Scratch My Back / And I'll Scratch Yours
Covers albums are ten-a-penny. And Peter Gabriel doesn't do ten-a-penny.
So, when he expressed an interest in recording a bunch of songs penned by other musicians, he had to take things further. One step beyond. Two or three steps beyond, in fact.
What Peter envisaged was a song swap, an exchange, a reciprocal agreement. Although it might be a tricky endeavour to make flesh, the concept was simple to grasp. Peter would reinterpret and record a dozen songs by other artists; in return, they'd reach into the sizeable Gabriel back catalogue to reshape one of his own tunes. And there was already a perfect two-part name for this two-part experiment: Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours.
It wouldn't be the simplest trick to pull off, but this is a man who's something of a stranger to choosing the easy route, to taking the path well-trodden.
At the heart of the project was Peter's deep love - and continuing fascination - of the art of songwriting. The craft of penning lyrics that touch the soul, the discipline of constructing melodies that never leave the brain. This fascination, uncorrupted by 40+ years in the often cynical music business, would be the fuel throughout the twin-legged project. "Songwriting is what drew me into music," he says. "The craft and process of putting together a song seems both exciting and magical."
This enthusiasm kept the project's momentum up - or, at least, as much momentum as the tours and recording commitments of the other contributors allowed. Peter threw himself into delivering his half of the bargain, slashing an original list of around 100 potential songs down to the required dozen. Suggestions for material came from various quarters; many were offered by Peter's neighbour Dave Bates, a former record company A&R man who would pop round with iPods loaded with songs. Peter's daughter Melanie nominated Bon Iver's Flume, while the Arcade Fire and Elbow songs (My Body Is A Cage and Mirrorball respectively) were recommendations from his trusty engineer Richard Chappell.
With the help of pianist Jason Rebello, Peter then stripped each of the final 12 songs down to a bare skeleton before commissioning composer/arranger John Metcalfe to clothe the tracks with the help of an orchestra. But this was no lurching gear-change or sharp left-turn in Peter's career. It was merely - after "getting my hands dirty" working on the string arrangement on Signal To Noise from 2002's Up - the next stage in a slow, careful artistic evolution. "I asked John to keep the arrangements simple," reveals Peter. "Stark but always emotional, so that the songs could be really heard and felt." Such starkness served to highlight the simplicity of each song, to not lose its essence under the weight of busy, overcomplicated production.
No more is this apparent than by shearing Paul Simon's The Boy In The Bubble of all its infectious bounce. The pain at the song's core was then revealed. "The lyrics are quite dark and troubled," Peter explains. "Stripped-back in the way that we've done it, you hear the words in a different way. It's such an empty arrangement and so much stronger as a result."
A covers album might, in more cynical quarters, seem a retrograde step for an artist, a blunting of his or her creative edge. Peter saw it in reverse, that it was actually a liberating move. By starting with a finished song, he could concentrate his imagination on its finer details, on the nuances of his reinterpretation.
With his versions in the can, it was now a case of presenting them to the songwriters themselves, to gain the approval that would ensure the second part of the deal would happen. Peter took his reading of David Bowie's Heroes round to the house of its co-writer Brian Eno. The drawn-out, slow-motion interpretation was willingly endorsed by Eno, who then embarked on his edgy reimagining of Peter's Mother Of Violence.
Many others were deeply appreciative of the care with which Peter had treated their creations. "His version of Flume just blew me away," explains Justin Vernon, the lynchpin of Bon Iver.
"How he was able to bring it into the place where he sings from. He illuminates certain things in the song that I don't necessarily illuminate with my voice or my perspective, little passage of lyrics or chord changes. It wrings the rag out a different way. What's left is a different lesson. We're not sure what those lessons are, but that's what the mystery of music is, I guess. I'm still learning listening to it."- Justin Vernon
Elbow's Guy Garvey was another who was impatient - and then thrilled - to hear what Peter had done with Mirrorball, originally found on the band's Mercury Prize-scooping breakthrough album The Seldom-Seen Kid.
"He sings it so passionately. It's an important song to me because it's about the woman I love, it's about meeting her. So, to hear one of my heroes really putting his back into singing it so beautifully over that incredible arrangement was very emotional for me and my partner. An amazing compliment." Not that Peter's conquering of Mirrorball was an easy task. "It was a bitch to sing! It reminded me of trying to sing some of the old Genesis melodies that were extraordinarily awkward with intervals and jumps."- Guy Garvey
The reciprocal side of the Scratch project was an ambitious contract to fulfil, especially considering the recording and touring schedules of those whose songs Peter had chosen to cover. But it was a concept that clearly chimed with the hoped-for participants; all but two of the intended song swaps became reciprocated transactions. (For those that were merely one-way, Joseph Arthur and Feist came off the bench and proved to be more than worthy substitutes.) Peter's pipe dream had become a near-complete reality.
