Peter Gabriel's Musical Pen-Pal Project

Gabriel trades versions with Neil Young, Radiohead, Arcade Fire

Peter Gabriel performs in New York City.
Roger Kisby/Getty Images
Peter Gabriel performs in New York City.
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In the past few months, Peter Gabriel put out a disc of covers, prepped for a tour — and received the surprising news that Genesis had been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "It's funny," Gabriel says. "Prog-rock is not a popular thing in the music world." The rest of his old band, including Phil Collins, plans to travel to New York for the March 15th ceremony – but Gabriel is bowing out, because it conflicts with his tour rehearsals. "I always describe it as going back to school, because this was a school group for me," Gabriel says about Genesis. "It's a fun place to visit and see your old friends. But not a place you want to live."

But that's not to say Gabriel never looks back. On his new album, Scratch My Back, he recorded stark, simple covers of some of his favorite tunes – from David Bowie's "Heroes," Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and Neil Young's "Philadelphia" to songs by newer artists including Arcade Fire ("My Body Is a Cage") and Radiohead ("Street Spirit"). In return, the musicians he covered have agreed to reciprocate with their own covers of Gabriel classics. "The only artist who didn't want to play was Bowie," says Gabriel, adding that Bowie's collaborator Brian Eno has agreed to step in. "The whole process has been very exciting for me. Covering songs is usually just a one-way street, but now I get these MP3s sent to me via e-mail, and it's always a nice little surprise, because you never know what someone did with your song."

For many of the younger artists on the collection, getting the call from Gabriel was a shock. "At first, I was just in disbelief," says Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who contributed a cover of Gabriel's "Come Talk to Me" in exchange for Gabriel taking on the Bon Iver tune "Flume." "Hearing him sing my song was just surreal. He picked a weird song of mine and just made it his own." Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, who covered "Not One of Us" in exchange for his own "The Book of Love," was also surprised. "My first reaction was, 'Oh, dear, I can't sing like Peter Gabriel!'" Merritt says. Thom Yorke agreed to cover the 1982 obscurity "Wallflower." Says Gabriel, "He told me he was real into it when he was 14 years old."

Gabriel had hoped to bundle the two discs together, but instead he decided to release the new versions of his songs online as they arrive, about one a month. The first, Merritt's take on "NotOneofUs," was posted on January 30th; next up is Simon's cover of "Biko." "My tendency is to throw the kitchen sink into my songs," says Gabriel. "I may approach it all differently after this. I want to strip everything back a long way now."

This story is from the March 18th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1100: March 18, 2010