All We Ever Look For

TheBushes

All We Ever Look For

This blog is backed by 29 supporters on Patreon.

Upon the arrival of “All We Ever Look For,” everything changes once again. With its opening hook, a synthesized whistle overlaid upon an atypically minimal piano part, it immediately becomes clear that Kate Bush’s style of songwriting and composing has changed. Not only has her ubiquitous piano been relegated to a supporting role, the song sounds like it’s been built from its rhythm, which works like a frequently pausing, creaky wheel that thuds on every downbeat. Bush’s piano and an acoustic guitar are present in the mix, but the relationship of “All We Ever Look for” to conventional rock instrumentation ends there, with its menagerie of synthesizers and classical instruments. The world of Kate Bush has undergone another metamorphosis — the old world has gotten considerably stranger.

Bush’s churning vocal begins with a sermon on the nature of families: “just look at your father/and you’ll see how you took after him/me, I’m just another like my brother/of my mother’s genes.” She places emphasis on the downbeat of each bar, singing the lines as “just LOOK at your FA-ther/and you’ll SEE how you took after him.” Bush’s interest in the institution of the family is omnipresent in her work — the fate of the narrator in “The Kick Inside” ends her relationship with her brother and potential motherhood, “Wuthering Heights” is a couple’s reunion, and the second half of Never for Ever is a meditation on the limits of family under the stress of social collapse. The family is the central unit of Bush’s mythology, the central cell from which life and art spring. One could read this as an extension of Bush’s Catholic upbringing, as it aligns with the traditionalist Catholic positioning of the family as the fundamental unit of civilization. Certainly this favorability towards the family extends from Bush’s well-adjusted family life. A staple of her early interviews is her enthusiasm and gratefulness towards her family, especially her father and brothers, the latter of whom are frequently involved in her music (especially Paddy, whose role in this song we’ll cover later). Given this background, a worldview that positions family as its wellspring is hardly a surprise from Bush.

Yet “All We Ever Look For” is far from a Humanae Vitae-esque of family’s primacy. The chorus (and brief insert that serves as a cursory pre-chorus) raises the question of family’s shortcomings: “all they ever want for you/are the things they didn’t do.” It weighs family’s position at the forefront of life at the ways in which that can fuck someone up. One generation lives vicariously through the next. They lost their childhood, and their attempt to impose one on their kids was detrimental to their own development. Bush is sympathetic enough to not frame the problem quite that way, preferring to frame the struggles of the two generations as intertwined. The two groups are fellow travelers, not combatants. The details of the battle may be hazy, but “All We Ever Look For” has empathy for all levels of family.

Bush doesn’t explicitly refer to specific generations so much as a generalized sense of the hereditary, but there are context clues sprinkled throughout the song. The second verse provides a particularly useful one in “the whims that we’re weeping for/our parents would be beaten for.” There are two kinds of desire on display here: one that is close enough to be agonizingly realized, and another that’s buried under mountains of repression. One can safely assume that Bush is referring to her own generation, the Baby Boomers, and that of her parents, the Silent Generation. We could go on at length about the consumptive tendencies of Boomers — recently there’s been an exhausting controversy over whether the online slang “OK, boomer,” a phrase quietly mocking Boomers, should be phased out of existence. The Boomers are the generation of hippies, psychedelia, and the Vietnam War. They’re the dominant generational group in our era, the closest to an “epochal” generation. And their markers are largely about desire and success — achieving one’s goals through the hedonism of enterprise. By comparison, the Silent Generation (as implied by its nomenclature) is subdued. It’s the era of people who grew up during World War II, the most devastating military conflict in human history. As such the Silent Generation consists of classical RAF types, the stiff upper lip military conquerors biting back years of trauma and suppressed violence. Bush is dealing with a generation who had a different struggle, an internal one where certain desires are within reach but difficult to navigate. If Bush has an M.O., it’s to integrate her British cultural traditions into contemporary music.

This is where the title comes in: the chorus of “All We Ever Look For” is a search for meaning in a world defined by possibility. In the first chorus, Bush lists what the previous generation has looked for: “a little clue,” “the truth,” and “a little bit of you,” fairly abstract expressions of a need for grounding. Meanwhile, the second and third choruses tell the listener what “we,” Bush’s generation, desires: “another womb,” “our own tomb,” “a drug,” and (my favorite) “a great big hug” among others. Sex, psychological gratification, Freudian solace, spiritual awakening, and getting high as fuck are all options. Bush makes her choruses into anaphoric lists of things to look for — yet every avenue is a dead end. The first chorus ends with “but they never did get,” while the second and third conclude on “but we never do score.” The difference is clear: one generation fails to attain things they could barely conceptualize, while the other sees the entire world and discovers that their search is futile. Burying one’s head in pleasures fails as wish fulfilment: one learns all about the world, but still arrives at a dead end.

