"I was thinking of doing a blues and soul album," says Peter Gabriel about the origins of So, his multiplatinum 1986 album. "I was going to do half existing songs — favorite songs from my teenage years — and half new stuff. 'Sledgehammer' was the first song I developed for that project."
It was also the first single from So. Propelled by a powerful groove and a groundbreaking Claymation video, "Sledgehammer" went to Number One, opening the door for the album's commercial success. Daniel Lanois, who coproduced Gabriel's instrumental soundtrack for the film Birdy and then was invited back to work on So, says he and Gabriel wanted the album to be engaging and accessible.
"We had mutually decided on a philosophy for the record — that we would incorporate a playfulness and a humanness," says Lanois. "I thought it was important for Peter to be very clear with some of these songs. I wanted the listener to be able to touch the voice. I was definitely looking to bring Peter to the foreground."
Despite its mass appeal, however, So also presented compelling challenges. "Mercy Street" draws on the work of the influential American poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974. Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour wails a spectacular background vocal on "In Your Eyes." A Depression-era shot by the American photographer Dorothea Lange and Gabriel's concern about the miners on strike in England inspired Gabriel to write "Don't Give Up."
The cartoonish rocker "Big Time" harpoons the excesses of Eighties-style ambition, while the haunting "We Do What We're Told" derives from a university experiment in which test subjects were asked to administer what they believed were injury-inducing electric shocks to others and complied, in the majority of cases, rather than disobey the authority figure giving them instructions. Addressing Gabriel's recurrent theme of control — "One is ego dominant, and the other is ego submissive," he says — these two songs define extremes that must be avoided.
Given the album's thematic reach, why the seemingly offhand title? "I liked the shape and the fact that it didn't have too much meaning," Gabriel says in his elliptical way.