Back in 1991 Peter Gabriel had a problem. His studios had issued a string of block bookings to successful bands like New Order, leaving no time for lesser-known artists on his Real World Records label who only wanted a day or two of studio time. His solution was to set aside one week for those artists with more restricted budgets and invite them to share the facilities his studios offered.
This brought musicians from different parts of the world and playing a wide variety of styles to the same place at the same time. The result was extraordinarily stimulating for Peter Gabriel himself, his co-curator, Karl Wallinger, and the artists themselves. The success of that first recording week prompted Gabriel and Wallinger to repeat the exercise in 1992 and 1995.
The studio-share project was given the working title, Big Blue Ball, referring to a comment by an astronaut when he saw the Earth from space for the first time. When you can see the whole thing from a spacecraft all the divisions between human communities and cultures seem both arbitrary and ridiculous. It was a phrase that captured the spirit of the recording sessions perfectly.
It’s a real world-view of music, a snapshot of the music-making continents at that time. It was easy to put an Egyptian string section with a Japanese drummer in the same room and have some sort of groove for them to follow, basically to invent a piece of music that people from all over the world could play on together.
– Karl Wallinger
The Big Blue Ball project generated huge quantities of recorded material and, at the time, there was no-one available to sift through the tapes, select the best bits and put together an album for release. Eventually, though, in 2007 producer Stephen Hague accepted the daunting task of assembling the disparate pieces into a coherent whole and an album called Big Blue Ball was released in 2008.
Last month, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the album, the opening track, Whole Thing, was re-released as a single containing both a slightly shortened version of the original album track and a remix. Here’s the promotional video:
Whole Thing is one of several tracks on Big Blue Ball for which Peter Gabriel is credited as a co-writer and it is typical of the songs on his solo albums. It has the relaxed but insistent beat and characteristic vocal timbre that is the hallmark of Gabriel’s most successful singles. There is nothing in the sound to suggest the presence of musicians from far flung corners of the world, although the Cameroonian guitarist and flute player, Francis Bebey, is credited on this track.
There’s more information about the Big Blue Ball project in the liner notes for the album, which you can find online here.
Now, before I go, I should explain how the headline picture links to this Track of the Week and for that I’m going to tell you a little story about eating too much.
An elephant and a goat shared a field in Africa. The elephant was rather arrogant and tiresome; the goat was thoughtful and reserved. One day the elephant decided he should be entitled to a greater share of the grasses and shrubs in the field that served as the food for both the animals. The goat, of course, objected. “There is plenty of grass for both of us”, said the goat. “Yes, but I’m bigger than you and I need to eat more”, replied the elephant.
The goat thought for a moment and then made a suggestion. “Let’s have a contest”, he said. “We’ll both eat as much as we can and whoever eats the most will decide how to divide up the field between us”. The elephant accepted this challenge because he was sure he could eat much more than the goat.
Immediately, the elephant began tearing up large trunkfuls of foliage and stuffing it into his mouth. In his haste he hardly chewed at all, swallowing great swathes of grassy stems in big gulps. The goat, meanwhile, moved off into a corner of the field and started to graze slowly.
It wasn’t long before the field had been stripped of anything resembling animal fodder. The elephant, with a bulging stomach, lumbered over to where the goat was calmly chewing. “Looks like I win”, puffed the elephant, “I’ve eaten far more than you”. The goat paused, looked up and said “but I haven’t finished yet”. The elephant gasped. “There’s nothing left to eat!”, he exclaimed, “the contest must be over”. The goat simply continued to chew nonchalantly.
After a while the elephant became impatient. “What on earth are you eating?”, he cried. “I am eating this rock”, replied the goat, “and when I’ve finished that I’m going to eat YOU!”. At that the elephant’s eyes bulged with alarm and, turning round, he stumbled as fast as his distended belly would allow to the far corner of the field where he cowered in terror. And to this day he lives in fear of that wily old goat.
So, dear readers, the next time you are tempted to eat the whole pie instead of just a portion, to eat the whole packet of biscuits instead of just a couple or to drink the whole bottle of wine instead of just a glass or two, remember the goat and the elephant. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to worry about over-indulging in Peter Gabriel’s latest single; believe me, I’ve listened to the Whole Thing several times today and it gets tastier every time.