And this world is massively dense. Let’s look at the cover art of Never for Ever, which seems tailor-made for this song. A contender for Bush’s best album cover ever, it is a penciled illustration by artist Nick Price which depicts a barefooted Bush standing on a hill and wearing a billowing dress that is endowed with patterns of clouds (evocative of Price’s work on the Tour of Life’s promotional poster). The billow of Bush’s dress unleashes a spiraling flood of monsters and fay creatures, from bats to doves to swans to the tenuously unnamable. The album’s cover art perfectly executes what a great cover does: suggests the epoch of an album without expressing it too literally. The sexual positioning of Bush is neither exploitative nor gross: she’s barefooted, has a facial expression that can be described as “longing,” and has a flood of monsters pouring from her nether regions. She’s perfectly in control, gazing at the viewer as if to say “I am quite literally Pandora’s box and I’m okay with this.” With the unleashing of strange wonders comes a great deal of fear and apprehension, but Bush is willing to be a medium.

Kate Bush is equally willing to find new musical ways of being a medium. “All We Ever Look For” is one of Bush’s first songs to be extensively constructed using a CMI Fairlight. For those unfamiliar with the machine, it’s an early sampler and synthesizer. Its user can use preprogrammed sounds or record their own sounds into the machine and play them on the Fairlight as a melody. For example, if you recorded yourself breaking a wine bottle, you could then play that sound as a series of notes. It’s the one situation where you can open a bottle of Château Latour in C major. In “All We Ever Look For,” the Fairlight is used to build the song’s hook: a sampled line of whistling. According to the website Reverb Machine’s phenomenal article on Kate Bush and synthesizers, the whistle sample comes from the Fairlight’s sound library, which suggests that Bush was still getting accustomed to the instrument after being introduced to it by Peter Gabriel and leaning into its databanks. The sample is layered with accompaniment by piano and a Yamaha CS-80 synth, so it’s distinctive while supported by instruments Bush is familiar with.

There’s an odd comfort to the Fairlight. It shows that anything can be music. If a sound can be recorded, it can plugged into the Fairlight and played as a note. It gives new dimensions to “Symphony in Blue,” where Bush envisioned herself “on the piano, as a melody” (it raises the question of if “Symphony in Blue” is better suited to Never for Ever than to Lionheart). All the sounds and temptations of the world can be translated into song. Bush’s world of desire and chances can only be accessed via music.

This is realized quite literally in the song’s utterly bizarre bridge. The song’s melody line is mixed to the background, while a pair of feet walk down a hall and open some doors. The doors play a mix of different sounds, with the first opening to a sample of Sanskrit-singing worshippers proclaiming the Maha Mantra, the next offering some chirpy bird song, and the final opening to thunderous applause. The singer closes all three doors. It’s a strange detour, if quite literal-minded — the three samples can be read as instantiations of the chorus’ searches. Yet the incarnations of Bush’s ideas are all onstage and capable of being represented by sound. The Fairlight CMI has made Bush’s music sound like her writing: a menagerie of strange and magical ideas animating the universe.

The choice to close all these doors is also significant. Particularly interesting is Bush’s choice to avoid prayer, in the form of Hare Krishna. There’s no consistent incarnation of God in Bush’s work — Bush’s god is an offstage demiurge, present and conniving but impossible to reach. Bush is certainly welcoming to faith. Like me, she’s a recovering Catholic who never quite got over search for God. But God is such a huge, alienating idea that some of us feel like we’re doomed to be separated from him forever. And some run, like Bush does in “All We Ever Look For.” Someday she’ll confront God and hold him to account for his cosmic negligence. For now, the search is more important than the results. She can’t stick around for them just yet. She has to do some more searching before she can have that battle.

This lack of concrete answers is fruitful for the song’s compelling ambiguity. The Fairlight is set against antiquated instruments, such as Paddy Bush’s koto and Morris Pert’s timpani. The result is a song that is both modern yet oddly Renaissance in its leanings, both forward-looking and faintly Orientalist. There’s no single way forward, merely a host of paths. Perhaps Bush will choose all of them, but she may equally well follow none. Family is helpful to her, but Bush will walk her greatest paths with other players. Wherever Bush is going, it’s a fundamentally different territory than the songs we’ve explored so far. When Kate Bush gives God as much attention as she gives her elders, there will be a whole new set of desires to accompany it.

Recorded in spring of 1980 at Abbey Road. Released as a Never for Ever track on 7 September 1980. Never played live or on television. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, Yamaha CS-80, production. Jon Kelly — production. Paddy Bush — koto, backing vocals. Alan Murphy & Brian Bath — acoustic guitars. Duncan Mackay — Fairlight CMI. Morris Pert — timpani. Preston Heyman, Gary Hurst, & Andrew Bryant — backing vocals. Picture: Hannah, Paddy, Kate, and John Carder Bush (Chris Moorhouse).

