Tag Archives: peter gabriel

Don’t Pass Me By: 5 Songs Sung By Someone Other Than the Lead Singer

It’s nice to see when a band can substitute in different elements while keeping their sound intact – they can swap instruments a la David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” or bring in another musician to liven things up a la The Beatles Let It Be with Nicky Hopkins on electric piano. Sometimes it just takes shoving a different guy from the back of the stage in front of the mic and into the spotlight. Hearing a new voice behind a familiar band can radically change of the feeling of the song or get you to notice a facet of the band that you had never noticed before, not to mention some long-hidden-away vocal talent that was just begging to come to the surface. Presented here are five instances of a different person taking the helm and letting ‘er rip:

1) R.E.M. – Superman

On the grounds that Michael Stipe thought the song was too silly for him to sing, bassist Michael Mills stepped up to allow the audience to hear a but of what happens when R.E.M. has a little fun with their material and covers an old favourite by Texas band The Clique. The melody bounces along in a way that R.E.M. songs rarely do and there’s a totally different, fun energy present with Mills’ rendition (though, admittedly, his singing voice is a lot like Stipe’s, if a little less polished). As the album closer to Lifes Rich Pageant, it adds a little levity to the proceedings, as the band does not do a whole lot of covers on their albums – it feels like a “let’s throw one more on there” and I’m glad they did! Apparently Stipe was not too embarrassed to do harmony vocals over top, so you end up with a very different sound overall as you get a glimpse of the music that was making them excited. Funnily enough, it ended up being one of the singles from the album and received a decent amount of air play.

2) The Clash – The Guns of Brixton

Paul Simonon’s songwriting and vocal debut for the band on their smash London Calling conjures images of rough lower-class resistance “when they kick at your front door”, not just in lyrics but also in the reggae feel of the music and the accent Simonon adopts to sing the song. The rough and angry timbre of his voice suits the sentiment perfectly as he muses on the heinous acts of the local police towards the immigrants there, issuing a warning to them that “you can crush us/you can bruise us/but you’ll have to answer to/the guns of Brixton”, which is fantastically ominous and a reminder that nothing is forgotten. The way the vocal falls to “the guns of Brixton” is where you can hear the narrowing of the eyes instead of producing a big loud chorus, as the whole song is very much uniquely suited to Simonon’s voice – had Mick Jones or Joe Strummer tackled it, it might not have stood out quite so much as the rebellious anthem it clearly is.

3) Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar

Not even in the band, but in the studio next door, British folk great Roy Harper sings vocals on this track about the emptiness of the music industry. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour had tried to record the vocals (both separately and together), but were not satisfied with any of them. In a way, it’s perfect. The song is from the perspective of a record label exec or a manager who’s supposed to be addressing the band, so for the vocals to be by someone else, you really get that sense of someone interfering in the record – “You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people”. He has just the right amount of sleaze in his voice to deliver the faux-fawning patter as he asks them “oh, by the way/which one’s Pink?” as you wonder who the hell this guy is and why he should be strutting in the middle of this Pink Floyd album to chum up to the band. He knows when to keep it conversational and when to stretch the notes out and sounds like a total natural fit. Had it been Waters or Gilmour, it might not have had that visceral, unexpected punch to it.

4) Queen – Good Company

While Brian May’s can be heard on virtually every Queen track – he is approximately a third of the harmonic assault at any given time – his vocals don’t get spotlighted that often, as he was in the same band as Freddie Mercury. On this track from A Night at the Opera, it’s pretty much just his show as, apart from creating an entire Dixieland jazz band from his guitar, he sings about a man gradually losing his friends and loved ones as he gets further and further into his work, providing lead and backing vocals both, which gives it a different feel from when Mercury and Roger Taylor are also in the vocal mix.  Unlike some bands where the vocalists seem to share a lot of similarities, the singers in Queen actually have quite diverse voices that blend well – the song still has that big ‘Queen’ feel, but May has a more nuanced and lower voice than the other two and is a perfect fit for this humble tale.

