It’s been nearly 20 years since Gabriel’s most recent LP of original work, and the lead single was maybe the worst song he’s ever recorded
Peter Gabriel emerged from a long musical hiatus last week with a re-recording of his 1980 protest classic “Biko” where he was joined by artists from the around the world, including Yo-Yo Ma, the Cape Town Ensemble, Sebastian Robertson, and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. It was part of Playing for Change’s Song Around the World initiative.
“Although the white minority government has gone in South Africa, the racism around the world that apartheid represented has not ,” he told Rolling Stone. “Racism and nationalism are sadly on the rise. In India, Myanmar and Turkey, Israel and China, racism is being deliberately exploited for political gain.”
The song is one of many times in the past few years that he’s reworked material from earlier in his career. In 2011, he re-recorded many of his most beloved songs with an orchestra for the Scratch My Back LP and tour. Between 2012 and 2014, he reunited with his Eighties backing band for a tour that featured a nightly performance of his classic LP So. And in 2016, he launched an innovative tour with Sting where they mashed up their bands and song catalogs into one seamless evening of music.
One thing he isn’t done is release an album of new songs. The last one of those was 2002’s Up, which was just his third LP of the past 39 years following 1986’s So and 1992’s Us. And while there are many truly great songs on Up like “Signal to Noise,” “Sky Blue,” and “More Than This,” he made the baffling decision to release “The Barry Williams Show” as the first single. It’s not only the worst song on the album, it’s quite possibly the worst song he’s ever released going all the way back to the earliest days of Genesis in 1967.
The song is about a Jerry Springer–like talk show host named Barry Williams. “Dysfunctional excess is all it took for my success,” Gabriel sings. “The greater pain that they endure/The more you know the show will score.”
Such a song surely made sense when Gabriel began recording Up in 1995 and trashy talk shows were a big part of the pop-culture universe, but 2002 was the age of reality shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. The Jerry Springer Show and Maury Povich were were still on the air, but they were old news. Gabriel also inadvertently gave his fictional talk show how the same name as the actor that played Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch, making the song somehow even weirder.
The real Barry Williams has a cameo in the “Barry Williams Show” video, which was directed by Sean Penn and features Christopher “Shooter McGavin” McDonald as the twisted TV-show host. Blood literally oozes onto the set of his stage and everyone is basically in the bowels of hell by the end. Everyone involved clearly hoped they had another “Sledgehammer” at the time, but they were woefully wrong.
Up was a major commercial flop and the tour played to oceans of empty seats in many American markets. And while nothing the singer did would have placed him on TRL next to Britney Spears and Eminem that year, launching his album with “The Barry Williams Show” did little to help matters. It’s not surprising that he hasn’t played the song a single time since 2003. The video has been played a scant 80,500 times on YouTube. (By comparison, “Sledgehammer” is approaching 44 million plays and a live version of “In Your Eyes” has more than 16 million views.)
Gabriel began talking about an Up follow-up album in 2005 that he was calling I/O, but it’s 16 years later and we’re still waiting to hear it. Let’s hope that the bad experience of “The Barry Williams Show” isn’t holding him back. It’s a lone misfire in an otherwise flawless career and it’s long forgotten. It’s time to try again.