You (The Game Part II)

Sirani,_Elisabetta_-_Timoclea_uccide_il_capitano_di_Alessandro_Magno_-_1659

CW: some discussion of child sexual abuse. Readers who found “Another Day” triggering are welcome to skip the blog this week and wait for “All We Ever Look For”, when we’ll finally return to our discussion of Never for Ever.

Additionally, my 30 patrons got to read this blog post before it went public.

You (The Game Part II)

This has to start by addressing my previous blog post on Roy Harper, “Another Day” , which was my most contentious essay to date. That essay attracted the ire of a fair number of Roy Harper fans for taking seriously the accusations of sexual abuse against Harper, and was variously described as “libelous” and “sanctimonious.” Personally, I think the essay was successful, and one of my best to date. I believe the majority of sexual assault allegations are true and that a culture of skepticism about victims is a toxic stain on society. The fact that Harper’s victims had their trauma dismissed when Harper was cleared in court is equally troubling — lots of predators are not convicted for their crimes. Two women have risked their safety and privacy by coming forward to tell the public what he did to them. Ignoring these allegations because Harper worked with Kate Bush and Pink Floyd would be grossly immoral. If the moral purity of your favorite musicians matters more to you than the trauma of survivors, read another goddamn Kate Bush blog. Maybe you’d prefer the one whose admin has a racial slur in their username.

This is just the kind of blog Dreams of Orgonon is. It’s an angry and political blog on which I’ll hold public figures accountable for the harm they’ve done. If that’s sanctimonious… well, it’s not, because the idea that sexual violence is bad is only controversial among people who listen to lots of Roy Harper or Jimmy Page, but regardless, I’m going to land hard on the side of the victims. The story of Kate Bush has some unpleasant bigotry in it, some of which is addressed head-on by Bush, and bits of which involve Islamophobe who’s been twice accused of historical sexual abuse. If I have to grit my teeth through parts of this blog, at least I’m going to tell the truth while I do it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that artists who collaborated with Roy Harper in 1980 are culpable. Harper’s abuse was revealed to the public in 2013, and there’s no evidence of third parties knowing about prior to then. Certainly Kate Bush has remained blissfully silent on the matter (part of me wishes she’d cut Harper’s B.V. from “Breathing” like she removed Rolf Harris’ vocal on Aerial, but that she didn’t says as much about the prominence of the two singers’ contributions as about Harris’ greater notoriety), as has David Gilmour. To discuss their older work with Harper is not to pass judgement on them, but to provide a complete picture that addresses all three artists’ bodies of work as well as Harper’s predation.

And to be clear, Harper’s music is rather good. A couple months ago, I made it clear that “Another Day” is an excellent song. The strength of Harper’s songwriting is his marriage of the rustic and the literate, two ostensibly polarized aesthetics that he synthesizes well. Flat Baroque and Berserk, the album which birthed “Another Day”, makes for a strong hour of folk rock. But his next LP to feature Kate Bush isn’t on the same level. 1980’s The Unknown Soldier lacks the refreshing crispness of Harper’s earlier album. It has its moments, but for the most part it’s a serviceable helping of the morass of that year’s soft rock albums by post-peak rock stars (there’s a reason David Bowie’s Scary Monsters is pointed to as a musical touchstone of 1980 and Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass generally isn’t).

One of The Unknown Soldier’s better efforts is “You (The Game Part II),” a song largely noteworthy for its guest-roster of David Gilmour and Kate Bush. Let’s talk about Gilmour first: since we last heard from him, he had recorded Pink Floyd’s biggest quartet of consecutive major albums Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall, bestsellers in Britain and absolute smash hits in America (Animals, the least-selling of the bunch, sold 4 million US  units). He was one of the world’s premiere guitarists, composing some of the most revered melodies for the instrument in rock music. Gilmour’s eponymous debut LP, recorded at Nice’s Super Bear Studios shortly before Kate Bush arrived there, performed solidly both domestically and abroad, but it was a decidedly minor effort on his part. While a celebrity, he was still able to quietly slip into other artists’ projects.

As a musician who was happy to work with lesser-known artists, Gilmour comfortably settled into the position of second-in-command on Harper’s team. Playing guitar on most of the album’s tracks and co-writing half of them, Gilmour provided a sturdy rock hand to push Harper’s folk instincts towards radio hits. It was a collaboration that worked well, and they’d worked together before: Harper’s lead vocal on “Have a Cigar” was their most notable moment of partnership (and Harper’s greatest claim to fame), and Gilmour performed in “The Game (Parts 1-5)” on Harper’s album HQ. The titling of this song and “You” suggests that “You” is a sequel to this other Gilmour-featuring track. “The Game” is a sprawling and astonishingly long track, clocking in nearly at 14 minutes with its rant against fruitless artistic attempts to subvert authoritarianism (“while propaganda spreads the same old theme/you is me and we can change the game, bullshit”). “The Game” is adversarial, not just holding civilization accountable for its failures but punishing it with prog rock’s length and propensity for songs with multiple chapters.

