Friday, May 23, 2003

There isn’t exactly a fine, ongoing tradition of the avant-garde finding mass popularity in America, so when something slips through the net, it’s all the more significant.

It’s always befuddled me that Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” of all things, was his first US top 40 hit (it crept up to #29). To listen to it now – well, for one, it doesn’t sound even remotely dated. It could’ve been made by someone in Berlin on his 24-track., maybe last week. Except it wasn’t; it was made by Gabriel in his home studio in the UK back in 1982. “Monkey” unreels itself like the best Trevor Horn production, adding layer upon layer until the song’s climax, its last moments, just Gabriel with a slight synth accompaniment, intoning (unintentionally?) sinisterly, “shock the monkey tonight.” And it’s just downright weird, particularly viewed through the prism of popular music at the time (the second British invasion, Hall & Oates, and lots of prefab pop-rock from the likes of Toto and Journey). The vaguely Asian ascending chord sequences (especially in the chorus), its heavy synth base (not in itself notable – groups like A Flock of Seagulls were certainly doing that – but the tone was so different; theirs were shiny and perky, not all eerie-sounding like these), and of course, Gabriel’s nearly indecipherable lyrics: these did not (and do not) normally add up to a hit single. At least, not here they don’t. [The UK, of course, is another matter, God bless ‘em.]

Tellingly, it was his only top 40 hit here until the barrage of singles from 1986’s So (led, of course, by his worldwide #1 “Sledgehammer” – good, but not up to the standard of his earlier work, largely by virtue of its sheer poppiness. I’m not saying that in and of itself is a negative, by any means, just that I find Gabriel to much more interesting the further out on the fringes of popular taste he pushes himself). America can only handle so much avant-garde, you know.

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