Despite more than a decade and a half in the music industry, Peter Gabriel remained something of a cult artist as the calendar turned over to 1986.
When Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, few observers predicted that the band would find more success on the charts without him. But with drummer Phil Collins taking Gabriel’s place as frontman, Genesis transformed itself from a modestly popular prog rock band into a pop juggernaut, scoring two platinum album in the states with 1980’s Abacab and 1983’s self-titled release. Beginning with his solo debut single “In the Air Tonight” — a tune propelled by a drum sound developed during a session for Gabriel’s artistically brilliant but commercially torpid third solo album — Collins reached even greater heights as a solo artist, culminating in the release of his multiplatinum smash No Jacket Required in February of ‘85.
Gabriel, it seemed, had been eclipsed commercially by his erstwhile bandmates.
The album featured in this installment of TBVO changed all that. With So, released in May of ‘86, Gabriel streamlined his sound, tweaked his image, and transformed his commercial viability. As Gabriel put it in the liner notes to the 25th anniversary edition of the album, “With So, this was the end of the idea of me being a sort of cult artist at the fringes of the mainstream, especially in America.”
In many ways, So played the same role in Gabriel’s career that last month’s TBVO album, Hounds of Love, played in Kate Bush’s. As Gabriel biographer Daryl Easlea wrote, “Bush’s album can be seen in some ways as a sister album of So. Both [Gabriel] and Bush had released difficult, complex albums in 1982 that had not chimed as resonantly with the public as earlier records had done. With Hounds Of Love, like So, Bush had kept all of her inherent strangeness, yet sweetened it with some of the most commercially accessible singles of her career.” The connections between So and Hounds, which was released a scant eight months before So, run deeper still. Not only had Gabriel’s experimentation with early digital technology inspired Bush, but Bush also duetted with Gabriel on So’s most affecting track, “Don’t Give Up.”
As with Hounds, it’s tempting to attribute So’s greater commercial appeal to conscious effort, especially given the professional turmoil facing Gabriel. But So represents a moments when artistic evolution and public taste happened to align. Gabriel’s financial struggles in the years prior to So’s release, however, were very real.
After Gabriel delivered his remarkable third album, popularly known as Melt, to Atlantic Records in 1980, the label dropped him, with Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun speculating to Gabriel’s manager that “Peter might have had some sort of a breakdown during the writing of it.” While the relative success of that album’s lead single, “Games Without Frontiers,” improved Gabriel’s commercial standing somewhat, the financial disaster of Gabriel’s pioneering world music festival, WOMAD, in 1982 negated any economic ground Gabriel gained with Melt. (Gabriel’s generosity also contributed to his financial straits. He gave the gave the £50,000 of Melt’s proceeds attributable to “Biko,” a song inspired by the death of a South African anti-apartheid activist, to the Black People’s Convention in London, an amount that financed its office for three years.)
So dire were Gabriel’s circumstances post-WOMAD that he leapt at his former Genesis bandmates’ offer to stage a reunion concert to settle Gabriel and WOMAD’s substantial debts — not that Gabriel was particularly eager to revisit the past. “The motivation is to pay off the WOMAD debts,” Gabriel told NME the week before the concert. “For me, um… I think I will enjoy it, but having tried for seven years to get away from the image of being ex-Genesis there’s obviously a certain amount of stepping back. I don’t think they would choose at this point to work with me or I with them, but as they’ve offered, it’s very generous.”
The album that Gabriel released the month before the Genesis reunion show did little capitalize on the event. Gabriel’s fourth self-titled album, popularly known as Security, was perhaps Gabriel’s most difficult work to date. Thanks to the boost provided by the album’s second single “Shock the Monkey” and its jarring music video, Security briefly reached number 28 on the Billboard 200. But it wasn’t until five years later, when So boosted the sales of Gabriel’s back catalog, that Security reached gold status in the U.S.
Following WOMAD and Security, few would have blamed Gabriel for making a more conscious attempt to move into the commercial mainstream. But Gabriel’s first post-Security studio project was a moody instrumental soundtrack to Birdy, director Alan Parker’s Vietnam drama.
However, Birdy provided a crucial bridge to So. For Birdy, Gabriel enlisted producer Daniel Lanois, who was then best known for his work with Brian Eno. (Lanois’s breakout work on U2’s Unforgettable Fire had yet to be released at the time Gabriel approached him for Birdy.)
While the Gabriel-Lanois pairing seems almost inevitable in retrospect, it was a less-than-obvious venture for both parties initially. “I was not a Genesis fan,” Lanois admitted in a December 1986 interview. “But if you don’t know everything about someone’s background, you have a fresher view of it all.” Likewise, Gabriel approached Lanois with little personal knowledge of his work. “I didn’t know anything about him until I came to do the Birdy soundtrack....,” Gabriel told Musician magazine in 1986. “[Guitarist David Rhodes] strongly recommended Danny [Lanois].... He thought Danny would be very good for the atmospheric pieces — as indeed he was. We got on well, and he has good instinctive reactions to my music.”
Though Gabriel had planned on approaching Nile Rodgers or Bill Laswell to produce his next proper studio album, his partnership with Lanois was so fruitful that Gabriel asked Lanois to stay on for So, which in both content and tone would be a very different work from Birdy.
According to Gabriel, the shift to So’s more accessible sound was a natural reaction to Birdy and Security. “When I completed the Birdy soundtrack I wanted my focus to shift to songs rather than to remain on rhythm and texture, which were dominant on Security,” he told Musician. “Having done a complete album of textures and sound with Birdy, I’d got that out of my system.”
Changes in Gabriel’s personal life also contributed to So’s comparatively positive tone. After a period of separation, Gabriel reconciled with his wife Jill just as he began work on the album. “I think this is probably the most positive record I’ve made, in some ways,” he told Rolling Stone after So’s release. “And, um… it’s a little bizarre in some ways, because it came after one of the worst periods of my life.” As he explained to his authorized biographer Spencer Bright, “[With So] I wanted to be more playful, a bit more open, less mystery. [The separation] was a dark period for me, and one in which I had to become a little more open to the world.”
“One of the contributing factors to the album was that Peter was not into darkness like he once might have been,” Lanois told Bright. “I like the darker side, but I wouldn’t say I gravitate towards heaviness, certainly not on So. I think Peter was heading that way already, and he saw that in me and thought this is going to work. As a personality I tend to be of the soulful category, meaning that I am not the sort who would lean on technology. I would lean on feelings, emotions, and mood. I knew that Peter was interested in being more focused and having a song record.”
In early-1984, Gabriel began putting together rhythm tracks for the songs that would become So. “I came up with the rhythms first on a new drum machine and then laid down the chord foundations for about twenty songs, which eventually got whittled down to twelve,” Gabriel explained in the 25th anniversary edition liner notes. “Technical innovation has always been something that’s really changed what I do, and the drum machine really altered the way I wrote music. I’ve always written songs around rhythm. I always think of rhythm as being like the spine of the music, meaning if you change the shape of the spine you change the shape of the music that forms round it.”
Work began in earnest on the album in February 1985 when Gabriel brought in Lanois and Rhodes, who began referring to themselves as “The Three Stooges.” “In that kind of scenario, it’s not a good idea to have a lot of people around because you get nervous that you’re wasting people’s time while the song is getting written,” Lanois explained in Behind The Glass, Volume II: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits. “But by having just the three of us, we had this ‘turning up for work’ kind of humor: We’d wear these construction worker hard hats.”
As with Security and Birdy, recording for So took place in a studio set up in the cowshed on the property of Ashcombe House, Gabriel’s home near Bath in Somerset, England. Keeping with Gabriel’s fascination with the latest technology, Gabriel’s otherwise rudimentary barn studio was outfitted with a top-of-the-line Solid Stage Logic 4048E desk and two linked Studer A80 24-track machines, along with a host of outboard effects, the Fairlight CMI synthesizer-sampler that Gabriel popularized (and introduced to Bush), and several Linn drum machines.
The quality of the equipment belied the studio’s makeshift nature. In a 1987 interview with Sound on Sound, Lanois conceded that Gabriel’s cowshed was “a fantastic place, but the truth of it is that there was good equipment there but not very well installed.” There was no sight line or video link between the control room and the recording area. As a result, Gabriel preferred to record his parts in the control room. As engineer Kevin Killen recalled, “When the musicians were tracking, the bass, drums and guitar would typically be in the recording space, whereas when it came to the overdubs pretty much everything — including the vocals — was done in the control room. That studio was very home spun; quite basic in terms of its acoustic treatments and trapping, but it somehow managed to sound quite true.” Whatever its logistic or sonic limitations, the control room offered a beautiful view of the Bath countryside, and the cows would sometimes come and lick the windows. (“f we happened to be working on a song [when the cows licked the windows] we always took this as a very good omen,” Gabriel quipped.)
For Gabriel, the writing and recording process blurred together. The earliest demos for So’s songs were recorded to cassette using an Aiwa CA-W20 boom box. But Gabriel quickly moved to the barn studio to record more polished demos on the 24-track machines. “The songs were still very much scratch ideas when I came in,” Lanois told Musician. “You might say I was a composer chaperone for six months. We had the back room of his studio set up. He’d blare his keyboards and his rhythm box, and the environment was kinda like a punky club, a room you went into to do some hollering.”
As Gabriel, Lanois, and Rhodes added to the 24-track demos, many served as the foundation for the finished tracks. “I just try to figure out what should be played,” Rhodes told Guitar Player in 1987. “Peter never has the lyrics at the beginning, or maybe he’ll have one line. So he just plays, and we try to select the good bits and get rid of the bad bits. He has a [Sequential] Prophet and an [E-mu] Emulator and a Fairlight, and he fiddles around between all of them and the piano. He can fidget quite a lot.”
Lanois lived at Ashcombe in order to accommodate Gabriel’s spontaneity. But Lanois, who initially expected to work with Gabriel on So for six months, didn’t appreciate the scope of the job he was signing up for. “It took us a year to finish So, almost to the day,” Lanois explained with a smile in the Classic Albums documentary on the making of the album. “And I wasn’t aware of this, but I was told after the fact that that’s the fastest record Peter ever made.”
Killen soon learned the same lesson as Lanois. “Peter and Dan got on the phone with me one day [in late-May 1985] and suggested I join them for four to six weeks to take care of final overdubs and mixing,” Killen told Sound on Sound. “I agreed and flew to the UK, where I was picked up at Heathrow Airport by Peter’s assistant, David Stallbaumer, who informed me I’d be there until the following March. I said, ‘How do you know?’ and he replied, ‘I know Peter. Things don’t move that quickly in his world.’ As it turned out, he was spot on. The sessions ran into the New Year and the album wasn’t mastered until mid-February of 1986, at London’s Townhouse Studios by Ian Cooper. During mastering, I fully expected Peter to call and say, ‘I have another idea for an overdub.’”
For Gabriel, long gestation periods were the norm, the product of the freedom afforded by his in-house production philosophy. “It’s strange, someone can write a book in seven days or seven years, and no one grumbles. But when you’re making records people complain and ask you what you were doing if you’re not part of the album/tour circuit...,” Gabriel told Musician. “[The making of So was] slow compared with most people, but it’s all done here, so I’m not paying vast sums for studio time. My advances from royalties go towards the studio equipment, and it gives me the opportunity to experiment and make the record the way I choose.”
Lanois and Rhodes aided Gabriel in his experimental, evolutionary writing-recording process, with each contributing instrumental overdubs to flesh out Gabriel’s demos-turned-multitrack masters. Rhodes saw his role as helping “to bring out the song.... Peter works hard on mood. It’s very important to understand the emotion that Peter wants to get across....”
Among the outside musicians called in to contribute to the works-in-progress, Gabriel relied most on bassist Tony Levin and drummers Manu Katché and Jerry Marotta. But he also brought in the likes of Stewart Copeland, P.P. Arnold, Richard Tee, and Wayne Jackson, among others, for supporting roles on So.
Like Gabriel, Lanois, and Rhodes, the outside musicians played along with Gabriel’s augmented former demos instead of starting the track from scratch. “The way Peter was working, he had a demo of each song with piano, maybe a Prophet pad, and a Linn drum machine that he would put up on the B [Studer A80] machine...and he would play that to the musicians in the studio,” Killen explained to Mix in 2017. “They would then play along with that in their headphones, and record all their parts onto the A machine.”
As the overdubs mounted, the songs could change dramatically — a possibility aided by Gabriel’s insistence on capturing every step of each song’s development on tape. “For many, many years, I have had a rule that if music is being made it must be recorded,” Gabriel noted in the 25th anniversary booklet. As Killen told Tape Op magazine, “The way that Peter likes to work is to invite musicians in and each musician will tend to play on each song. Then he’ll cut and paste different elements together.”
The outside musicians were often surprised — and, sometimes, disappointed — when they heard the final track depending on whether (and how) Gabriel used their contribution. “We had cut this very powerful, traditional sort of Gabriel [version of ‘Big Time’],” Marotta confessed to Bright. “I literally had goosebumps… I had them for days. And what ended up on the record was this kind of funky, pop version [with Stewart Copeland on drums].”
Part of Lanois’s role was to help Gabriel find direction in the mountains of tape containing endless variations of each song. “Peter can be a quick worker but he’s a man who likes to investigate all the options,” Lanois told Sound on Sound in 1987. “If you work with him you have to be aware of that and not let yourself fall into that dangerous zone of considering so many things that you end up not making a good choice. At a point he has to be pushed into a direction that is the right one or else the options and permutations can just go on and on and on.”
Gabriel’s penchant for “cut and paste” composition and endless experimentation was aided by his use of digital samplers and the SSL desk, which allowed for storing and recalling multiple mixes of the same track. “Most records get broken down into periods: pre-production, tracking, overdubs, the mix,” Killen, who was initially hired to mix the record, but ended up doing much more, outlined to Mix magazine. “With Peter, we never really entered into those phases. We were always mixing. So by October, we’d put up a mix, with whatever overdub had been achieved that day, and I would always store the mix on the SSL and take down documentation. Then, at some point we’d decide, ‘That’s a really good reference for that track,’ and from then on we’d always reference back to that particular mix.... By the time the album was ‘mixed,’ the mixes had already been going on for three or four months.”
But a technological snafu almost derailed So. The two Studer A80 24-track tape machines were supposed to be linked, but in reality they were ever-so-slightly out of sync. With each overdub, the problem compounded. Killen suggested that they transfer all of the tracks to a Mitsubishi X800 (or X850, depending on the source) 32-track digital machine. “[Once we had the Mitsubishi] I set about editing whatever needed to be done...,” Killen told Mix. “The process of getting stuff back from slave reel number five to master reel number one involved sometimes lining up the 2-inches and flying between them manually, bit by bit. In July we got an AMS sampler with 14 seconds of sampling time, so we could actually sample four or five measures of music and fly it in that way, which helped. By September we had everything over to the 32-track machine.”
Despite being an early and eager adopter of digital technology with the Fairlight and Security, the transfer of the Studer tapes to the Mitsubishi allowed him to critically compare the sound of analog and digital. “It was interesting because for the first time I was hearing things being recorded from both analogue and digital; at some points we were recording in parallel and at some points we were copying analogue to digital,” Gabriel told Sound on Sound in 1987. “Although the high end, the breath, and the transients were all much, much better on the Mitsubishi digital, the fat end of the drums and the bass was far more attractive on the analogue Studer…. I’ve always been in the digital camp. Now I’m split down the middle.... I think when the sampling rate is improved [digital] will get better...[but now] I’m attracted to the distortions of the analogue medium, and there are still areas for improvement in the digital.”
Because he liked the sound of drums and bass from the analog tape and the sound of other elements from the digital machine, Killen ended up synching the 32-track Mitsubishi with the two 24-track Studors so that both analog and digital recording could be done simultaneously.
While the tape drift was merely a technical error to be overcome, another glitch provided Gabriel with the unique, airy vocal sound captured on So. When Gabriel told Lanois and Killen that he always recorded his vocals with the modest, workmanlike Shure SM57, Lanois and Killen challenged him to a blindfolded microphone test. Gabriel ended up picking the much tonier Neumann U47. But they quickly realized that this U47 didn’t sound like most. “[T]he microphone had something wrong with it. All it had was just top end. But it was a very nice top end,” Lanois recounted to Tape Op. Eventually, a studio tech discovered that the microphone’s cable was faulty. “I said to the technician, ‘Could you leave me the broken cable? But could you then have a second cable from the microphone that is fully operational, that has full range of the mic?’” Lanois continued. “And he did that, so I had the broken sound on the fader and on the next fader was the full proper sound which I brought up and I would season to taste with the broken one, and that was my equalization for Peter Gabriel’s vocal on So. It meant that I didn’t have to crank up a bunch of hiss on an EQ — I was getting it from this broken cable which had this beautiful top end!”
Keeping with Gabriel’s off-kilter way of doing things, he rejected recording vocals using headphones. Instead, he sang along with the backing track played on monitors in the control room, which required creative methods to keep the backing track from bleeding into the vocals. “[W]e’d flip the phase on [the monitors], placing the U47 at the apex position from the speakers while monitoring at a moderate level…,” Killen explained. “Afterwards I’d record a track at the same monitoring level of just the backing track minus the vocal. Then I’d comp with that backing track out of phase with the vocal to see if we could get it to cancel.”
Despite the makeshift nature of the cowshed studio and sometimes creative means used to achieve Gabriel’s desired ends, his records always had a reputation for impressive sounding albums. As Marotta remembered, “For about a year and a half after [Security] came out every studio I went into — not only did they have the record… they wanted to talk [to me] about the record…. It was a groundbreaking record sonically.”
But, sonically, So immediately distinguished itself from his previous work. After his second album, Gabriel adopted a “no metals” rule, banning hi-hats and cymbals. But Lanois persuaded Gabriel to make So a “hi-hat record,” and the first sound on So is Stewart Copeland’s jittery hi-hat, which begins “Red Rain.” (Notably, Copeland plays only hi-hat on the song. The drums are played by Marotta.)
Stewart’s hi-hat replaced a synthesized hi-hat from Gabriel’s demo, part of Gabriel’s integration of more human elements into So. Gabriel had helped usher drum machines and synthesizers into the pop music mainstream. But by the time of So, he began to feel that they were being overused. “When I hear so many bands basing their music on programmed sequencers and drum machines I long to hear some human imperfections,” he told Musician. “On this album I still use a drum machine as one of my vital writing instruments, but where it was possible to introduce or add the personality of a live performance I tried to do so.”
Though he would agonize over the sequencing of the album, Gabriel decided early on that “Red Rain” would be the first track. He hoped making “Red Rain” the opener would make the album “crash open at the front and…feel really driven.” “Red Rain” accomplished Gabriel’s goal. Following 10 seconds of Copeland’s hi-hat, Levin’s throbbing bass and Marotta’s thundering drums help to create a burbling low end that propels the song forward.
Lyrically, the song seemed “to reflect two very current Eighties obsessions: AIDS and nuclear fallout,” as Eslea put it. “The fears of the day were infection beneath the skin and nuclear catastrophe after the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1985. Yet ‘Red Rain’ was a song of hope, of the shared lifeblood.”
While many listeners seemed to read that meaning into the song, Gabriel’s explanation differed. “Years ago I had a recurring dream,” he told Bright. “I was swimming in a swirling sea of red and black. I remember a tremendous turmoil as the sea was parted by two white walls. A series of bottles, of human shape, were carrying the red water from one wall to another, then dropping down to smash into little pieces at the bottom of the second wall. I used this for a scene in a story in which the red sea and red rain from which it was formed represented thoughts and feelings that were being denied.”
The paradoxically brooding-yet-optimistic “Red Rain” gives way to the song that would propel So into the top of the charts and change Gabriel’s career.
Initially, “Sledgehammer” was almost an afterthought. “I remember ‘Sledgehammer’ we did very last,” Levin explained in the Classic Albums documentary. “In fact we were packing up and Peter — in typical Peter fashion — said, ‘I have an idea for the next album of a piece. Would you mind just doing a run through of it?’.... So we just reassembled the stuff and did a quick version or two of ‘Sledgehammer.’ And then we packed up and went home thinking, ‘Oh no one will ever hear that track.’”
Proving that Gabriel hadn’t abandoned technology, the first sound on “Sledgehammer” is a soloed synthesized shakuhachi flute, which appears only once more in the song. The song really begins 20 seconds in, when the tune’s key horn hook enters. Keeping with Gabriel’s desire to replace synthesized sounds or blend them with live instruments, that lick is played by Gabriel on a Prophet-5 synth and doubled by Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns. (Gabriel contacted Jackson specifically because Jackson had played with Otis Redding when Gabriel saw Redding in Brixton when he was 17, a show that decades later Gabriel still considered “probably the best concert I’ve ever been to.”)
Likewise, Gabriel brought in Katché to replace the somewhat lackluster drum machine on his “Sledgehammer” demo with Katché’s expressive playing. “[W]e had a lot of rock drummers come through and there was nobody that could play that feel…,” Lanois recounted to Tape Op. “[Katché] rolled in and I said, ‘Can you play this?’ [Daniel vocalizes the beat.] It was a real sexy kind of swing thing…. He went out there, and knocked it out in one take.”
Katché’s drums were complemented by Levin’s “sticky” bass, which was produced by running his Music Mann bass through an octave pedal and an SSL compressor. The “Sledgehammer” groove is rounded out by “very straightforward kind of mock funk” guitar, as Rhodes put it, contributed by Rhodes and Lanois.
Lyrically, “Sledgehammer” was an “attempt to recreate some of the spirit and style of the music that most excited me as teenager: Sixties soul,” as Gabriel put it. “The lyrics of many of those songs were full of playful sexual innuendo and this is my contribution to that tradition. It is also about the use of sex as a means of getting through a breakdown in communication.”
So switches gears emotionally following “Sledgehammer” with “Don’t Give Up,” Gabriel’s soulful duet with Kate Bush.
“Don’t Give Up” began as a tom-tom rhythm on Gabriel’s LinnDrum. “I set up a rhythm first on the drum machine, and then built up the chords from that, and the melody, pretty much as I was going along in that case,” Gabriel told Tony Bacon in 1989. “The chorus actually didn’t come till later, but the verse I got quite early on and I liked and felt comfortable with it.” The tom-tom part was pitched, and Gabriel asked Levin to mimic it on the bass. Levin used a diaper under the strings off his bass to dampen the sound on the second half of the song, a technique that Gabriel and Lanois dubbed the “super -wonder-nappie bass sound.” The addition of Richard Tee on piano gave “Don’t Give Up” a slight “soul, gospel” flavor, as Gabriel put it, emphasizing the song’s uplifting undercurrent.
Lyrically, “Don’t Give Up” mixed the political and the personal. Gabriel credited the combination of Dorothea Lange’s photos of the American Great Depression and news reports about the social effects of high unemployment in the Thatcher-Reagan era for inspiring the song. But “Don’t Give Up” also reflected his marital turmoil. “When he gets into very deep depressions, I am always saying ‘don’t give up.’ I think that song is very much about us,” Jill told Bright. In that sense, “Don’t Give Up” reflected So’s more personal tone compared to Gabriel’s previous albums. “I wanted some of this album to be more direct,” he divulged to Rolling Stone in 1987. “Over the past few years, sort of, I tended to hide from some things, both personal and in my music. And so, if you like, it was part of a coming-out process.”
The intimate nature of “Don’t Give Up” was underscored by Bush’s comforting and evocative vocal. While Gabriel had, perhaps improbably, initially imagined Dolly Parton for the part, Bush (who had contributed two vocals to Gabriel’s third album) was also considered early on. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the song with anyone else. “You could just hear the emotion dripping out of her performance [during the recording],” Killen remembered. “Literally every hair on my body was just standing up.”
After the album’s first three cuts, each of which would be released as a single, So’s first side ends with “That Voice Again,” a catchy, uplifting track that emerge from Gabriel’s initial discussion’s to provide the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and evolved, according to Gabriel, from “a very Old Testament kind of song about judgment” to a song “about my own attempts to be less judgmental.”
Side two of So opens with perhaps its most iconic song.
The creation of “In Your Eyes” was among the most fraught. Originally titled “Sagrada Familia” after the church in Barcelona, Gabriel labored over the song’s structure, melody, and lyrics. The breakthrough came when Gabriel decided to turn the song’s former pre-chorus into the chorus, which involved meticulous editing of the analog tapes to reshape the track. “There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different takes to choose from, which were all organized by a gigantic wall chart…,” Stallbaumer explained in the Classic Albums documentary. “[W]e eventually chipped together [the song] bar by bar, just out of two-inch tape, with Danny and Peter and everybody listening just going, okay, bar one, take 37, we like that. We’ll take that one. So that’s where that one would go. And we literally assembled that song with...pieces of two-inch tape to actually create the rhythm track.”
Like “Don’t Give Up,” “In Your Eyes” was distinguished by a remarkable guest vocal. “There were a lot of very special guests and brilliant musicians on the album, but the one who made me most nervous because of his talent was Youssou N’Dour,” Gabriel wrote in the liner notes to the So 25th anniversary box set. “I got really worked up about him coming to Bath to record the vocals for ‘In Your Eyes.’ You have to remember that where he was from in Dakar, Senegal, he was treated like Elvis Presley. I first saw him live in Paris in 1983, and it blew my mind — his voice was like liquid gold pouring from the sky.” Just as Bush transformed “In Your Eyes,” N’Dour’s vocals rendered the last minute of “In Your Eyes” nearly transcendent.
Musically, “In Your Eyes” exemplified Gabriel’s search for nearly-unidentifiable sounds. The arpeggiated guitar during the song’s chorus is actually a blend of guitars, piano and synths processed with effects. “During recording, Dan really liked this idea of combining instruments to create a new part,” Killen told Sound on Sound. “t really did produce some unique sounds. We tried to avoid recording stock sounds, but they had to have a familiar — yet not instantly recognizable — footprint. In essence, the parts sounded much more keyboardbased or slightly guitarbased, but typically they were neither.”
“What’s interesting about [So],” Lanois noted, “is that if you listen closely there aren’t that many unusual instruments on it but it sounds sonically innovative…. Most of the keyboards are acoustic piano, Yamaha electric piano and Prophet 5…also an old Fairlight Series II with some good sampled sounds. Yet So has a variety of sounds, and you don’t get the feeling that it’s the same things over and over again. It’s another lesson in the theory of the small toolbox and learning to love your tools.”
While “In Your Eyes” would also be released as a single, nothing cemented it into the public consciousness as an iconic love song more than Cameron Crowe’s decision to have the song play out of a boombox held over John Cusack’s head in a pivotal scene of Crowe’s 1989 film Say Anything. “I think it definitely gave it a second life,” Gabriel said in 2012, “because now it’s so often parodied in comedy shows and it is one of the modern day Romeo and Juliet balcony clichés. I’ve talked to John Cusack about that. We’re sort of trapped together in a minuscule moment of contemporary culture.”
The remainder of So includes “Mercy Street,” a haunting track (and this writer’s favorite tune on the album) based on an interpretation of the Brazilian forró rhythm and inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton; “Big Time,” another funky smash single, which satirizes the excesses of ‘80s capitalism and Gabriel’s own mixed feelings about commercial success; “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” a reworked holdover from the Security era about the (in)famous Milgram experiment; and “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds),” Gabriel’s collaboration with Laurie Anderson, which ended up as a bonus track on CD and cassette versions of the album only, due to vinyl’s space limitations.
Gabriel’s indecision with lyrics delayed the album’s release, leading Lanois to nail Gabriel into the barn to force him to finish. “It was meant to be a joke,” Lanois told Bright, “but he didn’t take it as a joke [initially]. He did a few hours later.”
“I’m always writing lyrics until the day it’s released...,” Gabriel has admitted. “I’m slow with those.”
According to Killen, Gabriel was intimately involved with the final mix of the album. Gabriel also fretted over the album’s running order. “I spent a lot of time — and Dan, too — on trying to get the sequence right,” Gabriel explained in the Classic Albums documentary. “And what we used to do is put the beginnings and endings of all the songs on little cassettes, so you can try all the different permutations.”
Ultimately, the technological limitations of vinyl affected the track list beyond the exclusion of “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” from the 12”. “Although I’m a big fan of vinyl, I was also a great fan of the digital world because suddenly we could get more dynamics in the music, and there were restrictions in the vinyl world,” Gabriel noted in a 2012 interview. “For example, the track ‘In Your Eyes,’ I always wanted to go at the end of the record, but it has a good bass line there. To get a fat bass line on a full vinyl record, you can’t put it near the end. You have to have it nearer the beginning. So it went on the start of side two, just because there wasn’t enough room for the needle to vibrate as it got close to the center [of the vinyl record].”
So was finally finished in February 1986. All told, it took over a year and £200,000 (roughly $766,428 today) to make.
Gabriel added to this cost by spending another £120,000 on the video for “Sledgehammer,” So’s leadoff single. In addition to the financial outlay, the video took 100 hours of grueling shooting to complete, thanks to its use of stop-motion animation. “Peter is a wonderful human being,” director Stephen R. Johnson remarked of Gabriel’s patience during the shoot. “He is a good soul. I have never seen him raise his voice at anyone in anger, all the people that worked around him, his janitor even, he treats with dignity, respect, and human decency. It is a rare thing. There is no streak of ‘I am a big rock star.’ He is a sensitive, intelligent, humane person.”
When “Sledgehammer” was released in April 1986, the cheeky video went into high rotation on MTV, propelling the song and So onto the charts. “I think the song would have fared okay [without the video], ‘cause it did seem to work well on the radio,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone. “But I’m not sure that it would have been as big a hit, and I certainly don’t think the album would have been opened up to as many people without the video. Because I think it had a sense both of humor and of fun, neither of which were particularly associated with me. I mean — wrongly in my way of looking at it — I think I was seen as a fairly intense, eccentric Englishman.”
“Sledgehammer” became Gabriel’s only number one single in the U.S. Fittingly, it displaced the Collins-led Genesis single “Invisible Touch” from the top spot. The “Sledgehammer” video won nine MTV Video Awards and went on to become the most played video in the history of MTV.
Boosted by “Sledgehammer,” the string of singles drawn from the album that followed, and a strong critical reception, So reached number two on the Billboard 200 and number one in the U.S. and Canada, among high positions on charts across the world. It went on to sell five million copies in the U.S., transforming Gabriel into a household name.
Over the years, So’s status hasn’t diminished, finding its way into numerous “best albums of…” lists and making it into Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. As writer Ryan Bray put it, So became an “all-too-rare record that manages to have it both ways, earning its richly deserved critical and commercial respect without giving so much as an artistic inch…. t still stands on its own two feet as one of the consensus best records of the ‘80s”
The task of finding the best sounding digital version of this “consensus best record of the ‘80s” isn’t an easy one. The initial CD release of So included numerous pressings, sparking debate in audiophile circles about whether they were all the same mastering. Since then, So has been remastered and rereleased several times in several digital (and analog) formats.
The first mystery to solve is whether the initial CD releases of So are all the same mastering. There are 1986 So CDs with a track one peak value of 100, a track one peak value of 98.1, and a track one peak value of 75.9. However, I compared Har-Bal‘s “average power“ graphs for the different CDs, and it’s clear that they all have the same mastering.1 Since Ian Cooper is the only mastering engineer credited on any of the original 1986 So CDs, it appears that all discs from that year bear his mastering.
The first remastering of So occurred in 2002. Sony approached Gabriel about remastering his catalog for release on SACD. Gabriel agreed because, as he told Hi-Fi+ magazine at the time, “[T]here’s no doubt in my mind that increasingly there’s the capacity with equipment to make things sound more like they did when they were recorded, and thus minimize the distance between what was intended and what comes out.”
This remastering, done by Metropolis Mastering’s Tony Cousins was released on CD and SACD in 2002 and 2003, then appeared on several subsequent Japanese CD releases. Keeping with Gabriel’s desire to get superior transfers of the tapes, the original master tapes were transferred in multiple digital resolutions at Gabriel’s Real World Studios. However, when it was determined that Metropolis’s Ampex tape machines sounded better than those at Real World, the transfers were redone twice, first into the Sonoma digital editing system, then into the SADiE digital editing system.
Gabriel occasionally checked in on the mastering, providing some suggestions about EQ to Cousins. Gabriel’s suggestions varied from album-to-album, with Gabriel sometimes requesting more radical changes and other times sticking closer to an album’s original sound. When it came to So, as Gabriel’s engineer Richard Chappell noted later, “Peter asked Tony to make some significant changes from the original — much more bottom end and midrange plus more compression added.”
Gabriel also used the remaster as an opportunity to clean up the tapes at points. On So, this meant silencing the faintly audible early entry of the keyboard and horns at the beginning of “Sledgehammer,” which occurred due to tape print-through.
With So, Gabriel also took the opportunity to indulge in some mild historical revisionism, changing the track sequence to his original preferred running order, with “In Your Eyes” closing the album — a change he would keep for all subsequent releases.
Though Chappell referred to “more compression” on the 2002 remaster, it’s actually only slightly more compressed than the original 1986 CD, as this GIF comparing “Red Rain,” “Sledgehammer,” and “Don’t Give” up from the ‘86 CD (blue) and ‘02 remaster (dark grey) shows:
Looking at the crest factor DR score and the R128 dynamic range, the ‘86 CD is a point or two higher for most tracks than the ‘02 remaster on the former measure, while the two are almost equal on the latter.
Turning to equalization, while Chappell characterized the changes to the ‘86 CD as “significant,” overall the 2002 remaster’s EQ is similar to the original CD. Some tracks are slightly brighter, and some have slightly more low end. Only a few tracks on the ‘02 remaster — such as “Big Time,” which has significantly more bass energy — differ significantly in tonal balance from the original CD. A comparison of “Big Time,” “Don’t Give Up,” “In Your Eyes,” “Mercy Street,” “Red Rain,” and “That Voice Again” from the ‘86 CD (blue) and ‘02 remaster (light grey) in Har-Bal illustrate the usually subtle differences:
Reviewing the remasters, Hi-Fi+ gushed about the new So’s sound: “[On the original CD] Gabriel sound like he has a slight throat infection throughout. Listen to the CD remaster, however, and situation is vastly improved…equivalent to a complete course of antibiotics.”
While Hi-Fi+’s judgment is clearly hyperbole, Gabriel’s vocals are more transparent and lifelike on the ‘02 remaster.2 The remaster also evinces clearer transients, particularly percussion, and projects a deeper soundstage than the original CD. However, the ‘02 remaster’s soundstage also tends to be narrower than the ‘86 CD’s, and at times the boosted bass obscures some details elsewhere in the mix.
The next remastering of So took place in 2012 for the 25th anniversary of the album’s original release. (Keeping with Gabriel’s penchant for working on projects past deadlines, the 25th anniversary version of the album wasn’t released until more than 26 years after So’s original release.) The 25th anniversary edition of So was offered as a standalone remastered CD, a three CD edition featuring the remastered So and the two-CD Live in Athens 1987 concert, and a deluxe edition, which includes the remastered CD, the two-CD Athens concert, a So DNA CD showing the development of the songs from demo to finished product, the Athens concert on DVD, the Classic Albums documentary on DVD, the album on vinyl, a 12” featuring the previously unreleased tracks “Courage,” “Sagrada,” and “Don’t Give Up (Alternative Version Piano & Bvox Mix),” and a 60-page hardbound book about the making of the album.
When the 25th anniversary editions of So were first announced, Gabriel took some criticism from Super Deluxe Edition’s Paul Sinclair, who called the set a “rip-off.” Sinclair complained that the deluxe set included duplicate content, with the remastered album appearing on CD and vinyl and the Athens concert appearing on both CD and DVD. He also criticized the set for lacking hi-res audio, for including DVDs rather than Blu-rays discs, and for excluding full-length outtakes and several previously releases B-sides. Sinclair was so frustrated that he posted on open letter to Gabriel on his website. To his surprise, Gabriel responded personally. In his kind response, Gabriel explained why the set was constructed as it was and corrected several misunderstandings, noting that the set included a hi-res download (which wasn’t reported in the initial press release) and explaining that the DNA CD, while not including entire outtakes, was a track-by-track reconstruction of the album, with each song “meticulously edit[ed]” to from initial demos to early takes to final form to show the evolution of each song, a style that Gabriel found more interesting than full demos or outtakes. “While I accept we may not have made all the right decisions, I do resent any implication that this is a cynical or exploitative project,” Gabriel concluded. “Many talented and committed people have spent many hundreds of hours working to make a beautiful and rich package. It’s something that all of us involved are proud of, and I really hope [it] will be appreciated for what it is.” (Following Gabriel’s response, Sinclair wrote much more positively about the deluxe set.)
