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Peter Gabriel – Play: The Videos (A Music Video Review)


Starring Peter Gabriel.

Distributed by Warner Strategic Marketing. 141 minutes. Not Rated.

Pretty much all of the superstar acts of the 1980s took advantage of video and the explosion of MTV (back in the days when Music Television still played music...). However, very few artists expanded the medium as much as Peter Gabriel.

Gabriel had been lead singer of a little known prog rock band called Genesis. That group gained its multi-platinum popularity as an arena rock giant after Gabriel left the fold and more accessible (read: ordinary) drummer Phil Collins took over the vocal duties. When Gabriel went solo in 1977 he took that band's more eccentric sensibilities and forged them onto his own work. He never was willing to sell out to become popular or be easily understood. (Also heightening his inscrutability was the fact that his first three albums were all called Peter Gabriel. Even his fourth album was called that everywhere else in the world, but his American record label insisted on adding a sticker to the album with the title Security, a name that appears nowhere else in the original packaging.)

However, musically he stayed adventurous but did appreciate the importance of a good tune. Not only that, he was one of the earliest artists to recognize the potential of music as a visual medium. He started recording music videos for his songs years before MTV debuted, at a time when only bands with big hits really ever got a chance to take advantage of the medium. Play collects most of Gabriel's clips, made over almost thirty years of sporadic record making.

Some of the early video stuff hasn't aged all that well – I'd bet that Gabriel wishes that he could take back the cabbage lady from the 1977 pre-MTV clip for "Solsbury Hill." Yet, it is still interesting from a historical perspective to see the shifting cutting edges of video promotion; when this stuff came out it was undoubtedly state-of-the-art. Also, the song was so good that you can't help watch it no matter how goofy some of the visuals were, with the strange sci-fi touches contrasted with Alice in Wonderland-style goings on in huge British castles. (Gabriel had obviously studied George Harrison's then-groundbreaking-but-now-unbearably-twee video for "Crackerbox Palace.")

The clip here for "Games Without Frontiers" is different than the mad dinner party promo that we've been used to seeing all of these years. Not completely different, some of the stuff – like the video monitors of Gabriel in different emotional states and the weird doll head – are still there, but the dinner party scenes appear to have been replaced by vintage stock film footage. Other earlier songs like "Shock the Monkey" and "I Don't Remember" created many of the music video cliches to come, lots of sweeping camera views of squalid rooms, blank masks, people nearly lost in backlighting and dripping water. Yet, he knew when to downplay the theatrics, a live performance of his tribute to South African freedom fighter Stephen "Biko" contrasted a shadowed Gabriel with scenes of actor Denzel Washington portraying the man, which came from the 1987 film Cry Freedom.

The most important stuff here is from Gabriel's 1986 breakthrough album So. The one that everyone knows is Gabriel's revolutionary stop-motion video for "Sledgehammer," a promo that was so weird and so fascinating that it became ubiquitous that summer. Looking back at it with nearly 20 years of hindsight it still holds up, it is clever and colorful and fascinating. Even the technology, which has only gotten better in the years since, still looks reasonably up-to-date. "Big Time" is essentially just a retread of "Sledgehammer," however it was still well-made and still unique enough to stand on its own.

There is also a rarely seen concept video for "In Your Eyes," which I believe was never released at the time. They eventually released a live performance of the song, two years later when the song returned to the charts because it was prominently included in the movie ...Say Anything. Oddly enough this was the first straight love song that Gabriel had written – on his fifth solo album (not to mention all the Genesis stuff.) Honestly, the live clip we've been seeing for so many years is a little dull, despite a guest appearance by Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. The concept video – which does fall back on some of his old tricks, stock film (it draws liberally from an early 60s promotional short called Design for Dreaming), backlighting, his face projected onto things, lots of symbolic candles – is much more interesting to watch and I'm glad it was rescued from obscurity.

Interestingly, though, for all of the revolutionary videos spawned from So, the most touching clip here is one of the simplest. In "Don't Give Up," Gabriel and guest duet partner Kate Bush (who also sang on "Games Without Frontiers," but did not appear in that video) stand with a solar eclipse in the background on a dark hill and the camera slowly circles them as they cling to each other desperately. This captures the meaning of the song – a ballad about dashed opportunities in times of economic hardship and whether or not love can survive the bad times – in a subtler and more emotionally satisfying way than the more adventurous clips. In fact, there was another, more effects driven clip for the same song on Gabriel's earlier PV clips collection which would have made a nice bonus for contrast, although the one here is better known, and for good reason.

Gabriel has only released two studio albums in the years since, and the newer videos like "Steam" and "The Barry Williams Show" (no, it's not about Greg Brady) are well-made without the sense of being groundbreaking which Gabriel's videos always had. In fact, "Steam " and "Digging in the Dirt" both feel oddly like more rehashes of the "Sledgehammer" video, even though they are significantly different. However, one of the most recent videos, the quietly powerful "Father, Son," packs as much of a punch as any of his earlier clips. With so much time and technology to choose from, most of Play: The Videos has aged surprisingly well. (6/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: June 14, 2005.


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