Deciphering Culture

Rock ‘n’ Roll & Ritual (’80s Peter Gabriel)

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From the back of the concert hall, the five-person ensemble, four dressed in simple black clothing and one in simple white, proceeds through the crowd, playing drums. As they reach the stage, the synthesizer takes up the same rhythm and the band members pick up their instruments and don headsets. The singer, dressed in white, re-appears from the back of the stage, his face, now clear in the stage lights, in stark black and blue make-up that recalls, to some, a shaman from some non-specified culture and, to others, the image from his latest video.

That’s the intro to ““I need contact” (from Performance and Popular Music), a piece I wrote in 2006 for inclusion as a chapter in Performance and Popular Music: History, Place and Time, edited by Ian Inglis, a pop music scholar at Northumbria University in Britain.  The chapter analyzes Gabriel’s use of ritual in his live performances of material from the influential Security album and discusses the musical sources (and inspirations) Gabriel drew upon.It’s going to be reprinted in 2010 in Peter Gabriel: From Genesis to Growing Up (Michael Drewet, Sarah Hill & Kimi Kari, eds. – London: Ashgate Publishing) and I think it stands up pretty well. The use of ritual in secular popular culture, especially music, is a continuing interest of mine and a key element in my research on Moroccan alternative music. 2010.

Album cover from Peter Gabriel Plays Live

Gabriel has continued create interesting and sometimes innovative pop music (and hits) but, for me, none of it has the creative spark of his ’80s work after leaving Genesis.  The latest effort, the forthcoming Scratch My Back, is interesting in theory, featuring Gabriel covering a dozen songs written by other songwriters. The set list if intriguing but the instrumentation (an orchestra) plays into Gabriel’s worst musical instincts that haven’t had such free rein since his over-dramatic and sometimes treacly performances with Genesis on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Selling England by the Pound. At least that’s my impression from hearing clips of the first three tracks — AND I hope I’m wrong. Check it out yourself at


Written by Jeffrey Callen

December 21, 2009 at 5:05 pm

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