Initially famous as cofounder, lead singer, and lyricist for the progressive rock band Genesis, Gabriel later forged a reputation as a solo performer noted for his innovative audio and video compositions and for his entrepreneurial spirit. Gabriel is also recognized for his philanthropic efforts to uphold human rights and to promote talented artists from around the world.
Born: February 13, 1950; Woking, Surrey, England
Peter Brian Gabriel was born February 13, 1950, in Woking, Surrey, England. He was the son of Ralph, an electrical engineer and inventor, and Irene, a musician; his parents’ vocations would have a powerful influence on Gabriel’s career. Asensitive, precocious child, Gabriel was raised in affluence on a farm in Surrey called Deep Pool.A victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by classmates at school, Gabriel composed his first song at age eleven, a ditty about a slug. He attended Charterhouse, a renowned exclusive boys’ school founded in 1611 in Goldalming, Surrey. In the mid-1960’s at Charterhouse Gabriel joined two bands comprising fellow Carthusians (classmates at Charterhouse)– Garden Wall and the Spoken Word–as singer, songwriter, flutist, and occasional drummer. By the end of the decade, the bands had metamorphosed into Genesis (featuring Gabriel as lead vocalist and lyricist, keyboardist Tony Banks, guitarist Steve Hackett, bassist Mike Rutherford, and drummer Phil Collins). Like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, King Crimson, and Yes, Genesis became a leader in the new musical genre of progressive rock.
With Gabriel as front man, Genesis released six critically acclaimed albums between 1969 and 1974, beginning with From Genesis to Revelation and ending with The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Gabriel, who wed childhood sweetheart Jill Moore in 1971 and fathered two girls (Anna, born in 1974, and Melanie, born in 1976), experienced creative differences with the othermembers of Genesis and left the band in 1975 to go solo. He released his initial self-titled album in 1977, which yielded the first in a succession of hit singles.Anumber of these spawned the highly creative and award-winning music videos that Gabriel produced. In the mid- 1980’s, along with live, studio, and compilation albums, he began contributing to several movie sound tracks. Long an advocate of protecting human rights and promoting world peace and a staunch supporter of global music, Gabriel in 1982 founded the World of Music, Arts, and Dance (WOMAD), an organization that has sponsored ethnically diverse music festivals in more than seventy countries. Since then, Gabriel has also founded Real World Studios, Real World Records, and Real World Multimedia, which are committed to recording and promoting musical artists from everywhere on the planet.
Other causes to which Gabriel, a multimillionaire, has lent physical, intellectual, and financial support include Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the Secret World Live tour, the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, England, and Witness. The last of these organizations has provided activists in more than fifty countries with video cameras and computers to document human-rights abuses. Ever the entrepreneur willing to embrace new technology, in 2000 Gabriel cofounded On Demand Distribution, a European online music provider (later sold to a company in Seattle, Washington). Gabriel and his first wife Jill divorced in 1987. After highly publicized romances with actress Rosanna Arquette and singer Sinead O’Connor during the 1990’s, Gabriel wed again in 2002 to a much younger Meabh Flynn, an Irish sound engineer, by whom he had a son, Isaac.
The Music The Genesis Years. Gabriel first burst onto the musical scene in the 1960’s as lead singer-lyricist for the powerhouse progressive art rock band Genesis. Initially an acquired taste in aworldwhere pop was king, Genesis built a fan base for its complicated, classically inspired conceptual compositions. Some fans appreciated the close harmonies, arcane lyrics, complex rhythms, creative orchestrations, and frequent tempo changes that set Genesis apart from its more rock-oriented peers. Much of the band’s popularity, however, came from the theatricality of its presentations, led by Gabriel, who, to cope with stage fright, performed in outrageous homemade costumes, masks, and makeup. While the first Genesis album, From Genesis to Revelation, sold poorly, each succeeding release–Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, and Selling England by the Pound–didbetter than the one before. The final Genesis album on which Gabriel appeared, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, has been favorably compared with such progressive classics as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973).
Solo Start-up. After leaving Genesis, Gabriel released four consecutive albums between 1977 and 1982 that bore only his name as title, because he believed each was a fresh issue of a continuing publication, similar to a magazine. (To differentiate among individual albums, they are typically called Peter Gabriel I, II, III, and IV, while fans usually refer to them by the cover art as Car, Scratch, Melt, and Security.) The debut album, generally well received, reached number seven in England and produced the hit single “Solsbury Hill,” Gabriel’s wistful reflection about leaving Genesis. The second solo album was an experimental departure from his previous work, a collection of pop ballads and rock tunes containing social commentary that, though it the contained the provocative tracks “On the Air” and “D.I.Y.,” produced no major hits. Peter Gabriel III (Melt). Gabriel’s third album represented a major turning point in his musical career. Featuring one of the first uses of cymballess drum machines, Peter Gabriel III was praised for its clever if unsettling lyrics (always Gabriel’s strength), its social consciousness, and its incorporation of world beat rhythms. It also produced a number of hits, including “Intruder,” “Family Snapshot,” “And Through the Wire,” “Games Without Frontiers,” “Not One of Us,” and “Biko,” the last one of the first musical acknowledgments of South African apartheid. Peter Gabriel IV (Security).
