Peter Gabriel (Melt)
1980, Geffen Records. Producer: Steve Lillywhite.
In My Collection: Vinyl, 1988.
(Five Minute Read)
IN A NUTSHELL: Peter Gabriel, the 1980 album often called “Melt,” is an artistic statement that owes as much to Hitchcock as Western rock and pop. Its dark stories of assassins, burglars, obsessives, and psychotics are menacing, suspenseful, and great fun. And when he gets serious, as on the epic closer “Biko,” it delivers devastating emotion. The instrumentation and musicians, including Robert Fripp, Dave Gregory and Phil Collins, create unusual sounds that make the album too weird for pop, too smart for rock, but just perfect for me.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 20
I loved MTV in the early 80s. (I’ve mentioned this before.) In those days you’d see lots of British acts who – compared to the usual rock fare – looked weird, sounded weird, acted weird, were weird. After a few of those videos, however, the shock wore off. Next thing you knew, you’d see women who looked like men, men who looked like women, dudes with striped hair, chicks with no eyebrows … and none of it seemed strange. By that point, what seemed most shocking was a guy who looked like a stockbroker singing an inscrutable, infectious song about, perhaps, animal experimentation[ref]It was actually about having an experience that shook you to your core, that touched the basic animal in you, that, you know, shocked your monkey.[/ref]?
Peter Gabriel was all over MTV with “Shock the Monkey,” a strange, cold, yet oddly danceable track that sounded cool and looked like a horror movie. He ran through the forest in a suit. He wore weird makeup, played the claves among dancing floor lamps, and then got crushed in a room. Three little people even attacked him! Meanwhile, cute monkeys made frightened, frightening faces. Whether you loved the song or hated it (I loved it), it was unforgettable. But it was shocking, too. It was an old (at least 30!) guy I’d never heard of who seemed to be legitimately creepy, unlike all those acts that had come to seem weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness.
And the MTV VJs talked about him like we all should know him. It was as if he’d been around for 10 years, another Elton John or David Bowie, yet the name meant nothing to me. Of course, Gabriel was well-known, just not by me. He’d been the leader of Genesis back when they made intricate prog-rock music instead of mainstream pop, dressing as a flower or a fox in a dress or a disturbing bubble-covered “Slipperman” thing. He also made songs I’d heard on rock radio, like “Solsbury Hill,” that I didn’t know were his. His 1986 record So eventually made him one of the biggest stars of the decade. At that point, having been convinced by my friend Josh that I wouldn’t be disappointed, I went out and got some early records, each one, confusingly, titled Peter Gabriel.
His 1980 release, often called “Melt” because of the cover, is one of my favorite records ever. It didn’t make my original list, as I mentioned in my intermission post, because I’d forgotten to listen to it when I put the list together! (I’m not the most organized writer.) But it would have elbowed its way into top 20 territory, I’m sure.
(Melt) opens with the dark, desperate “Intruder.”
It’s like a Hitchcock movie put to song. On top of a sinister drum beat, strange piano and whirring noises, Gabriel takes on the persona of a creeping home invader. That drum sound would become the sound of the ’80s, as it is the first recorded use of drummer Phil Collins’ “gated drum[ref]I call it the “sound of the 80s” because it was heard everywhere. Collins, Pete’s old bandmate in Genesis, made it famous on the drum break in “In the Air Tonight,” and used it on so many hits. Artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson, and XTC used it, too.[/ref]” sound. Together, the instrumentation and unceasing drum beat, the haunting backing whines, and Gabriel’s ability to inhabit the part like a brilliant actor make it one of the creepiest songs around. (Oh, and at 2:20 there’s a scary xylophone solo!)
“No Self Control” continues that xylophone sound, layering it over guitar wizard Robert Fripp’s distorted, mechanical guitar. At 1:30 the song changes, and Collins adds some signature drum fills (1:46, 2:02). Gabriel’s vocals are the star, as he sings about obsession that turns violent. It’s a very cool, very strange song. The instrumental “Start” is basically an introduction to one of (Melt)’s most popular songs, “I Don’t Remember.”
