An intruder, an assassin, and an amnesiac: they are among the fractured souls who inhabit the ghostly landscape of Peter Gabriel’s third album, Peter Gabriel. Released in 1980, Peter Gabriel was the sound of a daring artist finding inspiration from some dark place on the fringes of society. And the album cover art complemented the music with a grotesque image of Gabriel’s melting face, suggesting the decay of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s painting The Picture of Dorian Gray.
We remember Peter Gabriel for its penetrating lyrics and propulsive sound, brimming with inventive drums, distorted guitar, and Gabriel’s emotional, sometimes off-kilter vocals. The cover art visualized the music like few other album covers have.
When Gabriel recorded the album in 1979-80, his success as a solo artist was anything but certain. His first two albums, released in 1977 and 1978 (and also entitled Peter Gabriel), had been well received critically, but they achieved unremarkable commercial success. His choice of adventurous material, with sometimes quirky instrumental arrangements, suggested that Gabriel, following his departure from progressive rock band Genesis, was destined to become a critics’ favorite with a cult following.
Nothing prepared his fans or critics for what followed on his third album, released in May 1980. Peter Gabriel distilled all the experimentation of his first two albums into a still adventurous but more cohesive work musically and thematically — and a very disturbing one at that. The opening track, “Intruder,” set the tone for the entire album. Describing a home invasion from the point of view of the intruder, the song featured chants, distorted scratching sounds, and a tribal beat lacking any cymbals (in fact, Gabriel had prohibited the use of cymbals on the entire album).
“I know something about opening windows and doors,” sneered Gabriel on the opening track. “I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors . . . I like you lying awake, your bated breath charging the air/I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear.”
The rest of the album did not let up. “I Don’t Remember,” “No Self Control,” and “Lead a Normal Life” were among the bleakest explorations of inner turmoil and mental surrender anyone had dared to record since Pink Floyd’s ascendance.
The album was so disturbing that Gabriel’s label, Atlantic, refused to release it. Fortunately, Mercury Records agreed to distribute the album in the United States.
To depict his distorted world on the album cover, Gabriel turned to Hipgnosis, whose founders, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, had become legends for the album covers Hipgnosis had created with super groups such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Allegedly, the idea of depicting Gabriel with a melted face arose from a dream that Thorgerson had about a dripping face. Mick Jagger or Bryan Ferry would have scoffed at the idea. But Gabriel was inspired; after all, Gabriel had willingly manipulated his own appearance on the covers of his first two albums.
To create the album cover, Hipgnosis took a color Polaroid of Gabriel, re-photographed the photo in black and white, and then physically manipulated the image as it developed. As Thorgerson and Powell wrote in For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis:
Merely by applying pressure via a blunt pencil to the Polaroid while it was developing produced a painterly effect, caused by the moving about of the developing chemicals sandwiched between the plastic coverings of the Polaroid. Dead simple but uncontrollable to the degree in that one couldn’t see the image fully because it was still processing. You couldn’t wait until it was visible for then it became more fixed. Painting blind or, rather, by pot luck, seemed reckless, but then Polaroids were relatively inexpensive compared to many things we so the solution was to do a whole bundle and then check them out later.
The resulting distorted photo became known as a krimsograph, named after Les Krims, who pioneered the process.
In fact, 30 images were created — many of them so powerful that alternative versions were used for promotional purposes, including the sleeve for “I Don’t Remember”:
Hipgnosis added one design flourish consisting of superimposed objects, such as shoes, which are barely visible behind Gabriel’s melting shoulder. Four horizontal streaks, which seem to cut into Gabriel’s head and shoulders, are the front edges of stairs behind Gabriel (leading up to Hipgnosis’s studio) — an example of an everyday setting contributing to the creation of memorable art. Interestingly, on the back cover, Gabriel’s face appears unblemished, and the stairs are distorted.
Gabriel originally preferred having no title, but he relented to have his name added under pressure from his record company. The result was the simple addition of the name, Peter Gabriel.
His statement was complete.
The album, which became known as “Melt,” proved Atlantic wrong. Peter Gabriel reached the top of the charts in France and the United Kingdom and became at Top 25 seller in the United States, on its way to becoming Gabriel’s first gold album. The song “Games without Frontiers,” with its catchy synths an appealing melody that belied its subject matter (warfare), was a breakthrough, especially on the college radio market.
The topics might have been grim, but the album’s powerful sound was more polished and realized than anything he had recorded. Surrounding himself with talented musicians such as Phil Collins (who played drums on “Intruder”), Robert Fripp, and Kate Bush, as well as producer Steve Lillywhite, helped pushed his music to another level. Listeners didn’t seem to care that Gabriel was whispering into our ears about loss of self-control, personal violation, and madness.
Perhaps Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic summed up the appeal of the album best in his description of “Intruder”: “[Gabriel has] never found such a scary sound, yet it’s a sexy scare, one that is undeniably alluring, and he keeps this going throughout the record.”
Peter Gabriel and would become ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 best albums of the 1980s. The album’s pounding drum style, known as gated reverb, influenced many other albums in the 1980s, including Phil Collins’s own commercially successful works, such as “In the Air Tonight.” Ironically, the song “Biko” the hopeful, soaring track that closed the album, became one of Gabriel’s enduring works, even though “Biko” is a departure from the overall mood of Peter Gabriel.
Peter Gabriel set the stage for Gabriel’s global commercial success that would follow throughout the 1980s. But none of his album covers would ever quite match the artistry of his music the way “Melt” did. The album artwork stands as an enduring testament to making brave choices that reflect an artist’s mission and soul. As Powell and Thorgerson wrote in For the Love of Vinyl:
This cover is the perfect example of experiment and conviction. A star turn deliberately allowed his face to be distorted and turned into a disturbing and grotesque image, just to be different. Brave man.
The cover was ugly and grotesque, mocking the image of an artist trying to establish himself. “Melt” was memorable.
Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:
Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
Al Green: Greatest Hits
Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy
Led Zeppelin: Untitled
Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger
Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run