What do Sting, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Don Henley, and Paul McCartney all have in common? They all had massively successful solo careers that were artistically underwhelming and often downright awful. In the history of pop music, virtually every time an artist first becomes famous with a band and then goes solo, the solo career is disappointing in comparison. I can only think of four instances where the work a famous artist did solo is better than the work he/she did with the band that spawned their fame: Michael Jackson, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Peter Gabriel. In the case of Michael, he was too young to have any artistic sway over his band, and with Neil & Van the reason their solo careers are better is simply because they had a lot more time and freedom to follow their muse. But Peter Gabriel is unique in the annals of pop in that he became infinitely more interesting and better as a solo artist. He's one of the only figures for which the decision to go solo was clearly the right one for his artistic development.
When I first heard Gabriel was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few months ago, I was a bit on the fence. Yes, he released some great songs, but was he really important? Now that I've spent some time rediscovering his music, the decision is a no-brainer, and I can't believe it took this long. Gabriel found a unique way to take the prog-rock of his Genesis work, fuse it with the art rock sensibilities of Eno and Bowie, and turn it into music that wasn't just accessible for Western pop audiences, but really for the whole world. He was also incalculably important to the development of music videos and the incorporation of African music into anglo-pop.
Gabriel reached his peak as a pop songwriter with 1986's So, and while that is an outstanding album, I slightly prefer his third and fourth albums from earlier that decade, where he found the most interesting middle-ground between his art-rock roots and the world-pop that he was beginning to embrace. "I Don't Remember" is my favorite song from those albums, and it showcases everything that made this era of Gabriel's music so rewarding.
This was originally written and posted on Facebook on June 1, 2014
Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!