Chappell told fans about the remastering of So for the 25th release on Gabriel’s website:
In planning the 25th anniversary release of So Peter was very keen to go back to original sonic ‘vision’ for the album. The album had been remastered in 2002 by Tony Cousins but Ian Cooper was the original mastering engineer at the Townhouse Studio in 1986. 25 years on Peter went back to Ian to reconsider the mastering process. In early 2012 Peter and Ian met at Metropolis Mastering Studios (where Ian now works) and together they listened to the original half inch master tapes…. Incredibly Ian actually had the original notes from the session 25 years before! They ended up approaching the mastering in the same way that they had at the very first session. A small amount of EQ was added now and again and the limiting for the CD master was done using new prism converters. Peter was happy with the final result. I then came back to Real World Studios to test the remaster and put it up against the first version of So and the 2002 remaster…. Ian’s 2012 version is as true to the original as possible, but with the use of improved technology of today’s converters, it is a genuinely superior sound.
Despite Chappell’s detailed description of the process, some details about the masterings contained in the deluxe set remain shrouded in mystery. As some attentive listeners observed, the 24/48 hi-res download available with the box is much more dynamic than the CD included in the box. But the box provides no information about the provenance of the download, listing “2012 remaster by Ian Cooper” for the CD and “Mastered by Tony Cousins at Metropolis, LP and 12-inch cut by Miles Showell” below a listing of the tracks appearing on the 12” vinyl containing “Courage,” “Sagrada,” and the alternate version of “Don’t Give Up.”
In order to help unravel this mystery, let’s first take a look at the 2012 CD mastering done by Cooper.
Comparing the waveforms of tracks from the 2012 CD (green) with the original ‘86 CD (blue), it’s immediately clear that the 2012 CD is much more compressed:
In fact it’s the most compressed mastering of any So release, with significant clipping on many tracks. The DR scores and R128 dynamic range tell the same tale, with tracks on the ‘12 CD receiving somewhat lower scores on the latter and dramatically lower scores on the former.
The hi-res download (red) included with the deluxe box, in contrast, has dynamics that are very similar to those of the original ‘86 CD (blue):
The hi-res download’s R128 numbers are almost identical to those of the ‘86 CD, and the DR scores are only a point or two lower for most tracks.
The equalization of the 2012 CD and hi-res download appear to be different, too.
Despite being billed as “true to the original,” Cooper’s 25th anniversary CD mastering (yellow) is consistently more bass-heavy than his ‘86 CD (blue):
The 2012 hi-res download (red), in contrast, departs from the ‘86 CD (blue) in mostly subtle and generally non-uniform ways:
Sometimes the ‘12 download has slightly less high end than the original CD, and sometimes it has a little more bass.
Comparing Cooper’s ‘12 CD (yellow) and the ‘12 download (red) with each other, the contrast is more striking:
The 25th anniversary CD has consistently more bass and more high end than the download included in the deluxe box, and there are some additional subtle differences throughout the midrange.
To provide a further data point, I compared a digital transfer of the LP cut by Showell included in the 25th anniversary deluxe box with the hi-res download, and they’re nearly identical (despite the inherent variation in vinyl rips). It also stands to reason that the LP and download are the same mastering, given that the hi-res download contains all of the material included on the vinyl LP and 12”, but not the material contained on the box’s CDs.
To help solve the mystery, I reached out to Showell and Gabriel’s Real World Studios about the source of the hi-res download.3 According to Real World’s Matt Osborne, “[The] 24/48 download that comes with the So box set is the Ian Cooper master that provided the source for the LP mastering.” Showell confirmed that he created the vinyl from hi-res files mastered by Cooper. “The mastering for this session was done from the original ½-inch masters by Ian Cooper,” Showell explained. “Ian was an unusual choice as Tony Cousins is Peter’s normal go to mastering engineer. However, seeing as Ian mastered the album originally I can see the logic. My role was to cut the vinyl parts from Ian’s high-resolution digital files which had been approved by Peter’s people and very possibly by the man himself too.” According to Showell, he cut the vinyl “with as little processing as possible from Ian’s mastered audio,” adding “no extra EQ” and only “some gentle de-essing.”
Both Osbourne and Showell, however, believe that the download and the CD are the same Cooper mastering. Showell: “[A]s far as I remember, Ian did not do a more dynamic version for the [vinyl] cut; that was not really a thing in those days.” Osbourne: “The CD is also the Ian Cooper version.”4
However, given the significant differences between the CD and download, it seems likely that Cooper did create two different masterings for the 25th box: a more V-shaped, compressed, “modern” mastering for the CD and a more dynamic, balanced mastering for the download and LP. But it also seems possible, given the box’s ambiguous liner notes, that Cousins mastered the hi-res file, which was also supplied to Showell for the LP. (If I receive a definitive answer to this question, I’ll update this column.)
What is clear is that the new Prism transfer of the tapes overseen by Cooper and Gabriel was used for both the 25th CD and the download. The aforementioned print-through, which was faintly audible on the original CD and edited out on the ‘02 CD is even more audible (though still only slightly) on both the ‘12 CD and ‘12 hi-res download, and other elements of both the CD and download match perfectly.