5) Genesis – More Fool Me

Back in 1973, it was unusual for Peter Gabriel to relinquish the microphone, but they took a chance on giving their young drummer a track or two to sing his song, that drummer’s name, of course, being Phil Collins. Yes, Collins would go on to front Genesis for longer than Gabriel did at the end of the day, but at the time, this was only the second song he’d sung lead vocals on and the first that was over two minutes, and the music being made scarcely resembled what the band would become later. The simple strummed acoustic guitar, along with Collins innocent vocals sound miles away from “Invisible Touch” or “I Can’t Dance”. You could tell right away, however, that the man knew a hook, as this song picks up quite nicely at the chorus and provides a sense of quietude on the sprawling Selling England By the Pound, in both instrumentation and subject matter. This was the initial flag-planting for Mr. Collins within the band that proved he’d be able to step out from behind the drum kit and take the mic (and sound a heckuva lot like Peter Gabriel, quite honestly).

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List-O-Mania: 5 Alternate Versions of Songs Better Than Their Original Counterparts

As per my discussion of music mythology previously, a good alternate version of a song is a music nerd’s dream. “Oh man, you gotta hear this outtake version!”, “The demo is wayyyy better!” etc, etc. Sometimes it’s not quite cooked until after the album’s been cut and it gets worked over on the road or perhaps the line-up will change and offer a new angle to the song or it even just gets injected with a little more energy and suddenly you hear the song with new ears and realize what was in there in the first place. Listed below are five such songs for which I always have a ‘preferred version’.

Of course, ‘better than’ is one of the most subjective of terms, so I’ll explain some of my feelings towards it right up front: you can’t beat a good melody. Anything that uncovers, unclutters or enhances the melody of the song being sung is always going to raise it in my estimation – in most cases, the melody IS the point of song, and to improve that improves everything. Often, groups will get too interested in tinkering and lose the focus a little bit and only realize it later on down the road.

I’ve chosen ‘alternate version’ as opposed to saying ‘live version’, as I realized that some of these are done live in a studio (4), and two are just straight up studio re-dos of older songs (2 and 3), so the lines are a little blurred, to say the least, and I figured ‘alternate version’ would cover myself pretty nicely. All of these, however, are new performances of the songs by the original group/artist rather than covers or remixes (a list in and of itself!).

1) Talking Heads – Burning Down the House (Stop Making Sense)

Though I could easily include any performance from the phenomenal Stop Making Sense on this list, the huge “Burning Down the House” makes it on simply because the original song on its own sort of left me wanting. Yeah, you have the big group coming in on the titular line, but large parts are just sort of monotone and staccato, as, leading up to the chorus, Byrne recites each syllable exactly in time to the beat, with very little in the way on inflection. During the energy of the live show, however, the song gains just a little momentum and a whole bunch of energy – it’s going at a quicker tempo than normal. And it’s a little too fast for Byrne to do the lyrics staccato like in the original version, so he has to syncopate – and what a difference it makes. The build-up to the “burning down the house!” is so much livelier – this time around it really sounds like a party (“Three hundred *pause* sixty-five degrees!”)! That little touch in tempo gels the song together so much more nicely and trades any sort of clinical feel the original might have had. The tom barrage that opens onto the main section of the song, the synthesizer solo, Byrne’s frenetic strumming – they all shine like they didn’t quite get a chance to originally.

2) Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes (New Blood)

Admittedly, this was actually the first version of the song that I heard. My reverence for the original, however, didn’t get very far. Though the melody and rhythm are very strong in the original version, the production, synthesizers and drum machines really do sound dated, which I find very distracting when listening to it – more like I’m hearing a relic of the era rather than concentrating on the important parts. On the appropriately titled New Blood, Gabriel goes back and literally orchestrates some hits from his back catalogue, without any traditional rock instruments present. Immediately, the song is given more gravity as a myriad of strings pick up the melody and swell as the chorus is reached, while the lack of drums creates a sense of spontaneity and the impression of the song being moved by emotion more than anything. Being played with classical instrumentation puts more focus on the melody and at once adds a sense of timelessness to the song. That sense was richly deserved all along, but the context needed to be changed in order to appreciate it.

3) Across the Universe – The Beatles (Let It Be… Naked)

There have actually been three or four versions of this song released, but this has gotta be the one. A beautiful acoustic track by John Lennon with psychedelic lyrics, this is the one version unadorned by wildlife noises, children singing along, and Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” behind it, stuffing every imaginable instrument in the background behind John and his guitar and creating more and more distraction. I find very much that less is more in this instance and the vocals and guitar say all that there really is to say about this track and anything else seems like a frill for the sake of it – even in the other versions, the core of the song sets itself apart at a distance from the rest of the noises. There are also two different speeds to the song, and this one is the slower of them, which allows the song to breathe a lot more and allows you to appreciate the trippy lyrics.

