Arguably Phil Collins is the most successful ex-member of Genesis to forge a solo career, Peter Gabriel was certainly the first and the most sustained. Having co-founded the band in 1967 with still-current members Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, Gabriel was their lead vocalist until 1975 when he quit, not initially for a solo career, but stating, “I don’t particularly want a Peter Gabriel solo career really, I’d like to develop the writing and the video thing.”
Peter spent the next two years beavering away on what became the first of four eponymous albums. His first solo single, Solsbury Hill, nearly didn’t happen because of a lyric which producer Bob Ezrin was not happy with. One of Peter’s original lines was ‘Son, make your life a taxi, not a tomb’, at which point Ezrin said ‘STOP’. “I love the sentiment, but the language is ugly, it could be more poetic.” Anyhow, the recording went ahead and it only during the final mixing session that Peter changed them to ‘Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.’ The album reached number seven and the single make number 13.
In April 1979, Kate Bush embarked on her first and only UK tour in Poole in Dorset and at the opening night, her lighting engineer, Bill Duffield, died following an injury caused by him falling from a rig and so a memorial concert was planned at the end of Kate’s tour at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Gabriel and Kate’s label mate Steve Harley were in attendance and this is where Gabriel and Bush met. Both the men performed a duet of Kate’s hit Them Heavy People and Kate joined Gabriel to perform the latter’s song I Don’t Care. The concert closed with a rousing version of the Beatles’ Let It Be.
Peter then took a further three years working on his next album which was called, guess what? Yes, Peter Gabriel. The first single from that was Games Without Frontiers, a title inspired from a 1970s European game show of the same name where contestants dressed up in strange costumes to compete for prizes. The English version was it’s A Knockout, giving him that lyric. In 1980, the Olympic Games were held in Moscow and many people at the time thought it was written to have a dig at the USA which had boycotted the games, but Peter denied this saying that he’d written it before he knew that.
Peter asked Kate to join him on the album and her role on Games Without Frontiers was to sing the title in French which was Jeux Sans Fronteires. At the time, it was frequently misheard as she’s so popular. The song was about the childish antics of adults, which is especially prevalent when their countries are competing in the Olympics.
In America Gabriel’s first two solo albums were distributed by Atlantic Records, but they rejected his third album, telling Gabriel he was committing ‘commercial suicide.’ Atlantic dropped him but tried to buy the album back when Games Without Frontiers took off in the UK and in turn started getting airplay in the States. At this point, Gabriel wanted nothing to do with Atlantic and let Mercury Records (who looked after his label, Charisma) distribute the album in America.
The lyrics reference many historic figures and although Gabriel has never really revealed its true connotations, it did seemed pretty obvious. To explain one of the lines – Andre has a red flag / Chiang Ching’s is blue / they all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu, well Andre would refer to Andre Malraux, the French statesman and author of the book Man’s Fate, about the 1920s communist regime in Shanghai. Red flag may refer to Malraux’s leftist politics. Chiang Ching was Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists – hence, the rightwing Blue Flag. Chiang’s forces lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile. Lin Tai Yu would be Nguyen Thieu, the South Vietnamese president during the height of the Vietnam War. After the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan then to England and later to the United States where he died in exile. It is also the name of a character from the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber.
Other lines include Adolf builds a bonfire, Enrico plays with it. Adolf will refer to the Austrian-born German Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler’s beginning of the Second World War in 1939 and Enrico Fermi’s nuclear reactor, which enabled the development of nuclear weapons by the United States at the end of that war. The line Sacha plays with Britt refers to the Soviet Union, as Sacha is a Russian short form for Alexander, and Britain cooperating during the Second World War.
The album version had the line whistling tunes we piss on the goons in the jungle after the second verse, this was amended for single release and replaced with whistling tunes we’re kissing baboons in the jungle. Following the chorus came some infectious whistling courtesy of producers Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham. The video includes film clips of Olympic events and scenes from the 1950 educational film Duck and Cover, which used a cartoon turtle to instruct school kids on what to do in case of nuclear attack. The BBC only showed it after the watershed.
There were two further singles in 1980, the follow up, No Self Control which also featured an uncredited Kate Bush on backing vocals which reached number 33 and that was followed by Biko which was written about the black activist Steven Biko. It wasn’t until 1986 that Gabriel was back in the top 10 when he matched the number four peak of Games Without Frontiers with Sledgehammer with its memorable video that is still a favourite on MTV. Later the same year he duetted, this time with full credit given to his partner Kate Bush on the ballad Don’t Give Up which showed the couple in a permanent embrace throughout the song.
In 2009, a remix of Games Without Frontiers by Lord Jamar was used for the theme for the Winter X Games and was referred to as X Games Without Frontiers. It has since become the theme for subsequent games.