Behind the Song: Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”

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You have to give credit to Peter Gabriel. A lot of artists in the ’80s gave us lyrics that kept us guessing what they meant. In terms of “Games Without Frontiers,” Gabriel also left us wondering what those lyrics actually were.

Released in 1980 on Gabriel’s third solo album, which was self-titled like the first two but can be distinguished by Peter’s melting face on the cover, “Games Without Frontiers” came upon us at a time when song lyrics weren’t there for the taking on the internet. Unless you had the album, you were meant to play lyrical detective, which led to many of the misheard lines that still persist today.

In the case of “Games Without Frontiers,” the tricky part was the refrain floated throughout the song by a young Kate Bush on backing vocals. Because most people expected a British singer to yield English lyrics, they assumed that Bush was saying the word “She” at the start of the line in question. After that, though? “She’s so popular?” “She’s so funky, yeh?” “She’s a mountain babe?”

In actuality, the refrain is simply the French translation of the title: “Jeux sans frontiers.” And it also happened to be the title of a European game show pitting international contestants against each other in athletic contests while in costume. Gabriel used it as a jumping-off point to make some social commentary about the childish behavior of the world leaders making life-or-death decisions on behalf of their countries.

Hence, the laundry list of names, each seeming to represent a different part of the world, some clearly modelled on the names of famous (and infamous) leaders, deciding who is going to “play” with whom. It’s all delivered in an exotic yet brooding musical package, the moody verses and choruses briefly interrupted by a hopeful, whistled melody.

Gabriel spoke at the time of the song’s release about how his innocent original intent seemed to expand into something relevant. “It seemed to have several layers to it,” Gabriel observed. “I just began playing in a somewhat light-hearted fashion – ‘Hans and Lottie…’ – so it looked, on the surface, as just kids. The names themselves are meaningless, but they do have certain associations with them. So it’s almost like a little kids’ activity room. Underneath that, you have the TV program [and the] sort of nationalism, territorialism, competitiveness that underlies all that assembly of jolly people.”

In the first verse, the kids seem to be only worried about who their play partners will be, although things do get a little destructive: “Adolf builds a bonfire, Enrico plays with it.” The second verse renders the political overtones a bit clearer with mention of contrasting colors on flags. Gabriel deftly walks the fine line between harmless and ominous throughout, with the unsettling music helping to color our interpretation: “Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games/Hiding out in treetops, shouting out rude names.”

The whistling breakdown comes as Gabriel sings of a kind of a kind of respite from the battle: “Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside.” But the chorus hints that the bigger consequences of this foolishness is still to come: “If looks could kill, they probably will/In games without frontiers/War without tears.”

“Games Without Frontiers” represented a breakthrough of sorts for Gabriel, as it helped him segue from cult artist to chart threat. It happened quicker in the UK, where the song went Top 10, while, in the US, it made a dent in rock radio but didn’t hit the top 40. In any case, those who heard it were entranced, even though they might have been belting out the wrong words to that intoxicating music.

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