If you’re at all like me, you want very much to spell the song title “Salisbury Hill”, which seems proper – but that’s not how it’s spelled! Solsbury Hill is an artificial, flat-topped bit of earthwork geography in Somerset, England, the former site of an Iron Age fortification dated to over 2,000 years ago, rising to about 600 feet above the nearby River Avon.
Links above give you both the “official” version as released in 1977, and a quite wonderful live performance, recorded many years later on David Letterman’s show. Dave, God bless him, always had terrific musical guests, and being as he broadcast from the Ed Sullivan Theatre, it was fitting that he always made the acts perform live, no lip-synching, no tapes, just as Ed did back in the day.
Appearing on Gabriel’s first eponymous solo album, Solsbury Hill is a largely metaphorical account of an emotional epiphany – this is actually, as once noted in one of the editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, rock music’s greatest resignation letter. For years before recording this, Gabriel was a key member of the band Genesis, one of those infinitely tiresome “progressive” art rock bands of the Seventies (like Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Yes) whose existence, I hate to admit, we can lay at the Beatles’ doorstep; after Sgt. Pepper, everybody thought they had it in them to write their own A Day in the Life, and many tried, with uniformly disastrous results. I’ve been forced to listen to some early Genesis, and OMG it’s awful (give a listen to The Lamb Lays Down on Broadway, you don’t believe me), and I guess Gabriel thought so too, because he quit and pursued a far more respectable solo career. This must have seemed at the time like a mortal blow to the band, but as it worked out his departure didn’t do much to ruin anybody’s prospects. Within a couple of years, Genesis morphed into a far more lucrative proposition under the leadership of drummer Phil Collins, who took the group in a much different and hugely more popular direction (albeit one in which commercial MOR pop mediocrity replaced the former unbridled pretentiousness, leaving one to wonder which was worse).
Solsbury Hill is the tale of Gabriel finally screwing up his courage to break with the band and strike out on his own, a musical version of his interior thoughts at the very moment he resolved to quit. He tells the story of his soul-searching climb up Solsbury Hill as if the daring idea of leaving is a force that arrives from somewhere outside of himself, like an eagle that flew in from the night, come to rescue him. You can feel the relief, the sheer joy of realizing that no, you don’t have to go on this way, actually, you can just leave, like an inmate who’s told by a voice issuing from somewhere in the ether that the thing is, the prison gate was never really locked, so come on, buddy, let’s go – Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.
I wonder if other listeners share the sense of unstoppable forward motion I always get with this song, and the same uplifting, exhilarating, altogether euphoric feeling of liberation. To me it seems entirely appropriate when, at the conclusion of the live performance on Letterman, the orchestra breaks out into a few strains from the Ode to Joy. This is the one you play as you tear out of town in a fast car, lighting out on the highway for parts unknown, just because anywhere is better than here. Something to listen to any time you’re screwing up your courage to make a big, life-changing decision.