The lyric repeated at the beginning and end is "jeux sans frontieres," which is French for "games without frontiers." It is frequently misheard as "she's so popular."
This song is about the childish antics of adults, which are especially prevalent when their countries are competing in the Olympics.
Gabriel wrote this before the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, an event that reinforced the theme of adults acting like children over silly games.
Kate Bush sang backup - that's her singing "jeux sans fronteires." Bush was a last-minute addition to the song.
"We had someone else sing the 'Jeux Sans Fronteires' line, and we realized the accent wasn't so great," recalled co-producer Steve Lillywhite, who wouldn't identify the original vocalist to Uncut. "So Peter decided to ask Kate down. It was easy, and great fun. No more than half an hour."
Gabriel got the idea for the title from a 1970s European game show of the same name where contestants dressed up in strange costumes to compete for prizes. A version of the show came out in England called "It's a knockout," giving him that lyric.
This was Peter Gabriel's first UK Top 10 as a solo artist. It had an interesting impact on his American distribution: Gabriel's first two solo albums were distributed in America by Atlantic Records, but they rejected his third album (which contained this track), telling Gabriel he was committing "commercial suicide." Atlantic dropped him but tried to buy the album back when "Games Without Frontiers" took off in the UK and started getting airplay in the States. At this point, Gabriel wanted nothing to do with Atlantic and let Mercury Records distribute the album in America.
The whistling is Gabriel along with producers Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham.
In 1991, Gabriel's performance of this song from Holland was beamed to Wembley Stadium in England as part of "The Simple Truth" concert for Kurdish refugees.
The video includes film clips of Olympic events and scenes from the 1950 educational film Duck and Cover
, which used a cartoon turtle to instruct school kids on what to do in case of nuclear attack.
Patrick - Conyers, GA
Part of the lyric goes:
Andre has a red flag
Chiang Ching's is blue
They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu
Andre could refer to Andre Malraux (1901-1976) the French statesman and author of the book Man's Fate, about the 1920s communist regime in Shanghai. Red flag may refer to Malraux's leftist politics. Chiang Ching could refer to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists - hence, the rightwing Blue Flag. Chiang's forces lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile.
Lin Tai Yu may be Nguyen Thieu (1923-2001), South Vietnamese president during the height of the Vietnam War. After the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan, England, and later to the United States where he died in exile.
The lyric could refer to the fact that while leftist politicians like Andre Malraux had a secure position in France, and rightist leaders like Chiang Kai Shek had a secure country in Taiwan, those caught in the middle like Nguyen Thieu were pawns in the Cold war and had no secure country. This could also be a reproach to either Thieu or his United States backers, saying that he was now a nobody.
A remix by Lord Jamar was used for the theme for the 2009 Winter X Games. The new version was dubbed "X Games Without Frontiers."
Justin - Durango, CO
Gabriel recorded a German-language version of the album titled Ein deutsches Album. Hearing Gabriel singing about Adolf building the bonfire in German makes the song sound a lot more sinister.
The song plays at the end of the season 1 finale of The Americans
, which is set during the Cold War. Another Peter Gabriel tune, "Lay Your Hands On Me
," was used in a season 5 episode.