Peter Gabriel’s unusual path to fame with ‘Shock the Monkey’

Peter Gabriel became fascinated by found sounds while recording his fourth album in a home studio overtaken by dry rot. New Fairlight synthesizer technology allowed him to capture, process, recycle and loop these elements to create some of his most exciting solo music beds to date.

Nevertheless, deep down Gabriel often still spoke of very inner things, our innate fears and the frightening proximity of madness. “Shock the Monkey” followed the same emotional through-line, although listeners would be forgiven if this wasn’t immediately apparent.

An eccentric take on new wave, “Shock the Monkey” seemed like many things it wasn’t. Perhaps it was criticism of our treatment of animals? Or a live look into an electroshock therapy session? (After all, his accompanying video found a buttoned-up businessman, a modern-day shaman, and a strangely serene primate converging in an apparent stress-induced breakdown.) Or perhaps a commentary on obedience to brutal masters?

No, no and no. Calling this “probably one of the better known tracks” on the LP, Gabriel later revealed as “most people saw [‘Shock the Monkey’] like some sort of animal rights song, but it actually wasn’t. It was a song about jealousy.”

Onstage, Gabriel brought his theme into focus a bit more, saying that “Shock the Monkey” was “just a love song, even if it doesn’t look like it. It refers to jealousy as a trigger for an animal nature to emerge.”

Heard in this context, the track suddenly takes on several new layers of meaning.

“With that song, he taps into something deep and primal, as he often does,” singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur said New York Times in 2014, right after release of a cover of “Shock the Monkey.” “His music is magical that way. It’s a mix of deep intellect with deeply primal things. He’s in touch with both of those polarities. They exist seamlessly in his music.”

Watch Peter Gabriel’s ‘Shock the Monkey’ video

Regardless of its narrative focus, “Shock the Monkey” was compulsively listenable, with a robotic synth pattern and an unusual rhythm based on both human and computer-generated sounds. “I tried to write in a Tamla-Motown style, although the final production and arrangement is not really in that direction,” Gabriel said in a subsequent Q&A to his official website“but in terms of lyrics and actual songwriting, that’s the feeling that I started with.”

Small details along the way moved “Shock the Monkey” to a very modern place. The final track “didn’t even have a single cymbal anywhere — not even a hi-hat,” producer Keith Olsen later marveled. “It was a very influential approach. Everyone wanted to be Peter Gabriel back then – everyone.”

Billboard magazine said at the time “club, black and pop acts are all potential targets”, while the video went into heavy rotation on MTV. Gabriel suddenly had his first Top 30 hit on the Hot 100 when “Shock the Monkey” spent 18 weeks on the chart after its September release. 20, 1982, debut.

Gabriel’s gold-selling fourth album, called Security in the US, also crept into the Top 30. Elsewhere, however, the LP was often far more contemplative – which is probably why Gabriel initially argued against releasing “Shock the Monkey” as his lead single.

“We had various discussions with the record company [and] eventually I came to this way of thinking,” Gabriel told his website. “I would have preferred this as a second single [because] in some ways I didn’t feel like it represented the album the most.”

Instead of rhythm focused but the much less idiosyncratic “I Have the Touch” became the second single, and it sank without a trace.

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