Why we should scratch Peter Gabriel's back

Scratch My BackThe O2 squats on the banks of the Thames on the Greenwich peninsula in south east London. Within it is the 23,000 seater O2 Arena. On 28 March it was not full.

It should have been.

“It has become normal to break apart albums and perform individual songs. Tonight we are going to reverse that.” And, with that, Peter Gabriel performed his entire new album, each song in its album order and without pause.

Not a story but a phrase

I’m one of those people who prefer to buy individual songs to entire albums. I have always felt abused in having to buy a bunch of boring songs just to get at the two or three that are any good on a single CD. The Internet has freed me from that tyranny.

Most musicians can come up with one or two songs of interest and then simply run through some stock cords to fill up the obligatory album length. True, some musicians understand their craft and can imagine an entire album as they set out to create a story through sound. They are rare.

Those are albums I buy.

Now try to imagine how you would create such an album made up of unrelated cover songs. That is precisely what Peter Gabriel has done with his new album, Scratch My Back.

Recreating the world of music

Peter GabrielFor a performer who has been in the music industry for more than 40 years and has had such an impact on the profession he has surprisingly few albums. It hasn’t helped fans that he seems more interested in exploring the nature and influences of music than maintaining a single style.

In 1980 he was active in founding WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) which pioneered the idea of World Music. In 1992 he founded WITNESS which trains human rights activists to use video and online technologies to expose human rights abuses. In 2007 he joined with Richard Branson in funding the Global Elders, announced by Nelson Mandela on his 89th birthday. First discussed in 1998, the group is intended to be a think tank of objective world leaders without vested personal interests who work to solve global conflict. The present members of this group are Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, and Aung San Suu Kyi (with an empty chair for her).

Maybe you never knew any of these things? That’s because he hasn’t the overarching ego of U2’s Bono.

WOMAD led to the creation of the Real World record label which includes Geoffrey Oryema, the Afro Celt Sound System, Papa Wemba and Ozomatli. Please look them up.

Scratch my back

Between 1982 and 2010, Gabriel released only four albums; one every eight years or so. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t performed. You’ll find collaborations with an astonishing range of musicians featured on the Real World label. I keep discovering new ones.

In late 2004, Gabriel spent time in a village in eastern Nepal with musician Ram Sharan Nepali, learning esoteric vocal techniques.

Then comes Scratch My Back. Look at the playlist:

  1. “Heroes” – David Bowie
  2. “The Boy in the Bubble” – Paul Simon
  3. “Mirrorball” – Elbow
  4. “Flume” – Bon Iver
  5. “Listening Wind” – Talking Heads
  6. “The Power of the Heart” – Lou Reed
  7. “My Body Is a Cage” – Arcade Fire
  8. “The Book of Love” – The Magnetic Fields
  9. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” – Randy Newman
  10. “Après moi” – Regina Spektor
  11. “Philadelphia” – Neil Young
  12. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” – Radiohead

These are songs from famous artists long since “retired” like David Bowie and Paul Simon, rising young stars like Arcade Fire, old songs, new songs. It features songs you may know well, like “The Power of the Heart”, or rare songs by famous artists like “Listening Wind”.

How do you create an album that has “Listening Wind”, “The Book of Love” and “The Boy in the Bubble” on it and make it work as a single piece? You completely reinterpret the music.

(“Listening Wind” starts at around the 3:50 mark on the Talking Heads link)

This album isn’t one of those you listen to and bounce around with from first play-through. It is one of those deep albums that grows on you until individual cohrds play emotional havoc up and down your spine.

What Gabriel has done is to pare the music back. Gone are the walls over overlaid sound that has characterised his earlier music. This is not music for people afraid of their souls. It is for people who are unashamed of themselves and of their own emotions and intellect.

And it is beyond brave to perform this entire album live in an arena as large as the O2.

Gabriel’s intention is that the bands he has covered will return the favour by scratching his back on an album of covers of his songs.

Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) has already released “Not One of Us”, Paul Simon released “Biko” on 28 March, Bon Iver will release “Come Talk To Me” on 17 April. Yes, each new song is to be released on a full moon.

This is brilliant stuff. And the live evening was magnificent. “Listening Wind” has been a favourite ever since Geoffrey Oryema covered it on his “Spirit” album. The digital effects during the show were brilliant but were elevated during this song. The images of three ordinary people are shown at the back of the stage. They stand there, shifting slightly in discomfort. Two women and one deliberately Islamic-looking man. “Listening Wind” is a song about terrorism after all. Then, dropping from the top of the stage a second screen overlays the people and, as it drops, it strips them naked, like those new imaging security cameras at airports. We are left feeling ashamed that we have subjected these perfectly ordinary people to such an ordeal.

“My Body Is a Cage” is difficult to cover, so powerful and distinctive is Arcade Fire’s original, yet Gabriel manages to reinvent it and make it his own. But then, I love soaring violins that dab, like broad impressionist painted strokes, at the music.

The Return of the Album?

Maybe, but as Gabriel shows, it takes tremendous work as well as patience and effort from your audience to listen to a lengthy and continuous piece of music. The attraction of individual songs in a random playlist is that you can dip into it. Far harder to do that with an hour of continuous play.

What I appreciate more, though, is that Peter Gabriel continues to challenge us, continues to reinvent himself and continues to bring something new to the world.

7 replies »

  1. I generally don’t like covers records, but this is PG we’re talking about. So it’s on my list.

    Remind me again why he’s not in the RnRHoF? And Madonna is?

  2. I think it’s a fantastic album–but one that can easily be dismissed as “one continuous piece of music that all sounds the same.” Of course, it’s not. There’s tremendous subtlety to the album and plenty of variety once a listeners figures out how to listen to it. That might be the best part about this album, actually: it requires some work from the audience to engage it, and the listener becomes a lot richer for the experience.

  3. Thanks for catching us up with Peter Gabriel has been doing these many years. I go back to Genesis with him.

  4. I also heard some other artists may be a part of it hence the name “Scratch My Back”.

    Isn’t that this?

    Gabriel’s intention is that the bands he has covered will return the favour by scratching his back on an album of covers of his songs.