenure with the band, and it sometimes clashed with other members’ desire for more accessibility and air play. Gabriel’s behavior throughout Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour was more theatrical than the other band members, a tendency representative of the much publicized Peter Gabriel-Phil Collins clash. Gabriel would act out characters from the concept album on stage, emphasizing artistic integrity over accessibility. This dividing vision was a major component of his departure from Genesis in 1975, setting up for an excellent solo career that saw him release work that rivaled his best work with Genesis.
Gabriel’s respectable solo career has had plenty of highlights with no true duds to speak of. It’s generally accepted what his best material is, though. His first three solo albums are classics in their own right, and all eponymously titled. The first, released in 1977, featured one his most well-known tracks, “Solsbury Hill”. With its famous string progression leading the way, the track relayed Gabriel’s thoughts on going solo. “I will show another me, today I don’t need a replacement,” he sings over the jovial acoustics. “I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant.” It’s present from the phasing experimental pop of opener “Moribund the Burgermeister” that Gabriel had just begun to stretch his legs out. He was fully embracing his new-found freedom of expression, without Phil Collins’ increasing grip. Although Gabriel’s solo album featured some over-bloated attempts, like jazzy lounge ballad “Waiting for the Big One”, there was a wonderful mixture of Gabriel’s experimentation (the bombast cinema-meets-funk feel of “Down the Dolce Vita”) and signature twinkling rock ballads (beautiful closer “Here Comes the Flood”), both approaches Genesis fans were familiar with.
His second solo album, released the following year in 1978, brought King Crimson’s Robert Fripp aboard as producer. It is nicknamed “scratch” by fans for the cover art, designed by English design group Hipgnosis. “Scratch” saw Fripp help reign in Gabriel’s creativity, which presented itself as clutter in some instances on his previous release. The album’s first two tracks, “On the Air” and “D.I.Y.”, bring a very modern and sleek sound to the table, complete with glistening synths and exciting rhythmic transitions. The first presents infectious party-time guitar riffs, while “D.I.Y.” is a suave slice of art-rock that plays with warbled vocal effects as the hook. There are moments of typical Gabriel ethereal beauty to be had, like the trickles of piano and dancing acoustics on the gorgeous “Mother of Violence” and the old-timey twangy narrative of closer “Home Sweet Home”. But the 1979 release is an exhilarating rocker for the most part. The bouncy keys and jubilant chorus of “Perspective” plays like an early influence on Brit-pop, complete with the brass accompaniments that made former contemporaries like Southside Johnny proud. “Scratch” balanced Gabriel’s creativity with his knack for contagious melodies wonderfully, accounting for one of his best albums.
Although Gabriel’s first two solo albums are classics that should not be missed, many critics argue that Gabriel’s third album – nicknamed “melt” – is indeed his best. It is an ingenious example of an artist crafting his own intimate sound. He had infused songs with moods of political anxiety and personable wit in the past, but it wasn’t until “melt” that it came to full fruition. The diversity of tracks on “melt” is sheer magic. One of its most famous efforts, “Games Without Frontiers”, touches on the fragility of international diplomacy, with some not-so-subtle references to world leaders of the past and present. It’s essentially Gabriel’s version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, but better. The creakiness of “Intruder” kicks the album off in grand fashion, its jagged guitar rhythms helping guide Gabriel’s torn angst. The percussion is idiosyncratic and sporadically homemade, with creaking sounds often serving as a percussive element. The Bowie-inspired “I Don’t Remember” is another invigorating effort reminiscent of efforts on “scratch”, though the album quickly returns to retrospective transitional territory with “Family Snapshot”. The rush of twinkles on ”No Self-Control” is brilliant and unforgettable, even touching on aspects of Afro-pop with its marimba-like fervor. This fascinating stylistic hybrid is expanded upon with great passion on closer “Biko”, one of the sturdiest examples of Gabriel’s majestic songwriting.
Gabriel would continue to put out enjoyable solo albums after 1980’s “melt”, but none compare to these first three. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to appreciate from the elder Gabriel, though. His 1989 soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ earned a Grammy Award, and is one of the finest scores of the ’90s. The next decade, he followed in the tradition of many aged rock heroes; one of his most recent albums, 2010’s Scratch My Back, is a collection of covers — featuring everything from Bowie’s “Heroes” to Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage”. But Gabriel is even capable of making a covers album sound graceful. Even when covering the work of others, there is a sense of cohesive and idiosyncratic creativity in Gabriel’s performances, a trait forever present on all his post-Genesis albums – and particularly his first three.