Peter Gabriel‘s long-awaited fourth self-titled album – later retitled Security before its Sept. 5, 1982, U.S. release – began with the rhythm. Always fascinated by textures, Gabriel had been digging deeply into folk drumming from Africa. He’d also become intrigued by early sampling technology.
“I think the rhythm is like the spine of the piece,” Gabriel told the South Bank Show in 1982. “If you change that, then the body that forms around it is changed as well. So, the style of writing which I was then attracted to put with it was very different from what I would have done with a normal rock rhythm.”
Once he got the cadences down, Gabriel worked for a long period of time improvising over these basic skeletons of song. At one point, he and David Lord – the fourth new Gabriel producer in as many albums – were dealing with a stack of 100 demos.
Gabriel’s decision to record at home on rented equipment proved to be a boon, as it encouraged this free-form sense of discovery, but it also meant that there was no natural time frame to govern things. Ultimately, Gabriel would go nearly two and a half years between solo albums, an eternity in that era.
“Initially, we had a mobile outside the farm building and then gradually built a studio as we went along,” Gabriel explained on his website. “I was working with David Lord, who I’d known a bit in Bath. He had studio there. He’d come really more from a classical background, but was very good with textures and sounds. A lot of time, as always, I had been noodling away, and he was quite good at helping forge through that.”
This tactile focus on both ageless sounds and modern technology would become the hallmark of Gabriel’s solo career. The lengthy experiments on Security led directly to his belated post-Genesis mainstream breakthrough on 1986’s So. For the time being, however, Security was a mess.
At one point, Gabriel was still juggling 18 songs, and several of those rough drafts were more than 10 minutes long. “He’s a slow worker,” Lord told the South Bank Show. “And the main problem is, he likes to keep every possible option open as long as he can.” When things got particularly tense, Gabriel would break for a game of croquet.
Listen to Peter Gabriel Perform ‘Lay Your Hands on Me’
Back at work, he kept experimenting with sounds – something else that likewise elongated thw album’s refraction period. Gabriel deleted all of the presets on a new Fairlight CMI, programming different ones with found objects. “I’d been dreaming for some time of an instrument that could sample stuff from the real world,” Gabriel recalled, “and then turn it and make it available on a keyboard.” He recorded things like rain rushing down a gutter, the sound of a windshield being smashed, his own breath down an old metal drain pipe and, on “Lay Your Hands on Me,” the sounds of dragging concrete.
Additional sessions were held with drummer Jerry Marotta, bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes and keyboardist Larry Fast. Their work was layered on top of a base of multi-track demos, with the lyrics arriving last. Gabriel said he wanted to wait until each music bed was largely completed before judging its substance and mood. As sessions dragged on, he and Lord also spent extended periods of time processing his vocals.
“I’m trying to enlarge what I do with my voice, not through technique but just through the sounds,” Gabriel told the South Bank Show. “I think we all make noises and, particularly when we get involved or emotional about something, the colors and the tones of those noises change.”
No matter how far afield he got, the songs coalesced around world music influences that had first popped up on Gabriel’s 1980 album, which ended with a rousing tribute to slain South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. This balance of old and new still intrigued him. As he delved ever deeper into these clashing cultural touchstones, the theme worked its way into Gabriel’s songs.
“San Jacinto,” for instance, examined the way traditions can be subsumed by modernity. Named for a mountain range near the resort city of Palm Springs, Calif., where a tribe of impoverished Native Americans lived, the song turns on an ancient coming-of-age ritual where a boy is left alone to fend for himself out in the wild. “If he got back down at the end of it, he was brave,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone in 2015. “If not, he was dead. Very simply. [This song] is the story of what he came back to and what America did to his culture.”
Listen to Peter Gabriel Perform ‘San Jacinto’
After reading Carl Jung’s Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams, Gabriel used a moment in which the psychologist became overwhelmed within an African drum circle to propel the closing moments of “The Rhythm of the Heat.” “I love the idea,” he said in Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel, “of this guy who shaped a lot of the way we think in the West, who lives in his head and in his dreams, suddenly getting sucked into this thing that he can’t avoid where he has to let go of control completely and feels that he has become possessed in a way – not by the devil but by this thing which is bigger than him.”
The song was built out from a basic Fairlight structure, using “a looping device on one of the samples that we just fed into it,” Gabriel recalled. “So, it was still very much about textures, but of a more homemade variety.” Elsewhere, “The Family and the Fishing Net” made sharp observations about the things that bind us together. “We think we’re islands,” Gabriel said in 2010, “but we’re all connected in a landmass.'”
Finally finished, Gabriel submitted what he hoped would become his fourth consecutive self-titled solo album. His U.S. label balked, and eventually decided to slap a sticker with the word Security on the cover.
“In some ways, I’m just a visual person,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone in 2012. “It was the idea to just do away with titles. Give the pictures space to breathe and speak for themselves. But, of course, it caused confusion in the marketplace. The American record company, Geffen, got so fed up with me that they said they weren’t going to release my fourth record unless I gave it some title. So it was called Security in America, and it had no title everywhere else in the world.”
Whatever it was called, the gold-selling Security held together better than any previous Gabriel solo album. As the door to stardom cracked open for Gabriel, it was clear the work had paid off. “Shock the Monkey,” a song not about animal rights but raging jealousy, became his first Billboard Top 40 hit, reaching No. 29 on the strength of a heavy-rotation MTV video. Security also notched Gabriel’s fourth straight Top 10 finish in the U.K.
Despite the lengthy gestation period, he had set the stage for a commercial breakthrough. “It worries me sometimes that I’m taking too long over these things,” Gabriel admitted in his talk with the South Bank Show, “and then I think, it really doesn’t matter a damn if the end product works.”