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Happy (Belated) Birthday. Peter Gabriel! A List of His Essential Songs

It could be argued, and successfully, no doubt, that Peter Gabriel's two-pronged career has made him one of the most innovative and ingenious musicians of the modern era. 

That reputation sprung to life at the helm of Genesis and then reached full bloom with a solo career that continued to awe both fans and fellow musicians alike. 

Gabriel, who celebrated his 62nd birthday yesterday has never lacked ingenuity, but his ventures into other realms, including prog, politics, world music, experimentation, and the like, affirms his journeyman spirit and a restless nature that's rarely satisfied to rest on the status quo. 

Born in Chobham England to working class parents, he attended the Charterhouse School where the genesis of Genesis took place in 1967. Along with fellow students Tony Banks, Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford, and a revolving cast of drummers that would eventually include Phil Collins, Genesis quickly developed a reputation for intricate narratives, spectacular arrangements and a visual presentation that was nothing short of dazzling. 

Gabriel had originally taken up drums, then switched to flute (he had a cameo on the Cat Stevens album Mona Bone Jakon) but it quickly became apparent that his real talent was as a flamboyant front man whose demonstrative vocals were matched only by his flair for elaborate costumes and an oftentimes bizarre bent that was well suited to the band's theatrical flourish. 

Early albums like TrespassFoxtrotNursery CrymeSelling England by the Pound and ultimately, Genesis' most ambitious effort The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway catapulted them to the top tiers of progressive rock's most consistently creative and commercially successful bands. When Gabriel left in the mid '70s, many claimed that he took the band's creative spark with him. Certainly, promoting Phil Collins to the fore made many dubious that the band would be able to continue in the direction Gabriel had helped them steer, and despite his good intent, Collins proved he couldn't match Gabriel's gift for showmanship.

Gabriel launched his solo career auspiciously, although he kept a relatively modest stance by naming his first four solo albums simply Peter Gabriel, a baffling choice that naturally confounded his record label. Nevertheless, they yielded several standout songs, among them "Solsbury Hill," "Games Without Frontiers," "Biko," and "Shock the Monkey." 

Likewise, he eventually reverted to theatrical flourish that he had championed so extensively with his former band on his solo tours. His imaginative videos made him a darling of MTV and assured him a high profile as he helped regain his footing on the charts. That would come soon enough; the 1986 album So offered a number of tunes that would make him a staple on album rock radio, like "Don't Give Up" (recorded with Kate Bush),"Big Time," and "Sledgehammer." The latter brought him his first number one hit and offered the added distinction of knocking Genesis' "Invisible Touch" off the top spot at the same time. 

The song's ingenious animated video became MTV's most played video of all time, while the album itself earned Gabriel two Brit Awards and three Grammy nominations for Best Make Rock Vocal Performance, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year. 

Various soundtracks kept Gabriel busy until the release of Us in 1992. The album brought him three more Grammy nods. But the introspective nature of the set, which focused mainly on his troubled domestic life, failed to bring him the wider audience he had realized early on. 

His later work continued to explore his experimental posture along with his increasing interest in world music and fostering the work of other artists. Lately however, he seems more intent on replaying former glories. In 2010, he released Scratch My Back, an unlikely collection of covers, while last year's New Blood consisted of songs selected from his own catalog, redone with orchestral accompaniment. 

Given his retrospective intentions of late, here's a list of what we consider the nine most essential songs from Gabriel's lengthy resume: 

"Watcher of the Skies"  
With a lyric written during a sound check by guitarists Peter Banks and Mike Rutherford, the lead off track from Foxtrot borrowed its title from a verse on John Keats' 1817 poem "On First Looking into Chapman's Home." Typical of their Genesis' early fascination with science fiction, its sweeping extravagance provided the perfect opener for their early stage shows. 

"The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" 
The title song to Genesis's sprawling double LP, it was written almost entirely in Gabriel's absence due to the fact that the singer was preoccupied with domestic difficulty. Ironically, it would be his final collaboration with Genesis for the next three decades, the final album prior to his departure. Nevertheless, the epic title track adroitly summed up its oversized sentiments. 

"Solsbury Hill" 
Gabriel's first post Genesis hit, its folk-like melody and simple refrain could have found a ready place in Genesis' repertoire. Ironically, its said to have described the anguish of his departure. 

"Don't Give Up" 
A plaintive plea, it ranks as one of the most tender and touching ballads in Gabriel's individual canon. Sung with the amazing Kate Bush, it couldn't help but strike a gentle chord, making it as affecting now as it was when it was first recorded. 

"Red Rain" 
An apocalyptic vision of a dire future, it could be interpreted as a warning against either acid rain or nuclear fallout. However, it's said Gabriel's original inspiration was a dream in which he found himself swimming in a pool of red wine. The other commonly told tale is that he dreamed of wine bottles falling from a cliff, which actually turned out to be human bodies. Either way, it's a haunting set-up. 

Gabriel's homage to South African martyr and prisoner of conscience helped jump start his crusade as a political activist lauded by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Amnesty International. Its haunting refrain seems to echo Biko's pain and persecution.

Gabriel's first massive hit and the song that made him an MTV staple, its video with its ever-changing images still dazzles even today. Roaring and relentless, it is Gabriel's most emphatic nod to real rock. 

"Shock the Monkey" 
Another dash of Gabriel's eccentric side, the song proved popular on the charts and helped sway its singer towards the mainstream. Widely believed to be a song about animal rights, Gabriel claims its actually a love song that describes jealousy as hte release valve for man's baser instincts. 

"Games Without Frontiers" 
Although the song's title was plucked from a French quiz show Jeux Sans Frontières which featured teams competing for prizes in outlandish games of skill while frequently dressed in bizarre costumes, the song itself is a pointed putdown of war and nationalism. "Games without frontiers, war without tears." 

"Big Time" 
Brash and boisterous, its title says it all and once again elevated Gabriel to the top of the charts. 

Big time, indeed.

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Lee Zimmerman