Peter Gabriel: “Joe Strummer Used To Piss Me Off”

Ex-Genesis frontman goes on the offensive in rock’s ongoing class war. Exclusive!

Peter Gabriel

DOES CLASS REALLY MATTER when it comes to the business of rock’n’roll? It is a debate that has raged for over five decades, the ideological funk it engenders encapsulated in John Lennon’s 1970 rumination, Working Class Hero.

More recently, the issue of class has reared its head once again in the treatment meted out to Mumford And Sons due to their refined accents and the company they now keep as much as for their music.

Several decades before the Mumfords were pilloried for their privileged upbringing, however, Genesis were firmly in the firing line for being public school boys who’d had the temerity to form a band. It is something that, down the years, has not sat well with the band’s former singer Peter Gabriel.

“To this day, we’ve never outgrown the snotty rich-kid thing.”

“To this day, we’ve never outgrown the snotty rich-kid thing,” he tells Mark Blake in this month’s issue of MOJO magazine, before pointing out the hypocrisy involved.

“It used to piss me off seeing all these ‘people’s hero’ musicians – like Joe Strummer – who’d come from a similar background to mine, but were keeping it quiet. In Genesis we were always very straight about where we came from, and we were middle-class, not aristocratic.”

Strummer, the son of a diplomat, was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara in 1952 and enjoyed an itinerant childhood before boarding at City Of London’s Freemen’s School, a public school in leafy Surrey. Two years older, Gabriel, whose father was an electrical engineer, attended Charterhouse School in the same county.

As they embarked on musical careers, both would seek to escape their own backgrounds via defined public personas that they sought to reinvent at different stages. They would both also develop a deep social conscience based on a sense of engagement, and a broad love of world music. If the similarities between their backgrounds are striking, then the punk explosion of ’76 ensured that their differences were dramatically accentuated.

Despite his previous incarnation as a human potplant (see below, from 13m 24s), Gabriel had little problem appreciating punk’s insurrectionary intent, witnessing it first hand.

 

“I saw the Sex Pistols, quite by chance, at the 100 Club. There were only about 40 people in the audience, not the hundreds that have claimed to be there,” he laughs. “There was a vibe, for sure, but I preferred The Clash musically. But we were the declared opposition, what punk was there to destroy.”

These days Gabriel – who worked with Strummer on the Big Blue Ball project in the 1990s – is philosophical about the divisions engendered by punk, preferring to concentrate on the music itself.

“That’s what fascinates me – how you arrive at a song. Everything else is bullshit.”

“I’d love to have a songwriters’ event where you had the Sherman Brothers playing their songs for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book next to Trent Reznor and Dr Dre – and everyone talking about how they put songs together. That’s what fascinates me – how you arrive at a song and the processes you go through. Everything else is bullshit. Sometimes it’s attractive, credible bullshit – but it’s still bullshit.”

Gabriel’s own song-swapping release, And I’ll Scratch Yours – the companion release to his 2010 Scratch My Back project – is due out on September 23 and he revisits his smash 1986 album So on tour the following month. Visit petergabriel.com for more information.

Peter Gabriel, in the studio.
Peter Gabriel, in the studio making So.