“You” is a slow, Mellotron-addled postscript to “The Game,” with Gilmour’s slow arpeggios underlining Harper’s epistle to the accused. The song is largely anaphoristic, with Kate Bush listing descriptions of someone in a premonitory yet almost nonchalant tone of voice: “you, my daring time traveler/you, love dwelling discoverer.” Harper’s plaintive vocal in the second verse is almost confessional as the singer seems to thank those present for partaking in his crimes, as he thanks “you, my deep secret accomplices/you, who endure my injustices” (with the use of “endure” rather than “endures” suggesting a host of accomplices). It’s as if Harper has had time to gestate over five years, preparing a statement for those who abetted him in “The Game.”

The statement is of course made in a chorus with a booming David Gilmour guitar solo. As anyone who’s heard “Comfortably Numb” knows, Gilmour is a paragon of soaring and melodramatic guitar solos constructed to lay stadiums low. He can design far-reaching soundscapes, but his bombast is especially well-suited to elation. Harper and Bush’s duetted vocal is just the icing on the track as they escape from the stasis they spent the first two verses in (“to new dimensions in the zoo/helpless lovers follow you/ONLY YOU”). A seemingly paranoid song, its obsessiveness is belied by the bombast Gilmour brings to the track.

The second verse is more possessive, with bits like “you, always gently in front of me/you, you’re so deep inside of me” suggesting a need to subsume everything in Harper’s path. He becomes something like a rock face with an eldritch hand reaching out for company, a creature who’s always been there and is now starved for companionship.

“You” is a compelling case for the retainment of Harper’s canon. It certainly demonstrates that he’s a talented songwriter. I’ve never claimed anyone’s enjoyment of Harper’s music was immoral — such a statement would be actually moralistic and false. But enjoyment of his work must be tempered with the predatory reality of the man. While he’s recorded a body of notable music, he has also done toxic, unforgiveable things on a human level. Deciding if the latter renders the former worthless is down to the individual. Certainly I’ve loved the work of writers with toxic views, such as H. P. Lovecraft, Dorothy Day, Frank Miller, and Luigi Russolo. I even still love The Smiths, as I learned about Morrissey’s racist nationalism while I was getting into the band’s music and thus achieved a degree of separation there. Separating art from the artist is a futile and impossible act. An artist can’t be separated from their art, and vice versa — they contextualize and define each other. Equally, they don’t necessarily ruin each other either. John Lennon’s abuse of his family doesn’t cancel out the significance of The Beatles. Similarly, Roy Harper’s work hasn’t been inexorably destroyed by his evil acts. But we must temper our critical observation of art with a moral conscience. Observing art is not an amoral act. Prioritizing certain figures, narratives, and aesthetics is an ethical choice. In listening to Roy Harper, we are appreciating some literate and compelling songwriting. We are also absorbing narratives from a predator. Something can always be learned from hearing evil, but a vigilant audience member must remember their position. Enjoying art isn’t a mere pastime — it’s a determination of our cultural loyalties.

Recorded in February 1980, presumably at Abbey Road. Personnel: Roy Harper — vocals. Kate Bush — vocals. Dave Gilmour — guitar. It is unclear which session musicians contributed to this particular track, so here’s a full list of The Unknown Soldier’s personnel. Picture: Timoclea by Elisabetta Sirani.

No Self Control

Kate-Bush-PG-at-Townhouse-639x511

Reading, 1979 (w/ Phil Collins)
No Self Control (demo)
No Self Control
Top of the Pops
Athens, 1987
London, 2013

Apologies for the impromptu hiatus. October was unexpectedly rough. I’ve utilized the break from posting to write more vigorously. Speaking of which, 31 Dreams of Orgonon supporters on Patreon can’t be wrong! Why not join them and read next week’s post on “You” right away?

“No Self Control” is as much a test pilot for Kate Bush’s future albums as it is for Peter Gabriel. Melt utilizes a number of tricks that Bush and Gabriel would both use in subsequent albums. It marks the first time Gabriel used the Fairlight CMI, which was a central building block of his followup LP Security and as crucial an instrument for Kate Bush as her Steinway piano. The songs of Melt were constructed rhythm-first, differing from rock music’s standard focus on building a song from its melody, a practice Kate Bush adopted shortly afterwards. Try listening to Gabriel and Bush’s albums of the early 80s in chronological order: the parallels are brazen and fascinating.

