“Natural ability counts for nothing… One of the problems progressive music has had is it never encouraged everyone to have a try”: Peter Gabriel’s guide to success

Peter Gabriel
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2011, over a decade before Peter Gabriel announced his 10th solo album i/o, he discussed his criticisms of the genre and his own approach to success – which ignored concepts of luck and elitism and embraced the notion of hard work and experimentation.

It might be hard to swallow, but Peter Gabriel doesn’t believe in talent. “I don’t: it’s overrated. People who believe that there are those who get success because they’ve got natural ability have got it all wrong. That counts for nothing.”

If that all sounds like controversy for its own sake, then the man who first made his name as one of the unique and abiding artists from the first era of prog is prepared to back this up.

“Look, I’m an old prog rocker; someone who’s been around a while, and people probably believe that I was born with a gift for music. So would it surprise you to know that when I was at school I was told that I had no musical ability? I used to play the flute, and my teacher told me I’d never be able to play it properly. You could say that all I achieved since then is a rebuttal of that assessment.”

Gabriel is of the opinion that everyone can achieve whatever they desire, if they’re encouraged sufficiently to try. He insists that the problem with schools, and society in general, is that they all too easily give up on those who are a little slow to make the grade.

“We live in a time when it’s still fashionable for everyone to be judged on the first impression. Okay, let’s make it simple. You’re in a young prog rock band. You interest the music industry, but you are a little backward in getting your ideas to the fans. So, the industry leaves the band on the sidelines. And you accept this because it’s happened all your life. Well, that’s wrong.”

Gabriel has an imagination and the belief to make things happen. But he’s firmly of the opinion that everyone can do what he does.

“I recall going to a lecture a few years ago by, someone who had an interesting system for making sure that anyone could achieve something, even in a subject where they appear to be weak. What you do is set a certain standard that they all have to reach, and no individual can move on to the next level, until they’re proven to have mastered the level on which they’re working. This simple idea means you don’t have teachers and schools just dumping those who are struggling – they are actively pushed onwards. In the end you have a situation where anybody can tackle a subject and learn to reach an acceptable level. Nobody is made to feel inadequate.”

When put into the context of music, it means that anyone should be capable of creating something that’s worth listening to.

“One of the problems that progressive music has had over the years is it never encouraged everyone to have a try. We became a genre that presented itself as superior, where those who recorded were supposed to be artistically above the rest. But this isn’t how it should be. What separates out those who sell millions of records isn’t ability. It isn’t even having the luck to get somewhere. I’ve never believed in luck. All that matters is how much you strive for what you want, and the work you put in. The harder you work at something, then the luckier you become.”

It may seem like sacrilege to some, perhaps to many, but Gabriel feels that prog rock should be about contributions from everyone.“Yes, I know there will be those who call me a punk, but music isn’t about the few making it and the rest admiring from a distance. Let’s all get directly involved. Let’s make this a music for the people from the people, not about elitism.”

Gabriel admits to being as fascinated as ever by the massive leaps in this sort of development, which he feels is helping to free up musicians, rather than enslave them to the power of major advances in the state-of-the-art technology.

“I think we’re lucky to be in an era now where artists have so many ways to get across to people. What’s happened is that the stranglehold all the big labels used to have on what we can hear and how we can hear it has disappeared forever. For the first time we have the ability to use our own initiative to make art..

“I never stand still. Before I’ve even released something, I am moving on to something else.Right now, I don’t know what that might be. I have a lot of unfinished song ideas stored, and I will go back and look at some of these. I come up with stuff all the time, and I then keep these in various forms ready for future use. Sometimes nothing ever comes from them, but it’s a way of making sure I never lose anything.”

Typical of Gabriel is the fact that he has a very unusual system for writing lyrics. While there are those who lock themselves in a darkened room away from the hurly-burly in order to get inspiration, for Gabriel something else is involved.

“Writing lyrics has never been particularly easy for me. I’m not the sort of person who can just sit down and the words flow out. It’s taken me ages to find the right environment in which I can write, but now I have it, and it’s on a train. I’m not sure why I find it so much more comfortable thinking about lyrics on a moving train, but it appears to work for me. The speed at which it goes is what gives me the inspiration. Something within me is triggered by being on a train. It won’t work for everyone, but that’s my preferred environment now.

“I’m not sure if the train is a particularly prog rock mode of transportation. Maybe it is, and perhaps it does go back to my childhood when I did a lot of travelling on trains.” While this revelation is comparatively recent, you have to speculate on what it might have meant to his Genesis lyrics had Gabriel been aware of the way trains affected his writing. And talking of the ‘G’ word…

Now, ever since he quit the band in 1975, there has been a public obsession about his return. There have been the occasional one-off reunions, of course. In 1982, he played alongside Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Steve Hackett under the name of Six Of The Best (with Daryl Stuermer) at the Milton Keynes Bowl, to raise funds for his WOMAD project. And the classic quintet recorded a new version of Carpet Crawlers in 1999 for the compilation Turn It On Again: The Hits. But since then, there’s only been unsubstantiated rumour about any further reunion. “I have no problems with the other guys in the band. I keep in regular contact. As for working with them in the future, that I would never rule out. If the project is right, then I can see it happening.”

One thing that’s constantly speculated upon is the possibility of Genesis regrouping to play the whole of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway live. And Gabriel has something of a surprise for all those who are keen to see this happen.

“I’ve spoken at length with the others about doing something along those lines. But what we’ve talked about is not doing the album live, but using it as the basis for a film or a musical. To take the storyline and develop that into something more coherent. I wouldn’t say that we’re a long way down the line with this idea. However, I would expect this to happen in the not too distant future.

“Would there be many changes to the actual songs? I know people assume I’d want to completely overhaul them. But that’s based on nothing I’ve said. I would expect the songs to remain as they were all those years ago.”

Peter Gabriel – still able to surprise, even after all these years.

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021