Shriek of the Week: Peter Gabriel, “Solsbury Hill”
From 1980-1997 the Long Island based radio station 92.7 WLIR/WDRE featured a weekly Screamer of the Week (later called the Shriek of the Week), in which listeners would call in and vote for their favorite new song of the week. I was recently reminded of that feature, one that I looked forward to every week throughout my high school years, by Marc Spitz in his book How Soon Is Never? In honor of that, today I am starting a new feature, the 2bitmonkey Shriek of the Week. Unlike the WLIR/WDRE version, it will not ordinarily feature new music. Instead, each week I will focus on one song from an album that I own on vinyl and has been played on my turntable during that week. I hope you enjoy.
Vinyl, cassette, CD, digital … I’ve never owned a single one of Peter Gabriel’s records in any format. Once, when I was around 15 years old, someone made me a mix tape that included “Sledgehammer“, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to owning anything Peter Gabriel (Genesis included, mercifully). That changed when I purchased his 1977 debut at Trionfo-Jerusalem.
I can’t say for sure why I purchased this album. Gabriel was mentioned several times in the book I just finished reading, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. I’ve certainly seen him referenced in other books dealing with that period of music (Peter Hook’s book on Joy Division comes to mind), and not in a dismissive way. Artists and music fans I respect always seem to give Gabriel his due, even while commenting that his music is not their cup of tea. In the land of ’80s pop music, Gabriel stands ever so slightly above the fray as listenable, if not downright decent. For a handful of shekels, maybe that seemed worth giving the record a try.
Or maybe it was a simple as being drawn in by the album cover.
Gabriel’s debut is sometimes referred to as “1” (for obvious reasons) and often as “Car”. This is because he simply refused to title his albums. I learned this while thumbing through the excellent coffee table book, The Art of the LP. I find the idea of using the sleeve art as the sole indicator of the album to be a brilliant artistic choice, one that has rarely been repeated and never (to my recollection) with any success. So had I come across a cheap copy of Car at a record show, I might have bought it anyway.
But even with the litany of Gabriel references and backhanded compliments, and even with the cool sleeve concept, I may have still passed on purchasing the album if not for one other aspect. Unlike the four other albums I purchased in Israel, this one not only included some Hebrew in the publishing line but also included his name and a phrase in Hebrew right on the cover. I had in my hand a classic cover uniquely modified for a very small market, plus a record from an artist I may have been underrating since childhood. And now I own my first Peter Gabriel record.
My first ever Shriek of the Week then is Gabriel’s first hit song, “Solsbury Hill“. This song is emblematic of everything that people who both criticize and praise Gabriel are referring to. First, let me say, it is a really good song. Ahead of it’s time, catchy without being irritating, endearing to all kinds of audiences, and just generally pleasant. I was stunned to discover that this song was released in 1977; it is almost the quintessential ’80s song. When I hear Solsbury Hill today I think of all the ’80s movies that it feels like, but probably isn’t, featured in. I defy anyone but the biggest Gabriel fan to listen to this song and not immediately identify it as an ’80s hit, yet unlike other ’80s songs that sound like ’80s songs, Solsbury Hill doesn’t sound dated. It’s difficult to think of another song quite like that. One that sounds distinctly from this time yet stands the test of time. Even the best ’80s songs, the ones I secretly still enjoy, sound out of place today.
And this is why Gabriel is such a polarizing artist, I think. His music was really good. Now that I’ve spun it on my turntable a few times I can confidently say that Car is a terrific debut album. It reminded me in many ways of Vampire Weekend’s debut, which is high praise. But the music it influenced – the genre it possibly created – generally ranged from sub-par to awful. Car can be considered the first ever New Wave album, Solsbury Hill the first ever New Wave hit. In that sense it was, like many albums released in the mid-late ’70s, incredibly influential on music that would follow. Other artists who put out their debut albums at around the same time: Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, Bruce Springsteen, Blondie. You can see the influences of each of those artists – plus Gabriel – in the music that would come in the ’80s. Gabriel’s debut is arguably as good as any of those, and certainly was innovative in its way. However, the sound that it spun off – Duran Duran, Human League, Tears for Fears (and those are the best of the bunch) – was a musical dead end.
Today I come to give Gabriel his due. Standing alone Car is a great listen. With the benefit of hindsight we bury it, but I think that’s a lot of revisionist history. As an ’80s song, we can feel free to dismiss Solsbury Hill. But as a song that came out in ’77, it should be revered. We don’t hold Kurt Cobain responsible for Creed, let’s not blame Gabriel then for the Human League. Genesis on the other hand …