The album's cover depicts the face of Peter Gabriel disintegrating ghoulishly, but it is the social and psychological issues explored on Gabriel's third solo album that make it such a chilling work. The album's opening track, "Intruder," is about a thief and potential rapist; "Family Snapshot" is about an assassin; "I Don't Remember" is about an amnesiac; and "No Self Control," Gabriel's favorite track on the album, is a desperate tale of anxiety, alienation and latent violence. Small wonder that Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun asked if Gabriel had spent any time in a mental hospital after hearing "Lead a Normal Life," an eerie sketch of life in an asylum.
Less understandable, however, was Atlantic's decision not to release Gabriel's third album. (Each of his first four solo albums is titled Peter Gabriel.) "I think they were looking for, perhaps, 'Solsbury Hill' or 'Modern Love' — something that they thought had more pop appeal," Gabriel says. "I still have a lot of respect for Atlantic, based on their history. But at the time it was a major blow to my self-confidence. I definitely felt it was my best work, so I was waiting for an enthusiastic reaction, not to be dropped from the label."
Mercury eventually released the album in the summer of 1980; it was well received and enjoyed prominence on alternative radio, largely on the strength of "Games Without Frontiers," Gabriel's jaunty examination of the similarities between childhood play and adult warfare.
Peter Gabriel's jagged rhythms and off-kilter melodies provide a gripping sonic complement to the album's edgy themes. "There were some definite ambitions with arrangements, going for sounds that hadn't really been used before," Gabriel says. "I think for me as a writer, it's the album on which I discovered a style."
He also discovered "good working partners," among them guitarist Robert Fripp, drummers Jerry Marotta and Phil Collins (Gabriel's old band mate from Genesis), singers Paul Weller of the Jam and Kate Bush, producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. "There was a lot of open minds, a lot of support for exploration," Gabriel says.
Peter Gabriel is perhaps best known today for its closing number, "Biko" — a tribute to freedom fighter Steven Biko, who was murdered in prison by the South African authorities. "I was quite uncertain about getting engaged in a political song," Gabriel admits, "because I'd never directly taken on an issue in that way. I just tried some ideas, and I felt the spine tingling. That to me is the musician's rubber stamp — the spine tingle." After all the troubling themes the album confronts, "Biko" ends Peter Gabriel on a stirring note by exalting the indomitable human desire for freedom. That process is part of what Gabriel says is "a familiar theme for me: looking into the darkness and seeing if there's a possibility for triumph."