Peter Gabriel on ’70s Punk: ‘It Used to Piss Me Off’


By Jeff Giles

The story of punk’s ascendancy in the ’70s often frames the music as a raw, working-class reaction to the bloated, overly self-serious rock of the day. But as Peter Gabriel reminded us during a recent interview, the truth wasn’t always so cut and dried.

Delving into a discussion of class division in music, Gabriel opened up to Mojo about his years in Genesis, remembering the way the band members’ middle-class upbringing allowed the press to present the group as part of a privileged elite. “To this day, we’ve never outgrown the snotty rich-kid thing,” Gabriel admitted, pointing out that what really bothered him was the fact that some of the punk rockers being held up as regular blue-collar folk were actually from the same background.

“It used to piss me off seeing all these ‘people’s hero’ musicians – like Joe Strummer – who’d come from a similar background to mine but were keeping it quiet,” Gabriel recalled. “In Genesis, we were always very straight about where we came from, and we were middle-class, not aristocratic.”

For all the differences played up between mainstream rock and punk, Gabriel found plenty of common musical ground. “I saw the Sex Pistols, quite by chance, at the 100 Club,” he said. “There were only about 40 people in the audience, not the hundreds that have claimed to be there. There was a vibe, for sure, but I preferred the Clash musically. But we were the declared opposition, what punk was there to destroy.”

Mainstream rock survived, of course, and in fact, Gabriel ended up working with Strummer in later years. As far as he’s concerned, genre labels are meaningless anyway. “I’d love to have a songwriters’ event where you had the Sherman Brothers playing their songs for ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ next to Trent Reznor and Dr. Dre – and everyone talking about how they put songs together,” mused Gabriel. “That’s what fascinates me – how you arrive at a song and the processes you go through. Everything else is bulls—.”