Listen to this track by art rock doyen and former Genesis frontman turned re-invented solo artist Peter Gabriel. It’s “Humdrum”, a track as taken from his 1977 solo record, and the first to bear the title Peter Gabriel. In addition to appearing on that record, it would soon be a popular live track as well.
And on this first statement as a solo artist, he had the help of some pros. The record was produced by Bob Ezrin in Toronto, and with sessions at Olympic Studios in Barnes that included a number of musicians you’ve heard of, including Robert Fripp on guitar, and bassist/Chapman stick player Tony Levin.
It’s important to note that this record was fairly long-awaited. Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, and it was a highly publicized departure considering that Gabriel had defined the band’s tone, and presentation. So, how does this song reflect both his role in Genesis and as a singular solo artist, too?
Even if it’s often overshadowed by the ginormous hit in “Solsbury Hill”, and rivaled by closer “Here Comes The Flood”, “Humdrum” takes in all of what we knew Gabriel could do, while at the same time makes it more than just about a former frontman of a big group playing it safe, artistically speaking. A tango rhythm, synths-meets-Gallic-accordion, Gabriel’s trademark smoky voice, and a series of musical threads that start in one place, end up in another seamlessly, and still remains to be completely accessible makes it one of the best things he ever wrote.
One thing it does is to position it in a cultural context of Europe, full of Valentinas, and “little liebe schoens”, confronting American elements at JFK, and television that cuts a deep incision. After years of ferrying himself this way and that across the Atlantic as an internationally successful act in Genesis, I imagine crossing these cultural lines were as familiar as lambs lying down on broadway to him.
But, another thing here in this song is references to women and of birth, one of the reasons he’d given up being a rock star for a while. His wife Jill had had a difficult pregnancy, and his first daughter Anna-Marie had been ill as a newborn. While still in Genesis, he blew off a series of recording sessions and put off a tour in order to be with them. I’ve always thought of the lines in the last verse are very telling of these opposing forces in the life of their author:
As I drove into the sun/Didn’t dare look where I had begun/Lost among echoes of things not there/Watching the sound forming shapes in the air/From the white star/Came the bright scar/Our amoeba/My little liebe schoen …
That’s what I think this song is about; that being a rock star and being a regular person with a wife and child who need you is often a tough chasm to span: “Empty my mind – I find it hard to cope/Listen to my heart – don’t need no stethoscope” indeed. Being “in the humdrum” seems to be about being stuck in a situation that perhaps didn’t allow very much room to move where the demands of a real, three-dimensional life is concerned, and as priorities shift in relation to changing circumstances.
In this respect, it’s pretty easy to understand why he wanted off the rock star treadmill, giving up a professional music career entirely after leaving Genesis in order to just do normal things; be at home, be a dad, have a garden.
But, the quality of what he was able to deliver once he’d found his balance as an artist with things to say, and the strength to be found in his own voice as a solo artist can certainly be observed here. The selection of songs of which “Humdrum” is a part would allow him to say what he needed to say about his past, and to define his boundaries as a musician who had other priorities than the person he’d been in Genesis. It would lead to a career of producing material that would be both challenging and popular in equal measure. And eventually, too, his grown daughter Anna-Marie would join his band on tour as a filmmaker by the early 2000s!
When it comes to balancing your rock life with that of your family, that’s one way of coping!
You can see Anna-Marie’s work by checking out the trailer for Growing Up On Tour: A Family Portrait.
To learn more about Peter Gabriel, it’s not much of a stretch to consider navigating to Petergabriel.com.
And to boot, here’s a pretty cool interview with Peter Gabriel, during which his role as a musician and politically aware public figure is balanced against that of his role as a parent to grown children, and young children too – and as a grandpa!
6 thoughts on “Peter Gabriel Sings “Humdrum””
Insightful piece Rob, and a fine song. Though I found the overall sound/production muddy and flat, the album holds up well.
I know what you mean. That first album is a bit on the murky side, production-wise. But, I love the songs. This might be my favourite of all of them.
This was a sort of ‘gateway’ LP for me. Remember sitting in a ‘prog’ friend’s basement while he went over it track by track. My ears opened a little bit & I actually gave Genesis & Pink Floyd a chance. Been a Gabriel fan ever since.
It’s interesting, Geoff. I would be hard-pressed to call this album a “prog” record at all. There are elements in there that might be considered to be a part of that approach. But, with this song, and the other tracks too, he’d managed to create something that was not an obvious departure, but also stood as work that was almost like that of a new artist completely. For the solo record of a frontman of any band, this is not an easy thing to do. Considering how much Gabriel set the tone for the band he was in, this record is quite an achievement. This is “Peter Gabriel” and not “Former Genesis Singer Peter Gabriel”.
You’re right, this one isn’t really ‘prog’ which is maybe why I liked it immediately, but back then to me it sure was…
Great track! I love key changes on it. Other artists (not so talented) would have made a whole album out of just one song like this! Gabriel’s debut album is a gem!