Summer 1986. A British singer has just knocked his old group off the top of the American charts. Twelve years previously, he'd been performing 23-minute epics inspired by Arthur C. Clarke, naming songs after Labour Party slogans, and dressing up a knight. But this was a different world, and this appeared to be a very different Peter Gabriel.
But once you look past the bombast of Sledgehammer (Gabriel's biggest hit, which pushed Genesis' Invisible Touch off the US No.1 spot), you notice how easily its artful ideas slipped inside the 80s mainstream. Before its well-known salvo of sexual euphemisms, the song begins with a sampled Japanese flute, and a horn figure inspired by John Coltrane.
Elsewhere, the sultry pull of Mercy Street is driven by Brazilian percussion, and references to the life of poet Anne Sexton. We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37), inspired by a controversial set of 1960s electro-shock experiments, could be off the second side of David Bowie's Low. And all this on an album that went triple-platinum in the UK, and five-times that stateside.
But for many, Gabriel's 80s success remains a benchmark for po-faced pretentiousness in pop, while musical soulmates like Kate Bush escape similar criticism. Certainly, time has not withered how special she sounds on the album's greatest track Don't Give Up. But it's unfair how she’s said to soar while Gabriel gets derided, as he gives us so much to enjoy here.
Big Time's satire on 80s corporate excess is as cheeky and fun as ABC's (How to Be A) Millionaire. Red Rain is as powerful and thrilling an album opener as that era can offer. In Your Eyes is as back-of-a-cab-at-2am as big ballads can ever be, but when Gabriel sings, “I want to touch the light / The heat I see in your eyes,” his voice has a timbre, and a tenderness, that can't be ignored.
Hindsight shows this is an album put together with care. It's also worth noting that this remaster beats a 2002 attempt that didn't meet Gabriel's expectations, and that the deluxe box set contains So DNA, a disc exploring the evolution of each song.
Newcomers might also hear ideas that recall contemporary bands like Elbow, who covered Mercy Street as part of Gabriel's covers project Scratch My Back/I’ll Scratch Yours.
It's time innovation in pop was celebrated properly, rather than sneered at. This reissue reminds us how successful such experiments can be.
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