Today is the 35th anniversary of the release of Peter Gabriel’s fifth solo album So.
Though some writing had taken place before, work on the album began in earnest in February 1985 and it took a year to complete, with the recording primarily taking place at Peter’s home studio at Ashcombe House. “It took us a year to finish So, almost to the day” remembers producer Daniel Lanois in the Classic Albums documentary, “and I wasn’t aware of this but was told after the fact that it’s the fastest record Peter ever made.”
“It’s slow compared with most people” Peter had told John Hutchinson in Sounds in December 1986 “but it’s all done here, so I’m not paying vast sums for studio time. My advances from royalties go towards the studio equipment and it gives me the opportunity to experiment and make the record the way I choose.”
The studio was in fact a converted cow-shed and the previous occupants would still pay a visit to lick the windows in appreciation.
The approach to the writing of the album was consciously different from what had come immediately before. After the work with Lanois on the textured, instrumental music for the soundtrack of Birdy and the denser, darker elements of PG3 and PG4 before that, Peter wanted to do something different. “I wanted to get back to a more traditional form of song-writing, to have some fun, to be a bit less sombre and mysterious. I’d been revisiting my childhood obsession with 1960s soul music and was even considering doing a full album of covers, but instead I wrote Sledgehammer as more of a tribute to singers like Otis Redding.”
The first six months of the recording were spent on preparation and pre-production with Peter, ever the drummer, starting with the rhythms, “I came up with the rhythms first on a new drum machine and then laid down the chord foundations for about twenty songs, which eventually got whittled down to twelve.”
“I wanted his emotions to come to the forefront,” continues Lanois. “To wear no mask and no veil. To have no mirrored contact lenses. No trickery. Just take everything off and let the songs be heard. I think that was a good call. A nice segue into the next chapter for Peter. Consequently, I think these songs are more revealing, they are more naked, they are taking risks and listeners feel that when a man takes a risk.”
“I spent a lot of time, and Dan too, on trying to get the sequence right and what we used to do was put the beginnings and endings of all the songs on little cassettes so you can try all the different permutations. And I think with Red Rain, fairly early on, that was going to be an opener.”
“When I first heard So I was really pleased. It wasn’t as rich with texture and sonic experiment as my earlier albums but it had a very strong spirit. This was the end of the idea of me being a sort of cult artist at the fringes of the mainstream. There wasn’t an option to go and hide in the shadows any more.”