Hard to believe that he left Genesis 45 years ago. Most people don’t remember when he was in Genesis, the hardcore fans do, but most do not. He was a solo artist when I hooked up with Genesis, it was a four-piece band, and then there were three, after Steve Hackett left.
The Gabriel years were wild ones as Genesis evolved from an art-house group of long, theatrical progressive compositions to a more thematic interrelated group of songs. By the time Gabriel left Genesis, it was time for them to part company. The writing had been on the wall and the group was at a critical juncture.
Of the Gabriel-Genesis albums, Selling England By the Pound is their best, much better than The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which I consider pretentious and inferior. Lamb is a good album, just not as complete and significant as Pound, where the music is superior and polished. Lamb feels hurried and overwrought but under-cooked. Hardcore fans would probably disagree, but they can write about it on their own blog.
Gabriel left Genesis and really never looked back. Although once, the full group reunited to help Gabriel out of a major financial hole, staging a concert to help wipe away a crippling debt that Gabriel had accumulated staging one of his artistic musical projects. Not since, has the full group united for any concerts, just some promotion activities for a Genesis boxed collection.
His first solo album was released in 1977, simply called Gabriel. His first four albums would be called Gabriel, but they would be known by their different covers. These albums would be released over a five-year period and vary greatly in style and production, as Gabriel kept peeling layers of the musical onion.
Gabriel 1 was his most traditional sounding album, produced by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Kiss), and featuring some of Cooper’s band plus Robert Fripp of King Crimson. The songs are a grab bag of styles, with the best songs being “Solsbury Hill” and “Modern Love.” The response to the album was so-so, more of a curiosity, and a wait and see approach to Gabriel.
Gabriel 2 arrived in 1978 and was produced by Fripp, and was more experimental in style, meaning a less commercial sound. Sales were disappointing, but it proved important in Gabriel’s musical evolution of production and soundscape. Gabriel’s music would always have a laboratory style, sounding constructed with significant production polish. In the 1980’s, it would be a tough decision between who used more echo and industrial sounds, Gabriel or Phil Collins. There were no commercial singles from this album.
Gabriel 3, was where Gabriel began to figure it out. This album was a huge step forward in songwriting and production quality. Gabriel bridged the dark, industrial sound with well-constructed songs that fans wanted to hear. Gabriel, Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham, constructed a production sound that would be copied for the next decade. This album produced four singles, although none of them big hits, but he got radio play and the album sold well. “Games Without Frontiers,” “No Self Control” and “Biko” received a lot of airplay. This album gave Gabriel major credibility.
Gabriel 4 arrived two years later and continued the sound journey Gabriel began on Gabriel 3. This album saw Gabriel reduce the use of guitar and increasing the synthesizer and sampled electronic sounds, working with David Lord as producer this time. The length of the songs increased as well. “Shock the Monkey,” The Rhythm of the Heat” and “I Have the Touch” are the standout songs on the album. What really sold this album were the videos released for the songs on this album, and the use of songs in popular films. Gabriel was now a major music and media star.
Less than ten years after leaving Genesis, Gabriel had rebuilt his career and developed a unique sound that others would be copying. He would venture into film soundtracks and tour extensively in the period until his next studio release in 1986.
So, his fifth studio album, turned another corner. Gabriel dialed down the bombast of his last two albums and polished his sound to make it even more commercial. Gabriel teamed with producer Daniel Lanois (U2) for one of the best albums of the 1980’s. “Sledgehammer” reached number one on the charts, a first for Gabriel and won a slew of video awards. Five other singles were released including “Don’t Give Up,” his duet with Kate Bush, reaching number 9, and one of his few ballads. “Mercy Street,” “Red Rain,” “In Your Eyes” and “Big Time” all garnered major radio airplay and pushed the album to number two on Billboard and five million albums sold in the U.S. alone.
Gabriel returned in 1990 with US. So set the bar impossibly high for a repeat performance, but US was a worthy successor. Daniel Lanois returned to co-produce. The album provided four singles: “Kiss the Frog,” “Digging in the Dirt,” “Steam” and “Blood of Eden.” The songs, in the same vein as those on So, did not seem as fresh and didn’t chart as high, and sales were decent, but a fraction of So. The resulting tour would yield a live album and concert film.
In 2002, Gabriel returned with Up, after more filmwork and focusing more on his own record label and producing other artists. Gabriel was a big supporter of world music and directed much of his energy into giving voice to other artists. Up, reached higher on the charts, but sold only moderately well and his singles were only minor hits around the world. The best was “The Barry Williams Show” and “More Than This.”
In 2010, Gabriel released a rather unique collection of songs, covers of songs of other other artists, done with orchestral backing. Scratch My Back, created some buzz but wasn’t a hit with fans. Gabriel wasn’t looking for big hits or stardom, just creative fulfillment.
New Blood followed the next year, a collection of re-recorded songs from Gabriels’ previous albums, with orchestral backing. There was one new song. The album was deemed more successful than Scratch My Back, but did not really satisfy fans, who seemed to expect some new music. Live Blood followed in 2012, songs done live with orchestral backing. The album was a combination of covers and older Gabriel songs.
In the years since, Gabriel hasn’t released any new music, focusing on Back to Front: Live in London, recorded at the O2 of his Back to Front tour, focusing on his biggest hits. Growing Up Live, was a concert film of his 2003 tour. It was followed by Still Growing Up: Live & Unwrapped, of his 2004 tour.
Gabriel doesn’t need to reduce any new music, he’s already provided a career’s worth. When he filled his own creative bucket, he focused on providing a home for other artists, at a personal financial cost. It wasn’t for the money anyway, it was his creative drive. Similar to his bizarre costumes and headdresses from the early days of Genesis. Gabriel never settles for conventional: that wouldn’t shock the monkey.