"[A] fresh sound can be just as inspiring as a great hook. To me, sounds arehooks."
Peter Gabriel: U2 Connections
by Khoa Tran
A few years back, I saw a film called Waking the Dead. Directed by Keith Gordon, and with Billy Crudrup and Jennifer Connelly in the lead roles, it wasn't the most commercially successful of films, but it's a powerful story nonetheless. The emotional climax of the movie was accompanied by a song that just struck me numb. It was a soft, subtle piece of synthesiser-based music with a gorgeous ambience. The voice wasn't Bono's, but I thought: this song wouldn't be completely out of place on The Unforgettable Fire. The end credits revealed that the song was Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." Some quick 'net searching soon explained everything: "Mercy Street," is from the So album, produced in 1986, two years after The Unforgettable Fire, by none other than my favourite fellow transplanted Franco-Canadian, Daniel Lanois. As I became a fan and learned more and more about Peter Gabriel, I discovered that he and U2 have crossed musical paths on more than one occasion and in quite some interesting ways.
At first glance, U2's and Gabriel's musical carreers started out differently enough. Gabriel was the colourful, charismatic lead singer of the progressive rock band Genesis. The members of U2 were, or at least thought they were, in a punk band, which is about as far away from prog rock as you can possibly get. Oversimplifying somewhat, Progressive Rock was a style popular in the 1970s (and to a lesser extent in the decades that followed, right up until present day) which featured bands with virtuoso musicians writing longer, more complex songs and instrumentals, fusing elements from jazz and classical music. While prog was able to produce some great music, it is often criticised for musical excess. Punk rock can be seen as a musical reaction to Progressive rock, with stripped-down arrangements and simple songs usually featuring no more than three chords. Bono is famously dismissive of Prog, identifying himself more with the punk movement. In the early days, he and the rest of U2 were teenagers who, though extremely limited musically, had something to say, and had a passion and the "do-it-yourself" punk attitude that was seen as a breath of fresh air from the musical snobbishness associated with prog. (As an editorial aside, I'd like to point out that while prog was responsible for some garishly excessive musical missteps, punk was equally responsible for some overly simplistic and banal output. Punk's anti-musicianship attitude was a less than positive one, and both genres produced good and bad music).
From these two rather opposite ends of the rock music spectrum, U2 and Peter Gabriel ended up meeting somewhere in the middle. Gabriel eventually left Genesis and produced some very accessible and commercially successful music (though notably very artistic and experimental music all the while). U2, on the other hand, soon outgrew its early musical limitations and matured to write and produce music, which although stylistically and thematically inventive, has remained essentially accessible to popular music audiences and critics (to which the band's immense success over the years with Grammy awards can no doubt attest).
Their early careers paralleled one another in the sense that it wasn't until their respective fifth albums, The Joshua Tree, and So (both of which involved Lanois) that they really achieved commercial success. Both have supported Amnesty International, and both of their careers benefitted from the Conspiracy of Hope tour in 1986: U2's "Bad" and Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey" were reputed to have been among the highlights of the set.
The Lanois connection is definitely the most palpable, as he has produced career-defining albums for both of them. In between working on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, Lanois produced So for Gabriel. After the difficult Achtung Baby sessions, he tackled Us.
But aside from Lanois, they've shared another common producer. In 1980, the same year he produced Boy for a fledgling U2, Steve Lillywhite worked with Peter Gabriel on the latter's untitled third album (his first four albums, in fact, were deliberately untitled, and are commonly referred to by their album cover images. In the case of the third album, it's sometimes referred to as "Melt"). This album yielded the well-known hits "Games Without Frontiers" and "Biko." "Biko" could be thought of as Gabriel's "Pride (In the Name of Love)." While the U2 song is a tribute to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "Biko" deals with the torture and death of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in 1977.
In addition to Daniel Lanois, U2 and Peter Gabriel have yet another Canadian connection from Québec: Bono and Gabriel both contributed songs to the 1995 Leonard Cohen tribute album (Cohen is from Montréal, and Lanois was born in Hull), Tower of Song. Bono offered a haunting, yet gritty, almost acid-jazz rendition of "Hallelujah," while Peter Gabriel contributes a version of "Suzanne." Cohen's original, with its sparse, troubadour-like singer and a classical guitar arrangement, lets the song's lyrics evoke hazy images of a relationship with a half-crazy woman down by the river. Peter Gabriel tries to replicate this effect in the music itself, slowing down the song's tempo and using lots of atmospheric synthesiser padding.
Peter Gabriel, in his Genesis-fronting days, was known for his elaborate costumes and onstage charisma. One might find the link a bit tenuous between his "Britannia," and "Flower" costumes, and Bono's The Fly, Mirrorball Man, and Mr. Macphisto personae, but there's something else he might owe to Gabriel. Bono's stage-diving (at least the intentional ones) might never have happened had not Iggy Pop and Peter Gabriel pioneered the stunt in the 1970s. While Bono's "unintentional stage dives" over the years have left him with a dislocated collar-bone, a sprained ankle, and a bruised ego, Gabriel once broke his leg during a stage dive as the lead singer of Genesis, but reportedly got back on stage and was able to finish the show.
Peter Gabriel has had an array of guest singers and musicians contribute to his records and to his live performances, counting among them J. Shankar (who played violin on a live version of "Bad" with U2 at a 1993 ZooTV show in London), Kate Bush, Paula Cole, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his own daughter Melanie Gabriel, as well as the popular and controversial Irish singer, Sinead O'Connor. O'Connor, of course, is known by U2 fans for having collaborated with U2 (and variously the members of U2) on "I'm Not Your Baby" (from the soundtrack of Wenders' The End of Violence), "You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart" (from the soundtrack of In the Name of the Father), and "Heroine" (from the soundtrack of Captive, a film which had its score written mostly by the Edge). She was also the voice of the introduction to "Bullet the Blue Sky" during the Elevation Tour. Sinead O'Connor features prominently on the Lanois-produced 1992 album Us, providing backing vocals to such songs as "The Blood of Eden," and "Come Talk to Me."
@U2's resident Answer Guy was able to provide me with some valuable insights, as a fan who has been fortunate enough to have seen (and to have been of an age to have seen) both U2 and Peter Gabriel many times over their long and storied careers. Answer Guy would argue that "Biko" is also U2's "40": "There would be no one-guy-leaves-at-a-time-at-the-end-of-the-show with U2 had Peter Gabriel not done it first." As well, "there would be no 'outside it's america' spotlight play by Bono, had Mr. Gabriel not done it in his live shows. Long before Bono cut his chin on a hand-held spotlight, Pete was shining his light on the crowd." Finally, AG concludes nicely that U2 and Peter Gabriel have "copied each other especially in producers and in what they wanted to accomplish live. Bono begs for attention on stage and Gabriel somehow "demands" it through some force of will. '40' made me happy at the end of U2 shows. 'Biko' brought tears to my eyes every time."
And perhaps, in the end, between U2 and Peter Gabriel, producing decades' worth of great music and moving audiences with compelling live performances are the greatest connections of them all.