Peter Gabriel’s So

The Making of a Classic Album

Nov. 23, 2012
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 Peter Gabriel was the star that did everything possible to monkey wrench his stardom, refusing even the basic step of titling his first four albums because that would seem too much like advertising, he explained. Gabriel had hits anyway, but his fifth album, reluctantly titled So (1986), finally pushed him into platinum with such signal songs of the period as “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.”

The documentary Classic Albums: So (out on DVD and Blu-ray) explores the making of a great album with as much intelligence as the man behind it. Gabriel is a thoughtful, soft-spoken commentator through much of the production, but co-producer Daniel Lanois is also heard along with a gaggle of musicians, engineers and hangers-on. Outside perspective is provided by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, who deems So a classic album for its enduring influence. He might have added that it appeared toward the tail end of the classic rock album era, which began with the Beatles in the mid-‘60s and petered out in the early ‘90s with the arrival of the CD, which allowed entirely too much music onto one disc. Next step: a return to the singles market via music downloads.

But this was still unimaginable in those simpler times when Gabriel rented a farm in remote rural England, filled the barn with (pre-digital) recording gear and began a one-year session, writing many of the songs as Lanois tinkered with the hundredth take of a drum part. The homey ambience was relaxed and unhurried, yet Lanois sometimes grew impatient with the glacial pace. Gabriel conceded: “One of the worst things you can ever do to an artist is give them complete freedom.”

In So’s case, an unkind critic could complain that the freedom to polish and re-polish led to a certain sterility, yet the mixes were rich in unexpected details that emerged from a recording process resembling a painter in no hurry, dabbing colors from his palette on a panoramic canvas as inspiration moved him. The documentary includes many fascinating details, including Tony Levin’s admission that he placed a diaper behind his bass strings on “Don’t Give Up” to achieve a damp sound. Here’s a revelation: Gabriel wrote “Don’t Give Up” as a duet with Dolly Parton but the country singer never heard of him and declined. He recruited a more likely singing partner, Kate Bush.

Classic Albums: So also includes snippets from Gabriel concerts from the ‘80s as well as music videos, including a detailed examination of the painstaking, old school animation of “Sledgehammer.” The documentary is essential for Gabriel fans.

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