Peter Gabriel’s “modern primitive” “Shock the Monkey” elevated the music video to fine art

By on August 20, 2019

We’re taking another look at our “Videos from the Attic,” which originally aired on May 6, 1988, where we found Peter Gabriel‘s “Shock the Monkey,” one of the instantly memorable clips from the early ’80s which helped elevate the music video to fine art.

Watch this vintage episode chock full of memorable videos — by Blancmange, Eurythmics, Billy Idol, Fine Young Cannibals & more — on Night Flight Plus!

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Beginning in September ’82, if you watched music videos on the MTV network — or on episodes of “Night Flight,” and thank you if you did! — you likely saw Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” video pretty often, as it was put into heavy rotation almost immediately due to its previously-unseen use of occasionally disturbing imagery (which doesn’t seem so shocking nowadays).

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In some scenes, Gabriel, looking like a modern primitive shaman, appears with a shaved head and his face painted white in tribal makeup.

He wears both a dark suit and a white suit, symbolically switching back and forth with a caged Capuchin monkey who fearfully flashes its teeth.

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In an interview with the video’s director, Brian Grant — one of the co-founders of MGMM Productions with Scott Millaney, Russell Mulcahey and David Mallet, and one of the producers of the Video Killed The Radio Star series for Sky Arts — had this to say about the video:

“It was a concept that came from an idea that men, as time has progressed, have sort of lost their primeval instincts. As we become more modern and the more technology takes over, the less instincts we have. That’s what the two men in the video basically represent. The man in the business suit represents modern man. The man in all white is representative of his more primal side trying to tap into his subconscious. The white just felt more tribal, more primeval and we drew our inspiration from some tribes in South America. It wasn’t that difficult working with monkeys. Children and animals, they say you should never work with, but I don’t think we had that much trouble with the monkey.”

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There was lots of symbolism in the images used including the ceiling coming down on him and running through the forest. Other ideas in there, the lights inside and the lights outside, came because we had just seen a private screening of the film Blade Runner and I was fascinated by all of the machines and the lights that whizzed by outside the windows. That is where that inspiration came from and then we had to do the opposite inside. I think the ‘Shock the Monkey’ video is one of the best things I have ever done. It’s a great song, it’s a great artist.”

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Read more about Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” below.

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Peter Gabriel recording at Ashcombe House (photo by Larry Fast)

“Shock the Monkey” — which was begun with a working title of “Black Bush” — was originally thought to perhaps have something to do with “electro-shock” psychiatric therapy, referring to Stanley Milgram’s experiments as described in his book Obedience to Authority, and we know Gabriel read Milgram’s book because of the title of one of his later songs, “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” from 1986’s So.

Animal rights activists, meanwhile, were upset that the song might have also had something to do with shocking a real monkey.

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According to Chris Welch’s 1998 book, The Secret Life of Peter Gabriel, Gabriel said “Shock the Monkey” was simply “a love song” examining how jealousy can release one’s basic instincts; the monkey is not a literal monkey, but a metaphor for one’s feelings of jealousy.

The title was a way of the female saying that if her male partner doesn’t pay her any sexual attention, she was going to “shock the monkey to life” by seeking out sex elsewhere. Something like that.

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The nearly six-minute track was the first single released from Gabriel’s fourth album, which Gabriel had started recording at his home, Ashcombe House, in Somerset, England, beginning in early June ’81.

Gabriel describes the dwelling as “an old farm house in a beautiful valley, about five miles from where we are now at Real World.”

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Ashcombe House (photo by Larry Fast)

Gabriel spent eighteen months working on the album, which wasn’t released until September 6, 1982, just a few months after the very first WOMAD Festival in July ’82 (both an artistic triumph and a financial disaster for Gabriel).

The song features Gabriel’s neighbor Peter Hammill — leader of the progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator, who’d been rivals with Gabriel’s band Genesis when they were labelmates — on backing vocals.

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Like the three preceding solo albums he’d released earlier, Gabriel’s new album was also given the eponymous title Peter Gabriel, although in the UK, for record-keeping purposes, the people at his record label Charisma referred to it as Peter Gabriel IV.

Gabriel’s American record company, Geffen Records, ultimately gave it an entirely new title, Security, which appeared on a sticker affixed to the cover,  featuring an image from an experimental video Gabriel made with David Gardner and sculptor Malcolm Poynter in 1980.

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Security made it to #6 in the UK and #28 in the U.S., selling half-a-million copies over the next five years while achieving gold status.

The single, meanwhile, became Gabriel’s biggest solo hit single to date, reaching #29 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, while in the UK, it charted at just #58. “Shock the Monkey” also topped the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart at #1.

Watch “Videos from the Attic” on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.