How Peter Gabriel ditched the masks and made the album that changed his life

Peter Gabriel
(Image credit: Evening Standard / Getty Images)

“It was important to him that he step out and be recognised as an individual talent,” legendary producer Bob Ezrin says of working on Peter Gabriel’s debut solo album. “Peter is a larger-than-life personality. Even though he presents in a fairly gentle, humble way, there’s so much fire, energy and creativity. There are many different personalities in there that he has to be able to let out. The only way for him to do that without constraint was to leave Genesis and do it on his own.” 

Gabriel had announced to his former Genesis bandmates/schoolfriends during the band’s epic The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway tour of 1975 that his Genesis years were done. Taking time out to be with his wife and new child, after the tour was finished and he’d cut the cord, he felt both liberated and guilty. He’d felt “cooped up inside the success we had wanted”, he wrote in an open letter to fans, “and it affected attitudes and spirit”. He added: “There is no animosity.” 

As drummer Phil Collins took over as Genesis’s lead vocalist, and the band triumphed with A Trick Of The Tail – an album that many fans now consider to be the best of the band’s early period – Gabriel pondered his next move. 

“I didn’t know whether I had messed up other people’s lives as well as, potentially, my own,” he recalls in the band’s biography Chapter & Verse. “Then when the band had more success without me, I felt as if people were re-evaluating the old work and thinking: ‘Maybe Peter was just the guy who wore the masks.’” 

Ezrin had first laid eyes on Gabriel’s masks years earlier, when Genesis had opened for Lou Reed in Toronto. 

“Usually you ignore the opening act, but I was spellbound,” he recalls. “I met Lou after the show to talk about producing Berlin, but when I got home I said to my wife: ‘I’m really looking forward to working with Lou. But boy, I wanna meet that kid with the flower on his head!’” 

For his part, Gabriel deliberately began writing songs that sounded a whole world away from his former band’s baroque prog rock epics. 

“When I started writing seriously again, I tried to come up with songs that would be as different as possible from the Genesis sound,” Gabriel said. “It was a scary thing to put an album together with other musicians… I was concerned about how I was going to express what I wanted. I had no idea how to communicate with real session musicians, who seemed like strange, foreign people.”

Ezrin, who had made his name working with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Kiss, and went on to produce Pink Floyd’s The Wall, had been approached by Gabriel’s management to see if he’d be interested in working with him. He was. Ezrin reckons that while recording in Toronto, he and the musicians brought Gabriel out of his shell. 

“From my point of view the sessions were easy,” he recalls. “From Peter’s, I think not so much. He wasn’t used to being with someone so North American and… aggressive as me. I came from a tradition of having to get things done quickly, on time and on budget, making decisions, sticking to them. Peter was at a stage where he wanted to be more experimental. He’s said that he maybe would’ve been happier if he’d been allowed more time and latitude to try a few other things. 

“But we had a fabulous rapport. There was no fighting whatsoever. He was a joy to work with, so smart and witty. It was just that sometimes he was a little overwhelmed by the speed and intensity of the sessions. A British interviewer came out to Toronto to meet him; then the headline declared: 'A Mumble-Free Gabriel!'

"With us he developed a new confidence and swagger. Prior to that he was a bit shy. He had to learn to shout to get through to us. There were just so many characters in their own right involved.” 

Ezrin praises the contributions of guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, bassist Tony Levin, synth player Larry Fast and other key players.

“We put a fantastic band together. They were like the Dirty Dozen – each of them was a psychopathic expert in their particular field of destruction. It felt like letting the crack criminals out of prison and putting them together in a gang for the Big Job. 

“Peter said: ‘Well, could I at least have one Brit?’ So he brought in [King Crimson guitarist Robert] Fripp, which was great. Fripp was a totally buttoned-down English gentleman, with these American wild men, yet they all got on very well. Peter stayed with many of them for years afterwards."

The album, titled simply Peter Gabriel (aka Car), released in February 1977, sold well enough and established Gabriel as more than just ‘the guy who wore the masks’. 

From it, the Top 10 hit Solsbury Hill obliquely referenced his split from Genesis (‘Thought my life was in a rut… which connection should I cut’); Modern Love packed a rockriff punch; and grandiose epics like Here Comes The Flood and Slowburn proved his ambitions remained lofty. 

Ezrin recalls that arranging the barber-shop quartet for Excuse Me was “thrilling”, and cites Humdrum as the most stirring moment. “He opened his mouth and it was like the voice of God. I burst into tears. It was among the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. That’s a great album. It’s timeless.”

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.