Always one to push musical boundaries, when Peter Gabriel presented his 1980 album Peter Gabriel to Atlantic Records, who handled the US distribution for his previous two albums and his final two albums with Genesis, it was flatly rejected. Upon hearing mixes of the album’s session tapes in early 1980, Atlantic A&R executive John Kalodner deemed the album not commercial enough and recommended that Atlantic drop Gabriel from their artist roster. As a result, Peter Gabriel, also referred to as ‘Melt’ due to its sleeve picture and to distinguish it from his three other self-titled albums, became Gabriel’s only release for Mercury Records.
By the time Peter Gabriel was eventually released several months after being rejected, Kalodner, now working for Geffen Records, realised his mistake and arranged for Gabriel to be signed to the label. Peter Gabriel was subsequently reissued on Geffen Records in 1983. The first single to be taken from Peter Gabriel, Games Without Frontiers, was released three months prior to the album and set the precedent for further explorations into the eclectic mix of sounds and intelligent lyricism that pervades Gabriel’s body of work.
Games Without Frontiers, as is the case with many of Gabriel’s compositions, is a song which takes one idea and builds it into a piece with a variety of meanings. The starting point of Games Without Frontiers came from the long running European television show, Jeux Sans Frontieres, which translates as ‘Games Without Frontiers’. The song starts with the refrain “Jeux sans frontieres”, often misheard as “She’s so popular”, sung by collaborator Kate Bush.
The idea for Jeux Sans Frontieres, which ran from 1965 to 1999, is credited to French President Charles de Gaulle, who thought it would be a good idea for French and German youths to meet in a series of funny games in order to reinforce the friendship between France and Germany in the post-World War Two era. This idea was then put to other European countries and as a result, countries from all around Europe took part. In the show, teams representing towns and cities from the various European countries would compete in games of skill, usually dressed in bizarre costumes, hence the line in the song, “Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games”. Whilst some games were simple races, other games allowed one team to obstruct the other. As to be expected, there was a strong element of nationalism in the games. The British version of Jeux Sans Frontieres was titled It’s A Knockout, which is referenced by Gabriel in the lyrics in the final verse of Games Without Frontiers: “It’s a knockout, If looks could kill, they probably will”.
And then we find the sublime brilliance of Gabriel’s writing because the use of references to Jeux Sans Frontieres is an allegory for the childish antics of adults. Gabriel noted the attitudes of countries towards each other in the sporting events and the seriousness with which they competed against each other despite them supposedly being fun, hence the likening of such competitions to war.
The character of Andre in the lyric “Andre has a red flag, Chiang Ching’s is blue” refers to Andre Malraux (1901 – 1976), a French statesman and author of the book Man’s Fate (1933), about Shanghai’s communist regime in the 1920s. The “red flag” that he has refers to Malraux’s leftist politics. Chiang in the following lyric, “Chiang Ching’s is blue” refers to Chiang Kai-shek (1887 – 1975), the Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists, hence the right-wing blue flag. In 1949, after being defeated in the Civil War, Kai-shek’s forces fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile. Lin Tai-Yu in the line “They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai-Yu” refers to Nguyen Van Thieu (1923 – 2001), the South Vietnamese president at the height of the Vietnam War. Following the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan, followed by England, and later to the US where he died in exile. The lyric refers to the way in which whilst leftist politicians such as Andre Malraux had a secure position in France and rightist leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek had a secure country in Taiwan, those in the middle such as Nguyen Van Thieu had no secure country and were just pawns in the Cold War game.
Additionally, Lin Tai-Yu is a character in the classic Chinese novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (1868) by Cao Xueqin, which charts the rise and fall of the Qing Dynasty. In the novel, Lin Tai-Yu is emotionally fragile and prone to fits of jealousy. She is also described as a lonely, proud and ultimately tragic figure. Therefore, her name could be used in order to represent a country which is in a weak position during a war and is jealous of the positions of other countries.
Despite the song actually having been written prior to the incident, Games Without Frontiers took on further meaning when it was released as a single shortly after the 1980 US boycott of the Olympic Games, which is referred to in the single’s accompanying video with scenes from Olympic events juxtaposed with clips from 1950 public information film Duck and Cover, which used a cartoon turtle to instruct school children on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
Gabriel also covers the Olympic Games in the first verse of Games Without Frontiers. The lyric “Adolf builds a bonfire …” refers to the way in which the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Berlin, Germany, was used by Hitler as an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race. Hitler had high hopes that Germany would dominate the games with victories and was horrified when Jesse Owens, an African-American, won four gold medals in sprints and the long jump. On the first day of the games, Hitler had only shaken hands with the German victors and left the stadium. On the day when Owens was due to be decorated with the first of the four gold medals, the Olympic committee gave Hitler the ultimatum that he either shook Owens’ hand or didn’t shake any hands at all. He chose the latter option. The decision was largely seen as a snub towards Owens. To add insult to injury, Owens later discovered that Franklin D. Roosevelt had not invited him to the White House to honour his victories in the games. The line continues, “… Enrico plays with it”. The Enrico mentioned is Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954), who is most notable for his work on Chicago Pile-1, the first nuclear reactor. In 1938, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and the discovery of transuranic elements.
To sum up the point that Gabriel is making in Games Without Frontiers, “War without frontiers” refers to a competition between nations, whilst “war without tears” refers to countries competing for supremacy without using any military force. Therefore, Games Without Frontiers is a song about nations using athletes to fight wars.