Plays Live

Released 8th June, 1983

Plays Live was compiled from live recordings made at four venues across the American Midwest in late 1982 and released the following June. The sleeve notes memorably state; “Some additional recording took place not a thousand miles away from the home of the artiste. The generic term of this process is ‘cheating’”. But it’s fair to say that the essence of the live shows remains very much intact on these recordings.

Peter Gabriel by Armando Gallo.

Plays Live was effectively a sign-off to the first phase of Peter Gabriel the solo artist. As such, it’s a celebration of all that was achieved on that opening quartet of self-titled long-players, while also standing as confirmation that Peter was an engaged and engaging frontman.

At the time, all bar one of the tracks would be familiar to the Gabriel completist, the exception being the previously unreleased I Go Swimming.

The touring band captured by the recordings consists of Peter, alongside Jerry Marrotta (drums and percussion), Tony Levin (bass and stick), David Rhodes (guitar) and Larry Fast (synthesizer and piano), whilst the iconic cover image of Peter in ‘monkey mask’ make-up was taken by long-time collaborator Armando Gallo, who picks up the story:

It was taken at The Universal Amphitheater in Studio City, Los Angeles, Dec 1982. Peter played two shows there and this photo is from the first show. The audience was seated with a large space between the front row and the stage. When it came to the moment where Peter used to dive on top of the audience, it was clear that this wasn’t going to happen.

Looking up and raising his right arm, the blue of is eyes came clear into the light. A rare moment of stillness and I shot the photo before he came down from the stage and started walking over the seats and into the crowd of the first few rows. “When I walk off the stage I relate to people one to one” Peter told me. “I am vulnerable”.

I was very impressed to see the courageous crop that was done to my photo. Very powerful! Honoured and proud.

Inside the recording truck

Inside the recording truck

Talking to Michael Bonner of UNCUT Magazine in July 2020, Peter described the thought process behind this act of vulnerability and the connection it forged with his audience.

There were these post-hippie psychological games that people would play to extend their own boundaries and fears, to dig down into their fears and one of these was an exercise in which you would fall back with your eyes closed and allow people to catch you. It’s a trust exercise and I thought this was compelling. I had spent a long time thinking about how you bridge the border between performer and audience. I used to open shows walking through the audience with lights or drums or I’d sing numbers from the furthest seat from the stage, all sorts of things, and I thought actually maybe the ultimate thing you could do as a performer would be to fall backwards off the stage and, except for a couple of times, – one of which I think was in San Francisco where the audience kindly cleared a space for me to do whatever it was I was going to do – it worked very well. That was in fact a painful moment.

But, generally, you were putting yourself into the hands of the audience, giving them the power and, really, they would then pass me around. I know now that it is quite a popular sport for performers but at that time other musicians weren’t doing that. It was a powerful, symbolic act that allowed me to make myself vulnerable, trust the audience. Sometimes I’d be passed all the way around the venue for perhaps five or ten minutes and would have to hang on to whatever articles of clothing I had left when I returned to the stage. All the time the band would have to keep playing – ‘Lay Your Hands on Me’ was the song we were playing – but it was a ritualistic moment in the show.

The album was mixed and co-produced by Peter Walsh at Ashcombe House and he recalls his time working with Gabriel on the album in an interview in the FOCUS section of this website.

Peter had a studio in a stone barn in the grounds of Ashcombe House.
We came up with the credit “FIX ‘N’ MIX”. By today’s standards we didn’t actually fix that much, but we wanted to be honest about what we had done.

Peter’s lead vocal needed a few touch-ups. Not because of the performance, more for technical reasons. It’s hard to get the best sound quality out of a vocal when you’re falling backwards into an audience (Lay Your Hands on Me) or hanging upside down from a piece of scaffolding (Shock the Monkey)!

Peter Walsh, mixing Plays Live at Ashcombe House. Photo by Larry Fast.

Another reason was to add a little more consistency to the overall sound of the album.
The recordings we selected came from different shows, different venues, so we had to replace a few elements here and there to make it sound more like it was all coming from the same performance. We also changed the running order of the show for the album, so I needed to re-record some of Peter’s spoken introductions. It was quite tricky to make them sound authentic and brings back memories of the two of us in the studio, late at night, trying to get the perfect take without bursting into fits of laughter.

Original Play Live ad, courtesy of Peter Walsh.

An edited version of the album entitled Plays Live: Highlights was released as a single CD in 1985. In order to fit all the songs onto one disc the songs The Rhythm of the Heat, Not One of Us, Intruder and On The Air were omitted from that release and only made available on CD once the full original tracklisting was released over two CDs in 1987.

These four songs have been returned to their rightful place in the running order on updated digital releases in 2019.

In August 2020, a half speed remastered LP, by Matt Colton at Alchemy Mastering, was released, with newly scanned artwork that replicates the original LP.

Plays Live polaroids, photo by Larry Fast