We all have them.
Those albums that signpost our lives.
I guess for me, ‘So’ was the signpost at which I turned 16, left school, fell in love properly for the first time, lost my virginity, became incredibly unsettled at home, got a job and started to become an independent human being. It was a landmark album for Peter Gabriel and it was a landmark album for me and, I am sure, countless other people around the world.
It is one of the few albums I actually remember buying in great detail, picking the cassette tape up from the shelf in Woolworths in Stowmarket. It was probably a few weeks after its release as Woolie’s never got releases on the actual day. I had been spurred on to buy it on the back of the now legendary single ‘Sledgehammer’. Like everyone else, I had been mesmerized by its funky rhythm, its quirky lyrics and of course, the amazing promo video. Even now, when singing along to it in the car, I see myself recreating the jerky, animated motions of Peter, so famously crafted and captured by Peter Lord and his team at Aardman Animations, including a young Nick Park.
This was my first real introduction to Peter Gabriel. Until this point, I knew that he was the quirky, slightly bonkers bloke who used to sing with Genesis and dress up in funny outfits. I was aware of songs like ‘Solsbury Hill’ and ‘Games Without Frontiers’, but only in the sense that at my age, I found them to be novelty songs rather than the deep, political or spiritual statements that they actually were. So when ‘Sledgehammer’ came out, it was a little strange. The man with the weird haircut, bizarre lyrics and crazy outfits was all mainstream. And this is where ‘So’ became as important for Peter as it would become for me. This album opened the door into Peter’s world for people like me. It was a more gentle and accessible introduction to the lyrical and musical complexity of his work and allowed me to listen to his first four albums with a sense of comfort and familiarity. When I first played it, the songs that immediately resonated with me were ‘Red Rain’, ‘That Voice Again’, ‘Big Time’ and ‘In Your Eyes’, as well as ‘Sledgehammer’. These were the more contemporary, commercial sounding songs and initial passes of the album had me skipping past all other songs in their favour. But it wasn’t long before the songs that were more sparse, more complex in time signatures and lyrically vexing started to lay down roots in my psyche. I think I can honestly say that my fascination with alternative time signatures started here. And yes, I found it quite fun to say I enjoyed the work of Lori Anderson, even though I only knew her duet with Peter, ‘This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)’, and her 8+ minute piece, ‘O Superman‘. ‘So’ greased the wheels for people like me to get in to Gabriel and his back catalogue. And on that count alone, I owe ‘So’ a deep, deep gratitude.
But for me, this album was the soundtrack to a very important year in my life. On top of the amazing songs, the infectious bass of Tony Levin and the utterly magical and inspiring drums of Jerry Marotta, Stewart Copeland and the legend that is Manu Katché, these songs were what I was listening to most at those key events I mentioned earlier. That time in most people’s lives is particularly momentous, hopefully for all the right reasons, although I fear not for everyone. And because Peter’s songs were so intensely personal, deep and capable of being interpreted in a number of ways, it had a similar effect on all that listened to it. ‘Don’t Give Up’, with it’s majestic co-vocal from ‘Dame’ Kate Bush, was about unemployment in the Great Depression. But for me, it was about losing love. For others, it was about overcoming suicidal tendencies. ‘In Your Eyes’, for me was a true love song, but it is also a deeply spiritual and religious song for many others. ‘Sledgehammer’ was just an upbeat, funky love song for most, but its underlying and well disguised sexual overtones had others see it quite differently. I had no idea who Milgram was, nor what his 37 had to do with anything at the time, but I heard a song about someone rising above subservience, a slave unshackled and becoming free. All of these songs carry that special ingredient that makes them so powerful and so important. They can be interpreted in many ways and none of those interpretations are wrong.
I always looked at the track count and thought that nine songs was a bit stingy but, like a gourmet meal, what is lacking in quantity is more than made up for in quality. ‘So’ couldn’t be any longer in duration. It was perfection. And it has come to pass that it is an album that has achieved that label so rare nowadays, that of ‘Benchmark’. Peter pulled off an amazing feat. He crafted an album with a collection of supremely talented people that both stayed true to his own roots and ideals, but opened itself up to a more commercial and mainstream audience, without selling out. It was, and still is to this day, a masterstroke.
So, pun not intended, here we are 26 years after its initial release, and we have the definitive edition, released in a number of formats. There’s the standard 9 track CD, remastered by the original mastering engineer, Ian Cooper. Then, a 3 disc edition which adds a double CD of the audio from the Athens gig in 1987. Both of these are also available as digital MP3 downloads. Members of the superb Society of Sound club, owned and run by premium HiFi company, Bowers & Wilkins, can also buy the album as a 16 or 24bit lossless FLAC and 16bit Apple lossless download. The same club also offers select tracks from the Athens gig in those formats also.
But the ultimate package is the box set. This contains the aforementioned discs plus a quite unique CD entitled ‘So DNA’, more of which later, as well as two DVD’s, one of the Athens gig and one featuring the Classic Albums feature on the making of the album, which includes interviews with all the major players on the original. These are encased within a stunning 12″x12″ hardback book with extensive liner notes, credits and some amazing photographs. On top of this, there are two slabs of 180g vinyl. The first is the album itself, mastered at half speed for better audio fidelity and the other contains three previously unreleased songs, two which, ‘Courage’ and ‘Sagrada’, never made the final album, and the most incredible alternative version of ‘Don’t Give Up’. Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, you receive a code that allows you to download, free of charge, the 24bit lossless FLAC version of the album, along with those three unreleased tracks, as well as four videos of songs from the Athens gig in 720p high definition video.
All of that will set you back an RRP of £99.99.
Is it worth it? This correspondent thinks so.