Last week’s diversion into this temporarily being a Peter Gabriel blog was mostly a signal for where Bush’s music would go. So far, Never for Ever’s songs have been a slight evolution of The Kick Inside and Lionheart. It’s had two piano rock songs, a chintzy Orientalist number copped from Bush’s only tour, and an outtake from Bush’s prodigy demo-maker years. Overall they’re quite good songs, but Never for Ever is the classic it is because the old-style songs are included alongside songs with newer composition techniques and bits of stylistic flair.

After Bush took a break from recording Never for Ever to cut “Games Without Frontiers” and “No Self Control” with Gabriel, her songwriting underwent noticeable stylistic changes. The post-Gabriel tracks of Never for Ever make use of rhythm boxes and the Fairlight CMI, which Bush was introduced to by Gabriel. The album’s remaining songs click differently, relying on atypical rhythm patterns and building melodies with sampled sounds (with a more disjointed vocal style that’ll flourish on The Dreaming especially). We’ll cover the Fairlight synth in more depth when we talk about those songs, but suffice it to say that as one of the first digital samplers, it’s an incredibly important piece of music history. Gabriel was the first British artist to own a Fairlight CMI, integrating this weird new technology into his work and setting trends that would last beyond the 80s, encompassing artists like Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran, Yes, and Hans Zimmer. Equally crucial for Melt’s sound is its newfound investment in rhythm, which, as mentioned previously, is a change from the melody-centric state of affairs of rock. Gabriel uses his experience as a drummer to write songs from the rhythm up, saying “I think the rhythm track is always the spine of a piece of music, and if you change the rhythm track you change the spine, and hence the body that falls around that.” Thus the album shows Gabriel turning towards musical instincts nurtured by African drumming and minimalist compositions, with his strong pop songwriting skills brushing against challenging musical circumstances.

Melt’s major test engine for Gabriel’s new approach to rhythm is “No Self Control,” an astonishing song and a career highlight for the singer. It’s a song where the lyrics follow the music, which defines itself by its rhythm and musical idiosyncrasies before its verbal contents. “This song was written around that insistent rhythm,” said Gabriel, “and its gave me the idea of this inability to stop…. I think it’s partly a modern state of mind, this continual need for stimulation.” The song’s sense of movement is continuous: it begins with a synth line that starts and stops consistently, then a funky sounding melody line that sounds like the horn-led opening of a funk song (indeed, the demo uses brass in this part), followed by Robert Fripp’s always-individual guitar contributions, and finally a simultaneous marimba part (possibly synthesized) and a single-note backing vocal by Kate Bush (“ah-ah-ah-ah”). Soon the morass of sounds subsides, save for the first synth part and the marimbas, giving way to Peter Gabriel’s trepidatious vocal: “got to get some food/I’m so hungry all the time,” which sounds like a scared boy who’s afraid his search for nourishment will get him shot, is immediately followed by Gabriel’s tormented cry of “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO STOP/I DON’T KNOW HOW TO STOP.”

A couple similar verses follow Gabriel’s hunger, showing that the singer’s need to do things extends to sleep and communication (“got to pick up the phone/I will call any number/I WILL TALK TO ANYONE”), with the latter breaking into a sort of pre-chorus, building into the explosive chorus joined by the signature melodramatic drumming of Phil Collins, John Giblin’s sturdy bass playing, and Fripp tearing ass on his guitar. What follows is one of the best choruses ever, with that explosive lineup underlining Gabriel uttering a series of paranoid declarations: “there are always hidden silences/waiting behind the chair,” “lights go out/stars come down/like a SWARM of bees.” If there’s an accurate summation of severe anxiety and mental health catastrophes in music, it’s that.

The song’s polyrhythms are as signature to its power as Gabriel’s lyrics. While being a tightly constructed track, “No Self Control” works precisely because of its musical elements working against each other: the synth parts are distinct from the marimbas, and Gabriel’s vocal melody doesn’t obviously extend from any instrumental part. The song is an amalgam of different approaches, creating a sense of distracted upset that manages listenability with a harmonious pop sensibility. Being stressed can be like this: a number of problems keeping one active at all times of the day and blending into a menagerie of stress.

“No Self Control” was Gabriel’s attempt to integrate the style of minimalist composer Steve Reich into his own work. This was a high-brow choice of artistry to take inspiration from — Steve Reich is one of the late 20th century’s most famous composers and one of the key figures of minimalist music. As much a theorist as a composer (in the way minimalists are), Reich’s musical response to the complexity of classical music was to pare it down, spinning whole sections of a composition out of a single chord and evolving music via incremental changes. Influenced as much by music technology as African drumming and Balinese gamelan music, Reich’s early work innovated such incremental rhythms via tape loops, utilizing a track’s mix as part of its instrumentation. Reich’s best-known work, Music for 18 Musicians, is a lengthy piece that cycles its way through 11 chords with varying instrumentalists playing different parts. There’s some use of polyrhythms in the composition — different instruments are often playing different patterns — making its slow, unified trajectory a monolithic achievement.

