Peter Gabriel - Play: The Videos Review

"Some of these videos are more successful than others but I hope you will find some interesting stuff."

I actually laughed out loud when I read this characteristically charming message from Peter Gabriel in the 24-page booklet that accompanies this new DVD video collection. A pioneering musician, writer and multimedia artist for nearly three decades, Peter Gabriel has had a huge impact on the contemporary global music scene. One of the most important British musicians of the past 20 years, a fearless musical innovator, true individualist and very English eccentric, he's assembled an outstanding body of work (releasing no less than five sequentially numbered albums called Peter Gabriel along the way), been fundamental in the introduction of what is popularly known as 'World Music' (through his founding of both the RealWorld label and the international WOMAD Festival), was singing about human rights and animal rights years before it became fashionable and has managed to produce some of the best-known videos in pop. ‘Interesting stuff’ indeed!

In fact, the message is not falsely humble. As an experimentalist and independent creative artist, Gabriel has taken risks throughout his career and some of them – as this video collection attests – haven’t worked out as well as they might have. Ever since hanging up the funny suits and leaving Genesis – the band he co-founded – in 1975, Gabriel has done little else but produce 'interesting stuff', however, even if some of it has, as he might put it, been more interesting than others. Like fellow oddball Brian Eno, Gabriel is wholesome, industrious and quintessentially English, and has remained a powerfully creative force, combining left-of-centre enterprises with mainstream success in a way that proves you can have your cake and eat it too. This new DVD features videos from the last 25 years of Gabriel's career, some wholly new, some of which have been tampered with to include 'new ideas', and all of which benefit from fabulous new 5.1 mixes undertaken by Daniel Lanois and Richard Chappell.

So to the videos! There’s 23 of them, navigable via a very groovy animated menu which also allows you to programme them into your preferred running order thanks to a nifty jukebox feature. The videos also feature brief introductions from Gabriel and/or key members of the creative team, describing how the video was put together and what it was like working with the Man (these can feature subtitles).

The beginning is, to be frank, not promising. Father, Son is a new version of the song from the underwhelming Ovu 2000 album. The video is directed by Anna Gabriel and features Gabriel singing solo with piano plus grainy footage of him with his own father and his young son. It's very personal and – as always with Gabriel – the sincerity and vulnerability of the song eventually wins all but the hardest hearts, but it is far from his best.

Stephen Johnson's video for Sledgehammer, which follows, was the breakthrough masterpiece that played a large part in bringing Gabriel to the attention of the globe in 1986. It still holds up remarkably well, the sheer number and diversity of ideas and images – and of course Nick Park's brilliant claymation – making it compulsively watchable.

A peerless song, among Gabriel's very best, Blood of Eden from Us has a curious video directed by Nichola Bruce and Michael Coulson and featuring Sinead O'Connor. It begins promisingly enough in an almost Greenawayesque style, with a young child sounding a trumpet and unleashing a rain of fish. Although the biblical imagery continues, this video doesn't do justice to the song.

Games Without Frontiers from Peter Gabriel 3 is a mixture of David Mallet's original, disconcerting video and some new, appropriately odd images from Michal Rovner. It's still a great song and the new images complement the tortured feel of the original material very well.

Marcello Anciano's video for I Don't Remember is among Gabriel's best from the early 80s, reflecting the trend for oblique narrative so popular at the time and combining some disturbing, almost nightmarish compositions to accompany the song's themes of isolation, disconnection and rage.

Big Time is still a bona-fide video classic, improving even on the high standard set by 'Sledgehammer' with an even greater and more exquisite collection of images and imaginative sequences, many tortuously detailed and complex but lasting only a few seconds. The production design and animation on this are still a joy to watch and the song is a grooving delight.

Love Town is not one of my favourite videos, although the song – included as part of the soundtrack to the movie 'Philadelphia' – is a grower. Michael Coulson uses a white-suited, red-dotted Gabriel set against utterly prosaic suburban homes to represent the song's central themes of fear, neediness and desire.