Firstly, the original album. It is as good as it has ever been on CD. I also own the remaster from 2003 and this exceeds that. I have long had time to get used to the revised track order from the original 1986 release. Due to the sonic limitations of vinyl, Peter chose, reluctantly, to put ‘In Your Eyes’ as track 1 on side 2, purely to take advantage of the better low end sonics that were not available closer to the spindle hole.
‘So DNA’ is quite a remarkable thing. Peter had a very lofi approach to putting ideas down. He had an old cassette based boom box, into which he fed his keyboards and vocals. He would layer ideas on the tapes using the ‘sound on sound’ technique and it is these tapes that have been recovered and used to great effect on this CD. Quite simply, each song on the album appears in the correct order, but each starts out as a rough demo and through clever mixing, morphs through many incarnations into something very close to the end product. What this does is give you an incredible insight into Peter’s songwriting process, as well as how a song takes shape from gestation to the final mix. For musos like me, this CD represents a masterclass in composition. It is utterly mindblowing.
The live CD’s are a very welcome addition and are the perfect complement to the visuals on the DVD. These songs were incredibly difficult to perform live and one is left with a sneaking suspicion that not everything was 100% live on the night, or that at least some overdubs were made after the event. Either way, these are two great discs of live music.
The DVD of the concert itself is amazing. Visually, it has benefited from remastering and Martin Scorsese‘s production is evident. It’s a great show that has been captured perfectly. The other DVD, the Classic Album documentary, is fascinating, allowing the viewer to further explore the creations via Daniel Lanois, who produced ‘So’ as well as the many über talented musicians that played on it. It is 90 minutes of good, informative fun.
As for the vinyl, whilst I have a turntable, I wouldn’t spoil my set by playing the contents, preferring to hear the 24bit FLAC download versions. These are probably my favourite part of the package. Here I am, some 26 years after I first heard the album and I am able to discern and digest elements in the mix I had previously not been aware of. Turned up loud, this version of the album, exactly as Peter intended, is truly amazing, sounding as fresh as it did in 1986.
Of course, regular readers of this blog will know of my passion for the Fairlight CMI and Peter Gabriel was one of the first major proponents of the Aussie beast. Peter’s cousin started Syco Systems to become the UK’s distributor of Fairlight’s on Peter’s recommendation. And this collection will tickle your CMI fancies quite nicely, with some lovely photos featuring him at his double manual CMI IIx, with an extra monitor too, all perched atop his trademark Yamaha CP70 with his composition boom box teetering on the top. The liner notes show that it was used on every track, not only by Peter but by another Fairlight super user, Stewart Copeland. The thing about the use of the CMI on this album is that, unlike pretty much every record that hit the charts back then, it was barely noticeable to the untrained ear. There are no Orch2 stabs, barely a Sararr or Swanee in sight. Peter’s use of the CMI was, in my opinion, the very finest use of this technologically ground-breaking behemoth. He saw far beyond the novelty of stuttering repetition of vocals and accentuating a weak song with attention grabbing stabs from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. He used it to create previously unheard sounds and textures, and to realise full compositions by himself. He was, and always will be, in my humble opinion, the foremost Fairlight CMI practitioner.
And finally, the four videos, gleaned from the Athens gig, and presented in 720p HD, are great fun. After taking a bit of flak and an open letter to Peter himself from the excellent website SuperDeluxeEdition.com, he made these versions available in lieu of the lack of a Blu Ray HD version of the gig. All credit to Peter for doing this, and to Paul Sinclair of SDE for publicly raising the point. Whilst it has to be said that he slated the planned release for not including 5.1 audio mixes, b-sides and remixes, or using Blu Ray for the video, the very fact that he raised it with Peter and Peter publicly responded was quite refreshing. Do I agree with their points? To a degree, yes, but Peter works in a very different way to other artists. There isn’t a lot of material left over, so a handful of remixes or b-sides might not entirely justify inclusion, although I would’ve liked to have seen them offered.
This box set is entirely comprehensive and complete, so far as the album goes. I can’t think of anything else that could be included apart from possibly the aforementioned collection of b-sides and remixes for the completists amongst us. However, that said, ‘So’ is such a complete and perfect collection of songs in itself, that it doesn’t need bolstering or padding out. And because of that, it does not suffer from their omission.
This album is incredibly important to me, and I hardly thought twice about forking out £100 for it, even though that £100 came to me by way of a very welcome income tax rebate! Since buying it, I have listened to nothing else. I have revelled in the stunning quality of the 24bit downloads, marvelled in the educational power of the DNA album and enjoyed the visual delights offered by the Athens gig and the documentary. And I have also been incredibly blown away by the three month complimentary subscription to Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound club that I got simply for entering my code to acquire the lossless downloads and bonus HD video. That club will probably warrant a post of its own, especially as you can now buy a 5.1, 24bit lossless version of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from there!
This revisiting of such an important album is incredibly welcome and worth every penny you pay. If you can, buy this box set. The DNA version of the album warrants this. As do the lossless downloads and three extra tracks. The previously unreleased version of ‘Don’t Give Up’ will have the hairs of even the most follically challenged individual standing on end!
When I heard of Peter’s intention to release this celebratory package, I knew that I would buy this. Now that I have, I am very pleased that I did. I think you should too.
So is available directly from Peter’s site, as well as all good music retailers and some bad ones too 😉
If all you want is the 24bit lossless studio quality masters, they can be purchased directly from the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound site.
If you’re an iPad owner, check out the ‘So…Gabble’ app, a free app that presents the song lyrics as animations and illustrations so you can interpret and enjoy the music in a fresh new way.
Here is a collection of videos released via Peter’s YouTube site, all of which are relevant to the ‘So’ album, and includes a 45 minute interview conducted by the guys at Google with some great stories and insights from Peter. Enjoy 🙂