No Self Control


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.

2 thoughts on “No Self Control

  1. I’ve been listening to this track a lot since you posted about Games Without Frontiers and I love your take on it. I never made the connection between Reich and Gabriel. It’s absolutely fascinating how Gabriel is able to make a song about paranoia and insanity into such a listenable, and even – dare I say it – “fun” experience!

    The marimbas are real, btw, played by Morris Pert (who also played on several Kate songs). Sampling was in its infancy at this time and the Fairlight, while costing as much as a house, was very grainy and low-fi. Your iPhone can run rings around it in terms of processing ability and sound quality.

    I have questions about that photo though. Gabriel appears to be drinking a glass of red wine. What is Kate having? Looks kind of like a beer stein.


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

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