The first of Peter’s studio albums to have a proper title So was a watershed release in his career. Its marriage of the artistic and the commercial made for an indisputable success, with the album quickly sitting atop the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Aside from some intriguing collaborations – with Laurie Anderson on This Is The Picture, Kate Bush on Don’t Give Up and Youssou N’Dour on In Your Eyes – it was the unity of singer, band and producer that made So such a crucial record in the Gabriel canon.
“There is always wisdom from hindsight. And because ‘So’ was my most successful record, I think that a lot of people, particularly in America, think that it was designed to be that.
From the other end of it, you never really know which records are going to do well. You know that some things are going to be so obscure and difficult for a mainstream audience that they’re no-hopers but generally, with what I do, it’s hard to predict which albums are going to do well.
You know certain songs have a better chance of getting on the radio when you do them, for sure, but I think part of the reason that ‘So’ works so well was that the band was really firing off each other and we had a great sound and production team. It was compact in the process and the way it was put together.
One of the things I learned with Daniel Lanois is a total respect for the magic of the moment. When you have some spine-tingling event musically, you’ve got to capture it. I remember talking to Brian Eno about the Talking Heads record ‘Remain In Light’ and ‘The Great Curve’, I believe, is a track which was recorded on cassette from a band rehearsal because the band were really cooking at that point. They tried it again and again in the studio and never got it to feel as good. I think all musicians know that process, and you never really know when it’s hitting and when it isn’t, and I think one of the things that makes Dan’s records very strong is that there’s a real consciousness of when the performance is good. It’s quite difficult to spot because, you sort of hear what’s good in any particular thing and you forget whether the one before was actually a lot better or a lot worse. Holding all that emotional memory is quite hard.
‘Red Rain’ is one of my favourite tracks from that record. It’s a good example of a band playing together with a lot of energy and again, I think from Daniel Lanois’ input, there’s a respect for the moment. So many times in studios you see people desperately trying to get the best possible sound, but they let the moment go because they want to get something right or fixed, or they know that this bit can be improved, but the moment is something instinctively that you feel and if you get that great performance everything else will bow to it. And you can fix a lot of things afterwards. But, if you get the best sound but you don’t get the great performance, you have nothing. And it’s so easy to forget that in the studio.
‘Sledgehammer’ was obviously a big track from that record and that was, in part, homage to the music that I grew up with. I loved soul music, blues music and that was a chance to work with some of the brass players that had worked with Otis Redding, who’s my all time favourite singer. It was a fun thing to do, but again that was built around a great groove and a good feel.
‘Mercy Street’ was a much more atmospheric piece, but important for me, and was inspired by the works of the poet Anne Sexton whose book I came across in a New York bookstore one time and really fell in love with this wonderfully rich poetry.
‘In Your Eyes’ was the first thing that I’d recorded, I think, with Youssou and it was very important for that reason. It was around the time I was going to Africa and really getting inspired by a lot of the music I was hearing there, particularly rhythmically and vocally. I’ve described Youssou’s voice as “liquid gold” and I think when he comes in singing on that track it’s just a fantastic moment. We’ve since gone on to do a lot of other things, but that was one of the most exciting.
‘This is the Picture’. I had chance to work with Laurie Anderson who was also someone I loved; she has such intelligence and humour in her work as well as a real feel for the sounds and mood of what she does. That was a lot of pleasure and actually we were both approached by this video artist called Nam June Paik to do a TV special which I think was going to be in 1984, it had some Orwell reference. We had one week in which to write the song, record it and do the video, because that was when this programme was being transmitted. So we stayed up a couple of nights just working around the clock. I remember one time when I was trying to record the vocal at Laurie’s studio, I was sitting on a stool, and I think she has this on film, in the middle of the performance my eyes closed and I just fell asleep. We were just burnt out, zombies. Then we did the video, which was fun, and partly Cocteau-inspired, a sort of backwards film thing, but it was very rushed, certainly by my standards, but actually quite exciting for that.”