Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers

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On the surface, this is a catchy pop song. Just beneath the surface, it’s a blistering commentary on social and cultural norms that perpetuate war. “Jeux Sans Frontiers” was a French game show that pitted people from different European countries against one another, and “It’s a Knockout” was the British version of the same show. Gabriel uses silly game shows not simply as a metaphor for war, but as an opportunity to demonstrate how deeply xenophobic tendencies are rooted in us and how different power structures—including TV producers—use these tendencies to manipulate us.

Different listeners have read interesting meanings into the names in the song, including Lin Tai Yu (either a character in the Chinese novel The Red Chamber or former South Vietnam president Nguyen Thieu), Chiang Ching (either Chang Kai-shek’s son or Mao Zedong’s fourth wife), and Adolf and Enrico (presumably Hitler and Enrico “architect of the atomic bomb” Fermi, though some speculate Adolf refers to German engineer Adolf Busemann).

I’m not a big fan of pre-So Peter Gabriel so this isn’t one of my favorites, but hearing this song makes me want to revisit this record. If you’re willing to take some time to dig into the lyrics, “Games Without Frontiers” is a bottomless journey into both history and the human desire for war.

Album: Peter Gabriel (aka 3 or Melt)

About Chuck

Chuck is a lifelong music lover. He spent his 20s working as a professional musician before discovering he enjoys listening to music more than playing it. He knows a little bit about most genres, though electronic dance music, rock, and hip-hop are his favorites. Eleven albums/shows that transformed how he sees and hears the world (in order he encountered them): Fleetwood Mac Rumours; Van Halen Fair Warning; The Cure Standing on a Beach; John Coltrane Crescent; De La Soul Three Feet High and Rising; Puccini La Boheme (de los Angeles, Bjorling, Beecham); Everything but the Girl Walking Wounded; Carl Cox, Twilo, NYC, May 2000; Godspeed You! Black Emperor Yanqui U.X.O.; Grateful Dead. Fillmore East, NYC, April 1971; Taylor Swift 1989.

2 thoughts on “Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers

  1. bobvinyl

    This is way more than I knew about the song. It’s interesting that the somewhat obscured meanings still find a powerful voice in this song, while some more superficial commentary about society and history, let’s pick on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” have almost no power at all. There is something subconscious about songs like “Games Without Frontiers” that give them meaning before you do any digging and then maybe even more meaning when you dig beneath the surface. Thanks for doing the digging on this one!

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  2. Chuck Post author

    This was a fun one to dig into and it went far deeper than I expected. The Songmeanings site is often a waste of time but sometimes it’s filled with gems. I also learned that Kate Bush sings “Jeux Sans Frontiers” and I always misheard the line about Adolf and Enrico: I always thought it was “Adolf builds a bonfire and we all play with it.” Interestingly, the misheard lyric works as well, considering humanity’s well-proven ability to join leaders in their murderous rampages, whether it’s Hitler or Shoko Asahara.

    You and I have talked over the years about the importance of trusting the reader. Peter Gabriel trusted us with this one. He trusted us to dig deep and spend some time thinking about his lyrics. I’d have to revisit Billy Joel’s lyrics to make sure I’m correct here, but I think his song is a good example of blatantly spelling things out because you don’t trust the reader.

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