Peter Gabriel III (23 May 1980; Charisma Records), or Melt as it is often called, was Gabriel’s third post-Genesis solo album. It was packed full of new effects, made number one in the UK album charts, was successful in the US and, with Kate Bush on backing vocals, spawned the hit single Games Without Frontiers.
Rhythm and drums are at the forefront of this album. Gabriel has been known to use a Fender Telecaster in the past, but on Melt he was able to call on stars of the calibre of Robert Fripp (of King Crimson), David Rhodes and Paul Weller (of The Jam) to lend a hand. Steve Lillywhite, known for his work with Ultravox, XTC and later U2, also stepped in to help produce a sonic experience that was radically different to what had been heard before.
However, when something so new appears, people often do not know how to deal with it and reject it.
In this context, it is worth trying to imagine the look on the face of Atlantic A&R executive John Kalodner when Peter Gabriel played him Intruder, the first track on the album. “I like to feel the suspense when I'm certain you know I am there, I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air, I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear…” he sings chillingly against the backdrop of Phil Collins’ compressed drumming and hauntingly sinister sound effects. Kalodner promptly rejected the album as being without interest for the US market. Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic’s co-founder, went further by wondering if Gabriel had had a breakdown and been in a mental hospital to record this ‘piece of crap.’ “I went through some primordial rejection issues,” Gabriel recalls of that time.
It is perhaps understandable that Ertegun thought that Gabriel had had a meltdown, as a number of the songs do relate to mental disintegration. No Self-Control, for example, is about a desperate man on the verge of a nervous breakdown: “I don’t know how to stop... I’m so nervous in the night... there are always hidden silences,” he sings. The wonderful I Don’t Remember again ruminates on human fragility and the inability to communicate, while Family Snapshot considers the feelings of a man about to assassinate someone (JFK?), because it will make him famous. Lead A Normal Life adds another step in the impression that Gabriel might have been losing his grip on reality.
Against this scenario, it sounds strange to suggest that Games Without Frontiers, with its lyrics about war and nationalist fervour, provides light relief, but its hypnotising drum machine patterns and catchy sound helped turn the song into a pop classic, charting in the UK at the same level (number 4) as Sledgehammer did six years later.
The album closes with a song about the murder of the anti-apartheid activist, Biko, at the hands of the South African state police. This also was a radical departure from the kinds of songs that were around at the time. As one critic puts it “This is not Geri Halliwell posing with Nelson Mandela. This is a guy singing about something few people in the Western world had then heard of.” The song in some ways heralded both Gabriels’ visionary political activism (apartheid was not dismantled until 12 years later) and his early support of what became known as ‘world music’.
For all these reasons Melt has become widely acknowledged as Gabriel’s masterpiece. The Genesis ex-frontman pushes the boundaries of music in his use of new technology and beats, introduces ‘big’ new themes such as state-sponsored racism and murder to his listeners, and makes it all accessible enough to have popular hit songs as well. In this sense he might be compared to David Bowie in his willingness to take huge risks and break new ground. As one commentator put it: “You must let go of what you’ve got, because if you try and clutch on to something which you think is yours, it withers and dies.”