All-Time Albums: #3



Red Rain 5:40 (UK single, #46)
2 Sledgehammer 5:12 (UK single, #4)
3 Don’t Give Up 6:33 (UK single, #9)
4 That Voice Again 4:53
5 In Your Eyes 5:29
6 Mercy Street 6:22
Big Time 4:28 (UK single, #13)
8 We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) 3:22
This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds) 4:25

Hi there! The 5th solo album from Peter Gabriel was a big, big, big, big, big, big, big moment in my musical education. Its lead single, the horny Sledgehammer, was a terrific slab of funk-pop with an eye-catching video but it hardly hinted at what lay in store on the rest of So.

May 1986 saw the arrival of Captial Radio’s Album Chart Show on a Sunday night, hosted by Paul Gambaccini. This had quite a notable impact on my album-buying decisions, and began to shape my appreciation for more album-oriented artists like Chris Rea, Genesis, Steve Winwood and Chris De Burgh, as well as alert me to hidden gems on albums by newer acts like Simply Red. It opened my eyes and ears to a much wider range of music, beyond the Radio 1 playlists and the UK Top 40.

In conjunction with Q magazine’s arrival, and the continuing influence of Record Mirror and shows like the relaunched Whistle Test, I’d be exposed to new albums by artists such as Peter Gabriel in a way that hadn’t happened previously. Sledgehammer was great, a Top 5 hit on my charts, but would it have inspired me to seek out the album on the day of its release without the promo slot on Whistle Test and Gambo playing two or three of the album tracks the night before? I doubt it.

So, so far so much expanding-my-horizons and checking out stuff by older artists, people whose last new releases had been prior to my Year Zero of 1984, people with whom I had only a fleeting acquaintance (in Gabriel’s case, the 1980 hit Games Without Frontiers). What elevates So from all the other sophisticated, mature-sounding records from 1986/87 is its sheer quality. There isn’t another album which sounds so rich, so nuanced; its rumbling, clattering rhythms somehow creating more space in the mix rather than overloading it.

Gabriel’s solo career to that point had been generally characterised by an abrasive, challenging style, and a growing interest in ethnic beats and Fairlight sampling. What ambient moments there were, had a quite primitive feel to them. On So, with the crucial help of producer Daniel Lanois, you get a greater warmth in the sound, the instruments have clarity and sharpness, the vocals are pitched absolutely perfectly in the mix, and all the small details are placed in a way that it can take many, many listens to even notice them, let alone fully appreciate them. Which is why So has been such an evergreen album in my collection.

The songs are also a huge factor, of course. What album with Red Rain, In Your Eyes, Mercy Street and Don’t Give Up wouldn’t be considered a classic? PG going uptempo proves just as effective; Sledgehammer slayed charts the world over, but the cheeky Big Time was arguably even better, while That Voice Again has a stunning, elastic bassline and some of the best-sounding drums you will ever hear. We Do What We’re Told – a true story – harks back to earlier Gabriel works, and was in his live set as far back as 1980. Eerie and unsettling, it makes for a perfect closer on the vinyl format. If you owned the cassette or CD, it was followed by the seriously spooky This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds), a duet with Laurie “O Superman” Anderson that was first recorded on her 1984 solo set Mister Heartbreak, but wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as the So version.

The US edition swapped the tracklisting around, placing In Your Eyes at the very end of the album (they obviously liked that song as it became the 2nd single there – reaching #26 – whereas it was never released on 45 in Britain). Later UK remasters and reissues would do the same, but I grew up with the UK sequencing and, for me, In Your Eyes belongs as the first track on Side 2, or track 5 of the CD. Even now, I reprogram the disc to replicate the original order.


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