Peter Gabriel (illustration by Andy Friedman)
Nearly five decades have passed since Peter Gabriel, as the frontman of Genesis, first bounded onstage wearing a plush fox head and a chysanthemum crown. Gabriel was daft and daring in the band he cofounded in 1967 with his schoolmates, spinning cryptic tales via epic songs ("Supper's Ready") and convoluted concept albums(The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).
But who would have imagined that this dramatic young Englishman, awkwardly imitating a cosmic lawnmower (really) while wailing "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)," would become such an iconic figure? Not only is Gabriel one of the most innovative and influential rock artists of his generation, but he's a visionary human rights activist and a cultural ambassador for world music too.
After releasing seven album with Genesis and departing the band in 1975, Gabriel began a solo career that boldly expanded on his experimentalism. He released a series of four eponymous albums (known Stateside as Car, Scratch, Melt and Security) that nudged at the theatrical perimeters of pop music, inching towards performance art (akin to fellow adventurers David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, and Talking Heads). Gabriel's bold approach not only dealt with what could be accomplished onstage, but in the studio too. He used early computer samplers, like the Fairlight CMI, and explored the creative possibilities of video, with a fledgling MTV as an unlikely platform.
It's been 30 years since Gabriel's playful stop-motion and claymation clip for "Sledgehammer," directed by Stephen R. Johnson, first shouted from television screens. The album that spawned that single, 1986's So, also became Gabriel's mainstream breakthrough and biggest commercial hit nearly twenty years after the start of Genesis. Gabriel was 36 at the time of So's supernova status: a reminder that fresh beginnings in pop music can easily launch at the cusp of middle age. Another track from that album, "In Your Eyes," featuring vocals by Youssou N'Dour, ascended as its own mighty force, finding cinematic immortality in the guise of a lovelorn John Cusack bearing a boombox in Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything ..."
Gabriel's power lies in the cathartic grace of his wistful vocals, confessional lyrics, stirring arrangements, and an intuitive use of international musicians (in addition to longtime bandmates like bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes and drummers Manu Katche, Ged Lynch and Jerry Marotta). A couplet of deeply personal albums followed the stratospheric success of So—with a stretch of a decade in between both releases—1992's Us and 2002's Up. In this decade, Gabriel has explored collaborations of cover songs between fellow artists, via Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours.
As he recorded as a solo artist, Gabriel concurrently focused on championing a more global scope of music. Spiralling from the intitial impact of his anti-apartheid anthem "Biko," about the slain South African activist Stephen Biko, Gabriel cofounded WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in 1980 and launched the first WOMAD festival in 1982 with a lineup that included Gabriel, Drummers of Burundi, Imrat Khan and Echo and the Bunnymen. The 2016 festival, which takes place in Wiltshire, England, this July, includes Baaba Maal, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, St. Germain, Hindi Zahra, and many others. Gabriel's internationally-minded record label, Real World, was born in 1989 and its Wiltshire studios, nestled in an old water mill, has been the recording home of artists like Elbow, Robert Plant, Laura Marling, Brian Eno, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
Hand in hand with the growth of Real World and WOMAD was Gabriel's intense commitment to humanitarian and political activism, perhaps his greatest legacy along with his music. Recruited by Bono for the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour in 1986 with U2 and the Police, Gabriel also participated in the Human Rights Now! tour in 1988 with U2, N'Dour, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Tracy Chapman. His continued work for Amnesty International earned Gabriel the 2008 Ambassador of Conscience award, an honor also awarded over the years to the late Nelson Mandela, women's rights activist Malala Yousafzai and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte.
In 1992, Gabriel founded the non-profit organization Witness, a group committed to documenting human rights violations and crisis situations worldwide. Working with Richard Branson, and with the blessing and help of the late Nelson Mandela, Gabriel also helped establish the peace and human rights organization The Elders in 2007, a global village of ideas led by an independent panel of international leaders.
From Genesis to his first solo single, 1975's "Solsbury Hill," to 2016's Muhammad Ali-inspired "I'm Amazing" and beyond, Gabriel has traveled a compelling road for a musician, one that is driven by an ambition far beyond writing good songs. He's a powerful advocate for a kinder, fairer, safer, and more peaceful existence in the world. As an artist, an activist, and a beacon of benevolence, Peter Gabriel is absolutely one of our FUV Essentials.
More on Peter Gabriel: