The companion to the critically acclaimed Scratch My Back and the concluding part of a series of song exchanges in which Peter and other leading artists reinterpret each other’s songs. The album is also available as a 2CD set, Scratch My Back / And I’ll Scratch Yours.
If Peter’s covers record Scratch My Back was the call, this was the response, the sound of his songwriting brethren returning the favour. And there are some devilishly fine reinterpretations of Peter’s creations here, whether it’s David Byrne taking the 33-year-old I Don’t Remember and transforming it into an irresistible slice of 21st-century dancefloor bliss or Randy Newman laying the irony thick (as only he can) on Big Time.
Elsewhere, Lou Reed takes the open-ended brief and pretty much obscures Solsbury Hill in a hurricane of snarly guitars, Elbow deliver a suitably widescreen version of Mercy Street while Arcade Fire keep things faithful and reverential on their reading of Games Without Frontiers.
“I began as a drummer really, but songs became my passion and the craft of songwriting was really what led me into music. I’ve always wanted to do other people’s songs and I’ve done the odd one from time to time but never the dreaded covers album and I thought, if I’m going to do that, I’m going to try and do something a bit different with it… and the idea came, if I could get a song-swap off the ground then it would mean that there would be a dialogue and some relationship with the other writer, so the principle is that if you do one of my songs then I’ll do one of yours… and with some people there’s been no contact and no real discussion and with many of the artists there’s been some dialogue about which song to do and how to do it… but the intention was always that people would do it in their own way.
It’s been a very different process because I haven’t had that pressure and stress and responsibility of providing the defining version of a song ‘cause other people have done that very well, so then you are interpreting a song and in a way, with a well-known song, say a song like ‘Heroes’, a lot of people carry that song in their head, so when you’re starting to do something it’s almost as if you are working with the negative, or you can work with the negative, because people know what the positive version of it was so you can do something quite different with it and there will be references from what you’re doing and references from what they already know of the song. With some of the lesser known songs obviously that isn’t true but its been a great process and some other artists that I also wanted to try exchanges with have now said they’d like to participate so I am sure I’ll do another one. I want to do my own songs next but after that I think I’ll do another project like this. It’s been a lot of fun” – Peter Gabriel
“We first got a call from Bob Ezrin, the producer of the record… Kyle my manager did -and he was talking about Mr Peter Gabriel covering one of our songs and I’m like, so you mean another guy named Peter Gabriel? Like, what do you mean? And then I realized I knew who Bob was and he’d worked on some really cool records. This was probably last spring, early summer so they were talking to us about literally recording a Bon Iver song ‘Flume’ and I was beside myself, I was like; you guys do whatever you want… I’ll see that when it happens, you know. But they continued to work on it and I actually had a few phone conversations with Peter himself and we just talked about what the project was to him and that it was kind of evolving still and that it was this sort of loose but focussed idea about covering people’s songs and having them cover his songs as well. I was right into it, I’d always wanted to do a cover of this one particular song of his anyway and so I immediately knew, so we had this really cool conversation off the bat about it.
I decided to do ‘Come Talk to Me’, it was kind of an easy decision because there were a lot of songs that had been important to me, of Peter’s, but that one was principally the most important. Just over the years, I don’t know… through college and things like that, I was a religious studies major and I’m not a religious guy at all but that song is… if there was a religion it was that song, a searching song, for me, a kind of divine song for real and it was just easy decision to make. I want to sing that song, I want to re-live that song I guess is the word I would use, so when it happened it was instantaneous; ‘that’s the song I want to do’ cause I’ve always wanted to do it.” – Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)
“Peter’s version of ‘Not One of Us’ showcases his singing voice whereas my version showcases this evil dwarf choir, I guess, and my version sounds very 1981 and his sounds futuristic … it still sounds quite good in that way. It’s dated particularly well, I think. I should probably have chosen a song that hadn’t dated particularly well and that way I could have “saved the song”… I don’t know, there’s not a lot of that in Peter’s catalogue…” – Stephin Merrit (The Magnetic Fields)
“What I love about the Elbow track is this mood that they’ve got around the song, it’s very controlled and Guy was telling me about this room where they work in Manchester, and it’s a building with quite a few musicians in it I think, but there’s one big space up the top, and they’ve just had that re-floored and its sounding great… the band are really underplaying I think and this mysterious mood that creeps in and creeps out at the end. It’s not deadpan the performance from Guy but again it’s understated, it’s a bit like being read a bedtime story or something.
He was saying he was worried about it sounding a bit like my vocal but it’s very much his voice. There maybe some mannerisms there but I think a bit of that is quite interesting ‘cause I found when I was doing some of these swaps you know you’ve learnt these melodies through listening to other people interpret them so a little bit is inevitably going to wash off but, yeah, it’s been a real delight in this project to have these swaps and you never know quite what people are going to do with your tracks. So this one they’ve been fantastic people to work with, very easy and open and straight forward and the music is stunning.” – Peter Gabriel
“I had no idea that Peter was going to cover one of our songs. It was the most amazing experience to hear his version of our song, he sings it so passionately and the arrangement is so, so much more passionate than our version actually, really sort of re-interpreting it and it’s an important song to me because it’s about the woman I love and meeting her, so to hear one of my heroes really putting his back into singing it so beautifully over that incredible arrangement was very moving for both me and my partner and of course the band just absolutely loved it. But we had no idea he was doing it until it was almost finished. It was really quite an amazing compliment.
We chose to cover ‘Mercy Street’ because it’s such an amazing song; it’s my favourite one from ‘So’ as well, and because there’s a real tenderness and understanding in the lyrics. Before I knew anything about Anne Sexton or her poetry, because the song’s dedicated to her, I just knew there was a real comfort to the song. It’s the sound of somebody offering comfort.
I connected to memories of driving to my Grandma’s house with my brother and my mum and my mum loved having music on in the car and that song in particular really triggers memories of driving up into the hills, because my Grandparents lived in Colne in Lancashire, which is a hard mill town – with no mills in it, and in many ways it takes a lot to change things in Colne and there’s not a massive amount of investment in the area and whenever I was going to see my Grandparents, I mean a) because they’re old… they were old, they’ve died now, it felt like going back in time, in short. This journey into the hills to me and so many images in the song as well are to do with Catholicism, to do with family secrets and things like that and all families have secrets, I was raised a Catholic as well, so I connect with it as an adult but I also connected with it as kid and one of the things that Elbow try to do a lot with our music is offer comfort because, I’ve not had a particularly difficult life, but when it has been at its worst music has often been the only thing that I could rely on so it’s kind of something we naturally do as a bad which is to try and offer comfort and it’s something that Peter does without even thinking about it, I think. So that was a really obvious choice of song for us.
I went and read more of Anne Sexton’s poetry and got a feel for why he’d written the song and he’s offering comfort to somebody who has had a very, very troubled life but who was constantly searching for some kind of peace. It’s very vivid imagery in her poetry; it’s about an abused childhood, it’s about fragmented relationships, it’s about at the moments of most tenderness in love she finds an ugliness, she finds… it’s like a compulsion to twist beauty because of what has happened to her as a child and she was very, very mentally ill and tried to kill herself numerous times and eventually succeeded, in the year I was born actually, so when we decided to tackle the song I had those things in mind…
In her poems she’s searching for something there’s a loneliness to that, an emptiness and a loneliness to it, so we decided the ambience of the room must be a key player in our recording and also the comfort had to come through. I actually found myself saying to the rest of the band at one point; ‘we need to make it quite but loud’ which of course makes no sense, but in some ways we did it. The studio we recorded it in, in Salford, which is where we work, Blueprint Studios, is on major road junction and if you’re recording the ambience you can hear cars passing by, you can hear a general hiss of traffic and it’s such a busy junction it could almost be the sea and of course cars and buildings and the sea are all mentioned in Peter’s song. It’s got a very gentle samba rhythm to the original song and we wanted to distress that and make it a very loud, very quiet heartbeat and I think on our minds throughout the recording was the fact that Peter Gabriel was going to listen to it, and what would he think…. (laughs)
So we spent a long time, a very, very enjoyable two or three weeks covering it and I was trying desperately not to sound like Peter on the recording but it was unavoidable because I just do…” – Guy Garvey (Elbow)
“At a Witness Benefit Paul Simon had agreed to come and play and he actually suggested that he would like to perform ‘Biko’, without being requested. So when this project came up that seemed like an obvious choice of song from my material and from his many, many songs we looked at a lot of different numbers.” – Peter Gabriel
“I already had a Peter Gabriel song in my head and in my repertoire. It’s a very emotional song, very beautiful, it’s easy to sing…. I have a connection to South African politics. Ray Phiri who was in my band with ‘Graceland’, he was a Biko follower, he knew Biko, so I feel… I identify with the song, Peter’s song. The version that we did live, it felt right and so I went to try and recapture that rather than do a big session with a lot of musicians. There’s a nice sound going on here, it’s a 12 string guitar tuned down to a C, so all the strings are real floppy sounding and its got a lot of banging and that mixes with the cello in a way that’s really nice, I think… so, I just went to sing it live the same way at the Witness event, try and capture the same feeling. If its not exactly perfect, maybe it makes up for that, in some kind of ease that I have when I am singing and playing.” – Paul Simon
“’Shock The Monkey’ was the first 45 I ever bought. There was a period of my young life when it was the only song I had in my room. It takes me back to my childhood and deals abstractly – at least, to me – with how we evolve through pain. Covering the song and stripping it down to its essence revealed that aspect ever more to me” – Joseph Arthur