Peter’s third self-titled solo album, often referred to as PG3 or ‘Melt’, is 40 years old today.
Recorded both at his home studio at Ashcombe House, near Bath, and at London’s Townhouse Studios, the album was produced by Steve Lillywhite and engineered by Hugh Padgham. It features notable contributions from Kate Bush, Paul Weller, Phil Collins, Robert Fripp, Dave Gregory and Morris Pert. Also present are David Rhodes (his first contribution to a PG album), Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta and Larry Fast.
The cover image, by Storm Thorgorsen at Hipgnosis, is a manipulated polaroid from an SX-70 camera, inspired by the work of photographer Les Krims. A whole series of images were taken which not only feature on the album but also on the singles ‘Games Without Frontiers’, ‘No Self Control’ and ‘I Don’t Remember’.
“I’d had a dream of a melting face, some kind of wax effigy caught possibly in a museum fire. To achieve the painterly dripping effect we used ordinary Polaroids (after Les Krims) and if one pushes around the developing picture sandwiched between two bits of plastic with a blunt instrument like the end of a pencil the image is then smeared as it develops. Peter impressed us greatly with his ability to appear in an unflattering way, preferring the theatrical or artistic to the cosmetic. Because we couldn’t decide on a favourite, for they were all great fun, we used lots” – Storm Thorgerson.
Although regarded by many as a landmark album, this third instalment of the ‘Peter Gabriel’ quartet gained a less-than favourable response from Peter’s, then, American record label Atlantic and it’s legendary founder Ahmet Ertegun:
The album was full of, what at the time were ‘strange’ sounds. I remember when I met Ahmet Ertegun and he’d first heard that record, which Atlantic later dropped, he’d asked if I’d been hospitalised myself and obviously thought that I’d gone from being some sort of pop artist to some strange backwater. In the end Polygram took the record up in America and it did quite well, with some success for ‘Games Without Frontiers’, but at the time I remember the A&R guys were trying to encourage me to sound like the Doobie Brothers.
Clearly sharing little in common with Californian soft-rock, the album is perhaps the first time that Peter really felt that he had found his own voice as solo artist;
“I think that the third album was quite important for me in terms of really having a defining sound and the band coming through. It was the first record where I was clearly doing something different from what other people were doing.”
It also saw Peter return to the charts, with the album release preceded by the top 5 UK single ‘Games Without Frontiers’, Peter’s first showing since Solsbury Hill three years earlier. Two more singles ‘No Self Control’ and ‘I Don’t Remember’ were to follow. ‘No Self Control’ was to see a memorable Top of Pops performance that clearly emphasised the chasm between Peter’s approach and the bulk of his contemporaries as he channels a persona very much at odds with the tea-time viewing audience.
Book-ending the record are two very different but much talked about songs. Opener ‘Intruder’ with its highly recognisable gated reverb drum sound went on to inspire a host of pop records in the 1980s (and beyond), even if its creepy titular intruder was more at home (your home, if you were unlucky…) in the claustrophobic tension of a horror film, than the pop charts;
There was a drum sound that Hugh Padgham had experimented with, using SSL gates, on the XTC record that I was very excited about. There was this huge resonant sound that would be trapped down in sort of square shapes and then flattened into nothing. It was a very big and aggressive sound. So I then thought I’d build a track around it, which was the track Intruder. Phil Collins who I got in for that, then went on to take Hugh and work on his own record using a lot of those sounds, but there was a real sense of discovery when that first arrived.
And, closing track ‘Biko’ which was to become a very important song for Peter. His first overtly political song it was to lead to his on-going involvement in human rights work – “it was as much a thing that helped shape me as the other way round” – and directly led to his presence on the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope and Human Rights Now! tours of the mid to late 80s. Writing on the sleeve artwork for the ‘Biko’ single Peter says;
When I heard of Steve Biko’s detention on the radio, I was sure that publicity would protect him. World attention had been attracted to the large number of prison suicides, slipping in showers, jumping from windows and hanging… I was shocked one breakfast time to hear of his death and wrote down some thoughts in my diary which were to be the start of the lyrics two years later.
With its melting face cover – that was obviously fun to create but hinted at much darker troubles below the surface – and songs that touch themes of impending danger, isolation, mental frailty, war, racism and assassination maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised at Atlantic’s unwillingness to release the album in America forty years ago? But for those of us who have lived with, and loved, this album over the years, the appeal endures and its emotional pull is undimmed with the passing of the time.