Games Without Frontiers


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.

5 thoughts on “Games Without Frontiers

  1. It all starts here really. Kate decided to go for the big drum/no cymbal sound on The Dreaming, and is there any doubt she got the idea from working on Melt?

    Are you going to write about “No Self Control”? For my money it’s a better song than “Games Without Frontiers” (which is saying something, because GWF is terriffic) and it has more Kate bits, including some interesting background “ahhh” vocals that build into screams in a way that prefigure a lot of her later work.


  2. Pingback: Musician Peter Gabriel turns 70 – Ramblin’ with Roger

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