It's easy to forget that, in 1977 when his first album was released, he was only 26,...
Chris Jones 2002
Peter Gabriel is one of the greatest soul singers that the UK never produced. Much has been written about his leaving the safety of that most English of institutions, Genesis; about his bankruptcy in the name of world music; his championing of the anti-apartheid movement. But why doesn't anyone mention the voice? To listen to this remastered collection that charts the first 12 years of his solo career you're struck by the sheer emotive soulfulness of the larynx, and from one still young. It's easy to forget that, in 1977 when his first album was released, he was only 26, despite being thought of at the time as some kind of fossil by the burgeoning punk scene.
Shaking The Tree confirms two distinct facts. One: On a good day Gabriel was a really good singles artist (this album is chock full of great ditties), and two: for an artist intent on breaking new ground he became as rooted to the eighties as Duran Duran.
The career path has been erratic. The first album, produced by Bob Ezrin came with an odd sheen of American AOR; the second album (supposedly part of Robert Fripp's MOR trilogy and not even represented here) was just plain odd. By album number three he began to hit pay dirt, both commercially and artistically. "Games Without Frontiers" and "Biko" still sound great, though "Family Snapshot" suffers from too much cod psychology (parental divorce led Lee Harvey Oswald to rub out JFK). By the following year's 4 he was trying too hard. Just listen to the rather naff synth stabs and over-produced drums on "Shock The Monkey".
Tracks from the really big follow-up So have aged gracefully due in no small part to the aforementioned voice. "Don't Give Up" could so easily have seemed a mawkish attempt at heart-string pulling were it not for the superbly impassioned delivery from Gabriel (for a demonstration of how not to do it try Willie Nelson and Sinead O'Connor's attempt). "Big Time" and "Sledgehammer" are funny, funky standards his throat was surely designed for, and "Mercy Street" still has the power to reduce this reviewer to tears. Gabriel's one abiding fault was his reluctance to stand still long enough to capitalise on such strengths, but this is still a timely reminder of the power of the voice.