Peter Gabriel first rose to fame as the frontman of British progressive rock band Genesis from 1967-1975 before leaving for a successful solo career. For the first decade of his career, he released five solo albums which allowed him to be experimental, but also explore his commercial side. The most significant of the latter was his blockbuster 1986 album So, which made him a superstar.
However, Gabriel retreated from the limelight. Although he was involved in other projects such as live albums, soundtrack work, projects with various artists, and producing world music, his post-So work consisted of a mere trio of proper solo albums over the next near-quarter century. Through it all, however, Gabriel has remained a respected and revered artist, known for experimentation and expansion of the boundaries of music.
In the Beginning There Was Genesis (1965-72):
Genesis’ roots went back as far as 1965 when fifteen-year old Gabriel and friend Tony Banks were in a band called Garden Wall. They met fellow students Michael Rutherford and Anthony Phillips, who were in another group called Anon, while attending Charterhouse School in Goldalming, Surrey. “The two groups initially merged out of expediency as the older members of each graduated.” BE
The group recorded and released a couple singles in 1968 followed by their first album, From Genesis to Revelation, in 1969. Trespass followed in 1970, moving their sound a bit farther away from the “lyrical folk-based progressive pop.” BE There was some notable shifting in membership after this, including the departure of Phillips, who suffered from crippling stage fright, and the arrival of drummer Phil Collins, who would later replace Gabriel as the vocalist and lead Genesis to its greatest commercial heights.
Nursery Cryme was released in 1971. Gabriel was building his reputation as a theatrical performer through his “extensive use of masks, makeup, and props in concert.” BE “Word soon began to spread about Genesis being an act that was worth hearing and, even more so, worth seeing in concert.” BE The 1972 album Foxtrot showed the effects, lifting the band to its greatest commercial heights yet.
Critical Acclaim…and the Final Gabriel Years (1973-75):
“The group’s next release, Selling England by the Pound (1973), featured Gabriel’s strongest vocal performance” BE and gave Genesis its first top 10 album in the U.K. They were starting to expand beyond cult status in the U.S. as FM radio listeners and college students began to discover them.
Then came the ambitious concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, in 1974. It involved “a story outlined and written (along with most of the lyrics) exclusively by Gabriel. The singer had worked separately from the rest of the group for most of the composition, and a creative split developed between him and the others.” BE In addition, “the other members began to feel that his performance – and the costumes and costume changes that he required – began to seriously detract from the music.” BE “The breaking point came with the difficult pregnancy of Gabriel’s wife, Jill, and the subsequent birth of their first child, Anna. When he opted to stay with his sick daughter and wife, rather than record and tour, the resentment from the rest of the band led Gabriel to conclude that he had to leave the band.” WK “In May of 1975, Gabriel announced that he was leaving Genesis.” BE
The Solo Years (1976-85):
Gabriel launched a solo career with his 1977 self-titled debut album (his first four albums, in fact, would bear only the title Peter Gabriel). His debut single, Solsbury Hill, “was written specifically about his departure from Genesis.” WK
“Gabriel worked with guitarist Fripp as producer of his second solo LP, in 1978. This album was leaner, darker and more experimental, and yielded decent reviews, but no major hits.” WK
“Gabriel developed a new interest in world music (especially percussion), and for bold production, which made extensive use of recording tricks and sound effects. Gabriel’s interest in music technology is considered by many people to be the spark of his success as it inspired his third album, which sported the hit Games Without Frontiers and the powerful Biko.
