Peter Gabriel hasn't released an album of original material since 2002's Up, though he's stayed busy with a series of tours and the covers project Scratch My Back. He's supposedly been working on a new LP over the past year, and last week's South Park played a large portion of his Magnetic Fields cover "The Book of Love." We asked our readers to select their favorite songs by the former Genesis frontman. Here are the results.
When writing songs for his 1986 LP So, Peter Gabriel stumbled upon a book by Anne Sexton, an American poet who committed suicide in 1974. She began writing when the doctor at a mental hospital suggested it would be a nice form of therapy, and her work — which included the 1969 play Mercy Street — focused over and over on the search for some sort of father figure. "That search kept her alive longer than many others around her and gave her life meaning," Gabriel said. "And now her work gives hope to others."
Sexton was a major influence when Gabriel wrote "Mercy Street," a beautiful ballad on So that became a fan favorite even though it was never an official single. He's played it countless times in concert, always dedicating it to Anne Sexton.
The San Jacinto mountains sit near the wealthy resort town of Palm Springs, California. An impoverished tribe of Native Americans live right near the area, and the contrast between these two communities was on Peter Gabriel's mind when he wrote "San Jacinto" for his 1982 LP Security. The narrative is about a ritual where a boy is left alone on a mountain after getting infected with rattlesnake venom. "If he got back down at the end of it, he was brave," says Gabriel. "If not, he was dead. Very simply. [This song] is the story of what he came back to and what America did to his culture."
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Jeux Sans Frontières was a popular gameshow all across Europe featuring teams from various countries competing in ridiculous competitions. It was meant to form bonds between the nations, but Peter Gabriel didn't see the fun, and he mocked the whole thing in his 1980 song "Games Without Frontiers," which features Kate Bush on background vocals. It became his first Top 10 hit in England and even cracked the Top 50 in America. It was the beginning of a very successful decade for the former Genesis frontman.
Many people assume that Peter Gabriel's 1982 "Shock the Monkey" is about animal rights because, well, it's called "Shock The Monkey" and the video shows a distressed, caged primate. But the song is actually about jealousy, and the monkey represents man's primitive instincts.
When Peter Gabriel recorded his first solo album in 1977 he was determined to do everything possible to prove that he had grown beyond Genesis. Songs like "Modern Love," "Moribund the Burgermeister" and "Humdrum" are a far from anything on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and it all wrapped up with the biblical piano ballad "Here Comes the Flood." He wrote it one night after a particularly vivid dream where "the psychic barriers which normally prevent us from seeing into each other's thoughts had been completely eroded, producing a mental flood."
"Sledgehammer" was so different than any song Peter Gabriel had released up until that point that many people felt it was a deliberate attempt to crack the pop charts. "It wasn't done that way," Gabriel told Rolling Stone in 2012. "In fact, [bassist] Tony Levin reminded me that he was packing his bags to go home, and I called him back into the studio, saying 'I've got this one idea that maybe we can fool around with for the next record — but I like the feel.' It was late in the day and we just fell into the groove, landed a beautiful drum track on it, a great bass line and it all came together."
In addition, he made a crazily innovative video that MTV played roughly 50,000 times in 1986 and 1987. It turned Peter Gabriel into an arena act, but also proved an impossible act to follow. "I've not had many intersections with mass culture," Gabriel said in 2012. "So that was one occasion where that happened." It's been nearly 30 years since "Sledgehammer" came out, and Gabriel has only released two studio albums of original material in that time.
Like many Peter Gabriel songs, "Red Rain" began as a recurring dream. In this one, Gabriel was swimming in a giant pool of red and white liquid. It sparked the idea for the haunting leadoff song to 1986's So, which features Stewart Copeland of the Police on percussion. The song wasn't a huge hit, but it's been a key part of his live repertoire over the past three decades.
On September 12th, 1977, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was murdered by the police after they arrested for him speaking out against the racist South African government. The tragedy was yet another sign to the world that apartheid was an intolerable evil, and three years later Peter Gabriel wrote "Biko" to honor his memory. The haunting song, with a single-word chorus, wrapped up 1980's Peter Gabriel. It wrapped up many of his concerts, with Gabriel leaving the stage before it wrapped, leaving the audience to carry on the "Biko" chant.
"In Your Eyes" was a pretty big hit when it came out as a single in September of 1986, but it couldn't top the impact of "Sledgehammer." But then three years later Cameron's Crowe's Say Anything hit theaters, and in the climactic scene John Cusack held up a giant boombox blaring "In Your Eyes" to serenade Ione Skye. It's one of the most iconic cinematic moments of the era, transforming "In Your Eyes" into an absolute classic. "I've talked to John Cusack about that," Gabriel said in 2012. "We're sort of trapped together in a minuscule moment of contemporary culture."
Peter Gabriel wrote "Solsbury Hill" shortly after leaving Genesis, and nearly every lyric reflects his frustration with life inside an extremely active rock band. "I was feeling part of the scenery," he sings.
"I walked right out of the machinery." It was his debut solo single, and the bouncy song got a lot of radio play in America and England. In recent years, it's been used in so many film trailers that a brilliant spoof trailer of The Shining parodied the practice. "Maybe I've let it go too much," Gabriel said in 2011. "I know some people feel that song is overexposed and I let it be used too many times."