July 17, 2016 by NowhereButPop
Peter Gabriel and Metallica have virtually nothing in common. Peter Gabriel has always been lauded for his musical experimentation, whereas Metallica has gotten death threats for such adventurous notions. Peter Gabriel cares about stopping AIDS in Africa, while Metallica cares about the bottom line. Peter Gabriel is friends with his former bandmates, and in Metallica, the four band members are as flighty to each other as a clique of 13-year-old-girls. Despite all of these differences, Peter Gabriel’s third solo album, 1980’s Melt is, thematically speaking, the prog-pop version of Master of Puppets, as its main themes are that of alienation, oppression, and powerlessness.
It was from Melt that Phil Collins, who plays drums on a few tracks, was introduced to the gated drum technique that he would popularize a few years later on his hit single “In the Air Tonight”. In fact, it’s on the very first song on Melt where that very same style of drumming is heard. “The Intruder” is a terrifying thriller that proves Peter Gabriel can be just as frightening and subdued as he can be surreal and flamboyant. Adhering to the theme of powerlessness and oppression, the lyrical content of “The Intruder” is pretty self explanatory as it deals with the intruder’s addiction to the helplessness that he inspires in his victims like some unholy predator lusting after his prey’s fear. The oppression and powerlessness that this intruder is able to elicit is brought about by a single individual. Later tracks on Melt reflect oppression, alienation, and subjugation borne of the self, and prompted by the many.
The very next track, “No Self Control”, as the title states, deals with self-subjugation and the inability to resist impulses and desires. With Gabriel’s harried delivery, the neurotic xylophones, and grand climax, “No Self Control” conveys a paranoia that only exists in someone’s mind when they are at war with themselves. “You know I hate to hurt you, I hate to see your pain, but I don’t know how to stop”, Gabriel tries to explain to his unintended victim as his inability to resist himself yields external consequences as well. He is not the only one affected by the oppression that his lack of inhibition causes. And for an album that concerns itself primarily from the point of view of the victim, the first two tracks on Melt are told from the perspective of the perpetrator, an unexpected, yet potent one-two punch.
The most famous single from Melt, “Games without Frontiers” serves as a metaphor for global relations, and presents it as a zero-sum game where one person’s victim is another’s victimizer. The interactions that the children (diverse in ethnicity) in the song have with each other are reflections of the alliances and camps that societies group themselves into to exert a sense of control over another society. In the song, some kids ignore their peers, others play with someone else’s toys, while others claim land at the expense of another. The children, representing different nations, serve as a metaphor for how society itself is built upon a system of control predicated upon a teetering see-saw rocked back and forth between those with power and those who lack agency over themselves.
The remaining tracks on Melt deal mostly with oppression brought about by the many against a singular specific target. Melt is an album that’s defined by its “Us vs. Them” subject matter, where the “Us” is perpetually abusing and alienating the “Them”. Because of this, Melt becomes Peter Gabriel’s most political and socially conscious album. Peter Gabriel is a musician rife with passion, a belief in the truthfulness of what he is singing about, and a veracity unmatched by most other musicians. While other musicians are concerned with recording their next hit and trying to maintain relevance, Peter Gabriel concerns himself with trying to change the world and bringing to light causes that go oft ignored in the world. Through the majority of Melt, Gabriel does in fact succeed in bringing the spotlight to the victims of oppression, suppression, and false accusation of sedition.
“Biko”, one of the most powerful songs ever written by Peter Gabriel, is one of the most underappreciated political commentaries of the 1980s, a decade most remembered for an insincere sense of concern for the world. But, “Biko” is different; “Biko” is a song that cares about the suffering and inhumanities caused by apartheid and wants the rest of the world to care too. “Biko” is really more of a hymn rather than a pop song, as it borrows heavily from South African tribal music and serves as a wake-up call to end apartheid. Named after Stephen Biko, a black South African non-violent, anti-apartheid activist who was tortured, denied medical aid, and then murdered by white police officers, “Biko” is a beautiful clarion call for action against a brutal political practice that the rest of the world chose to ignore.
Despite it’s upbeat sound, “And Through the Wire” is another song underscoring the terror of political persecution. The wire is the dividing line separating oppressed loved ones, obviously invoking imagery from the Holocaust of mothers, fathers, and children being separated from one another, only able to see each other behind a fence of barbed wire.
Tracks like “I Don’t Remember” and “Not One of Us” deal with xenophobia and the oppressive responses by the many against the few. The former, with it’s dystopian inspired guitar and drumming creates an aura of hostility matched by its lyrics “I got no papers show you what I am” and “Stop staring at me like a bird of prey”. Because of his lack of origin and his failure to properly assimilate to this new culture, the singer is greeted with paranoia and skepticism about who he is and what his intentions are.
The latter song could easily be reminiscent of being the new kid in school; a newcomer trying to fit in, but rejected by the social caste on the grounds of them being “not one of us”. “You may look like we do, talk like we do, but you know how it is, you’re not one of us” sings Gabriel with a sort of ignorant defiance that values stubborn opinion or rational truth. Later in the song, Gabriel poses the all important question of “How can we be in, if there is no outside”, a revelatory question with no real answer as many groups of people define themselves by what they are not, and then choose to hate that which they are not as a means to authenticate themselves. And unfortunately, this behavior isn’t limited to children as adults are just as guilty of too often accusing others of not being “one of us”.
Melt is an album for anyone who has ever felt oppressed or marginalized or rendered powerless by another person or group of people. Everything from a random breaking and entering to the cold blooded murder of a peaceful protester fighting for equality is captured on Peter Gabriel’s third album. Because of it’s intense imagery, powerful thematic messages, and dark production and musical quality, Melt easily ranks as Gabriel’s second best album, behind the seminal So, which ironically enough was released in 1986, the same year as Metallica’s Master of Puppets.