For his fourth album, Gabriel “took more production responsibility. It was one of the first commercial albums recorded entirely to digital tape.” WK “Gabriel combined a variety of sampled and deconstructed sounds with world-beat percussion and other unusual instrumentation to create a radically new, emotionally charged soundscape. Furthermore, the sleeve art consisted of inscrutable, video-based imagery. Despite the album’s peculiar sound, odd appearance, and often disturbing themes, it sold very well. This album featured his first Top 40 hit in the U.S.,Shock the Monkey.” WK A video “which featured Gabriel in white face paint and a caged macaque, held the #1 spot on MTV for 9 weeks. Geffen records forced Peter to give his fourth self-titled album a name in the US –
Security – to mark his arrival on the label and to differentiate his fourth album from the other three.” WK
“Gabriel toured extensively for each of his albums. Initially, he pointedly eschewed the theatrics that had defined his tenure with Genesis. For his second solo tour, his entire band shaved their heads. By the time of Security he began involving elaborate stage props and acrobatics.” WK as well as “distorting his face with Fresnel lenses and mirrors, and wearing unusual make-up.” WK “Recordings of this tour were released as the double LP Plays Live.” WK
“The stage was set for Gabriel's critical and commercial breakout with his next studio release, which was in production for almost three years. During the recording and production of the album he also found time to develop the film soundtrack for Alan Parker’s 1984 feature Birdy, which consisted of new material as well as remixed instrumental tracks from his previous studio album.” WK
Commercial Success – and His First “Break” (1986-91):
“Gabriel achieved his greatest popularity with songs from the 1986 So album.” WK Lead single Sledgehammer was a #1 U.S. hit and has earned a reputation as one of the most acclaimed videos of all-time. Big Time was also a top ten hit in the states. In Your Eyes was also a success, as was Don’t Give Up, a duet with Kate Bush that went top 10 in the U.K.
“Gabriel played a prominent role in supporting Amnesty International at this time, appearing on the 1986 U.S. A Conspiracy of Hope tour and on the 1988 worldwide Human Rights Now! tour.” WK
“In 1989, Gabriel released Passion, the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s movie The Last Temptation of Christ. For this work he received his first Grammy Award, in the category of Best New Age Performance. He also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score - Motion Picture.” WK
The Return (1992-1996):
It took six years for Gabriel to record a follow-up studio album to So. After recording four untitled albums, So would start a new trend for his next three studio efforts – two-letter titles. Consequently, 1992 saw the release of Us, “in which he explored the pain of recent personal problems; his failed first marriage, his relationship with Rosanna Arquette, and the growing distance between him and his first daughter.” WK
First single Digging in the Dirt “made reference to the psychotherapy which had taken up much of Gabriel’s time since the previous album. Gabriel describes his struggle to get through to his daughter in Come Talk to Me.” WK Blood of Eden, which featured vocals by Sinéad O'Connor, also dealt “with relationship struggles, this time going right back to Adam’s rib for inspiration.” WK
The more personal album wasn’t as commercially accessible as So, but he still undertook a world tour, captured via video and a live album. “Gabriel won three more Grammy Awards, all in the Music Video category. He won the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1993 and 1994 for the videos to ‘Digging in the Dirt’ and Steam respectively. Gabriel also won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video for his Secret World Live video.” WK
Another Break, Another Album (1997-2004):
“In 1998 Gabriel appeared on the soundtrack of Babe: Pig in the City, not as a composer, but as the singer of the song That'll Do, written by Randy Newman. The song was nominated for an Academy Award, and Gabriel and Newman performed it at the following year’s Oscar telecast.” WK
Next up, in 1999, was OVO, a soundtrack for the live Millennium Dome Show in London, and the 2002 soundtrack for Long Walk Home, the music from the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. “This soundtrack also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score – Motion Picture.” WK
“In September 2002, Gabriel released Up, his first full-length studio album in a decade. Entirely self-produced, Up returned to some of the themes of his work in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Three singles failed to make an impression on the charts – in part because almost every track exceeded six minutes in length…but the album sold well globally, as Gabriel continued to draw from a loyal fan base from his almost forty years in the music business. Up was followed by a world tour featuring his daughter Melanie Gabriel on backing vocals, and two concert DVDs, Growing Up Live (2003) and Still Growing Up: Live & Unwrapped (2004).” WK
There was another long period of inactivity, now becoming the norm for Gabriel. “In 2008, Gabriel contributed to the WALL-E soundtrack with several new songs with Thomas Newman, including the film’s closing song, Down to Earth, for which they received the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. The song was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Original Song - Motion Picture and the Academy Award for Best Original Song.” WK
In 2010, Gabriel finally emerged with another studio album, albeit a collection of cover songs. The album, entitled Scratch My Back, was to be accompanied by a collection of the artists he covered singing his songs. That collection, I’ll Scratch Yours, had not materialized upon the release of Back. The latest plan was to release a single each full moon backed by the artist covering a Gabriel song.