Peter Gabriel: My Favorite Recording Artist

Peter Gabriel: My Favorite Recording Artist

Murray Silver photographs Peter Gabriel at the Bottom Line Los Angeles, 1977His “Sledgehammer” music video ushered in the advent of MTV in 1986, and for two years it was virtually impossible to watch that network for more than twenty minutes without seeing Peter Gabriel's claymation masterpiece. Since then he's been inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame both as a founding member of Genesis (2010) and as a solo performer (2014). Ask him and he'll tell you that it means more to him that he was cited as a Man of Peace by the Nobel laureates in 2006 and 2008, and that his humanitarian work with The Elders, including Richard Branson, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu, is far more important than song and dance.

He was seventeen years old when he formed Genesis with his schoolmates at a time when The Beatles were larking about as Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Gabriel was not only chief lyricist, he was the band's visual element adorned in bizarre costumes and expanded what it meant to be lead vocalist with dreamlike stories as introductions to songs. By the time Genesis put together a stage show for their rock opera “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” the visual element had reached a critical point where it overwhelmed the music, culminating in an offer from film director William Friedkin (of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” fame) to turn The Lamb into a feature-length film. Ultimately, the pinnacle that was “The Lamb” coupled with the birth of his first child created the perfect storm that forced Gabriel to make his exodus from Genesis and the band's fans feared that we'd heard the last of all concerned.

I met up with the members of Genesis when they played Atlanta in 1975, shortly before Gabriel's departure. That show remains one of the five most remarkable performances I have ever seen and the reason why I remain a fan of Genesis to this day. But as photographer and journalist I was given the choice between sticking with Genesis as they went forward with Phil Collins as lead vocalist, playing the biggest venues on the planet, or taking off with Peter Gabriel as he mounted his first tour in 1977 behind his first solo album…and I went with Peter, who stripped away the showy pretense and went back to the club scene. Peter meant progress: After getting the last of the bombast out of his system with “Here Comes the Flood”– complete with symphonic accompaniment– he entered a phase of creativity that seemingly knew no boundary, from the pop-py “Solsbury Hill” to the Fripp-ery of “Exposure”, and including his first tentative forays into what became known as “world music” with his tribute to slain African civil rights activist Stephen Biko. And when Gabriel dictated that his band shave their heads for the second tour, why, I fit right in.

My third era of involvement with Peter Gabriel occurred in 1988 as he toured with Amnesty International in an effort to raise awareness about political situations that were hidden from world view and intervention. Prior to launching the tour– which I joined in Atlanta– Gabriel called to ask me if I might be able to help them get into China, owing to my connection to Ambassador Andy Young. We were unable to establish a trade route into China, and it was through this experience that Gabriel understood he would be able to get farther faster through a global music alliance than any political machinery, giving rise to his World of Music, Arts & Dance, otherwise known as WOMAD. The idea was to celebrate all of the great musical traditions on the planet– not just American rock 'n roll and British blues– and Gabriel founded Real World Records in support of his plan to roll out a series of festivals that would bring musicians from Asia and Africa into the mix. His first attempt at synthesis was providing the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in which Gabriel assembled a group of African players of traditional instruments and singers in their native tongues combined with all the marvels of modern music technology collected in his laboratory in Bath, England.

Peter ended his first marriage and started a second, becoming a father all over again, twice over. In 2002, he looked back on his prolific career and decided he'd already said most of what he came here to say musically, then elected to dust off his 16-year-old “So” by remixing and remastering and taking it on a tour of his greatest hits. It's been a long time since we've had anything new out of him, but he continues to tour regularly.

I tell you all of that in order to tell you this: Of all the people I've met and worked with in the music business since 1969, Peter Gabriel remains my favorite artist and activist and the one person I'd trade places with, if such things were possible. His music endureth forever. But more than this, he has done so much good for so many people that we can hardly chronicle all the ways. Perhaps, then, it was no surprise– to me, at least– that Time magazine named Peter Gabriel to their list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”.

About the photograph:

Peter Gabriel at the Bottom Line; Los Angeles, 1977

So Peter was making his first solo tour of America, in support of his first album, and decreed that he would play no venue below the Mason-Dixon Line, as a silent protest against segregation. He stuck to LA, New York, and the Northeast, and if I wanted to see him I was going to have to take off a semester of law school to do it– which I didn't mind since my day job was Music Editor for a weekly publication in Atlanta, and I was always in search of scooping my competitors. None of them were gonna hop a flight to see Peter Gabriel, so I went to Los Angeles, where the tour began.

Out of the hundreds of photographs I've taken of Peter Gabriel since 1975, this portrait taken during an instrumental break from backstage is not only my favorite, it remains the favorite of Peter's family and friends. Enjoy.

For more stories about about the famous and infamous, get a copy of my memoirs, "When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama".

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