Certain songs have transformative powers, and Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is definitely one of them. This became clear in 2005, when film editor Robert Ryang used the 1977 classic rock staple in his re-cut trailer for the classic 1980 horror film The Shining. Ryang cleverly paired director Stanley Kubrick’s chilling visuals with Gabriel’s bouncy and bucolic folk-rock ditty, and just like that, a terrifying psychological drama became a lighthearted rom-com about a dad with writer’s block. The video went viral, spawning tons of imitations.
The reason the joke worked is because, by 2005, “Solsbury Hill” had already appeared in numerous movie trailers, and it’s been used in at least one since. As Billboard writer Andrew Unterberger asserted, the song’s words and melody have become “immediately identifiable shorthand for personal journey.” It's fitting, because Gabriel was on a personal journey of his own when he wrote “Solsbury Hill” and unwittingly kicked off a cultural chain of events that would involve Bruce Springsteen, Scarlett Johansson, computer-animated fish, and yes, a hilariously non-threatening Jack Nicholson.
On August 15, 1975, Peter Gabriel announced his departure from Genesis, the British prog-rock band he had co-founded in 1967. Gabriel was the lead singer, and thanks in part to his outlandish stage costumes, he was the band's star attraction. But after the release of the band's sixth album, 1975’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel decided he’d had enough. (The band’s drummer, Phil Collins, took his place, and Genesis eventually went from artsy experimentalists to mainstream pop juggernauts.)
“I felt I was becoming a sort of stereotype, sort of ‘rock star,’ or falling into wanting that ego gratification,” Gabriel says in the film Genesis: A History. “I didn’t like myself, I didn’t like the situation, and I didn’t feel free.”
This was the inspiration behind “Solsbury Hill,” which became Gabriel’s debut solo single. Gabriel wrote the song after meditating on the eponymous landform, which is located in Somerset, England. In the opening verse, Gabriel describes looking down on the city lights and encountering an eagle that swoops down with an important message: “Son, grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.”
According to producer Bob Ezrin, the original lyric went, “Son, make your life a taxi not a tomb.” That earlier line offers some insight into Gabriel’s mindset at the time, but it doesn’t make for a great hook. Ezrin deemed the language “ugly.” Fortunately, in the song’s mixing stage, Gabriel switched to the now-familiar (and far superior) “grab your things” line.
In the second verse, Gabriel worries that his friends will think he’s crazy. He vows to keep his mystical eagle revelation to himself, but is soon overcome with the feeling he’s trapped in “the machinery” of life. He remains unhappy and unfulfilled until he decides to follow his heart and push back against the forces holding him back. “You can keep my things,” he sings the final time through the chorus. “They’ve come to take me home.”
“It’s about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get, or what you are for what you might be,” Gabriel once said of the song. “It’s about letting go.” The Genesis exit worked out pretty well for Gabriel. “Solsbury Hill” arrived in early 1977 and reached No. 13 on the UK charts, establishing Gabriel as a solo star in the making. In America, the single peaked at No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was a minor hit that would have a long afterlife.
Who’s The Boss?
For years, an urban legend suggested that Gabriel was moved to write “Solsbury Hill” after witnessing Bruce Springsteen’s debut UK performance in 1975. According to lore, the “eagle” in the lyrics is actually Springsteen, and his Earth-shattering concert was what led Gabriel to quit Genesis and go solo. As it happens, Gabriel was at the Hammersmith Odeon the night Springsteen first rocked London—and he was utterly blown away by The Boss’s show. But Gabriel says it’s “hogwash” to suggest there’s any connection between that night and his departure from Genesis or the writing of “Solsbury Hill.”
“Because when I left Genesis, I just wanted to be out of the music business,” Gabriel told Rolling Stone. “I felt like I was just in the machinery. We knew what we were going to be doing in 18 months or two years ahead. I just did not enjoy that.”
Incidentally, Springsteen and Gabriel ended up touring together as part of 1988’s Human Rights Now! world tour, which benefited Amnesty International. They never sang “Solsbury Hill” together, but they did join forces with tourmates Sting, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour for spirited renditions of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” and The Beatles-boosted rock standard “Twist and Shout.”
If the website Soundtrack.net is correct, “Solsbury Hill” made its movie trailer debut in a 2001 preview for the mind-bending Tom Cruise thriller Vanilla Sky. That was followed by trailers for 2003’s Big Fish and 2004’s In Good Company, a rom-com starring Dennis Quaid, Scarlett Johansson, and Topher Grace. There must have been something in the air in the early 2000s, because synth-pop greats Erasure notched a Top 10 UK hit with their cover of “Solsbury Hill” in 2004.
A 2005 New York Times piece about Robert Ryang’s re-cut The Shining trailer—which won first place in a film editing contest—describes “Solsbury Hill” as “way too overused.” The article mentions the song’s then-recent appearance in the trailer for In Good Company, so that film might have been the tipping point in terms of people recognizing the phenomenon. Despite (or because of) the song’s well-established history of scoring trailers, Disney recycled “Solsbury Hill” for a preview of the 2016 Pixar feature Finding Dory.
“Solsbury Hill” has also appeared in numerous TV shows, as well as commercials for Cingular and Nespresso. The latter spot features George Clooney as a knight on a quest for his favorite coffee. Gabriel donated the money he earned from the ad to support Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, a professor using cord blood stem cells to treat children with autism.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2011—right around the time he released New Blood, an album of orchestral reworkings of his classic songs, including “Solsbury Hill”—Gabriel admitted that he’d maybe been a little too eager to license his debut single.
“But I’ve started to take the attitude that it was harder getting on the radio, and trailers and film music and synchs are a good alternative,” Gabriel said. “But I know some people feel that song is overexposed and I let it be used too many times.”