4) Radiohead – Give up the Ghost (From the Basement)

This may be an odd choice, as I listen to both this and the original version with the same frequency, but, for me, this “live in studio” version of the song gets a little more feeling out of it, for one simple reason. The song is based around looped vocals, each of which is double tracked. Because this is being recorded live, Thom Yorke has to do each part twice – you can hear each brick being put into place as more and more layers are added, as well as an extended coda with a little extra ad libbing by Yorke. You also get to spend more time with the song’s hypnotic rhythm and almost mantra-like vocals. Like #3, it is stripped of its ambient sound effects and you’re left with the plain message of the repeated “don’t hurt me/don’t haunt me” that heightens the already raw sense of vulnerability in the song. There’s also something charming about Yorke’s self-effacing “please tell me that sounded alright” after the song comes to a stop.

5) Simon & Garfunkel – For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her (Live 1969)

In the duo’s most plain and beautiful love song, the curious choice was made on the studio version to double-track Art Garfunkel’s voice, rather than have Simon sing along as was usual. The problem is that the double-tracking gets a little loose at the climactic moments in the song and, while sounding smoother, I find actually hides the accuracy and beauty of Garfunkel’s voice in what is surely one of Paul Simon’s best melodies. In the live version, Garfunkel still goes it solo, but no effects are put on his voice whatsoever, as it gently and sensitively carries the melody and crescendoes beautifully with just the right amount of trill. It also sounds less hurried, as they would have become much more comfortable with the song playing on the road for three years than when debuting it on the album. This version ends with something I always thought was interesting to hear on live albums – pure applause without a single person’s voice interrupting it.

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List-O-Mania: 5 Songs Where the Artist Went Outside the Box

Sometimes, a band just gets pigeonholed into a sound and feels the need to break the monotony with something wacky. Sometimes you just found a new instrument and want to see what it’s capable of (see The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”). Sometimes, you let the drummer write a song. Whatever the case may be, I love hearing bands taking a stab and something totally outside of their wheelhouse. It makes one sit up and take notice (for better or for worse) and maybe even develop an appreciation for the curiosity of the members of the band. Either way, here are five tracks where artists went “outside”:

1) The Police – Mother

One of the few Police songs not penned by Sting, this track by guitarist Andy Summers takes the old I-IV-V blues progression and hangs on it an Arabian-tinged dirge more suitable for a slasher movie soundtrack. A far cry from their reggae-flavoured pop/rock, a synthesizer plays a maddening chromatic decent while Sting on the oboe winces in the background. Summers takes the lead vocal, screaming Oedipal declarations (“Well every girl that I go out with/Becomes my mother in the end!”) and laughing maniacally. Stuck in the middle of their pop masterpiece Synchronicity, which spawned both “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain”, it’s pretty jarring to hear, but not unwelcome. It’s refreshing that they were still open to that kind of experimentation up to what would be their swan song.

2) The Decemberists – Like A Lion

A far cry from their usual jangly folk-rock, “Like A Lion” does feature Colin Meloy and an acoustic guitar, but everything else seems…off. Based around a sample of an orchestral flourish that intrudes at odder and odder intervals, the acoustic guitar doesn’t have it usual deftness but instead is being hammered and sounds stunted and low, which fits the funereal atmosphere. When the song drifts away momentarily, it’s a gentle beeping which brings us back in. Later on, string scratches and feedback join the festivities and refuse to leave, building up an ugly wall of sound as it heads towards the finish. Meloy’s usual sprightly voice is dour and double-tracked, mournfully delivering a paean to that moment after you’ve held your breath and how “time stands still/until now”. Attempting to make sense of what he experienced at the birth of his son, “Like A Lion” is, on the surface, majestic, but one layer deeper, profoundly confused.

3) Peter Gabriel – Excuse Me

Before Peter Gabriel really found his groove with the rhythms that would define his later solo career, it released a rather eclectic first album after splitting from Genesis. One experiment he would not duplicate was the barbershop and light jazz of “Excuse Me”. On the introduction with Gabriel’s theatrical, exaggerated lead, you can practically hear the straw boater hats and canes. The a capella group is nary to return for the rest of the song, but are soon replaced with honky-tonk piano, slide whistle and tuba as Gabriel ends every verse by stating “I wanna be alone” as he yearns for everyone to get out of his mind, out of his life and out of his way for just a moment. The song is very much reminiscent of Queen’s “Seaside Rendezvous” as being a total throw back to 20s/30s music, but where Freddie Mercury adapted his voice to sound as if it emanated from the era, Gabriel sounds like his is stuck out of time and only has a 20s backup band available to get his thoughts across, so he might as well use ’em.

