It’s Peter Gabriel’s 66th birthday today, and I’ve dug out all my CDs and records to celebrate. See, he’s kind of a big deal to me, even though I came to his back catalogue later than most. He’s the reason I got into prog.
Up until 2013, the only Peter Gabriel material I knew was… Sledgehammer. The world and his dog has probably seen the video, in all its claymation/dancing raw chicken glory. Peter decided to tour the So album in its entirety, so naturally I went ‘shut up and take my money’. It was glorious, and worth every penny. It was late October, and NaNoWriMo was around the corner. And that was when I discovered that no, Phil Collins wasn’t always the singer in Genesis, and their entire output wasn’t just I Can’t Dance. No, once upon a time a Charterhouse pupil decided to put his wife’s dress on and wear a fox head, then write 23-minute-long songs crammed full of religious and mythical imagery, involving at least four costume changes.
Ladies and gents, I had gone down a rabbit hole from which I’d never return.
The only prog I’d heard before Genesis was when my husband insisted I listen to Dark Side Of The Moon. But this was something else. Here was clever tales of old kings and queens, songs about invasive plants taking over the world like triffids, and a dystopian future where London house prices have got out of control and- oh. Well predicted, PG.
I always write to music, and quite a lot of my harebrained ideas turn up when I’ve got a few tunes on. The rainy October day I ended up listening to PG’s last Genesis effort, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, my tiny little mind was blown. An hour and a half of mostly gorgeous, sometimes challenging, listening. A plotline both cinematic and, frankly, quite Freudian in places, with a juvenile delinquent, a missing brother, a cast of weird creatures and a world below a city’s streets. You know, I thought, if only there was some way to lose the ‘Tony Banks’s Mellotron falls downstairs while characters get castrated’ section, set it somewhere that wasn’t New York, and frankly rewrite the whole thing so it doesn’t read like an acid-induced dream. If only. 50,000 words later, and there was a very rough draft of my first novel. Why yes, I now own a first edition vinyl of the album. I owe PG that much.
The joy of PG for me is the fact that he doesn’t stick to a cookie-cutter genre, and there’s always a new musical challenge for you somewhere. There was the Awkward Divorce Song which is so hard to listen to for more than a few minutes. There was the Awkward Voyeur Song that slightly makes a teenager having his bits chopped off seem tame. But then there’s Family Snapshot, the story of an assassin that tore out my heart and ripped it into pieces (‘Come back, mum and dad/You’re growing apart, you know that I’m growing up sad’). And his film soundtracks will have you sobbing into your wine, guaranteed- try I Grieve from City of Angels, or his contribution to Babe, of all things. This came on the day Terry Wogan died, and I was inconsolable for the whole thing. Here’s someone who pours the entire contents of his soul into his work.
That was a bit downbeat, eh? Fortunately, PG has a sense of humour too. In case you missed me drivelling on about it on Twitter, Rhys Thomas and Simon Day from The Fast Show have made three series of a spoof rock documentary about enigmatic musician Brian Pern. It doesn’t take a genius to see who they’re sending up, and it’s glorious. Worth watching, if only to hear respected actors Nigel Havers and Michael Kitchen swear like troopers, or to hear the song parodies which have ruined the originals forever. And they have a rather special guest who cameos at the end of each series. If you’re quick, you can watch the whole third series on iPlayer. It neatly skewers everything from ranty managers to Brian’s misguided fundraising for bipolar polar bears and teaching primates to play the keyboard. You’ll never watch a music show with a straight face ever again. And actual news about PG teaching monkeys to Skype will sail right into parody territory.
So there you go. Turns out I’m quite a big Peter Gabriel fan. May there be many more years of inventing world music, plasticine videos and scooting about on Segways.