More importantly, the new transfer sounds fantastic. With good reason, one reviewer gushed that the 25th anniversary transfer was “the definitive statement of the album.”5 The 2012 transfer projects a wider and deeper soundstage and reveals nuances and details not apparent in either the original CD or the ‘02 remaster. Levin’s bass parts at the 2:40 mark of “Red Rain” appear further out to the left and the right on the ‘12 transfer, rendering them distinct and crisp. On previous versions of the album, they blended together close to the center of the soundstage. Likewise, the octave effect on Levin’s bass on “Sledgehammer” is clear on the ‘12 remaster, whereas it was much more muted on both the ‘02 and, especially, ‘86 CDs. The improved staging and details extend to other instruments. Small keyboard flourishes in the far left channel at the beginning of the first verse of “Sledgehammer” are distinct and lifelike on the ‘12 transfer but less evident on the ‘86 CD and even more obscured on the ‘02 CD. Revelations like these are scattered throughout the ‘12 transfer, rewarding close listening. None of these details are attributable to brighter mastering, either. In fact, as will be discussed shortly, they’re all more apparent on the hi-res download than on the CD, despite the latter having more high end than the former. Most importantly, voices on the ‘12 transfer — whether Gabriel’s, Bush’s, N’Dour’s, or other vocalists’ — have a degree of realism missing from both the ‘86 and ‘02 versions of the album.
Unfortunately, the compressed, V-shaped mastering of the ‘12 transfer available on 25th anniversary CD squanders many of the transfer’s inherent advantages, rendering a clean transfer congested and fatiguing. The 24/48 download, on the other hand, is magnificent. Its subtle EQ choices play to the new transfer’s strengths, showcasing, rather than squandering, the sonic revelations.
The hi-res mastering’s subtle reduction in high end on some tracks also fixes one of So’s few sonic weaknesses. As some listeners have noted, So has a bit of the glossy zing popular in the 1980s. This is especially evident on Gabriel’s vocals, which tend to sound sibilant, even when listening with warm-leaning headphones or speakers. As Killen explained in 2012, “[T]he album has a brightness to it, but I tend to think of it as a ‘sheen.’ Because it was tracked mostly through a[n] SSL E series, with the exception of the Power Station sessions which were through a Neve, it was easy to accumulate a bite to any sound.” This “bite” was likely further accentuated by the fact that Lanois and Killen recorded tracks “over-bright to compensate for later tape degradation in bouncing,” as Killen put it. To be sure, So’s “sheen” is still evident on the 25th anniversary download, but it’s tamed. Meanwhile, the “essy” quality of Gabriel’s vocals is sharply reduced. The combination of these two subtle changes further opens up room for details obscured in other masterings and allows the airy vocals captured by the malfunctioning U47 to be showcased properly.
The final remastering of So occurred in 2016, when Gabriel released a half-speed vinyl master that included a 24/96 hi-res download. According to Gabriel’s website, “The vinyl was cut by Matt Colton at Alchemy Mastering, mastered by Tony Cousins at Metropolis, and overseen by Peter’s main sound engineer Richard Chappell.”
Comparing waveforms from the ‘12 download (red) and the ‘16 download (orange), the ‘12 download appears to be slightly more dynamic:
However, the DR scores and R128 values for both downloads are incredibly similar.
The differences between the ‘12 (red) and ‘16 (orange) hi-res downloads are more marked when it comes to EQ:
Songs on the ‘16 download tends to have more bass, more treble, or more of both than the ‘12 download.
While it differs from the ‘12 download, the ‘16 download (orange) remains relatively true to the original ‘86 CD (blue), even if some tracks on the ‘16 download have a little more top end and other have more bass:
As some fans have noted, the ‘16 download seems to sound a lot like the ‘02 remaster, which was also done by Cousins, and a comparison of the two in Har-Bal shows that they’re almost uncannily alike:
Indeed, the DR and R128 values for the ‘02 CD and ‘16 download are nearly identical. Going further, the peak values, track times, and ReplayGain numbers are all very similar, too.
Upon close listening it’s almost impossible to tell the ‘02 CD and the ‘16 download apart. It seems that Cousins either did a startlingly similar mastering job in ‘02 and ‘16 or used the ‘02 mastering for the ‘16 vinyl, making perhaps only very minor tweaks.
As might be expected given all of the above, the TBVO crown for Peter Gabriel’s So is resoundingly awarded to the ‘12 hi-res download. It simply trounces all other masterings of the album. Moreover, the 25th anniversary box includes plenty of other worthwhile goodies, including the unreleased tracks that come with the hi-res album download and the marvelous So DNA disc, which is every bit as well-executed as Gabriel suggested in his letter to Sinclair.
The deluxe box is still available from Gabriel’s website for roughly $95 (including shipping from the U.K.), which is a relatively modest price given the cost of “deluxe” box sets these days. The only catch is that the download code offer technically expired a few years ago, since the Bowers & Wilkins site that handled the download no longer exists. But a note on Gabriel’s website instructs fans to email their code into Gabriel’s store to receive the download. Osbourne confirmed this, writing, “Anyone who buys the So box set now — stocks are limited, but it is still available — can still access the hi-res download by following the instructions contained in the box.”
While it might take some effort, it’s absolutely worth it to hear the superlative version of So. Like the album covered in the third edition of TBVO, Steely Dan’s Aja, So almost immediately became an audiophile test record upon its release.
Even before it was released, So’s sound was impressing discerning audiences. “Karl Bartos told me that when Kraftwerk were making Electric Cafe they went into the Power Station where Gabriel was doing overdubs on So, and ‘Sledgehammer’ was put on,” Kraftwerk biographer David Buckley has said. “They were knocked back by how fantastic it sounded. They felt their record was puny sonically by comparison, even though it’s a completely different genre of music.”
Both musically and sonically, So is a special record that should have a place on every audiophile’s shelf (and hard drive). As Lanois concluded to Sound on Sound, “It’s a good-sounding record. When I hear it on the radio I think, ‘Hmmm, now that’s got something.’ We captured a sound and I’m very pleased about that.”
1. When necessary, Har-Bal’s loudness matching option, which doesn’t affect the frequency response, was used to create clearer graphs.
2. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played with Audirvana. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. (I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and Schiit Vali 2 headphone amp at times.) Most critical listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-1000 subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Audeze LCD2 Classic, Focal Clear, and Sennheiser HD800S.
3. I didn’t reach out to Cooper, since I’d already contacted Metropolis about interviewing Cooper for my Hounds of Love TBVO and was informed that he is retired and not available for interviews.
4. I’ve followed up with Osbourne about the differences between the download and CD, but I have yet to hear back.
5. It’s difficult to tell from the review, but it seems the reviewer had listed to the box’s CD, rather than the download. As will be discussed, that statement is undoubtedly true with regard to the download, but questionable with regard to the CD.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.