For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on some really interesting projects that have sparked some great conversations about the nature of recorded music, their place and affordances as a medium and what can be communicated in that form – and how new technologies and new formats for music can extend or change those possibilities.
One of the recordings that has been central to these conversations has been a song by Peter Gabriel: ‘On The Air’.
It’s not my favourite of his songs, but it is an important one in this context for a number of reasons. There’s a lot going on in and around this song, and the more I research it, the more interesting it gets.
It occurs to me now that Gabriel’s replacement as Genesis frontman, Phil Collins, later had a hit called ‘In The Air’. Not sure whether to read anything into that.
Anyway – I wrote this piece below as a way of thinking through what’s going on with Gabriel – and, in a way, what the boundaries of popular music might be as far as a medium for artistic expression is concerned.
Peter Gabriel’s ‘On The Air’: The Birth of Mozo
In the early 1970s, during his time in Genesis, Peter Gabriel led rock music into the realm of the theatrical fantasy. Known for elaborate make-up, costume and set design – as well as complex instrumentation and song structures – the Genesis experience was operatic in scope, ambition and approach. Many of the central narratives of Gabriel’s writing came from his dreams and reflected aspects of himself. The half Puerto Rican juvenile delinquent character of Rael, central to the double ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ album, searches for his lost brother John in a New York infested with monsters and dangerous obstacles. John, we realise, is a missing part of Rael and, of course, Rael is Gabriel (a play on his name). On the album sleeve, Rael steps out of the frame and looks back at his former context in a moment of self-realisation.
After touring the album, Gabriel himself steps out of the context of the band and begins a solo career. At around this time, the character of Mozo begins to emerge as part of a master plan to create an ambitious stage or filmed theatrical performance. Partly based on the biblical figure of Moses, Mozo was an enigmatic force who comes from nowhere, disrupts lives, and then disappears. But despite his transformative effect on the world, Mozo feels himself to be powerless. He is in the world, but not of the world. For the most part hidden and invisible, Mozo can only express himself and be heard with the aid of technology – specifically radio technology.
The figure of Mozo lives in a fantasy world created by what he picks up and transmits on short-wave radio. In this way, Mozo’s schizophrenic existence has prescient parallels with the disconnect between our own lives lived online and off. The broadcast is a construction – a projection of an imagined world – and a search for meaning and validation through attention.
“Through his short-wave radio he becomes whoever he wants, but in real life, on the street, he’s totally ignored,” explains Gabriel.
As a fan of the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, Gabriel drew inspiration for the character of Mozo from a medieval alchemical treatise based on The Song of Solomon that Jung believed to be the work of St Thomas Aquinas. The text is full of religious symbolism and apocalyptic imagery. Jung’s interests – as with those of the alchemists – concerned the notion of transformation – not just from base metals into gold (an analogy rather than a genuine ambition), but transformations of the self.
“I have always been interested in transformation of one sort or another,” said Gabriel. “When Mozo came in he upset the status quo and the story is about the struggles after his appearance.”
Mozo makes his first appearance in the second self-titled solo Peter Gabriel album (referred to by collectors as the ‘Scratch’ LP). In ‘On The Air’ we are given our first glimpses into a complex mythological universe that Gabriel develops across a whole series of recordings. Unlike Rael, who lives within the bounds of a single concept album with a single (albeit impressionistic) narrative, Mozo is intertextual and recurring. He is central to Gabriel’s work just as Albion is to William Blake’s – and the parallels are striking. Gabriel’s concern with the splitting of the individual, the search for integration and the realisation of the self echoes Blake’s.
Of course, the lamb that “lies down on Broadway” is also Blake’s lamb, “meek and mild”. The project to extend that poetic tradition had already begun. But the scope and ambition of the Mozo project is, to say the least, unusual in popular music. Although Gabriel has never completed (and perhaps never will) the narrative project that has the character of Mozo at its centre, the complexity and intellectual reach of the narrative deserves serious attention, and situates the rock song alongside the modernist novel, the post-romantic era opera and the English poetic tradition. It is one of rock music’s most ambitious long term art projects – spanning multiple albums and tracks. The attentive listener will spot the character’s appearance in numerous songs right up to the ‘So’ album.
“Mozo is someone who appears in various places in many disguises. I even sketched a film script around his character. I read Jung and all this alchemy stuff, and they make gold from crap, from the junk, from the stuff people want to get rid of. In my new studio we try to combine hand-made, cheap, disposed-of elements with the best technology available. It is easy to get enthusiastic about this high-tech, reasonable, modern world and losing the gut feeling of being down to earth, the grunt factor, I like to call it, that comes from failures, mistakes, funny incidents and thrown-away elements.”
Mozo was a catalyst for spiritual change. This was the true alchemy. He was at the core of what Gabriel tries to express in music, and he stands in for Gabriel in that quest for self transformation. Mozo is the mercurial stranger able to not only effect change but also uplift people. Gabriel’s idea was to scatter songs about Mozo over several albums, and intended that they would ultimately make a complete story when put together. And while that story lies incomplete, there is perhaps some closure in the realisation that the transformation and integration of the self is a work that is never finished.
