"Peter Gabriel has never been a conventional rock star", writes James Woodall. The humanitarian rocker discusses his music and activism after collecting his Quadriga prize in Berlin ...


The last time I saw Peter Gabriel in Berlin, four years ago, he was wearing a jacket made of lightbulbs. He was giving a concert, showcasing his latest album, "Up" (2002), and this barnstorming piece of garb was donned during live renditions of one of the English singer's finest five minutes--"Sledgehammer", from 1986.

In October the 58-year-old rocker was back in Berlin to pick up a Quadriga award--not for his music (he's been in the business for 40 years) and not for his sartorial innovations, but for his humanitarian work: specifically, for encouraging the disempowered to communicate abuses to the outside world, beyond the reach of the governments that inflict them.

An organisation he helped found, WITNESS, provides cameras to human-rights blackspots around the world. The idea is to empower people by letting them document their own stories. These video reports are then posted on the organisation's website, broadening the reach of such heady, personal testimonials. By putting a face on human-rights issues, WITNESS hopes to inspire people to act.

"I am passionate about people power," Gabriel told me in an exclusive interview. "And I am passionate about new technology and communications, as I am about innovation in any field."

Gabriel was among the first pop musicians to embrace and experiment with the digitised drum machine in the early 1980s. In the 1990s, he understood the reach of the internet long before most rock musicians, and was vocal in his warnings about downloading and file-sharing. He also sensed how empowering the internet would become. "New communications technology has the capacity to punch holes in those old walls of national sovereignty and spread power from below", he explained, with the lucidity of an experienced campaigner (Gabriel travels non-stop).

The Quadriga prize was initiated in 2002 during a visit Bill Clinton made to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, which had been given a magnificent restoration. For Berliners, the gate was a supreme symbol of their once great but now quashed city: caught in the Soviet zone after the second world war, it had been inaccessible to westerners since the building of the Wall, in 1961. For a former American president to admire the gate’s place at the centre of a reunified Berlin resonated with many Germans. Business leaders were inspired to found a prize which would, every Reunification Day, recognise leading international figures or groups for their achievements in the fields of political, economic, social and cultural life.

On top of the gate stands the famous statue--the Quadriga--of four horses pulling Athena in a chariot. A model of this is given to the winners at the awards ceremony. The prize purports to be transnational, though notable Germans or German institutions have won some recognition each year.

Recipients include Armin Mueller-Stahl, an actor, Helmut Kohl, a former chancellor who presided over Germany's reunification and, in 2007, the magazine Der Spiegel. In 2008, Gabriel shared his award with Boris Tadic, the president of Serbia, who aims to lead his country into the European Union by 2014; Jimmy Wales, who helped found Wikipedia; and Eckart Höfling, a Fransiscan monk from Bavaria who founded a social and educational programme for abandoned children in Rio de Janeiro's slums.

Gabriel used his acceptance speech at Berlin's Komische Oper to convey his excitement about mobile phones. "This small object is providing unprecedented connectivity, which can lead to fundamental changes on the ground. Money can be sent back to villages through a mobile. Phones with cameras can show video evidence."

"I can be very boring about mobile phones," he'd told me earlier. "But they will, I believe, be the transforming tool for people to report on and change conditions of abuse. I was in Kenya recently, talking to young women, and I kept asking myself, 'What's going to change the lives of these people?' There was fire, then the wheel, now--and I mean it--there's the mobile phone."

Gabriel has never been a conventional rock star. He was brought up on a farm in the picturesque Surrey village of Chobham, by his engineer father and musician mother (both are still alive). They sent him to Charterhouse, a famous public school nearby, where he formed Genesis with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford.

Genesis were never better than when Gabriel was in the band. Their music was ambitious, their lyrics quirky and poetic, and Gabriel's smoky tenor gave the band a unique cult profile in the early 1970s. He left in 1975 and the band, depleted by 1978 to a threesome with Phil Collins as the front man, enjoyed stratospheric commercial success in the 1980s.

Gabriel had decided on a very different musical path by then, enjoying moderate but not yet global success as a solo artist. His first four albums--referred to simply as "1", "2", "3" and "4"--capture a range of sounds and styles. It was on "3" that he evinced a real leaning towards non-Western music and an advocacy for human rights: it ended with the anthemic "Biko". In 1986 he released his worldwide hit "So", an album that featured several popular singles, including "In Your Eyes", a song that made it on to every romantic mix-tape for at least a decade. He had also created the annual World of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival in south-west England, a now sparkling, multinational event (though only a hastily convened reunion gig with Genesis saved it from financial ruin in 1982).

WOMAD's global reach clearly encompasses Gabriel's human-rights concerns, but he admits it wasn't easy at the outset to be taken seriously. "I was derided in the press, certainly Genesis were," he says, "You know: ex-singer of this pompous, prog-rock band, what's he trying to do? I just got on with it, doing benefits and joining the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour in 1986."

Gabriel received words of encouragement from Tom Robinson, a prominent rock activist for gay rights in the 1970s, who said, "If the money goes to the right place the morning after the benefit, who gives a damn?"

Today, Gabriel runs Real World Studios, a peaceful retreat in the Wiltshire countryside, where he lives, works and makes music. His private travails, including the break-up of his first marriage and the painful end of his relationship with Rosanna Arquette, an actress, were chronicled on "So" and, more searchingly, on "Us" (1992). He's now married to an Irishwoman some 20 years younger, with whom he has two small children.

By his late thirties, the pace of Gabriel's musical output slowed considerably. A decade passed between "Us" and "Up": the latter is an understated and under-rated album, reflecting the singer's late-flowering circumspection and, indeed, sadness about the world. What's in the pipeline now?

"I'm planning, with assorted musicians from around the world, a project called 'Scratch My Back'--they record one of my songs and I'll record one of theirs. And I'm playing around with new material. There might be a new album next year."

I'm not holding my breath. But I had waited 35 years for something else. With some embarrassment, I produced for Gabriel the sleeve of my favourite Genesis record: "Selling England by the Pound", from 1973. I resisted labouring a joke about how prescient that title had been. I dared to ask how he'd felt over the years about Phil Collins singing all those early mini-epics: "Supper's Ready", "Cinema Show", "Carpet Crawlers". "Well, it was initially a bit like watching someone dancing around in someone else's clothes", he said. "But he always did it really well."

He signed the sleeve, saying, "That's quite enough about early Genesis", and left to receive his Quadriga prize.


Picture credit: Tony Peters (via Flickr)

(James Woodall is a writer based in Berlin. His last article for More Intelligent Life was about his tussle with James Joyce's grandson.)