Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Peter Gabriel - Solsbury Hill

SONG Solsbury Hill

WRITTEN BY Peter Gabriel

PERFORMED BY Peter Gabriel

APPEARS ON Peter Gabriel 1 (Car) (1977), plus all compilation and live albums

I'll admit it: I've been a Peter Gabriel fan from the very first Genesis album. The man's musical tastes have always so synched with my own, from the early progressive rock/electronic musings to the multicultural explorations his solo work developed into. In the multicultural music field he's become something of an icon and a mentor - he's introduced more "ethnic" musicians to western audiences than any other performer - Yousou N'Dour, Papa Wemba, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, L. Shankar (he of the double-necked violin, not the legendary sitar player)... Like Dizzy Gillespie always being sought out by Latin American musicians as soon as they hit New York, musicians from Africa, Asia, South America, wherever, head right for PG's Real World headquarters in Wiltshire. Plus he created WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance), which sponsors musicians and puts on World Music festivals all over the world.

And not to forget his humanitarian accomplishments, which grew out of his interest in world music. He co-founded WITNESS, a non-profit group that equips, trains and supports locally-based organizations worldwide to use video and the internet in human rights documentation and advocacy. PG and Richard Branson talked with Nelson Mandela, talks which resulted in the formation of The Elders, a group of elder world statesmen and women who speak out their wisdom on the world's challenges. The Elders includes Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others. PG and Branson have a group known as "The Founders" which funds The Elders.

Looking at this, the question arises: Would any of this have happened if Peter Gabriel had stayed in Genesis? And that's what "Solsbury Hill" is all about.

Gabriel recorded the song on his first solo album in 1977 (the album itself is untitled, so it's usually referred to as either Peter Gabriel 1 or Car, from the album cover picture of PG in a rain-beaded car). It's all about listening to that inner voice and doing what it tells you; it's about taking risks, about leaping out into the abyss and trusting that it's the right thing to do. And Peter Gabriel certainly did that when he left Genesis and launched his solo career. Atlantic Records and the other Genesis band members were concerned that Gabriel was becoming the dominant figure in the band, and the suits at Atlantic were especially worried that his musical vision wasn't "commercial" enough, despite the success of the innovative concept album A Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; they wanted pop tunes, not serious music. In this kind of atmosphere, you can imagine how suffocated Gabriel was feeling. He needed to get out and expand; he needed creative freedom!

A songwriter writing about taking risks might be expected to write a song full of trepidation and nerves - am I doing the right thing? Is this going to hurt me? But "Solsbury Hill" is one of the most joyous songs I've ever heard, because it's all about the freedom gained by taking that risk. You can hear the "Wheeeeeeeee!" of a little kid launching himself off the top of the hill on his sled all over this song, from the strummed acoustic guitar at the start to the final line: "You can keep my things,/ They've come to take me home." The 7/4 time signature emphasizes that kind of bouncing-for-joy feel to the song, and PG's live performances of the song have featured that bounce, either skipping up the proscenium with David Rhodes (guitar) and Tony Levin (bass) as in the 1993 Secret World tour, or riding a bicycle around a theater-in-the-round stage with all the band members skipping by him in the opposite direction (the 2003 Growing Up tour). This song is all about celebrating freedom, and it's become PG's signature song - it's on all the compilation albums and it's on the playlist of all his live performances. You can't go to a Peter Gabriel concert and not bounce to "Solsbury Hill"!


Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
"Son," he said "Grab your things,
I've come to take you home."

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
"Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" he said "Grab your things
I've come to take you home."
(Back home.)

When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" I said "You can keep my things,
They've come to take me home."

For your video delectation, I've included my two favorite performances - the 1993 Secret World tour where PG and friends skip up the proscenium, and the 2003 Growing Up tour version with the bicycle. What celebrations these are! Enjoy!


  1. THE inspirational song for anyone who wants to make a change in order to remain true to themselves! Thanks for the great reminder.

  2. Oh man this still hits home, on so many levels! And I've never seen the second one here, with the bike( for a minute, I thought he was gonna pull a F.Z. and start playin' it )!

  3. Geez, Roy, I've been watching these videos obsessively. Good thing I'm on vacation.

  4. Subby, I'm sure PG has various bike creaks, bangs and scrapes on the tubes, and the like sampled and stored in his usable sounds database. He works like that!

    That's alright, K, I spent the last two evenings re-watching my Growing Up Live and Still Growing Up, Live & Unwrapped DVDs. There's nothing like watching PG perform, and especially his interactions with the other musicians. He and Tony Levin have been playing together for so long that you can see how much they love being out there. And on the Still Growing Up DVD there's a really moving version of "Come Talk to Me" with his daughter Melanie singing the female part. In fact, that song is all about the problems between the two of them after the divorce with Jill and his remarriage a couple of years later. That she's singing on tour with him, and doing a duet on that particular song, shows the progress made. Live theater at its best!

  5. Awesome song. I only just discovered it, although I had heard it before. Suddenly, I love it.