Imagine the exchange that took place when Peter Gabriel brought Us, the long-overdue follow-up to his 1986 critical and commercial smash So (proper follow-up, anyway, with all apologies to 1989’s Passion), to his bosses at Geffen in 1992. They listened to “Come Talk to Me,” “Digging in the Dirt” and “Secret World,” knowing that their artist had endured two breakups, one from his childhood sweetheart wife and a subsequent relationship with Rosanna Arquette – it’s widely believed that Patti Harrison is the #1 All-Time Rock Muse, but now you know better – and realized that they had a great, powerful record on their hands.
That’s when the A&R man said, “I don’t hear a single.”
Gabriel, crushed, came back two days later and said, “You want a single? Suck on this, fuckers. ‘You know your culture from your trash / You know your plastic from your cash.’ Boom boom BAP, ba-boom boom BAP!” The eyeballs of every exec in the room morphed into dollar signs. Some of them even howled like dogs.
The previous story is completely made up, but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? “Steam” is a unit shifter, a spoonful of sugar to help Us‘s weightier moments go down. It’s equal parts “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” which is not a bad formula to follow considering those songs peaked at #1 and #8, respectively. However, those songs were released six years earlier, and “Steam” had to deal with an entirely different (read: hostile) musical climate. Rock radio loved it – even the modern rock stations dug it – but the Top 40 ship had sailed, and “Steam” peaked at #32. It would be Gabriel’s last Top 40 hit. Yes, he’s still alive, and could conceivably score another hit. But he won’t. He’s pushing 60. Top 40 radio has rules, you know.
One listen to the remixes of “Steam,” and you get the sense that Geffen knew that their song didn’t stand much of a chance against the Whitneys, Mariahs, and Boyz II Menz of the world. So they didn’t even try, instead handing the track over to a couple of ’80s beat giants and giving New York remix fans one hell of a treat. Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, best known for their thunderous production work on Public Enemy’s seminal albums, strip away the slickness of Gabriel’s original and give the song a more organic, funky flava, even throwing in some bits from Slave’s “Slide” – you goooot it! – for good measure. However, it was the title of the remixes that led me to bring the CD single to the counter: “Oh, Oh Let Off Steam Mix”? That’s gotta mean Omar Santana was involved with the editing, and while his name does not appear in the credits, the edits say it all. Boom, nu-nuh bap ba-ba tssst-whirrrrrrr-pow. Hell, yes.
Given that many ’80s acts were handing themselves over to more current remixers – Coldcut mixed INXS, Moby absolutely demolished the B-52’s, and Future Sound of London remixed Prefab Sprout, of all bands – Geffen’s decision to go old-school with “Steam” was rather unconventional…and absolutely perfect. This mix is now the last of its kind, as the edit scene soon died out and techno flooded the market, both for better (“It’s Grim Up North”) and worse (“Cotton Eye Joe”). It doesn’t even matter that “Steam” is not Gabriel’s best work, or Santana’s best editing; I was just happy to have one last track that celebrated my favorite thing about remixes. I have also included the Massive Attack/Dave Bottrill remix of “Games Without Frontiers” that appeared on the “Steam” CD single, for those who are curious. Enjoy.