Saturday, April 10, 2010

April 10: Peter Gabriel, "Big Time"

Artist: Peter Gabriel
Song: "Big Time"
Album: So
Year: 1986

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If there is one term that gets tossed around by music critics far more than it should it is the term "genius," and it seems that whenever an artist does something that is even the slightest bit different than the norm, this is the title they are given.  For those music fans who have some restraint when using such a word, there are only a handful of musicians in history who are worthy of such a title, and it is these elite musicians who have had such an impact on the world of music, that genres as we know them would simply not exist without their presence.  While names like Coltrane, Zappa, and Wilson are certainly deserving of such a title, there are a number of artists, that while nothing near "underground," are often overlooked as musicians of the same caliber.  In this latter group of musicians, there is one man, that even after he left his main group, proved to be even more talented than anyone had assumed, and he remains one of the most innovative and important musicians in history.  From his years in Genesis to his stunning solo work, there has never been an artist whose even remotely resembles the sonic brilliance of the one and only Peter Gabriel.  Whether it is his timeless love songs or his mind-blowing pop singles, more than thirty years after his first solo records, he continues to push the boundaries on music and create some of the most uniquely amazing songs anywhere on the planet.  When it comes to chart success, one must go directly to Gabriel's 1986 record, So, as it was this album that spawned many of his most memorable songs, among them the sonic masterpiece, "Big Time."

Truth be told, "Big Time" often gets lost in the Gabriel catalog, as it happened to be released as a single between two of his biggest hits: "Sledgehammer" and the ballad, "In Your Eyes."  While both of those songs are certainly fantastic in their own right, one can make the case that it is "Big Time" that is the most musically adventurous of the three.  While the deep grooving bassline is certainly akin to that of "Sledgehammer," on this song, it is a bit heavier and can perhaps be said to be more aggressive.  In fact, the bass playing on "Big Time" remains one of the most innovative moments in music history, as the unique tone was achieved by bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta both playing the same bass simultaneously.  Using one of Levin's fretless basses, Levin himself only did the fingers for the notes while Marotta hit the actually strings with drumsticks.  It is this factor that gives the sound such a percussive feel, and it is this recording that would inspire Levin to create Funk Fingers, which are small sticks that can be worn on the fingers, enabling him to play the part live in concert.  Since Marotta was engaged with bass duties, the drums on "Big Time" are played by none other than former Police and Oysterhead percussionist, Stewart Copeland.  Having played alongside everyone from Roy Orbison to Robert Plant, the guitar on "Big Time" is handled by David Rhodes, and the slightly distorted, almost ska sound he gives remains one of his most unique recordings.  The final touch to this amazing wall of sound is the keyboards, played by Gabriel himself, and the overall mood and sonic beauty of "Big Time" is truly like nothing else in music history.

As has been true throughout his entire career, Peter Gabriel possesses one of the most unique and instantly recognizable voices in the history of recorded music.  Able to easily convey any emotion, as well as work anywhere on the vocal scale, Gabriel's singing is in a class all its own, and his work on "Big Time" furthers that idea.  Not only does he sing across the musical scale on "Big Time," but Gabriel also uses a handful of different vocal approaches, from traditional singing to a sound that one can make a case is more like rap than anything else.  Perhaps most easily compared to the vocal style of David Byrne, Gabriel's sound is more melodic, but the final lyrics of the song strike the balance between more "formal" singing and Byrne's legendary rap-singing style.  This is yet another way in which Peter Gabriel showed that he was able to make music in any style as well as combine them together for an even more fantastic overall sound.  Furthering this idea that Gabriel was able to take things had had been done before and make them sound like nothing else, the lyrical theme of the song, though nothing new, never sounded as brilliant as it does on "Big Time."  Revolving around the story of one mans' quest for fame, Gabriel uses simple ideas intertwined with superb allusions to craft one of the most memorable songs in history.  Perfectly summing up not only the song, but the story of nearly anyone who has ever tried to "make it big," Gabriel songs, "...the place where I come from is a small town, they think so small, they use small words. But not me, I'm smarter than that, I worked it out. I've been stretching my mouth, to let those big words come right out."  As he weaves his tale of this shot at success, the song brilliant builds to the final, iconic final verse, and the overall sound of the song is like nothing else that Gabriel or anyone else had ever created.

Along with the extraordinary music and vocals, one cannot overlook the fact that Peter Gabriel used a newer medium with "Big Time" to prove that across all disciplines, he was truly an artistic genius.  As EmpTV had by this point taken a foothold in the music industry, Gabriel used "Big Time" to unleash one of the most memorable and truly amazing videos in history.  Utilizing everything from claymation to stop-motion to simple puppetry, the video for "Big Time" is nothing short of stunning and remains one of the finest visual-musical accomplishments ever, and one that countless musicians since have borrowed from for their own music videos.  Quite literally everything about "Big Time" is perfect, from the music to the singing to the visual interpretation, and in an era that contained a massive amount of copycat or otherwise musically unadventurous performances, it was artists like Peter Gabriel that ensured that all genres of music would continue to progress.  Using unorthodox arrangements, techniques, and instruments alongside his lifelong quest to blend together genres in new an exciting ways, Gabriel found the ideal balance between musical creativity and pop sensibility on nearly every song of his landmark 1986 record, So.  Yielding a majority of the biggest commercial hits of his career, the album is also slightly less melancholy than his previous work, which also may have played into the records' overall success.  Regardless of the reasoning, one cannot deny the absolute genius of the record, as well as Peter Gabriel himself, and one can find everything that makes him such a fantastic artist within his unforgettable 1986 single, "Big Time."

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