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Gavin Greig [userpic]

5.1

October 31st, 2004 (12:00 am)
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One of the fun things about DVDs with surround sound is that they're giving perfectly good older music a new lease of life through surround re-mixes.

A recent addition to the list of such revivals is Play, which contains the videos of Peter Gabriel.

The main track listing consists of 23 videos dating from the 1970s up to 2002, and the range of performances included emphasis how difficult it is to pigeon-hole Peter Gabriel musically. Maybe "white funk" would cover more tracks than anything else, but by no means all. It's also obvious from the videos that Gabriel's artistry isn't just musical, though he makes it clear in the accompanying booklet that some of the videos are others' visions.

As an aside, it's also interesting to see what a chameleon Gabriel is in terms of his own appearance: at different times he resembles Craig Ferguson, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Jonathon Ross and a future-fascist tramp-hippy Kojak Catweazle.


Everyone will remember the Sledgehammer video, which was simply gobsmacking when it appeared in 1986. It is still good, but nearly twenty years on it is starting to look just a little rough at the edges. It doesn't have the precision of computer animation, and even as an Aardman Animation production it clearly lacks the polish of Wallace and Gromit, despite featuring Nick Park's dancing chickens. It's petty to think that way though and doesn't recognise Sledgehammer for what it is - a groundbreaker that changed the scope of music videos and gave us a sound we hadn't heard before.

Not surpisingly, several other tracks from So also appear - in fact, between them all they account for about a quarter of the DVD. Big Time blends more funk and animation in a condemnation of materialism, and both demonstrate Gabriel's interest in what might be referred to as Möbius video - they both return to their starting point. Once you've noticed that, go back to the animated menus - they're all simple versions of the same thing, as strips of coloured Plasticine are blended into each other over the backing track of Digging in the Dirt - of which more later - then reconstitute themselves.

Also from So are Red Rain, In Your Eyes, Don't Give Up and Mercy Street. In Your Eyes and Don't Give Up are worthy of note as collaborations. The first of these introduces Youssou N'Dour, a notable Senegalese artist, while the second is a duet with Kate Bush. To paraphrase:


PG:
I'm out of work, I'm a bit miserable, I've got on my bike, but nae luck.
KB:
Don't give up, you still have us,
Don't give up, we don't need much of anything,
Don't give up, 'cos somewhere there's a place where we belong.
Given when it was released, it is hard not to think of this in the context of the miner's strike of 1984. It's a powerful, thoughtful and extraordinarily well-constructed record, as it gives him a reason to cuddle Kate Bush for six and a half minutes (plus any necessary re-takes).

Leaving So behind, there's a mixture of older tracks you may or may not recognise - Solsbury Hill, Games Without Frontiers (backing vocals by Kate Bush), Shock The Monkey and a moving live performance of Biko mixed with footage from Cry Freedom - with some of his more recent work. The video for Shock the Monkey is worth checking out for the besuited Peter Gabriel's facial make-up which, it slowly dawns, is not so much Maori or Polynesian as it is a stylised monkey face. A superimposition makes the point at the end of the track if you haven't got there already. Naturally, the vintage track that I always forget is his is I Don't Remember.

An assortment of tracks from the 1990s and the last few years show him continuing to innovate in his videos and includes some challenging pieces. Though not one of his best musically, The Barry Williams Show is both lyrically and visually a satire against Jerry Springer style television. Blood of Eden, features an early but very smooth (and disturbing!) morph into Sinead O'Connor, while Kiss That Frog is a computer animated psychedelic nightmare with overtones of relationship abuse, despite its happy ending. It's real fairy tale material, in that it's quite dark.

The high point of the DVD is the last of the main track list, 1992's Digging in the Dirt. It combines a return to the musical styling of Sledgehammer and Big Time with the most introspective and revealing of lyrics. Dark timelapse imagery of burial and decomposition intermix with domestic violence and petty sadism in an exploration of the demons we all have to deal with at some level. As with most of Gabriel's work, it is not without indications of hope and regeneration at the end (and it's another Möbius video in which the last frame refers to the first).

(Mrs. Gabriel in Digging in the Dirt appears to be Francesca Gonshaw, last spotted by this blogger with a dodgy French accent in Biggles: Adventures in Time as Marie, double-agent love interest of the hero. In an inexplicable coincidence, she is better known for her dodgy French accent as Maria in 'Allo 'Allo.)

The extras are not extensive. Optional introductions to each track are not exactly revealing, while trailers for other Peter Gabriel DVD products do not thrill. A 1977 video for Modern Love (no relation to the Bowie song) may give some indication why the video for Solsbury Hill is spliced together from two older attempts and some film footage. However, a live performance of Games Without Frontiers is worth having, if only for robo-Catweazle's dance of the Segways.


Play is available on Gabriel's RealWorld label, also home to a variety of world music artists such as Sheila Chandra and the Afro Celt Sound System.

One of the fun things about a dual monitor setup is I can view the videos on one screen while typing the review on the other one.