One of the marvels of “No Self Control” is its integration of Reich’s techniques into a 4-minute rock track. Part of that is in the details of the song — the debt to African drumming and use of marimbas contribute to the track’s Reichishness. There’s a distinctive lack of normality to “No Self Control” — it’s filled with echoes of Reich. The song’s intro, particularly in the department of Kate Bush’s backing vocal, absolutely screams Music for 18 Musicians with its single-note call. The song’s polyrhythms are equally crucial to evoking Reich certainly add to the overall sense of “Gabriel has listened to and understood Music for 18 Musicians” the track possesses. What results is a track that, while obviously not an immediately obvious tribute to Steve Reich nor a rip-off of his work (what 4-minute song could be?), is radically different from basically anything on a bestselling 1980 rock album.

The constant motion of “No Self Control” builds up to a gloriously dismal crescendo in the song’s bridge. The anxiety of modernity caves in as Gabriel ceases to threaten consumption at every turn. In the bridge, which is one of the most gloriously fucked up bridges in popular music, Gabriel simply howls “NO self control” like he’s become possessed by some malign robotic drive, a trainwreck of unconscious actions culminating in the obliteration of Gabriel’s selfhood. Many horror writers would kill to write something as good as “No Self Control” — its foreboding is not just packed on but built up from the protagonist’s selfhood.

And that’s why Melt is so good. It’s a disturbed and paranoid LP that’s listenable and gorgeous. Few records nail down the stress of the early 1980s so powerfully. Gabriel does little to diagnose the epoch causing such stress, but his understanding of the psychological effects of the neoliberal age is something theorists and musicians can learn from. Gabriel creates the future as much as he fears it. It’s little wonder Kate Bush deigned him a worthy fellow traveler. If one uses music technology right, they might draw the ghosts right out of them.

Recorded in the spring and summer of 1979 at Townhouse Studios in London and Gabriel’s home studios at Ashcombe House near Bath. Frequently played live by Peter Gabriel and screened for Top of the Pops in May 1980. Photo: Gabriel and Bush at Townhouse Studios (Larry Fast). Personnel: Peter Gabriel — lead vocals. Robert Fripp — guitar. Kate Bush — backing vocals. David Rhodes — guitar. John Giblin — bass. Larry Fast — synthesizers, processing. Phil Collins — drums. Morris Pert — percussion.

Games Without Frontiers

melt

Games Without Frontiers
Games Without Frontiers (original music video)
Games Without Frontiers (final music video)
Live in Athens
Growing Up Live (Milan)

Thanks to the wonderful Annie McDuffie for helping me get this monster to work. Go back her on Patreon, and/or buy her music.

1979 was an incubational year for Peter Gabriel’s career. After touring and releasing his two inaugural albums in 1977 and 1978, he spent much of his time in the studio and limited his concert appearances to the festival circuit. At the end of the year he appeared on the BBC to duet on a Roy Harper cover with Kate Bush, signaling to the British public that this 21-year-old singer was an integral part of rock music’s future who could hold her own against Peter Gabriel (Sinéad O’Connor claims she was impressed by Bush’s resilience to Gabriel’s advances). While coordinating these public appearances, Gabriel was preparing for his most important work to date as a solo artist, readying listeners for his next move.

Leaving Genesis was a colossal move for Gabriel. The frontman of a major band leaving at its popular peak usually heralded doom for both the individual and the collective. Occasionally a band like the Beatles was too big to fail to the point the public would buy anything its members released, and in the Eighties, Paul Weller’s decision to disband The Jam at the height of their chart clout was a power move, but usually dramatic changes like this meant career implosion for everyone involved. Yet Gabriel simply moved his trajectory into an area without his band. His lengthy meditations on pastoral England translated easily into a tradition of solo British art rockers. Gabriel’s first single, “Solsbury Hill,” is an astonishing kiss-off to his former band. He effectively signs off of Genesis with “you can keep my things/they’ve come to take me home,” signaling that his prog rock band wouldn’t be his entire body of work — only a launching pad for the rest of it.

While Gabriel’s early solo career was successful, he wasn’t in Van Morrison or Paul McCartney territory. “Solsbury Hill” narrowly missed the UK top 10 (it peaked at #13), and his next two releases, “Modern Love” and “D.I.Y.,” failed to even chart, so Gabriel didn’t have a major single as a solo artist. He fared better in the album charts, where his first two LPs had reached #7 and #10 respectively. In a markedly pretentious move against the record industry, Gabriel released two eponymous albums, a trend he only broke with after making four of those. These days the records are known for their cover art, resulting in Gabriel’s first two albums being called Car and Scratch. Both are ambitious and have their charms, particularly the Robert Fripp-produced “Scratch,” but they’re more obtuse than particularly listenable. They’re Gabriel struggling to find his footing without four talented musicians behind him (Scratch is the better album for Robert Fripp’s involvement), they’re far from Gabriel’s creative peak. For all that these are ambitious albums, their aimlessness doesn’t help Gabriel appear as a confident solo force. It would take three tries for him to translate the power of “Solsbury Hill” into a whole album.

