As Genesis continued the break through in the mid ’70s, Peter Gabriel abruptly stepped off the musical carousel. His decision was driven, in part, by a desire to care for his ill infant daughter. But more than that, Gabriel wanted to start anew creatively , free of the constrictions of being in a band.
“When I left Genesis, I just wanted to be out of the music business,” Gabriel has said. “I felt like I was just in the machinery. We knew what we were going to be doing in 18 months or two years ahead. I just did not enjoy that.”
Genesis did, of course become much bigger and, at least until Gabriel released a self-titled solo debut album on February. 25th, 1977, Gabriel simply vanished. He spent time with his child, and dove into a years-long studies of art, philosophy, world music and religion.
He said in 1977, “I felt that were were just at the point of breaking through to the big time. I just felt that if I’d stayed, I would have got trapped into roles that I was beginning not to enjoy – both within the band and within myself. It would have been much more difficult to let go, once we’d got some material mountain, if you like. But at that point, it didn’t make much difference. If my lifestyle had changed considerably as a result of success, it would have been more difficult for me to let go of all that and leave the band.”
“It’s a funny thing, but when I was the singer, everybody thought I created everything and wrote all of it,” said Gabriel “Of course, when I left the band, they were way more successful without me. Everybody then assumed, ‘Ah, okay, he did nothing.’”
In truth, he’d never stopped composing. It just took a while for Gabriel to develop any patience with the business side of things again. This time, he pledged to do things differently. Even as “Peter Gabriel” made its way into stores , he was flouting industry convention even refusing, for instance, to release an advance single.
“I kept on with songwriting,” said Gabriel “I knew I wanted to do that, but I really wasn’t that interested in performing again. Then, once the songs came out, I realized that to get them done in a way I liked, I’d have to start recording again. I got back into the recording thing, and started enjoying it. And here, I’m back again.”
Musically, the nervy, lean Peter Gabriel – a Bob Ezrin production which featured King Crimsons Robert Fripp and Tony Levin; Larry Fast; and Steve Hunter of the Alice Cooper band, couldn’t have been a bolder step away from the lengthy prog excursions that had come before. “Well, I tried to do a lot of things to separate me from Genesis,” he admitted . “Sometimes you’d see people leave bands and do watered-down versions of what the band had done. I was determined not to do that. I was keen to get a new audience.” It’s a purposefully eclectic, anything-flies approach to songcraft, venturing from hard-hitting rock (“Modern Love”) to quirky art-rock (the vastly underrated “Moribund The Burgermeister”) to pastoral folk-pop (the lovely “Solsbury Hill,” which serves as a thinly veiled kiss-off to his former band) to, umm, barbershop quartet crooning (“Excuse Me”). No other Gabriel album is quite so gleefully absurd. Unfortunately, the album’s second half is tedious and overwrought, particularly the crawling blues of “Waiting For The Big One” and the thickly orchestrated “Here Comes the Flood” (which later appeared with a more subtle, stark arrangement on Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure). Overall, Car is a fascinating — if frustrating — first chapter.
Still, the album offered little in the way of narrative insight into his time away, other than the ageless “Solsbury Hill” – an autobiographical turn dealing with Gabriel’s split with Genesis. That too was part of the atmosphere of thrilling risk that surrounded this project. He was, quite simply, unbound – even lyrically. “Climbing up on Solsbury Hill/ I could see the city light/ Wind was blowing, time stood still/ Eagle flew out of the night.” Doesn’t matter if you’ve never been within 500 miles of Somerset with those 28 opening syllables, you’re right there with Gabriel, sharing in his moment of revelation. It’s the first and only time the song’s titular location is mentioned, but the mental image it invokes is burned in your mind
Part of the reason the song’s unusual time signature works is because it’s all in the guitars — that gorgeous spider web of an acoustic riff (played by Lou Reed and Alice Cooper guitarist Steve Hunter) circling the song’s perimeter and providing its pristine, immediately recognizable framework. But if the guitars are undoubtedly the blood pumping through “Solsbury Hill,” it still all stems from the beating heart of the drum thump,
The story of “Solsbury Hill” of personal epiphany, of hard decision-making, and of breaking free — was unsurprisingly interpreted to be inspired by Gabriel’s split from his old group, and the singer-songwriter has explained, “It’s about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get, or what you are for what you might be. It’s about letting go.” It makes sense, and it certainly enriches the song to know just why Gabriel was worried about his friends thinking he “was a nut,” for making the risky choice to leave his best-selling group to go his own way.
“I just write down images that interest me. I’ve got an idea of what I’m trying to say, but there’s one part in “Humdrum” which I wasn’t clear about. You know, the words sounded nice when written down. I bought a dictionary, and that’s got hundreds of words. All I’ve got to do now is find out how to put them in the right order.”
“In Genesis, we were all putting in material in a polished band arrangement, whereas now I’m trying, as a writer, to arrange things differently, In a group, it was a compromise. You’d hand over your idea to a band interpretation, but now if I hear some things in my head, it’s possible just to try them and see how they work.”