Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back


As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.

Official Peter Gabriel site:

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The Decemberists Live at Radio City Music Hall, June 10, 2009


Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 (including Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Bill Rieflin of Ministry, R.E.M., and The Humans) opened with an enjoyable 30-minute set. I was unfamiliar with Hitchcock, but by total coincidence had just days before seen his appearance in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. His quirky non sequiturs between songs (“I had a root canal this morning, which is why I’m wearing a hat” – which he wasn’t) contrasted with his focused, tight songs. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy briefly joined in on tambourine and backing vocals.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3 live at Radio City Music HallColin Meloy joins Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 as they warm up the crowd

I’m a latecomer to The Decemberists, only catching on with their third album The Crane Wife (2006), which features a guest appearance by Laura Veirs, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, on the wonderful track “Yankee Bayonet.” My interest was further piqued by a review (that I now can’t track down) that compared them to early Genesis, of which I am also a longtime fan. It’s a bold comparison, for few would classify The Decemberists’ music as progressive rock. But it is fitting insofar as their compositions are often epic narratives, encompassing styles ranging from pastoral folk to hard rock, all performed with high musicianship that eschews flashy individual soloing. Further bolstering their prog rock cred, the first half of The Decemberists’ set was the entirety of their 2009 concept album, The Hazards of Love.

In retrospect, a concept album was inevitable for a such a band that had already shown a penchant for lengthy story-based songs like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (on Picaresque, 2005) and “The Crane Wife Parts 1-3.” Compared to Genesis’ grand but slightly inconsistent epics “Supper’s Ready” and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Hazards of Love is actually one of the most cohesive concept albums I’ve heard. It rivals The Who’s Quadrophenia for clarity of vision and cohesiveness of its recurring musical themes.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallMy camera is momentarily overwhelmed by the proceedings

An instrumental organ intro (sorry to keep bringing them up, but possibly an idea borrowed from Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies”) launches the epic fairy tale. The role of a girl that falls in love with a forest creature is sung on record and live by the airy, sweet voice of Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, a pint-sized, multi-instrumentalist powerhouse, blowed everybody’s hair back as the evil forest queen. How does a girl that small have such powerful pipes?

Although a few tracks can stand on their own (especially “The Rake’s Song”), the entire suite deserves to be heard in one piece. It was a very bold move to release a 58-minute song suite at a time when the long-player album is dying, and music is consumed track-by-track and randomly shuffled by iPod algorithms. Personally, I had found the album a little slow to absorb, but now that I’ve witnessed the whole thing live… wow. It’s brilliant, and made to be experienced live, in one piece.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallBecky Stark & Shara Worden join The Decemberists to cover Heart’s “Crazy On You”

The second set mostly featured songs I didn’t know, so it’s time for me to visit Amazon MP3 to buy up their back catalogue. Peter Buck came back out to join them for a cover of “Begin the Begin” from my favorite R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant (I was unable to shake Michael Stipe’s hook “The insurgency began and you missed it” from my head the entire walk home from the show). Stark and Worden rejoined the band for a full-blooded cover of all things, Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Their rendition was totally faithful, and yet somehow managed to sound both like a Decemberist original as well as something Fleetwood Mac might have done. They ended on a high note for me, with one of my personal favorite Decemberist songs, “Sons & Daughters.”

Official band site:

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The Musical Box – Highline Ballroom, New York


The Musical Box is a Canadian group that stages elaborate recreations of entire concerts given by the English progressive rock band Genesis in the early 1970s. They perform closely-observed note-for-note cover versions of the original songs, in the original set list order, with full recreations of the set design, props, costumes, vintage instruments, and even the mannerisms of the original Genesis. So while it is technically true that they are essentially a cover band, how many of those tour the world several times over and land gigs at significant venues like The Highline Ballroom? It speaks to both the integrity of the original Genesis music and to The Musical Box’s own skills that they are not a mere tribute band gigging through bars and frat houses.

The Musical Box

At the Highline Ballroom, The Musical Box performed Genesis’ famed “Black Show,” originally in support of the 1973 album Selling England By the Pound, and widely bootlegged as the “Rainbow Show”. Genesis’ typical “White Show” was more elaborately staged, but due to venue requirements and the troubles of shipping their gear internationally, they would sometimes play the stripped-down Black Show, so known for its low stage lighting and simple black backdrop. The Musical Box’s performance had amazing sound fidelity, and was one of the best-sounding live concerts I’ve ever heard. No doubt the actual Genesis (many of whom have seen The Musical Box live and have even sat in with them on occasion) wish they had such modern audio technology at their disposal in the early 1970s.

The members of The Musical Box are as much actors as they are crack musicians. Fittingly, Peter Gabriel himself was mostly acting onstage; the famously shy young man masked his discomfort with an outlandish stage persona full of costumes, masks, and mime. Denis Gagné is perhaps a touch too old to play a stringbean-thin Gabriel in his early twenties, but does an extraordinary job of capturing his vocals and stage presence, right down to the hilariously filthy stories Gabriel used to tell between songs as the rest of the band retuned their instruments.

The Musical Box

The only performer out of 70s bell-bottom costume was Gregg Bendian as “Phil Collins.” He was, however, paradoxically one of the most authentic performers, recreating Collins’ unmistakably muscular and enthusiastic drumming. After becoming famous as a television actor and cheesy pop superstar in the 1980s, It’s easy to forget that Collins is first and foremost one of rock’s best drummers.

The Musical Box

The rest of Genesis was very serious and reserved, and relied on Gabriel to engage the audience as they played. Sébastien Lamothe enlivens the bearded, serious Steve Hackett’s guitar embellishments (not one of Genesis’ core songwriters, Hackett was however a brilliant guitarist and one of the inventors of the two-handed tapping technique). Sébastien Lamothe straps on a genuine double-necked Rickenbocker to play Mike Rutherford, with the dedication to verisimilitude to grow a full beard and flowing locks. David Myers plays Tony Banks, the stoic unsmiling anchor on stage right, but sadly relies on modern synthesizers (nothing compares to the raw sound of an actual Mellotron).

And finally, a cheap shot: the audience was far from the usual sort seen at New York City venues. A noticeably older set, with a very strong dork flavor (with shirts tucked in over pot bellies), but there was a surprising number of women (not traditionally an audience for progressive rock).

The Musical Box

A few notes on the songs:

• Cinema Show – it’s difficult to fully appreciate the very long (approx. 5 minutes!) instrumental power trio sequence featuring Collins, Banks, Rutherford until you witness it live. Wow! Genesis was a lot “heavier” than I ever realized from simply listening to the albums.

• Firth of Fifth – Steve Hackett’s hair-raising melody line must be one of the best guitar moments in rock, ever, and no doubt Lamothe relishes playing it live.

• The Musical Box – the coda sequence (during which Gabriel famously wore a grotesque “old man” mask) drove the crowd bananas. Clearly the band is aware of the song’s power, for they took their name from it.

• The Battle of Epping Forest is the rare classic Genesis song that I haven’t already memorized over the years. Gabriel affected lots of character voices in the original, and thus this is perhaps the one point when Gagné’s impersonation fails him.

• Supper’s Ready – had The Musical Box not already provided a premature climax to the show, the closing “Apocalypse” sequence to Supper’s Ready would have been it.

• The Knife (encore) – why aren’t Genesis credited more often for recording one of the earliest hard rock songs? The Knife is so dark, loud, and aggressive, it could possibly even be called metal.

Official site: