Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]
Artist: PETER GABRIEL
Although Peter Gabriel’s fifth studio album was a huge commercial success, embraced by longtime fans and newcomers alike, it’s often unfairly judged as the record where Gabriel “sold out” simply because it sold millions of copies and contained several hit singles. This is one of those rare examples of the general public catching up to an artist rather than the artist courting mainstream success. Gabriel’s solo albums after leaving Genesis in 1975 were often dense, claustrophobic art-rock affairs with their own distinct sound, but he was not a stranger to chart & FM radio success with songs like “Solsbury Hill,” “Games Without Frontiers” and “Shock The Monkey.” With So, he widened his sonic palette a bit, adding some funk and African elements without straying too far from his signature style.
The chart-topping “Sledgehammer” was the first single, released in the Spring of 1986, and it’s hard to describe how fresh it sounded the first time I heard it. Sure, it’s become one of those ubiquitous ‘80s hits (especially because of its groundbreaking video) so its impact has probably been diluted over the course of three decades, but it’s still one of the great singles of that decade. The equally funky “Big Time” was also a big hit and the perfect companion to “Sledgehammer.” Nothing else here was as immediately catchy as these two, but their success allowed some other great songs to find a wider audience. The powerful album opener “Red Rain” has long been my favorite; the combination of killer rhythm track and Gabriel’s passionate vocals placing it among the best songs he’s ever recorded. The rhythmic love song “In Your Eyes,” with guest vocals by Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, was a surprise hit that was immortalized in the film Say Anything. The touching duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up,” is both sad & uplifting, and they deliver some of the best vocal performances of their careers. Moody, atmospheric tracks like “Mercy Street” and “We Do What We’re Told (Miligram’s 37)” took some time to grow on me but they’re absolutely essential to the flow of the album, and I often forget how good “That Voice Again” is when I haven’t played the album in a while. Clearly, So is a classic from start to finish.
I have a brief personal story related to So. For my 20th birthday in June 1986, my girlfriend at the time bought us tickets for a Gabriel show in November. She still had the tickets in her possession when we broke up a couple of weeks before the concert and I didn’t get to see him. I never bought tickets to subsequent tours, still stinging from that experience. Fast forward 26 years later when Gabriel announced the “Back To Front” tour where he would reunite with the musicians from his ’86-’87 tour and perform So in its entirety along with other songs from throughout his career. By then I was happily married, and my wonderful wife bought tickets for the show in Philadelphia (a 2-3 hour drive from our New York home) where we joined two friends who lived in Philly. All of the emotional demons disappeared and I finally had some closure. Needless to say, Gabriel and his band were amazing, and it reignited my love for this album.