Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” Lyrics Meaning

For starters let’s look at the hook of “Games Without Frontiers”, which features the phrase “Jeux Sans Frontières” being repeated. And the reason we spelled the phrase out in title case is because such is actually the name of a television program, which ran for a good three decades, in Western Europe. 

Perhaps it could be better defined as a game show. But more to the point within the context of this song is the fact it featured individuals, according to Wikipedia, dressed “in outlandish costumes…. competing to complete bizarre tasks in funny games”. 

Moreover, these contestants were adults. Then on top of that, respective teams actually represented different towns and cities and more macrocosmically countries going up against each other. And all of the above is relevant to the meaning of this song.

Names Mentioned in “Games Without Frontiers”

For instance, you may notice that there are eight names presented in the first verse. Each of those names actually represents a country. We do know, once again via Wikipedia, that the main nations which participated in the aforementioned show were as follows:

  • Belgium
  • France
  • Germany
  • Great Britain
  • Italy
  • The Netherlands
  • Portugal
  • Switzerland

In addition to the above were a bunch of others popping up here and there. 

So we don’t know exactly which names are to be respectively ascribed to different countries.  However, we can logically presume that “Adolf” stands for Germany, “Britt” for Great Britain and “Enrico” perhaps for Spain. 

Peter talks about these names

But either way, according to Gabriel in his own words, these “names… are meaningless”. So rather, what would be more to the point is this idea that, on top of symbolizing different nations, they’re all ‘playing’ with each other. Also, the simplicity of the language used would imply that they’re children.

Pre-Chorus

The pre-chorus is a lot more challenging to understand – so much so that perhaps it would be best if we err on the side of caution for the time being. But the vocalist does close out the stanza by dropping the phrase “it’s a knockout”. The said phrase actually was the name of the British version of Jeux Sans Frontières.

Now going back to the pre-chorus for a second, when you combine the allusions and metaphors contained therein to what’s being more simply stated in the chorus, it would appear that Games Without Frontiers may well be an anti-war song. 

Is Peter Criticizing the Olympics?

It has been argued otherwise, that what we’re actually dealing with here is Peter Gabriel’s less-than-flattering critique of how seriously countries tend to take the Olympics. And yes, all chorus lyrics considered, that theory would be more feasible, since he refers to this as a “war without tears”. And if he were talking about an actual war, well, we know that there is plenty of crying as far as those are concerned.

Indeed as we now take a gander at the second verse, that would explain why a “Suki” is mentioned in the first verse, even though such is clearly not an indigenous European name. For in this passage we once again have indirect references to Asians.

Now at this point, it should become quite clear that this song is not actually about Jeux Sans Frontières, as Asian nations did not participate in said contest. But the competition Gabriel is referring to is one in which contestants wear “costumes” and ‘play silly games’ nonetheless. And both of those classifications can be interpreted as disses, depending on one’s perspective, against the Olympics.

Wait a minute…

But he also concludes the version by dropping a couple of other metaphors, including one implying that competitors ‘shout out rude names’ at each other – a practice which doesn’t fit so neatly into how we generally understand the Olympics. 

This is also a counter-Olympic idea buttressed in the chorus, where Peter uses the phrase “if looks could kill”, implying that the participants in whatever “games” he’s referring to are at each other’s throat. That is to say that whereas few would argue that the Olympics aren’t highly-competitive, at the same time it doesn’t appear that contestants, generally speaking, personally hate those who they are competing against.

Well anyway, the titular term would also imply that this is not an actual real-life war he’s singing about, as such generally do have “frontiers” or boundaries in which they are fought. Indeed Peter Gabriel is never the easiest lyricist to understand, and honestly this song can be interpreted in a number of ways. 

As a matter of fact, it could even be put forth, to some degree, it can even be argued that what he’s talking about is international politics – a concept which lies at the heart of this piece regardless of which of the prevailing theories one subscribes to. 

But out of all them, there is more allegorical proof that he is referring to an event like the Olympics (including clips of such being used on the track’s music video) as opposed to Jeux Sans Frontières or an actual war. Or we can say conclusively in his eyes, the beefs which lie at the heart of actual wars are just as ultimately immature as those fueling the Olympics and even Jeux Sans Frontières.

Lyrics of "Games Without Frontiers"

Facts about “Games Without Frontiers”

This song came out as part of Peter Gabriel’s third self-titled album, which some people refer to as Peter Gabriel 3 and others Melt (the latter seemingly inspired by its cover art). And the release date of the track was on 9 February 1980.

Games Without Frontiers is the lead single from Peter Gabriel 3. It also serves as the opening song on the B-side of the LP, as this was prior to the days of CDs.

Fellow British singer Kate Bush provides backup vocals on this track.

Nowadays Peter is considered to be a music legend. But back then this was the first track he dropped to crack the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart. This is actually a feat he has only accomplished three times since (and one of those incidences being another collaboration with Kate Bush, 1986’s Don’t Give Up). 

Indeed despite being from the UK, Gabriel has actually proven more popular stateside. Here, he achieved over twice as many top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.

More specifically, Games Without Frontiers reached number four on the UK Singles Chart. It also appeared on the Billboard Hot 100. However, there, it performed a lot more humbly in that regard. However, it did make it onto the top five of the singles’ charts in Canada and Ireland.

Notable Usage of “Games Without Frontiers”

This song was also used as the musical theme to a pretty notable 1988 videogame entitled The Race Against Time

Additionally Peter Gabriel dropped a remix of it, alongside Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian fame, to be utilized as the theme song to the Winter X Games in 2009.  Moreover, this tune has been featured on a couple of television shows. Furthermore, it has been covered by Canadian band Arcade Fire in 2013.

More Interesting Facts

The primary label behind this track is one Charisma Records. The label was founded in 1969. And Peter Gabriel has proven to be one of its biggest acts (being preceded only perhaps by Genesis).

Peter Gabriel is the sole author of Games Without Frontiers. And the song, as well as the album it is featured on, was produced by Steve Lillywhite. FYI,  Peter Gabriel 3 is noted for being the album that established the vocalist as a music star.

“Jeux sans frontières” from French to English translates to “games without borders”.

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