As Genesis appeared ready to break through in the mid ’70s, Peter Gabriel abruptly stepped off the musical carousel. His decision was driven, in part, by a desire to care for his ill infant daughter. But more than that, Gabriel wanted to start anew creatively – free of the constrictions of being in a hit group.
“When I left Genesis, I just wanted to be out of the music business,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I felt like I was just in the machinery. We knew what we were going to be doing in 18 months or two years ahead. I just did not enjoy that.”
Genesis did, in fact, get much, much bigger – and, at least until he released a self-titled solo debut album on Feb. 25, 1977, Gabriel simply vanished. He spent time with his child, and dove into years-long studies of art, philosophy, world music and religion.
“Partly,” he told NME in 1977, “I felt that were were just at the point of breaking through to the big time. I just felt that if I’d stayed, I would have got trapped into roles that I was beginning not to enjoy – both within the band and within myself. It would have been much more difficult to let go, once we’d got some material mountain, if you like. But at that point, it didn’t make much difference. If my lifestyle had changed considerably as a result of success, it would have been more difficult for me to let go of all that and leave the band.”
By the time he was ready to re-emerge, however, there were questions about whether Peter Gabriel even had a music career to come back to.
“It’s a funny thing, but when I was the singer, everybody thought I created everything and wrote all of it,” Gabriel told Uncut in 2012. “Of course, when I left the band, they were way more successful without me. Everybody then assumed, ‘Ah, okay, he did nothing.'”
In truth, he’d never stopped composing. It just took a while for Gabriel to develop any patience with the business side of things again. This time, he pledged to do things differently. Even as Peter Gabriel made its way to store shelves, he was flouting industry convention – refusing, for instance, to release an advance single.
“I kept on with songwriting,” Gabriel told NME in 1977. “I knew I wanted to do that, but I really wasn’t that interested in performing again. Then, once the songs came out, I realized that to get them done in a way I liked, I’d have to start recording again. I got back into the recording thing, and started enjoying it. And here, I’m back again.”
Listen to Peter Gabriel Perform ‘Here Comes the Flood’
Musically, the nervy, lean Peter Gabriel – a Bob Ezrin production which featured King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp and Tony Levin; Larry Fast; and Steve Hunter of Alice Cooper band fame – couldn’t have been a bolder step away from the lengthy prog excursions that had come before. “Well, I tried to do a lot of things to separate me from Genesis,” he admitted in the talk with Uncut. “Sometimes you’d see people leave bands and do watered-down versions of what the band had done. I was determined not to do that. I was keen to get a new audience.”
Still, the album offered little in the way of narrative insight into his time away, other than the ageless “Solsbury Hill” – an autobiographical turn dealing with Gabriel’s split with Genesis. That too was part of the atmosphere of thrilling risk that surrounded this project. He was, quite simply, unbound – even lyrically.
“I just write down images that interest me. That’s about it,” Gabriel told NME. “I’ve got an idea of what I’m trying to say, but there’s one part in ‘Humdrum‘ which I wasn’t clear about. You know, the words sounded nice when written down. I bought a dictionary, and that’s got hundreds of words. All I’ve got to do now is find out how to put them in the right order.”
For all of its unorthodox twists and turns, Peter Gabriel nevertheless became a Top 10 hit in the U.K., and broke into the Top 40 in America. That only emboldened Gabriel, who impishly self-titled his next three solo albums even as he raced down a series of other freshly paved creative avenues.
“In Genesis, we were all putting in material in a polished band arrangement, whereas now I’m trying, as a writer, to arrange things differently,” Gabriel said in Without Frontiers: The Life & Music of Peter Gabriel. “In a group, it was a compromise. You’d hand over your idea to a band interpretation, but now if I hear some things in my head, it’s possible just to try them and see how they work.”
In keeping, it took Gabriel a little while longer to find broad commercial success, which didn’t arrive until 1986’s So. He seemed fine with that prospect, even back in ’77. “It feels much more free, and I feel I can do things that keep my mind a little more open,” Gabriel told NME. “That would have been difficult in the Genesis situation.”