New Wave was in large part a reaction against the previous generation’s enshrinement of studied musicianship and flamboyant instrumental prowess to the point of neglecting much of the fun and thrills that rock and roll had, in earlier times, provided. Nevertheless, there were many dotted lines that crossed the metaphorical line in the sand to bridge the sizable gap between Prog Rock [’69-’76] and New Wave [’78-’83]. This is noting that Punk was the high colonic that the music business needed and its zenith in 1977 represented a new Year Zero in rock music where much of what had gone before was deemed seriously uncool by new cultural arbiters like Malcolm McLaren or Bernie Rhodes.
I went through a late blooming prog phase in the mid-late 70s when crossing over from top 40 on my way to somewhere else. And I wasn’t alone. The Human League will freely wax eloquent about what it was like to slog through ELP records just to hear the occasional wild Moog solo Keith Emerson would throw into the mix. The cost and rarity of synthesizers meant that they were in the hands of a privileged elite for the first dozen or so years of their time on planet earth. If you enjoyed these new sounds, ELP, Yes, and Pink Floyd records all had your name on them in the mid-70s. But there were a courageous few pointing the way to a different mindset.
Brian Eno’s role in the early Roxy Music cannot be underestimated. His willful abandonment of musicianship and attraction to creativity instead made him a sorely necessary role model for anyone who was attracted to these new synthesizer sounds while not necessarily wanting to stage an IceCapades® show. Eno used the EMS synthesizer, which was one of the first affordable models to compete with the Moog colossus in the UK music market. Kraftwerk started out as a hippy improv group with organ and flute but by 1974, they were cutting their hair, and moving away from jazzrock to a form that became the template for dozens of UK artists from Bowie to OMD. They shared with Eno a devotion to being sonic technicians; scientists of sound, rather than particularly skillful musicians who could play 137 notes per bar. Having wealthy parents, they could afford to have their equipment built custom for them; giving them an incredible technical advantage for several years. As these musicians gained notoriety and as Punk began to fester in the States in NYC and Cleveland in the mid-70s, the UK rock scene began to approach a tipping point.
Peter Gabriel was one who made the transition from Prog with considerable skill. He began as the lead singer of Genesis and the band offered the usual Prog formula of grandiloquent musicianship [heavy on the keyboards and Mellotrons®] coupled with fantasy lyrical imagery. Genesis were known for their theatricality in performance with ornate light shows and staging in addition to Gabriel’s baroque presentation [see above]. They continued to grow their audience and fame throughout the 70s until after 1974’s double LP concept album [of course!] “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” Gabriel decided to leave the band at what seemed a high point. As history has shown, they would soldier on without him and eventually conquer America, while adopting a pop sound and lightening up considerably.
When Gabriel produced his first solo record in 1977, he still had a foot in the Prog camp. Songs like “Moribund The Burgermeister” did nothing to dispel the whiff of patchouli, even as “Solsbury Hill” lightened up the approach to something that approached pop. The album “peter gabriel” is a fine, eclectic record that’s still somewhat bombastically produced by Bob [Alice Cooper] Ezrin. Peter managed to extricate himself from the tar pit of Prog in this most crucial year via his enlistment of ex-King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.
Fripp had ended seminal Prog godheads King Crimson three years earlier and had taken a sabbatical from music, having become disillusioned by it all. In 1977, he began playing again and contributed guitar to the first Gabriel album. One imagines that Fripp’s long standing association with Brian Eno may have been the third degree of separation between them since Eno contributed treatments to the final Genesis album with Gabriel singing. In any case, Gabriel asked Fripp to produce his next album, cunningly titled “peter gabriel,” and it was this decision that spirited him away from Prog into New Wave territory.
It was with songs from this second album that I first heard Peter Gabriel and I was immediately taken with what I heard. Songs like “On The Air” and “D.I.Y.” were far edgier than anything that Gabriel had ever recorded. The lyrics moved from fantasy scenarios to darker, interior portraits of individuals on the edge. The production by Fripp was dry and documentarian; the furthest thing imaginable from the baroque excess of Bob Ezrin’s work on the previous record. Fripp contributed his nascent Frippertronic style which saw him building layers of sound via Revox loops instead of conventional playing. I enjoyed the album and recognized that he was in the midst of changing his stripes. Gone was any hint of 70s rockstar excess and yes, the hair got cut also. I had high hopes for his next album.
The summer of 1980 brought forth “peter gabriel,” his third album. Fripp was back playing guitar and the production was by Steve Lillywhite, fresh from producing New Wave acts like Ultravox!, XTC, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and The Psychedelic Furs. The album was a dazzling explosion of lean, modern ideas that sounded ahead of the pack then, and still do today. The instrumentation favored non-standard flavors like the Chapman Stick, as played by Tony Levin. Metallic percussion was eschewed entirely for a stark, brutal sound, coupled with the origin of gated drums. Long-time collaborator Larry Fast continued to push the electronic side in directions alien to Keith Emerson. The songs concerned themselves with neurotic states of mind both internal [Intruder, No Self Control, Family Snapshot] and external [Biko]. Music that coupled the best creative experimentation of Prog along with stark confrontation of New Wave was the order of the day; resulting in an album that bested Talking Heads at their own game. By the time that this intensely creative and expansive album dropped, it was hard to remember that it was written and sung by a man who used to dress like a flower for “Supper’s Ready” just five years earlier. Beginning in 1978 and culminating in 1980, Peter Gabriel was a tyger who successfully changed his spots. But he was one of several.
Next: The Catalyst