Peter Gabriel's solo albums Us and Up abandoned pop for prog's darkest side
With Us and Up, Peter Gabriel turned his back on pop to record some of the darkest prog of his career. Producer Daniel Lanois and bassist Tony Levin look back on their creation
In May 1986, Peter Gabriel released his fifth studio album. In the UK, it was the first to be given a title, rather than just his name, like his four preceding long‑players. Unlike those four, So became a global phenomenon because it contained a track called Sledgehammer and another called Don’t Give Up. The Stax-inspired elation of the former was matched by the Kate Bush-assisted introspection of the latter. Soon the album was topping the chart in the UK and nestling in the runner-up slot in the US.
So gave Gabriel the financial freedom to match the artistic independence he had enjoyed ever since he left Genesis in 1975. A performer with some of the loftiest ideas in popular music, Gabriel had faced bankruptcy in 1982 and had to be bailed out by his old group after the artistic triumph, yet commercial catastrophe, of his first World Of Music And Dance (WOMAD) Festival in 1982. As a perfectionist who spent increasingly long periods making albums, the monetary security of an enormous hit record was exactly what Gabriel needed.
And when the revenue from the multiplatinum album and attendant tours came in, invest it he did. Taking the advice of his then-manager Gail Colson, Gabriel sank his cash into his Real World studio complex and label in Wiltshire, just outside Bath. From this 200-year-old converted mill, he would mastermind his operations; A&R some of the most innovative music from around the globe; keep an eye on WOMAD, now becoming one of the world’s most successful festivals; have his own studio ready and waiting for his often idiosyncratic recording methods; and finally, resume the business of being a pop star. This last part was to take the longest time.
Gabriel’s first releases on Real World were the groundbreaking Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ in June 1989, and then in November 1990, his first hits collection, Shaking The Tree: Sixteen Golden Greats. Passion… was an incredible piece of music that began life as the film soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s controversial motion picture but then took on a life of its own. With typical Gabriel disregard for timelines, the soundtrack appeared just under a year after the film had been released. With its blending of folk, world music and ambient, it garnered a Grammy Award in the New Age (how very of its era) category in 1990.
But there was great demand for a new pop album. If Gabriel had released So II at the time, he may still be one of the world’s biggest-selling stars, but Gabriel being Gabriel, the album that began to take shape was one of the deepest, darkest records he would ever make. And now, of course, there was the shadow of following up ‘the hit’. Not that this was felt by everyone: “For those of us in the band, or playing back‑up on the album, there’s never any of the pressure that the artist might be feeling,” long-term bassist Tony Levin says. “With Peter, it’s always just a thrill to be part of some of his new music.”
When the new music was finally released in September 1992, So was six years old, a lifetime in pop music terms. The world had turned. It was the first Peter Gabriel album specifically made for CD – its 10 songs ran for just under an hour, and had to be offered as a double vinyl album. Its gestation period was lengthy, with recording beginning soon after So. Daniel Lanois returned as Gabriel’s co-producer.
“The first record I did for Peter was the soundtrack for Birdy,” Lanois says. “At that time he was living at Ashcombe House, in a tiny village. We were in a cattle barn at the end of a lane. When I first saw Peter at the end of the lane, I’d never met him, but when I shook his hand, I thought, ‘I’m with somebody I already know – let’s pick up from where we left off.’ He liked Birdy and he asked if I’d stay on to work on his song record.”