Behind the Album: ‘So,’ the Record that Transformed Peter Gabriel from Cult Status to Superstardom

Peter Gabriel finally gave in to the demands of his record company by deciding to give his 1986 album a name. By dubbing it So, Gabriel seemed to be shrugging off the contents. Maybe that was a bit of misdirection, because the album overflowed with goodness and completely transformed Gabriel’s career arc.

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Gabriel did all this without making too many changes to his approach or sacrificing some of the avant-garde tendencies of his previous records. Here’s a look back at how So became one of the defining albums of the ’80s.

Gabriel’s Gambit

It’s not like Peter Gabriel had spent the first four albums of his solo career on some inaccessible musical island. He scored a couple of Top-20 hits in the United Kingdom, and he enjoyed a U.S. breakthrough with “Shock the Monkey” in 1982. But the former Genesis frontman also seemed to enjoy his niche as a cult artist of sorts, one who willingly kept the mainstream at bay.

That image probably was never that accurate anyway. Nor was there any indication Gabriel went into So with the idea of cultivating a much wider audience. In any case, he decided on working with producer Daniel Lanois, with whom he had collaborated on the soundtrack to the film Birdy.

Gabriel did make slight alterations to his formula for the record. Instead of getting a full band involved right off the bat, he, Lanois, and guitarist David Rhodes spent a good deal of time working out the shapes of songs first. He leaned even heavier into synthesizers, which ensured So would come out sounding state of the art. And, thanks to Lanois’ urging, he softened his stance on metallic percussion instruments like cymbals and hi-hats (which would come in handy when Stewart Copeland of The Police guested on “Red Rain” and “Mercy Street.”)

A Pop Star Is Born

The funny thing about So is we simply might be talking about it today as one in a line of Peter Gabriel albums that was fascinating but not meant for the masses, were it not for a single track. “Sledgehammer” opens up with a synthesized flute sound, which leads you to expect the exotic and esoteric. That’s when the gut punch of a horn groove kicks in, and you’re immediately immersed in an irresistibly gritty, sweaty life.

Gabriel indulges in some cheeky, innuendo-laced lyrics before getting completely swept away by the rhythms of bassist Tony Levin and Manu Katché, eventually doing some soul-man testifying we never knew he had in him. You knew “Sledgehammer” was a slam-dunk No. 1 hit the first time you heard it, even before he pushed it over the top with the incredible video.

Gabriel then doubled down on the accessibility with “Big Time,” which parodies yuppie excess with biting humor. It’s another song with a ton of stuff going on musically that never loses sight of the groove. Peter Gabriel, pop star, was cemented with those two songs. But So had a lot more left to give.

Boom-Box Boost

So would likely have had legs anyway. But when John Cusack held up a portable stereo in the film Say Anything that blasted out “In Your Eyes,” Gabriel’s heartfelt love song, the album received another surge three years after it was released. That just further proved how much depth was lying in wait on this record for anyone who experienced it: The brooding opening track “Red Rain,” the lilting “Mercy Street,” and the stirring duet with Kate Bush on “Don’t Give Up” all soared.

Perhaps sensing the album was a monster not to be toyed with, Gabriel waited six years to come back with Us in 1992. By that time, he had a much larger fan base ready to sample his offerings. Beyond the musical excellence it delivered, So served the purpose of showing the rest of the world what the Peter Gabriel cult had long known.

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Photo by Jemal Countess/WireImage

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