This song demonstrates the mad alchemy of Peter Gabriel and producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham. Its pounding drums, this time from Jerry Marotta, paired with Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, a wonderful bass instrument, give the song the feel of a dance club track. But underneath it, Fripp and XTC man Dave Gregory wage a wicked guitar duel on opposite speakers. Gabriel again takes the persona of a man with severe mental issues, this time under duress and finding pure amnesia. It ends with a full 50 seconds of noise, but remains my second favorite song on the album.
“Family Snapshot” is the most disturbing song on the album, a first-person account by an assassin[ref]Given the recent US insurrection, it’s particularly chilling now.[/ref]. Its 80s yacht-rock sax and ballad-y instrumentation don’t make it more listenable, but the song keeps the record interesting. By the way, while listening to (Melt), see if you can hear any cymbals. Hint: you won’t. Gabriel forbid Collins and Marotta from using any cymbals. Just a fun fact!
However, I think I hear some hi-hat from Collins in “And Through the Wire.” The bass from John Giblin is bright, and he and Collins master the tricky time signature in the verses. The guitar here is from The Jam‘s Paul Weller, and it sounds new-wave-cool, as at 3:10. It seems to be a song about long-distance love, and Gabriel sings it with high energy. The song falls apart brilliantly around 4:20. But precision is restored on the next track, the very popular “Games Without Frontiers.”
I knew that Robert Fripp played on (Melt), and for years I thought he played the sinewy guitar line that carves its way through the song. However, that’s David Rhodes doing a great Fripp impression. It’s one of the catchiest songs around, so catchy that even annoying whistling doesn’t damage it. Kate Bush sings the title in French, “Jeux Sans Frontieres,” a title taken from an old European game show, which was called “It’s a Knockout” in the UK. It’s a song about global politics, and Gabriel again demonstrates the versatility of his voice, sneering and chiding.
On “Not One of Us,” Fripp’s strange guitar gets another chance to shine.
The lyrics are about accepting others. “It’s only water/ In a stranger’s tear,” Gabriel sings. Musically, the song is dominated by Giblin’s skronky bass line and Marotta’s drums. The chorus is super catchy, sung in Gabriel’s infectious, electric tone. After 3:22 there’s a cool ending that allows Marotta to shine some more (without cymbals.) “Lead a Normal Life” brings back the xylophone sound, pairs it with suspenseful movie music and a few lines about living in an asylum. I don’t love it.
However, I do love “Biko,” one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard from the past fifty years. It’s amazing.
So many people have written so much about Apartheid and Apartheid-era South Africa, and I can’t add anything, except to say it was horrible. “Biko” is ostensibly about Stephen Biko, an anti-Apartheid activist murdered by police in 1977. But it’s really about strength and fighting against injustice. The song opens with a recording of an anti-Apartheid folk song, “Ngomhla Sibuyayo.” African drums give way to a buzzing guitar and an agonizing scream, and the lyrics begin as a news report of the day. It’s an extremely simple song, with minimal instrumentation, and that gives it great power. Similarly, the lyrics are sparse – relying on the listener’s knowledge of events to fill in the story. But it’s so memorable that if, like me when I first heard it, you had no idea who Biko is, it makes you want to find out what it’s about. “Biko, because.” What does that mean?
Each of the three verses can be neatly summarized as follows: this feels normal; this is actually terrible; we must work together to change it. Synthesized, keening bagpipes add to the feeling, as does Gabriel’s repeated wail, “Yihla moja! The man is dead …” It builds steadily, growing in force, and by the time he sings “Once the flame begins to catch/ The wind will blow it higher,” I always have chills, I usually have a tear. Then voices join in a singalong vocalization. It is wonderful. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.
And it comes from someone who I thought was the weirdest guy among a collection of weirdos. I’m glad I gave him a chance.