Gabriel’s third album, Melt (named after its Storm Thorgerson-designed half-deliquescent cover art), is the singer at his peak. It showcases Gabriel at his most furiously articulate, with producer Steve Lillywhite helping Gabriel to pare his songwriting down into the tight pop songs of which he was always capable (although Gabriel himself placed some limits on the recording — “I banned cymbals… it’s like being right-handed and having to learn to write with your left”). A highly respectable cast of musical players contribute to the album — Robert Fripp, Paul Weller, XTC’s Dave Gregory, Gabriel’s former bandmate Phil Collins, and our own Kate Bush. The hedonistic burglary of “Intruder,” the raging consumptiveness of “No Self Control,” “Family Snapshot”’s darkly compelling dive into the parricidal fantasies of a divorced couple’s child, the unintended queerness of “Not One of Us,” and the moving worldly overreach of “Biko” make Melt what it is: an astonishing musical statement on the world of 1980. The album is shot through with a sense of terror at what the world has become, framed through the eyes of killers, families, and innocents. Gabriel is wonderfully alienating, assuming the roles of frighteningly complex characters and forcing the listener to confront the uncomfortable reality of the human mind in the early neoliberal age. Marcello Carlin is right to be baffled by the fact that Melt got to #1. When are #1 albums this chilling?

A key aspect of the song is its intro: Kate Bush’s guest vocal, which consists exclusively of her coldly stating “jeux san frontières.” It’s a sly title drop: a French translation of the song’s name before Gabriel sings the English title to close out the chorus. Gabriel is expressing an awareness of form and international consciousness. And he gives the song’s intro to this 21-year-old pop neophyte. Why Kate Bush, why this song, and why this part of the song? You could explain it away as Gabriel deploying the chart’s hot new talent for clout, but the choice of Bush as a guest vocalist is deceptively savvy.

Bush has comfortably settled into a tradition of British art rockers which encompasses Pink Floyd, Genesis, Bowie, and Elton John. Her influence eventually extended beyond it — by the late 80s she has more in common with the contemporary wellspring of female-led alternative music — but this is the scene where she made her name. Gabriel recognized his musical heir, as both artists demonstrated an interest in aesthetic maximalism and musical conversations about the nature of Englishness. And both Bush and Gabriel are deeply invested in that conversation at this time. In 1979, Gabriel and Bush were both recording their third solo albums, both of which dropped in 1980 and reflected global turmoil, channeling this into some bold, dark pop songs. A double feature of Never for Ever and Melt would probably reveal a few things about the two records: they’re on the same wavelength, tapping into how this new, dark political reality has fundamentally warped the dynamics of ordinary family lives. Gabriel inviting Bush to open a single for him wasn’t just a business move: he clearly understood Kate Bush was the future.

Although Melt is a psychological horror record full of dread, it’s a breeze to listen to. It sails through its perfectly reasonable run time of 45 minutes, boasting catchy melodies throughout. At his core, Gabriel is a pop songwriter with a golden ear for melody and a quintessential delight in language. Rarely is this more evident than on “Games Without Frontiers,” one of the best singles of 1980. The song’s opening riff creeps in like it’s anxious to be there. The rest of the song is similarly queasy as it progresses in 4/4 and E flat minor, treading through distinct sequences of rage and hopelessness.

In “Games Without Frontiers,” Bush acts as doomsayer, delivering the words “jeux san frontières” like a curtly uttered death sentence. Perhaps they are a hex: Jeux San Frontières is a TV game show based in France. Conceived by French President Charles de Gaulle before a Situationist-enabled populace of French youths scared the shit out of him, the programme is a series of absurd games participated in by numerous European countries for the purpose of unifying the continent. Really. Countries would come together for the purpose of doing things like putting people in Centurion costumes and making them play in swimming pools on television. It was an utterly embarrassing gig, and in its original incarnation lasted for thirty-four years. It’s planned for a revival now. Why did it succeed, and why did twenty countries get hooked on this Sports Edition of Eurovision? Perhaps sheer spectacle was the purpose. People like seeing absurd things happen on TV. Or perhaps isn’t the right word, as we’re somewhat immune to absurdity in a world where the most powerful man alive lies about his own tweets seconds after posting them. It’s a way of procrastination — the longer we keep up a sham of countries coming together under the banner of Doing Very Silly Things for the Camera, the less we have to pay attention to the atrocities said nations commit on a domestic and international level. As long as our governments pretend to be in league by agreeing to have several countries participate in some fun nonsense, what’s the issue?

