In November 2021, Adele successfully asked Spotify to hide the “shuffle” button from all her albums. She wrote, “We don’t create our albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason. Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended”. A spokesperson for Spotify replied, “Anything for you”. In fact, they have now moved the shuffle button for all albums. Whereas it used to be next to the “play” button for the whole album, it is now accessed via each individual track.
Rob Sheffield is a writer for Rolling Stone who also wrote a very entertaining book called “Dreaming The Beatles”, in which he discusses his feelings about The World’s Greatest Band. In an article from January 2022, he proposed a new running order for “Revolver”: Side 1: “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, “She Said, She Said”, “Love You To”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Here, There And Everywhere”, “I’m Only Sleeping”. Side 2: “I Want To Tell You”, “For No One”, “Taxman”, “Good Day Sunshine”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Doctor Robert”, “Yellow Submarine”. Obviously, that’s rubbish. There is only one running order that works. Or is there? The point is, that with 14 songs on an album there are over 87 billion possible running orders.
“The Beatles” has 30 songs so there are over 260 nonillion possible running orders. On 16th and 17th October 1968, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Martin spent 24 hours at Abbey Road studios determining the running order. They used the following rules: (a) the first song on each side should be ‘strong’, (b) the last song on each side should be difficult to follow, (c) George Harrison should have one song on each side, (d) Ringo Starr should have one song on each disc, (e) no composer should have more than two songs in succession, (f) all the songs with an animal in their title should be placed together (Side 2), (g) the heavier rock songs should all be on one side (Side 3), (h) each side should last between 20 and 25 minutes.
“So” by Peter Gabriel has eight songs on it so there are a mere 40,320 different possible running orders. Nevertheless, after the recording was finished, he became obsessed with getting the running order right. He created a cassette tape recording of all the songs’ beginnings and endings. He wanted “In Your Eyes” to be the final track on Side Two but he was advised that the prominent bass sounds would cause distortion. Apparently there is more room for a stylus to vibrate towards the outside of a record than nearer the centre. The song was placed at the start of Side Two initially but when the album was issued on CD, it was put at the end of Side Two. This re-issue also includes an extra song, “This Is The Picture”.
Peter Gabriel’s perfectionism did not stop with his obsession over the running order of the album. He repeatedly changed the lyrics to the songs and this meant that the final mixing of the album was delayed to allow him to change the vocals on one of the recording tracks. Producer Daniel Lanois became so frustrated at Peter Gabriel’s procrastination over writing the lyrics that he once nailed the studio door shut with Peter Gabriel inside, threatening to let him out only when a song’s lyrics had been finalised.
Peter Gabriel is associated with “world music”. He co-founded the WOMAD festival in 1982 and he started a record label, “Real World Records” in 1989, which specialises in releasing music from artists from many different countries. The songs on “So” incorporate different rhythms and drum beats from African and Brazilian music. The brilliance of his work is to present the music in an accessible format while simultaneously introducing his audience to a musical style that was not widely available at the time.
Another significant aspect of “So” was the use of promotional videos. MTV was launched in 1981 and by 1986 was a huge influence on album sales. The video for “Sledgehammer” is the most played video on MTV. The video was directed by Stephen Johnson who also directed videos for Dire Straits and Talking Heads. In order to make the video, Peter Gabriel lay under a sheet of glass for 16 hours. Some of the animations were designed by Nick Park, who went on to make “Chicken Run”. The single was heavily influenced by Stax music from the Sixties and reached Number 4 in the U.K. Charts.
The Eighties were a grim time for the U.K. A demented ego driven Tory prime minister, determined to destroy communities outside of London and only really concerned with looking after the affluent. Thank goodness those days have gone. “Don’t Give Up” was a reaction to the overriding sense of unfairness and worry permeating the country and was also inspired by the photographs of Dorothea Lange during the 1930’s. These showed poverty stricken Americans in the Dust Bowl. She produced a book called “In This Proud Land” which are the opening words to the song. The words tell the story of an unemployed man whose dire financial circumstances cause him problems in his relationship. Peter Gabriel wanted to sing the song as a duet with Dolly Parton but when she declined, he asked Kate Bush. In how many other artistic decisions has Kate Bush been second choice? The video for the song shows Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush embracing for the entirety of the song. I wonder how many times Peter Gabriel deliberately mucked up towards the end of the song and suggested that they start again. It’s a stunning song and the video is equally affecting. The single reached Number 9 in the U.K. Charts.
There is not a weak track on this album. The opener “Red Rain”, includes lyrics that were informed by the AIDS epidemic and threat of nuclear war. The scenarios in the song are taken from Peter Gabriel’s nightmares in which people fell from a cliff top with streams of red liquid pouring out of them. “In Your Eyes” reflects an ambiguity between love of God and romantic love. It features the great Youssou N’Dour on vocals towards the end of the song. “Mercy Street” was inspired by the American poet Anne Sexton and was described by the NME as one of the ten most depressing songs ever. “Big Time” was also a single, reaching Number 13 in the U.K. Charts.
“So” reached Number One in the U.K. Charts. It has regularly appeared in lists of the best albums of all times. The running order is perfect. Anything else would make if a different album. Or would it? Is the running order really that important? What would “The Dark Side Of The Moon” sound like if “Eclipse” was the opening track on Side One?
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