Peter Gabriel 3
A Masterwork of Art-Rock Menace
The pop world wasn't quite ready to confront the inhumanity of apartheid in 1979, when Peter Gabriel wrote "Biko." Telling the story of South African journalist and activist Steve Biko, who died after sustaining head injuries during an interrogation, Gabriel helped change the climate a little—and in the process revived the then-moribund notion of the protest song. Under a steady martial drum cadence and a majestic, easily sung melody that linked arena rock spectacle and African spirituality, "Biko" became one of the first truly global political anthems. And it remains one of the best.
"Biko" is also the most humane, empathetic moment on Peter Gabriel 3, the third consecutive self-titled album from the British art-rocker. The album opens with a sirenlike shriek called "Intruder." That's followed by a mechanical cry of desperation, "No Self-Control," that has Gabriel, who first drew attention as a member of Genesis, making like a freaked-out robot whose circuits are frying. Lyrics throughout hint at simmering anger and despair under the surface of everyday interactions, and they bubble up in fractured bits of gibberish. One characteristically jarring piece, "Games Without Frontiers," transforms play-ground taunts into an extended metaphor about geopolitical tension. The nine songs preceding "Biko" are as close to psychodrama as pop music gets, all sharp angles and heightened, sometimes terrifying moods. Then "Biko" kicks in, and its ceremonial grandeur offers a welcome respite. Shedding his arty obfuscations, Gabriel shares his vision for the end of apartheid with a bracing directness: "You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire," he sings. "Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher." His passionate indignation caught on and became part of the global pressure on the racist South African government, eventually contributing to its demise.
Released: 1980, Mercury (Reissued 1983, Geffen)
Key Tracks: "Biko," "Not One of Us," "Games Without Frontiers"
Catalog Choice: So; Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ
Next Stop: Sigur Rós: Agætis Byrjun
After That: Waldemar Bastos: Pretaluz