Some artists – particularly those at the peak of their careers – might view a soundtrack commission as a marginal side-project, something to be dashed off while you concentrate on your main album. Not so Peter Gabriel. For him, soundtracks have always been epic projects,which he can dive into and paddle around in for years. Often he’d spend more time on them than on his multi-million-selling albums, meeting collaborators and developing methodologies that would have a profound effect on the rest of his music.
Indeed, much of the furlough between Gabriel’s fourth self-titled solo album, 1982’s ‘Security’, and his all-conquering 1986 opus, So, was spent on film contributions. He provided songs for two separate hit films from 1984 – a track called “Walk Through The Fire” for Against All Odds and “Out, Out” for Gremlins – both collaborations with producer Nile Rodgers. They inspired that high-end state-of-the-art digi-funk that would influence tracks like “Big Time” and attune Gabriel for the MTV generation.
His first full-length score commission, however, came from director Alan Parker for the ’85 film, Birdy, about two disturbed Vietnam vets who develop an avian obsession. Parker, recovering from a gruelling partnership on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, found Gabriel a rather more amenable creative partner than Roger Waters. “We got on so well, he’s such a sweet man,” said a relieved Parker of Gabriel. “It was a refreshing change – he doesn’t have any of the hang-ups or the unpleasantness of that particular business.”
Birdy’s music is interesting but fragmentary. While editing, Parker had used a few tracks from Gabriel’s third and fourth solo albums as stock music, and Gabriel develops these themes further. The haunting piano line in “Family Snapshot” (from 1980’s ‘Melt’ album) is reprised on “Close Up”; the similar piano figure in “Wallflower” (from ‘Security’) provides the basis for “Under Lock And Key”; while the introduction from “No Self Control” (also from ‘Melt’), was slowed down and transformed into “Slow Marimbas”. Most spectacularly, the coda from that album’s punky “Not One Of Us” provides the basis for “Birdy’s Flight”, a titanic, drum-heavy instrumental which soundtracks Matthew Modine’s PTSD-induced fantasy of flying like a bird. In the film it accompanies a three-minute crane-filmed flight over a wrecked inner-city Philadelphia – over burned out cars, shanty towns, muddy alleyways and baseball games. Even divorced from these images, the tribal drum beat seems to mirror the flapping of wings, the distorted bass propelling us through the air. Many of the techniques explored on Birdy – particularly the experiments with ambient sound on “Dressing The Wound” and “Sketchpad With Trumpet And Voice” – would lay the groundwork for So, and both projects certainly shared many of the same personnel.
Gabriel spent much of the three years that followed So soundtracking Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. Set in first-century Palestine, filmed in Morocco and drawing from revisionist source material, Scorsese’s epic invites a geographically and historically confused soundtrack, and it’s why Gabriel’s timeless, pan-global score works so well. It draws from the Fourth World experiments of Eno and trumpeter Jon Hassell (Hassell himself guests on Passion, as he did on Birdy), but Gabriel keeps things delightfully confused by mixing up synthetic textures, tribal rock percussion and authentic performances by star musicians from India, Pakistan, Senegal, Armenia, Iran and Egypt.
“A Different Drum” (where Gabriel shares wordless vocals with Youssou N’Dour) and “It Is Accomplished” (where Billy Cobham leads a charged drum stomp over a triumphant piano riff) almost stand up as proper, straight-down-the-line Peter Gabriel pop tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on So or Us. There are also more ambient tracks like the hymnal “Bread And Wine”, or the miniature “Open”, where Gabriel’s wordless vocals weave in and out of L Shankar’s swooping violin solos. There is the stately, baroque chamber piece “With This Love”, where Robin Carter’s cor anglais floats over synthetic chord washes. Best of all might be the title track, where Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all take turns in invoking a numinous spirit with their melismatic voices, while trumpeter Jon Hassell and L Shankar provide ghostly countermelodies.
The soundtrack – released in 1989 as Passion – won awards and seemed to kickstart the nascent market for what had only recently been christened “world music” (it even led to a companion album, Passion Sources, featuring some of the folksong and religious music that had inspired Gabriel). Passion certainly helped to popularise assorted global musicians in the West, with artists as diverse as Armenian duduk virtuoso Djivan Gasparayan, Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy and Iranian santur and kemanche specialist Mahmoud Tabrizi Zadeh all using it as a useful stepping stone.
Gabriel’s 2000 album, OVO, was technically the “soundtrack” to his ambitious Millennium Dome Show with Cirque Du Soleil, but his next film commission came two years later with Long Walk Home: Music From The Rabbit-Proof Fence, for Philip Noyce’s film about three aboriginal Australians who escape from a forced assimilation programme and attempt to walk the 1,000 miles home. With Gabriel joined by many of his established collaborators – producer David Rhodes, drummer Manu Katche, violinist L Shankar and qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – it continues the pan-global territory explored on Passion. This is arguably a much more accomplished and successful soundtrack than the other two, drawing from found sounds, natural sound effects and sounds of the didgeridoo to enhance the barren beauty of the Australian outback. But, as with many other effective scores, it doesn’t necessarily work in isolation, and Long Walk Home is one of those albums that burbles away in the background, only occasionally grabbing you by the throat.
Some songs stand up – the haunting theme to “Gracie’s Recapture” is just one overdub away from an epic “Red Rain”-style Gabriel single, while the thunderous drums of the Dhol Foundation breathe energy into tracks like “Stealing The Children” and “Running To The Rain”. Best of all are “Ngankarrparni” and “Cloudless”, two pulsating waltzes that start with the rhythmic aboriginal chanting of Ningali Lawford and end with the massed harmonies of the Blind Boys Of Alabama.
Gabriel has been responsible for other fine film contributions – his vocal on a Randy Newman song for Babe: Pig In The City earned an Oscar nomination in 1998; the soundtrack to 2004’s Shall We Dance sees him performing a song by Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt; he won a Grammy for “Down To Earth”, his contribution to 2008’s WALL-E; and also contributed a song called “The Veil” for Oliver Stone’s 2015 thriller about Edward Snowden. Gabriel was also the first choice to soundtrack the opera, Monkey: Journey To The West (before Damon Albarn got the job). But another full-length soundtrack surely awaits.
The September 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Neil Young on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Mark E Smith, Nick Lowe, Iron & Wine and Sigur Rós, we remember Dennis Wilson and explore the legacy of Elvis Presley. We review Grizzly Bear, Queens Of The Stone Age, Arcade Fire, Brian Eno and The War On Drugs. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Randy Newman, Richard Thompson, Oh Sees, Lal & Mike Waterson, Psychic Temple, FJ McMahon and Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band and more.