This trend is a source of horror in “Games Without Frontiers.” The first verse is a list of playground transactions between children: “Hans plays with Lottie/Lottie plays with Jane/Jane plays with Willie/Willie is happy again.” Gabriel’s regimen of playing children then turns sinister with some conspicuous names, as he finishes the first part of the verse with “Adolf builds a bonfire/Enrico plays with it.” The invocation of Adolf Hitler and Enrico Fermi is startling: what the hell have these two figures got to do with a bunch of children’s games?

The rest of the first verse has a similarly childish attitude to imperialist conquests: “whistling tunes/we HIDE in the dunes by the seaside,” “whistling tunes/we’re PISSING on goons in the jungle,” the latter coming from Michael Herr’s New Journalism book Dispatches, reporting such atrocities in Vietnam as an American GI urinating in a corpse’s mouth. Famous images of war are invoked, but explicitly in spectacular terms instead of mortal ones. War is a playtime activity undertaken with the most cavalier of attitudes. Gabriel’s playful approach to language takes a creepy turn in this regard as he sums up war with sing-song lyrics like “if looks could kill/they probably will.” Militaristic inpreturbability is subsumed by the image-over-cold-reality practices of neoliberalism. As long as we have fun with our killing, it’s nothing more than an entertaining pastime. Gabriel rams home the futile cruelty of this new status quo in the chorus’ punchline: “games without frontiers/WAR WITHOUT TEARS.”

Choosing TV game shows as mode for this callousness is… interesting, to say the least. It’s a trick Doctor Who would utilize decades later. The international business reality TV show Dragons’ Den is based in the cruelty of venture capitalists exploiting younger entrepreneurs and mocking them on television. Game shows treat their contestants as disposable: you either survive the competition and win lots of money, or settle into obscurity. It’s a scale model of capitalism, deeming a single individual worthy of moderate glory while leaving an entire group to languish in poverty, debt, and shame. Jeux San Frontières applies this model to entire countries, placing different kinds of nationalism against each other (amusingly, Germany was the most frequent winner, with six finale victories). It’s like imperialism, but without victims.

Gabriel consciously invokes the programme by using different titles for it, including the show’s English name (“it’s a knockout!”). The second verse of the song is more nationally oriented than the first, pulling out iconographies of countries and individuals for its games (“Andre has a red flag/Chiang Ching’s is blue/they all have hills to fly them on/except for Lin Tai Yu,” invoking André Malraux, Chiang Kai-shek, and a character from 19th century Chinese literature). Leaning hard into the metaphor, Gabriel focuses less on individual conflicts than a global mass of warfare, creating a single ugly tournament of bloodshed. Violence stops being a personal affair of bodies being blown away and more a big TV event — what was it Jean Baudrillard said about the Gulf War never taking place? Peter Gabriel got there first.

The delightfully trippy video helmed by Ashes to Ashes director David Mallet (but later updated by York Tillyer for a Gabriel DVD), has a pleasurably ham-fisted mix of complementary images, placing Gabriel in front of a wall of TVs all showing his face and intercutting with footage of war crimes, atomic bombs, and malicious carnival attractions depicting malignant little Americas. Gabriel doesn’t only know how to record this song: he gets how it should look (granted, the video has been re-edited many times to reach its current state).

The track is, typically for Gabriel, an astonishing production too. Listening to the various synth parts of the song and picking them apart would justify several listens. Every player nails their portion of the song: David Rhodes’ guitar is a superbly textured lead instrument, the cymbal-free percussion of Jerry Marotta is the heart of the record, and the upbeat whistling of Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham sometimes makes me pretend I can whistle. If you can find isolated tracks of different musical parts, you’ll have a fun afternoon binge-listening to them.

“Games Without Frontiers” shines under extensive study. Little music from 1980 holds up as well as this: transcribing the present of the early 80s led to astonishing writing of the future. Even if you hadn’t heard the song before, if “Games Without Frontiers” popped up on the radio you might just look up and ponder what weird future it came from. This is the sort of thing Kate Bush contributed to in 1980: intelligent and apocalyptic pop music. Don’t let artists decide your future: they’re often right.

Probably recorded at Bath and Townhouse (London) largely in spring-summer of 1979, but according to Gaffaweb’s chronology of Kate Bush’s career, Bush cut her guest vocal in early 1980. Regularly performed live by Gabriel. Personnel: Peter Gabriel — vocals, synthesizer, synth bass, whistles. David Rhodes — guitar. Jerry Motta — drums, percussion. Larry Fast — synthesizer, synth bass. Kate Bush — backing vocals. Steve Lillywhite — production, whistles. Hugh Padgham — whistles. Hugh Padgham — engineering.