Matt Mahurin's quietly extraordinary video for Red Rain is a revelation, using acres of darkness and manipulating simple textures and shadows to great effect. Bill Pope's cinematography is a wonder; the African dancer moving against the parched, cracked earth is an extremely poignant image, particularly when one remembers that this song emerged in the same year as Live Aid.

Like 'Blood of Eden', In Your Eyes is a Gabriel classic served by a less than stellar video assembled for this release by York Tillyer. It benefits from the presence of the magnificent Youssou N’Dour.

One of the highlights of the collection for this writer is the hypnotic simplicity of Godley & Creme’s Don't Give Up video, which flies in the face of the ‘bigger and better’ trend for videos at the time. It’s a single shot of Gabriel and Kate Bush, with whom he duets on the song, locked in a heartfelt embrace, while a giant sun undergoes eclipse behind them.

From here on in the videos become rather a mixed bag: Sean Penn’s video for The Barry Williams Show pokes fun at the Jerry Springer generation in rather an obvious way; Washing of the Water is another York Tillyer-assembly including material by Clare Langan and featuring Gabriel’s own ‘home movies’, and provides a very literal interpretation of the song’s title. Godley & Crème’s video for Biko is simplicity itself and all the more powerful for it. The graphics used for Brett Leonard’s Kiss That Frog look very dated in these days of ‘Shrek’. Matt Mahurin’s Mercy Street is similar to his ‘Red Rain’ video, an exquisitely rendered sequence of black and white images shot by Bill Pope. The Growing Up video is by Francois Vogel and gives a playful treatment to a rather lightweight song. Shaking The Tree directed by Isaac Julien is one of the best-looking videos on the disk, a riot of gorgeous colour and featuring the delicious sight of Gabriel ‘grooving’ with N’Dour. Brian Grant’s video for Shock the Monkey from 1982 is still brilliant, using effects that are comparatively simple by today’s standards (Make-up! Sets!) but nevertheless extremely powerful. Stephen Johnson’s Steam video is hilarious, giving us the unforgettable sight of Gabriel-as-The-Mack, but does come across as rather a compendium of sometimes cheesy video effects. The Drop by Glenn Marshall, from 2002’s Up set, is pretty darn weird and I have to admit neither the song or video grabbed me. Zaar is taken from Gabriel’s superb soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ but the video is directed by Stefan Roloff from his original film ‘Lunch’ and didn’t quite match the luminous beauty of the music. The classic Solsbury Hill gets another collection of offcuts orchestrated by York Tillyer, this time courtesy of Peter Campus, David Stewart and Wesley West, I really thought the song deserved better. The collection ends with John Downer’s video for Digging in the Dirt which utilises a number of different photographic and animation effects with varying degrees of success.

With material collected over such a long period of time and generally intended only to be seen on TV, it’s no surprise that the quality of video varies enormously. A lot of it is soft, grainy and generally reprehensible, but you do get used to it after a while. The overwhelming majority of these videos are 4:3 but, as you can see from the 'I Don't Remember' screen grab, some are presented in widescreen. Also, while I think of it, the DVD is configured for regions 2 to 6 inclusive.

The sound is available in DD 2.0, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1 and is, frankly, stunning. It’s little wonder that, in the booklet, Gabriel says in many cases he prefers the new 5.1 remixes to the original versions and even thanks DTS “…for rushing their new 96Khz 24-bit encoder to us hot from the developers.” The result is a demonstration quality audio experience, an orgasm for the ears.

Special Features
The live version of Games Without Frontiers is taken from the 2004 European tour and features Gabriel going wild on a momentum buggy while drummer Ged Lynch holds down a funkified version of this classic groove. Peter Medak’s original 1977 video for Modern Love from Gabriel’s first solo album is here, and very entertaining it is too, showing our boy freaking out on an escalator, although I’m not quite sure why it’s included under special features and not just part of the collection. There’s also York Tillyer’s own video for The Nest That Sailed the Sky and Anna Gabriel’s four-minute promo for the Growing Up Live: A Family Portrait, plus trailers for the Growing Up Live and Secret World Live DVDs. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the very groovy Credits.

Music video DVD of the year without question, and a fitting tribute to a very British creative genius now in his third decade of tinkering.

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