“Mozo is set in this fishing village, which is very upmarket, not quite Mediterranean, but something of that ilk,” explained Gabriel in 1987. “There is this volcanic sand which gives the sea a red colour. Everything is focused on the sea, which is very rough, and the great macho fear is to cross the water, which no one had done.”
Built in the belly of junk by the river, my cabin stands;
Made from the trash I dug off the heap with my own bare hands.
Every night I’m back at the shack, I’m sure no one is there,
I’m putting the aerial up, so I can go out on the air…
We first encounter Mozo as a complete outsider – living amongst the trash that the world has discarded, in a house he has built out of scraps. He is different, he is feared and viewed with suspicion – but worse, he is mostly ignored and unnoticed.
Gabriel explains, “I remember in Horsell Common near Chobham, where my parents live, there was this beaten up old caravan, with newspapers in the windows. I used to think there was a witch inside there. And I think it probably fuelled this setting for Mozo.”
In his first appearance, ‘On the Air’, Mozo rebels against his own obscurity. And it comes at a time when Gabriel himself is shaking himself loose from under the shadow of Genesis – the band he left to pursue his grander musical vision. But while Mozo’s first actual appearance is here on the second solo album, the scene has been clearly set for his arrival on ‘Down the Dolce Vita’, from the first. It introduces characters setting out on the intrepid journey across the sea. The sailors Aeron and Gorham, like Mozo, have corrupted biblical names, and they are setting out on an adventure that will take several albums to come to rest.
We see the world through the eyes of Mozo within the songs whose contexts address those central mythic themes that humans have always used as ways to understand themselves and their place in the world. In ‘On The Air’ he finds himself a way to break out of a fantasy world of his own creation – and begin to connect with others. ‘Here Comes the Flood’ is an apocalyptic vision. ‘Down The Dolce Vita’ tells of the ship leaving harbour on an intrepid odyssey. ‘Exposure’ deals with the struggle for salvation. ‘Red Rain’ centres on the denial of one’s own inner feelings. ‘That Voice Again’ is judgment.
The Mozo mythology embedded itself in Gabriel’s head and the character’s world became central to his work, developing into a philosophical enquiry into personal expression, technology and meaning. In Gabriel’s biography, Spencer Bright explains that radio technology provided Gabriel with a compelling metaphor for self expression, and that ‘Here Comes The Flood’ was written at the height of his fascination with short-wave radio: “If radio signals got stronger at night, he reasoned, maybe psychic and telepathic awareness could be similarly increased and made to flood the mass consciousness. Those who were honest and straightforward could take on board their new insights, while those who hid their thought and feelings would be lost.”
Gabriel first sought backing to create a performance of Mozo as early as 1976, just as the Genesis album ‘A Trick of the Tail’ became their biggest success to date. It was bad timing on Gabriel’s part. Publishers and record companies were reluctant to get involved in what promised to be an expensive exercise, and as a result Gabriel was forced to wait until he had proved himself with commercial success as a solo artist.
Bright explains that Gabriel “had discussed his ideas with Bob Ezrin the producer of his first solo album. Ezrin told him about the Czech theatre Lanterna Magica and the pioneering Josef Svoboda. Gabriel visited him twice in Prague in the late seventies. He was interested in Svoboda’s perforated screen combining cinema with theatre. In it a film was complemented by live action using a device that made actors appear to go in and out of the screen. Gabriel was later introduced to Czech animator Raduz Cincera who developed his ‘Kineautomat’. Cincera was working on opera sets for the London Coliseum when he met Gabriel.”
“The Kineautomat has cinema seats with yes/no buttons,” said Gabriel. “There were about a dozen decision points, the plot chosen by vote. So, for example, an actor would come out of the screen and say to the audience, ‘Should I stay with my wife, or go with this woman?’ And the cinema would become as lively as a football match.”
The Mozo project lies unfinished. Perhaps that tells us more about the alchemical endeavour of self-transformation than a completed story might. Or perhaps the artistic vision of Mozo was too ambitious for its popular music expression. Maybe Gabriel was just ahead of his time. Eventually the Mozo idea lost impetus, though in autumn 1985 Gabriel was still considering working on developing the story into an hour-long video. It’s interesting to think, though, that surrounded by junk, assembling new tools and expressing himself unseen into the world, Gabriel’s Mozo would be utterly at home in today’s connected, always-on, experimental and improvised world of the hacker. We interpret mythologies through our own contexts and the meanings they bring to us help us understand our world and our place within it. In that respect, ‘On The Air’ is as potent and urgent today as it was when it first appeared nearly forty years ago.
I got power, I’m proud to be loud; my signal goes out clear
I want everybody to know that Mozo is here
On the air. . .
(On The Air; Gabriel, 1978)