Pop: God is in the Details No 2: `Don't give up'

POP MUSIC is not a great medium for natural dynamics. Music technology puts a thick black line around every element - as in a painting by Patrick Caulfield. There's little room for the blending and delicate brush strokes you expect in jazz or classical music. Yet the process of multitrack pop recording (once cynically described to me as the art of removing all dynamics and personality from the original performance - then taking days to put them all back in again at the mixing stage) has yielded some striking moments of beautiful artificiality. One of the best is in the final minute of "Don't Give Up" (So, Virgin PGCD5), after Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush have stopped singing and the bassist Tony Levin comes to the fore with a sneaky, reggae-flavoured riff. The recording puts you right in the middle of the rhythm section - the drums are close, and played hard, but the bass is much louder than it could ever be if you were really listening in that studio. Gabriel is giving us a privileged insight into the intimate workings of the recording studio.

Then comes a magical moment - we start to hear backing vocals - women's voices - singing "Don't give up", a three-line, three-word phrase pitched immaculately and soulfully against the groove. It's a thrilling entry, yet it is incredibly quiet, and it doesn't get any louder; as in classic dub, you have to listen through the drums and bass - the background becomes the foreground and vice versa.

By the end of 1993, when Gabriel recorded a live version of the song (Secret World Live, Real World, PGCD8), the almost inaudible lines of the So version had turned into big, bold chant. It's defiant and raucous - almost rock'n'roll. Perhaps you could read the changing times into this, as the blatant pit closures that triggered the original lyric were absorbed into our mental map of the industrial landscape and slag heaps were removed or grassed over. The content of the final verse may ring truer than ever ("For every job, so many men/ So many men no one needs"), but the entreaty "don't give up" has acquired a more general application. Rather than whispered by a wife or lover, the line is shouted out like the mantra of an American self-help guru. On the other hand, you can't go out in front of 20,000 people and sing such a catchy hook line at next to no volume - it's not the way stadium rock works.

No, quite apart from the words and the star guest vocalist and the video, "Don't Give Up" is a song that succeeds because of the sum of its tiny musical details. Manu Katche resists the temptation ever to hit his snare- drum, for example. There's also the God-like authority of Richard Tee's piano chords. Tee was a session musician's session musician, who created several sublime moments in records by Carla Bley, Paul Simon and his own group, Stuff. And the song has the kind of perfect, painstaking mix that audio-engineering schools would use for tutorials, were it not for those strangely quiet backing vocals. Was this deliberate perversity or just a happy accident? Or even an unerasable mistake? It's the kind of thing - a strange mix of familiar elements - that studio people hear every day. Gabriel's masterstroke is to share it with us, and to use it with such subtlety, as the coda to one of his best-ever songs.

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