Gabriel’s fourth self-titled solo album–grudgingly subtitled Security for theAmerican market–continued the experimental and ethnically diverse themes established with his previous effort. An intriguing blend of modern rock and world beat, this album yielded several hits, including “The Rhythm of the Heat,” “San Jacinto,” “I Have the Touch,” and the rollicking “Shock the Monkey,” for which Gabriel produced an innovative music video. Peter Gabriel Plays Live. A set comprising live performances of songs primarily from the third and fourth solo albums–recorded at different venues during a 1982 tour of the United States–Peter Gabriel Plays Live captures the fervid audience reception and demonstrates the synergy among a small group of musicians in re-creating onstage some of Gabriel’s best-known early studio hits. Included among sixteen songs are stage renditions of “The Rhythm of the Heat,” “Not One of Us,” “D.I.Y.,” “San Jacinto,” “Solsbury Hill,” “Shock the Monkey,” and “Biko.” So. Following extensive tours, during which he continued the dramatic presentations reminiscent of his tenure with Genesis (collected on Peter Gabriel Plays Live), the singer-songwriter took time off to compose the sound track for the critically acclaimed film Birdy. Returning to the studio, Gabriel in 1986 released his most commercially successful album to date, So.
Titled for the fifth note on themu sical scale, the album was a huge commercial and critical success. It featured a stunning range of songs, from the evocative, image-laden “Red Rain” to the Motown-influenced “Sledgehammer.” Other cuts included an inspirational duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up”; a love ballad, “In Your Eyes”; the cynical “Big Time”; and the dark, moody “We Do What We’re Told.” Us. Gabriel’s return to the studio after a sixyear hiatus, Us (certified platinum in the United States, England, and Canada) showcased the talents of a large number of musicians: Dozens of individuals–including Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno, Peter Hammill, John Paul Jones, and littleknown ethnic talents–contributed to the album. Us, which chronicled the breakup of his first marriage and subsequent romantic entanglements, reached number two on the charts, thanks to such video-backed hits as “Digging in the Dirt,” and “Steam.” Later Work. With his increasing involvement in other aspects of a multifaceted career, Gabriel’s studio releases grew fewer and farther between after the mid-1980’s. The emphasis shifted to his various RealWorld enterprises, his dedication to the development and promotion of underappreciated musical talent from around the globe, and devotion to charitable causes. These efforts include extensive touring on behalf of both world beat musicians (as documented on Secret World Live, 1994) and personal appearances and extensive financial contributions. There has also been a growing demand for Gabriel’s compositional skills in other venues. The singer-composer wrote the score for Martin Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ; Ovo: Millennium Show, the music and video for the Millennium Dome; and the score for the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Despite his busy schedule, Gabriel manages on occasion to produce new and original additions to his catalog. Up, dealing with maturity and the growing awareness of mortality, yielded such tracks as “I Grieve,” “More than This,” and “Signal to Noise.” Sometimes, Gabriel’s music touches a particularly sensitive nerve: Following the collapse of New York’s World Trade Center in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, America’s Clear Channel Communications network included the Gabriel-Afro Celt Sound System collaboration, “When You’re Falling,” among a list of 150 songs recommended for banning. Musical Legacy A leader in progressive rock since the mid- 1960’s, Gabriel, both with Genesis and later as a solo artist, has greatly influenced musical showmanship with his elaborate, dramatic live performances. His recorded music–incorporating complex rhythms and textures, motifs from diverse cultures, and subject matter that heightens awareness of important social issues while simultaneously appealing to pop audiences–has garnered both commercial and critical acknowledgment in the form of Grammy nominations and awards and platinum records.
His groundbreaking music videos– the multi-Grammy-nominated “Sledgehammer,” which earned nine MTV Video Music Awards, as well as “Digging in the Dirt” and “Steam,” which were the first to win consecutive short-subject video Grammy Awards–have inspired a creative visual renaissance among other musicians. As significant as his contributions to popular music are, Gabriel’s determination to promote talented worldwide artists is likely to have a more lasting effect. By giving voice to ignored or underrepresented cultures and by drawing attention to their particular needs, Gabriel will be remembered not only for his music but also for his contributions to a more egalitarian and peaceful world.