62. Peter Gabriel - Secret World (Live)

On July 22, 1993, I attended the best concert of my life. It was Peter Gabriel's Los Angels performance on his Secret World (Live) tour supporting his album Us. It was a performance unlike any I'd ever seen before, or since. Sure it was a rock concert, but there were theater aspects to it that were fresh and sophisticated. I never got a chance to see Genesis live when Peter was their lead singer, but from what I've read, he did much of the same with Genesis concerts. But this concert was even more. Instead of weird costumes that he would wear, there were stage elements that were used for specific songs, adding a depth of meaning that just playing a live version of the album version alone could not provide.

He ended the main body of the concert (before the encores) with a song I knew, but didn't really know, "Secret World." The song closes the Us album, but I wasn't that familiar with it. But as I listened to it, I thought, "This song is amazing!" I asked my best friend, Todd, during the song what it was and he reminded me. When we were walking back to the car, I asked him about it.

"How come I don't remember that song from the album?" I asked him.

"Cause the album version's lame," he told me.


"Yeah. Totally. It's amazing how much better he does it live. I can't believe it's even the same song."

To prove his point, we listened to the CD in the car (yes, Todd was a techno-geek like me who had a CD player in his car long before everyone else). We skipped on to Track 10 and he turned to me and said, "Shh. Listen." And listen I did. It was bad. Okay, not bad, but definitely not good. And compared to what we just saw live, well, it was bad.

The album version sounds like it's the song in demo form. There's a muffled quality to the whole thing and his vocals are rudimentary. The drumming is moderately interesting, but inconsistent. There are piano parts that seem as if they're things that he just left in there to perhaps develop more fully later on. The production values sound as if the song was recorded in the next room with the door open and a microphone placed in the doorway. So there's a reason I didn't really remember the song. It isn't very memorable.

There's a reason this version is #62 on my list. He takes the song and transforms it into an experience, not just the visual one we saw at the concert (and you can see on the video below), but the instrumentation and vocals become a wholly greater experience. Instead of comparing the two part by part, I'm just going to extol the virtues of this live version. I'm not going to talk about how cool the performance is visually, since that's not really why this song is on the list. But I encourage you to watch the video because all the performers really shine.

It starts off with some nice keyboards that establish the atmosphere, while each instrument quietly comes in, with nobody taking a lead role. They're all just laying down layers of cohesive sound that Peter adds his vocals to. The song is about the secret world of relationships that lays just beneath the surface that everybody sees. Peter wrote the song as his relationship with actress Rosanna Arquette was heading towards a breakup and the music mirrors that. The keyboards and drums establish that surface layer of music, while so much is going on beneath and around it. Bits of music pop in and out, without that constancy that most songs have. So you have Peter playing little piano parts here and there, while guitarist David Rhodes adds seemingly random guitar fills, giving the song an almost conversational feel.

It gives the listener the feeling that it's just random back and forth, but all the while everything is calculated, much like many conversations you may have with your significant other. On the surface, it may seem like you're both talking about the groceries or a kid's soccer game, but there's that extra layer of calculated non-verbal communication that goes on as well (the snarky smile, the roll of the eyes) that makes what seems casual and flippant much more than that. That's the genius of the instrumentation of this song, it takes the simple and gives it much more complexity and meaning.

The lyrics are really poignant as well. They take something simple and mundane yet add the deeper meaning to it.

So I watch you wash your hair
Underwater, unaware
And the plane flies through the air
Did you think you didn't have to choose it
That I alone could win or lose it
In all the places we were hiding love
What was it we were thinking of?

There's blame enough to go around for both people. I especially like the line "all the places we were hiding love" because so many of us hold things back for fear of being vulnerable and hurt, but in the end, holding things back in a relationship causes the hurt.

The song then builds to a frenetic bridge, echoing perhaps an argument that the couple has where things devolve into hurtful words hurled at each other. The lyrics match that feeling:

Oh the wheel is turning spinning round and round
And the house is crumbling but the stairways stand

With no guilt and no shame, no sorrow or blame
Whatever it is, we are all the same

You reach a point where you know that you both could have, should have, done something more, but it may be too late. It's not anyone's fault, the both of you made it the way it is. There's the resignation that goes with the knowledge that a relationship has reached the end.

The song then breaks down to some simple piano when Peter singing about making one last attempt to work things out. He starts it with a simple, "Shhhh, listen."

It's here that the song really tears loose. It starts with guitarist David Rhodes' guitar and again builds layers. But instead of layers of atmosphere, all the musicians get to tear it up a bit. Tony Levin gets to flex his bass muscles, while drummer Manu Katche shows why he's one of the premier drummers on the planet. Then the song breaks back down as it comes to an end, and at the concert there was this cool part where the band all disappears into a suitcase that Peter's put on the stage, with everyone seeming to fit into the singe bag. Then Peter picks the suitcase up and heads offstage.

So a song that probably wouldn't have even made my Top 100 Peter Gabriel songs now becomes one of the Top 100 Songs of My Lifetime. It goes to show you that putting in extra work to make a song better can really pay off.

Fun Fact #114 (When Todd played the song for me, the "Shh, listen" was a quote from the song that I didn't get until the DVD for Secret World Live came out in 1994. Peter says it just before the amazing instrumental break two thirds in (he also says it in the album version, but it's too quiet for me). So I guess Todd's funnier than I gave him credit for, and he's pretty funny.)

Fun Fact #25 (If you watch the video of the performance, you may recognize his backup singer. It's Paula Cole, who went on become a renowned musician on her own, recording the hit song "I Don't Want to Wait," which went on to become the theme song to Dawson's Creek.)

Fun Fact #67 (Wow! Three fun facts on one song! Anyway, you may notice that the bass parts have an interesting sound. It's actually Tony Levin playing his bass with a device he invented called funky fingers. It's basically short sections of a drum stick that he's attached to a cover that he puts on his fingers. So basically he's slapping the bass strings with a drum stick!)
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