4) David Bowie – Yassassin (Turkish For: Long Live)

Bowie is well-known for being an experimentalist and trend-setter and has made a career out of getting to and defining the ‘latest thing’. An album after his side-long ambient experiments with Eno, Bowie released Lodger, which, as the title suggests, deals with his feelings as a world traveller. Though he doesn’t explore a whole lot of world music on the album, there are a couple of spots where the international flavour is felt and no more so than on “Yassassin”, which combines two styles, neither of which Bowie would return to much later on in his career: reggae and Turkish folk music. The offbeat reggae rhythm starts off the track, soon joined by a tinny organ, and then a wandering violin gives us the Turkish tune that goes for pretty much the whole song, gently soloing in an Eastern mode. It, strangely enough, works pretty well, with Bowie giving enough deference to both genres and giving a slightly accented vocal about being “just a working man/no judge of men” and an all male backing chorus telling us to “look at this!”

5) Muse – Madness

Though the song is quintessentially, undeniably Muse, there’s something different about “Madness” that catches the ear on the otherwise totally bombastic The 2nd Law. It’s mainly about control. Most Muse songs wield powerful riffs, lush, orchestrated harmonies, gasping breaths, shouted paranoid lyrics and piercing falsetto (in fact, all of these things can be found on the tracks proceeding it, “Supremacy”). But “Madness” is controlled. It has a simple beat, a plaintive melody, is about love of all things (though seeing love as an encroaching mental illness is very Muse), has measured harmonies and slowly builds up, with each verse adding a couple more layers. The guitar solo is absolutely precise, gorgeous and the perfect length for the song. This is Muse with their powers focused into the 3-minute pop song (well, 4:40) and it just emerges crystalline. Not that they aren’t one of the best rock groups on the planet, but this is just a surprising entry to their oeuvre that produced fantastic results.

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When the Beloved Bandmember Goes Solo

Lately, I’ve been re-listening to a lot of the Peter Hammill catalogue that I have, and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the idea of being ‘really into’ a particular singer-songwriter with such a large body of work appeals to me greatly (as of 2014, Hammill has 35 solo albums to his name, and shows no signs of slowing down) – there’s quite a huge world to get lost in there, and enough to cover every mood and whim once I get a basic familiarity with it. The other reason, is that, quite, simply, I want more of the band that Hammill famously fronts, Van der Graaf Generator.

Van der Graaf has been my (co-)favourite band since I first heard them five or six years ago, and I have, quite simply, pretty much worn myself out on a large majority of their work. There is lots of stuff there for me to revisit whenever I feel the urge, but I’ve listened to it all many, many times. The particular albums I’ve been giving attention – Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, The Silent Corner & The Empty Stage and In Camera – all stem from the 1972-1974 period where Van der Graaf was on hiatus, and so features a lot of actual collaboration with David Jackson (sax), Hugh Banton (organ) and Guy Evans (drums), each including one lengthy VDGG-style harrowing final track. Three new ten-minute tracks is a lot to gnaw on in terms of the band, so that itch has more or less been scratched. I do find myself, however, stricken by the same problem I had when entering Peter Gabriel’s solo oeuvre.

The Peter Gabriel era of Genesis is what got me into progressive rock in the first place, and I very much had the same pattern. I listened to the albums they put out during that time incessantly, but the point eventually came where I needed to find something else. Considering my main anchor for that stretch of albums was Gabriel’s voice, I decided the next place to turn was his solo stuff. If he’s the same guy, and he’s following on from this kind of pedigree, it must be similar, right? Wrong. Gabriel’s first album is a tour of styles, including the jangly “Solsbury Hill” and very much has Gabriel trying to write much more melodic and varied stuff, which baffled this dude hoping that the supply of ten-minute organ based epics was not ever going to run out.

Up and down the discography I went, always hitting the same block with “but this isn’t Genesis” rattling in my head. I would listen to it occasionally, but never quite got the same pleasure out of it that I would hope for. It wasn’t until coming back much later, having shaken the pure-prog yoke that I could approach this stuff with a new perspective and appreciation for what he was doing, rather than what he wasn’t. Even with that being said, I find Gabriel’s stuff takes a few listens to get into, but knowing that going in, it’s easier to reap the rich rewards for doing so (especially on the superb Us).

How then, do I get used to Hammill’s solo acoustic guitar songs, when he’s tearing the house down in a mad organ-drenched frenzy two songs later? It’s not that that composed a majority of his work either – he seems to relish the chance to use most instrumentals at his disposal with equal fervour – it’s just that hearing Hammill with only acoustic guitar as accompaniment still sounds oddly jarring to me, like it’s weirdly displaced after getting to know him as the eye of the storm of VDGG. I want to reach a place where I am not just trying to suck the Van der Graaf out of it, and am actually appreciating it for what it is, but that may take some time or just some listens. Such is the quandry of the solo artist post- or outside of the band they are more famous for. It’s a shadow that looms across the solo career of many (not necessarily for the negative, but often pigeonholing), but the jump fans make from band to artist can just as easily open their ears up given the one thing they are familiar with in a new context. Either way, it’s going to be a helluva ride. Despite some of the strangeness or strange-in-its-normality tunes that Hammill provides on his albums, I have yet to find one that’s been boring.

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#9: Peter Gabriel – Up

(Real World Music, 2002)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

My affection for Peter Gabriel is no secret. Just about all of my friends have heard me gushing over him at one point or another. He is my favourite vocalist, barnone (though the fight for second place is vicious). It began with listening to his time with Genesis and me loving every second of his performances/lyrics there – the ridiculous theatricality, his scratchy wailings telling stories of ghosts-turned-lecherous-old-men and man-eating plants alike. After exhausting the quite small discography of Gabriel-era Genesis, I turned to his solo stuff. Though it took getting over a couple of speed bumps, I slowly made my way through chronologically, having a lot of affection for his first four albums and So. And there it stayed, until I saw the man himself in concert.

It was the Back to Front tour, on which he played the entirety of So, his smash-hit album. He also played, however, several tracks off of Us, the following album, which I had been reluctant to check out based on the brief bits I’d heard. Needless to say, I picked Us up the day afterwards and was summarily blown away. This was textured, mature and rhythmically rich. It was finally the right time for Us. Obviously, now, it was inevitable that I finish the remainder of his solo studio discography (he has several collaborative projects, but solo albums take precedent), which consists solely of Up. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Us was quiet, often times slow and subtle. It was contained, underground, intimate (with tracks like “Secret World”, “Digging in the Dirt” and “Only Us”). Up lifts the lid right off and lets the thunder out. “Darkness” begins the album with a slow, quiet rhythm, making us lean in and gets ready for another album of the kind we enjoyed with Us. One moment later, you’ve tumbled backwards and trying to pick yourself up after an offensive, squealing blast of noise assaults you for a moment. The pieces are then picked up by the drums which shock and rock their way through the track, shuddering and shaking under the sheer force of their own impact (which is picked up again in “My Head Sounds Like That” and “Signal to Noise”), smashing away at the threatening, plodding rhythm. Gabriel whispers to you, in the sinister way that he used to warn you on “Intruder”, while in the background, he screams intermittently with heavy fuzz.

Not every track screams as the first one does upfront, but the noise is allowed to gather and pulse and scream as it will, belying much of the seemingly calm demeanor at the outset. Every track on this album (with the exception of the 3-minute “The Drop” which concludes the album) is in between 6 and 8 minutes, and each one is given time to stretch out and mutate into something else as it goes on – many of them sounding like the serenity of Us and then slowly morphing via scraping, noodlings and histrionics into something entirely different by the end (“My Head Sounds Like That”, “More Than This”, “Signal to Noise”). “Sky Blue” is the only one that manages to keep its calm, with its choruses of plaintive vocals and contemplative pace.   This is less a bed for Gabriel’s vocals to lie upon than it is an interactivity between the two. His (still impeccable) vocals are front and center for much of the time, roiling over internal woes, often stacked on top of one another, but always at great interplay with the rest of the track.

I thought was originally going to be a collection of sedate, sad-sounding songs (my indication being his recent Scratch My Back which was his rendition of several covers done with an orchestra, which all sounded rather gloomy), but I am very glad to be wrong. This is a lively, engaging listen, firing on all cylinders. All the best bits of Gabriel are on display here – sinister chords changes, incredible percussion, interesting tones, passionate vocals and songs with multiple but logical sections. Each one has had a great deal of care put into it, and it’s plain to see. And, clocking in at over an hour, there’s lots of it!

10/10

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