The reciprocating artists took differing approaches to their contributions. Some knew, right from the off, exactly which track they were going to tackle. Lou Reed declared his hand early, quickly laying claim to Solsbury Hill and getting straight on with the job; his track was the first received back. With his deep-lying connections to South African music, Biko was also an obvious choice for Paul Simon. The singer had previously performed it at a benefit show for the human rights charity Witness. "I already had a Peter Gabriel song in my head and in my repertoire."
Don't Give Up was another selection that needed little consideration, this time for Canadian singer-songwriter Feist. She too had performed the song live before, as part of Peter's North American tour of 2012. For I'll Scratch Yours, though, Feist took the lead vocal, leaving the Kate Bush supporting role to the soulful, honeyed tones of Taylor Kirk from fellow Canadians Timber Timbre.
Many of those asked jumped at the chance to pay tribute to someone who'd unknowingly shaped their artistic life. Elbow took on Mercy Street from 1986's So, but not without trepidation, as Guy Garvey explains. "On our minds throughout the recording was the fact that Peter Gabriel was going to listen to it! And would he like it? We spent a long time, a very enjoyable two or three weeks covering it. I was trying desperately not to sound like Peter on the recording but it was unavoidable - because I just do!"
When he got the call, Joseph Arthur was another huge Gabriel fan who wasted no time in making his choice. "Shock The Monkey was the first 45 I ever bought. There was a period of my young life where it was the only song I had in my room." Joseph had already been asked to record the song by Peter's daughter Anna for The Voice Project (a music-based charity seeking peace in Africa) so this was a natural fit. "It takes me back into 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 even more to me." For his I'll Scratch Yours version, Joseph sang it in one take live with a Moog guitar, just adding a little bass after.
For others, it was a slower, more considered selection process. Regina Spektor, for instance, experimented with several Gabriel compositions before settling on Blood Of Eden, originally from 1992's Us. This deliberation was clearly well-judged - Regina makes the song's inherent insecurity and vulnerability every inch her own.
As well as their different methods of selecting their song, the contributors to I'll Scratch Yours also worked in contrasting ways when completing their tracks. Some, like Brian Eno, were in frequent consultation with Peter, issuing regular progress reports. Others, like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, went away to work on their interpretations in solitude and isolation, only coming back into contact when the song was done and dusted.
While some interpretations remained clearly recognisable upon their return - such as Arcade Fire's faithful revisiting of Games Without Frontiers, a track swiftly recorded just before the birth of the first child of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne from the band - others undertook more radical transformations. Stephin Merritt, the leader of The Magnetic Fields whose The Book Of Love Peter had already recorded, dipped Not One Of Us into a bubbling vat of robotic, early-'80s electro pop.
"My version sounds very 1981 and Peter's sounds futuristic - it has 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, but there's not a lot of that in Peter's catalogue,"- Stephin Merritt
Similarly, Lou Reed largely disguised Solsbury Hill, transforming this skipping scene of English pastoralism into something stuttering and metallic as he transplanted it from England's green and pleasant land to the mean streets of New York's Lower East Side.
Many made their selection so intrinsically theirs that you'd swear the words they were singing had definitely come from their own pen. Randy Newman's take on Big Time is pure Randy Newman, the original's hefty production dispensed with in favour of that trademark rolling piano and irony-laden delivery (complete with the added punchline "My ass is getting bigger"). As such, it could be a companion piece to Randy own song My Life Is Good, another tale of ever-expanding ego in which he's invited by Bruce Springsteen to stand in for him as The Boss for a while.
David Byrne takes I Don't Remember, originally seeing light of day on Peter's third album 33 years ago, and turns it into the kind of 21st-century dancefloor-friendly delirium that's increasingly his stock-in-trade. To a significant extent, the songs on I'll Scratch Yours deal with introspection and contemplation, but this joyous version has 'radio-friendly hit single' stamped all over it.
The universal truth proved by each and every one of these 24 reinterpretations is the elasticity and versatility of a well-written, expertly constructed song. Such a creation can suit a variety of settings, a wide selection of arrangements and instrumentation, and a chorus of different voices.
As such, both Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours are unapologetic homages to the power of song, to the simplicity of melody, the clarity of message. While out on long loan, these songs have taken new shape and form, now telling new stories and reaching new ears. Commitment, creativity and sincerity measure highly here. Not a single performer has simply gone through the motions.
After all, as Scratch My Back's arranger John Metcalfe rhetorically asks, "what's the point of cover versions that don't make any effort?"