The original plan Peter Gabriel had for his song Don’t Give Up was for it to be a duet between him and Dolly Parton. He wrote it with Dolly in mind. She gave up before she began; she had no interest in recording the song with him. Gabriel heard it, in part, as a country song.
You hear the song in a new way imagining Dolly Parton performing it with Peter Gabriel. And it would have worked. But it would have been very different. We know it would have worked because Willie Nelson and Sinead O’Connor gave it the country makeover.
Also, there is a tone about the song. Its sentiment could translate that way; the country way.
That small gem of information, Gabriel thinking of Dolly, wanting her to record the song with him – something I didn’t know previously – had me rethinking this tune, a piece of music I’ve always loved. I first heard it when it was released – the middle single between Sledgehammer and Big Time – the two big-statement singles from the parent album, So; the record that made Gabriel a superstar.
Now he was a video pioneer and a pop star. Before So he was a cult artist, his four eponymous-titled albums and his soundtrack work carving a path that retained many of the faithful fans from his early days in Genesis but always offered dark, surprising twists – rather than the obvious commercial pop music that Genesis went on to make.
After So Gabriel would continue with soundtrack work and make a couple of albums that didn’t have the same impact as So but nicely built on some of the ideas; he collided with the mainstream and on that point of contact seemed to recoil somewhat.
The actress called in to complete the duet Don’t Give Up was of course Kate Bush – the song relies on her, it works because of her contribution. She was a phenomenon by the time she stepped in to record her part of Don’t Give Up. I call her an actress because that is what is required of the part, to sell the song. In a sense that is true of any singing but with duets it is about the story that is being told through the song as well as in the song, the unspoken connection between the voices – and the channelling of emotion from the voices when partnered. And then everything that makes up the song, the melody, the lyrics, the phrasing.
Producer Daniel Lanois remembers that Bush “was royalty” and that people were in awe of her as she nailed the session. She was, critically and commercially, a huge star, revered with a catalogue of hits. Her aesthetic – her approach to pop music as something of a conceptualist – seemed to marry up well with Gabriel’s instincts and motives in music-making.
Don’t Give Up rides on the curl and purr of Tony Levin’s bass – there’s something reassuring in the way Bush answers/comforts Gabriel. And just as you start to hear it as being a subverted country song – albeit dressed up in the mourning clothes of dramatic pop music – there is the introduction of gospel piano. Bush’s character tells Gabriel’s “rest your head/you worry too much/it’s going to be alright/when times get rough/you can fall back on us/don’t give up” and all the while a type of Bridge Over Troubled Waters–piano sits underneath inspiring the vocal performance of Peter Gabriel’s career: “Gotta walk out of here/I can’t take any more/gonna stand on that bridge/keep my eyes down below”.
One of the biggest influences on Peter Gabriel’s career was Otis Redding – if that ever seemed odd, it makes a lot of sense in that middle section of this song. The music of the church inspiring a new sound that relies on the gospel archetype and architecture.
Don’t Give Up was inspired by a set of black’n’white photographs. Gabriel sees it as a song of hope. And sings it as a song of hope. He says, “the basic idea is that handling failure is one of the hardest things we have to learn to do”.
I don’t hear Don’t Give Up as a cheesy ballad, I don’t hear it as a song stuck in the 1980s, I can’t. I hear it as a song of encouragement, reminding us to be proud (but never too proud) in the face of difficulty, to dig deep and stay as strong as is able; to support one another. I hear it as one of the defining performances in Kate Bush’s remarkable career. And one of the most amazing songs in Peter Gabriel’s catalogue.
And in a sense I hear it just as I did the first time. Although every time I hear it I feel as though I focus in on a new part, some tiny nuance – a new glimpse of a new shape.
I hear it as a country song. A gospel song. A pop song. I hear it for Tony Levin’s warm, empathetic lick of bass. I hear it for the gorgeous piano playing from Richard Tee (who, had, by this point played Bridge Over Troubled Water as a member of both the Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel touring bands). I hear it as a song that has captivated me for close to 30 years. I hear it as one of my favourite songs.
One simple story in the incredible documentary feature about the album So from the classic albums series got me hearing an old favourite song in an all new way – and I can’t even actually hear it – I have to imagine it. That’s the power of the great songs – they stand up through time. They urge you on to continue not only listening to them, but thinking of them; about them. Living with them and living inside them, letting the song live on inside you, continuing to grow and inspire and influence. They don’t give up.