Peter Gabriel has earned awards and high critical praise for his songwriting, but he also has recorded cover versions of songs that particularly interest him. Some cover songs he performed live but never recorded. He often doesn’t do a straight cover, but does some radical rearrangements. He even did an album of cover songs scored with a full orchestra, Scratch My Back (2010). John Metcalfe was a major player on how those songs were transcribed to orchestra. Here are Peter Gabriel’s best covers of other artists’ songs.
# 10 – I Heard it Through the Grapevine
During Peter Gabriel’s first solo tour in 1977, he realized that he did not have enough songs to make up a two-hour concert. He did not want to do any Genesis songs, although for encores he would consent to do, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” In order to fill in the time gap, he chose a few of his favorite songs and gave them his own twist. Here he puts a prog sound to the Motown classic, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” He plays flute and sings.
# 9 – Summertime
It seems that every singer has to take a stab at this Larry Adler and George Gershwin classic from the 1935 opera Porgy & Bess and Peter Gabriel is no exception. Here, he didn’t have any say in how the song was arranged. George Martin, of Beatles fame, did the production. He was invited to contribute vocals for the 1994 tribute album, The Glory of Gershwin, which was actually a tribute to Larry Adler and not George Gershwin. Larry Adler played harmonica on all of the songs, including this one. Peter Gabriel’s version is one of two of “Summertime” on the album, the other being by Courtney Pine, to make things nice and confusing. Although this is a lullaby, we doubt any baby would be able to sleep through Peter Gabriel’s soaring performance.
# 8 – Teddy Bear
“Me and My Teddy Bear” is a children’s song by Jack Winters and J. Fred Coots from 1950. Peter Gabriel just couldn’t leave it alone and made it into a rather demented little ditty, renamed as “Teddy Bear” when it appeared on the B-side of Peter Gabriel’s mostly ignored 1978 single, “D.I.Y.” During live shows in the 1978 tour, Peter Gabriel would often bring a huge stuffed panda on stage for this song. Peter Gabriel radically changed the lyrics, slowed down the tune and took out any trace of sweetness from the original. It recently appeared on Peter Gabriel’s 2019 odds and sods digital album, Flotsam and Jetsam.
# 7 – In the Sun
Joseph Arthur, a Peter Gabriel fan, was stunned one day in the 1990s to find that on his answering machine was a message from Peter Gabriel. And thus, Joseph Arthur was able to make his first and second albums. Peter Gabriel was invited to work on the 1997 album Diana: Princess of Wales: A Tribute and was going to contribute his new song, “I Grieve”, but that was stuck in copyright with the film it was appearing in. Instead, Peter Gabriel asked Joseph Arthur if he could cover “In the Sun.” Guess what Joseph Arthur’s answer was?
# 6 – Listening Wind
Don’t think a Talking Heads song could work with a full orchestra? Think again. Peter Gabriel does not change this deep track from Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light, only has it done by orchestra. He even manages to keep most of the staccato nature of the melody through the vocals and violins, while the rest of the orchestra blows on steadily. David Byrne liked the cover and said that he was surprised Peter Gabriel was allowed to get away with recording a song about a terrorist in a post 9/11 world. David Byrne would return the cover favor and do Peter Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember.”
# 5 – Suzanne
There are about a million covers of this Leonard Cohen classic, but Peter Gabriel’s is one of the best. He gives the tune a simple but brooding arrangement of synths, drums, guitar and voice. True to Leonard Cohen’s touches, there is a female backing vocal. The tune builds up slowly to a beautiful emotional crescendo and floats off again. Leonard Cohen reportedly wanted Suzanne Vega to cover “Suzanne”, but she chose to do “Song of Isaac”, so Peter Gabriel got the gig. This version was on one of many Leonard Cohen tribute albums, Tower of Song (1995). No official video was made, but a fan used scenes from Granada’s acclaimed Sherlock Holmes series to make a video.
# 4 – Heroes
Peter Gabriel has always been a David Bowie fan, even getting to tour with him in 1983. Here he takes one of David Bowie’s best-known songs and makes it almost completely unrecognizable, without drastically changing either the lyrics or the melody. David Bowie was silent on this reinterpretation, but many David Bowie fans were not impressed with this tampering of a classic. A great cover can bring out a different side to a great song. Here, Peter Gabriel shows just how sad the song really is, where just one kiss in front of the Berlin Wall could make such a vast difference in an alcoholic’s life. This also came out on Scratch My Back.
# 3 – My Body is a Cage
Granted, Peter Gabriel is known for songs that pull powerfully at your emotions. Here, he takes a bluesy, organ-heavy 2007 Arcade Fire song and turns it into a powerfully aching longing to be free of a crippled body. Peter Gabriel said he used the 1997 Jean-Dominique Bauby memoir The Butterfly and the Diving Bell as inspiration. This gets not only a full orchestral treatment, but adds a choir as well. He also inserts some impressive vocal gymnastics, getting his voice to go lower and lower and even lower than that. It appeared in a 2011 House episode and in the Netflix series Dark, but originally appeared on Scratch My Back.
# 2 – In The Neighborhood
Peter Gabriel’s daughter filmed a video of her father at the family piano doing a song in support of the Voice Project, a human rights charity that was working on helping war-torn Africa. Each artist would do a song of another artist’s work and the writer of that song had to a song of another artist’s work and so on. Joseph Arthur tagged his mentor Peter Gabriel and he chose to tag Tom Waits. For a man that takes years between albums, it’s amazing what he can rattle off in just a few minutes. This is a shortened version of Tom Waits’ 1982 tune and much more haunting. He does sing the chorus slightly differently and, arguably, better. This performance was recorded on May 26, 2010.
# 1 – The Book of Love
This was an obscure Magnetic Fields song until Peter Gabriel got a hold of it. He had performed this song with the Magnetic Fields live. For a lark, he decided to use an orchestra instead of standard rock instruments. It first appeared in the 2004 film “Shall We Dance?” Peter Gabriel was so pleased with the final result that it inspired his 2010 orchestral covers album, Scratch My Back. Peter Gabriel tweaks the tune a little and gets rid of the guitars, and somehow the song becomes more Peter Gabriel’s than the Magnetic Field’s. That’s why this tops our list of Peter Gabriel’s best covers of other artist’s songs.
Peter Gabriel’s Best Covers Of Other Artist’s Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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