This song is about the social experiments of Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor who in 1961 had subjects administer electric shocks to a person if they answered a question wrong - at least, that's what they thought. The person being shocked was actually an actor who writhed in pain as the shocks got larger. Milgram wanted to see if the subjects would administer the shocks when the experimenter told them to, even though they were causing apparent pain in the person. Almost all subjects administered the highest level of shock despite the actor pounding the wall in apparent agony.
"In the main experiment, 63% percent of the participants were prepared to administer enough electricity to injure the person on the other end." Gabriel told Spin. "At first this seems a very negative thing, but I was comforted that some had the strength to rebel."
"37" came from the number of subjects who administered the maximum shock in another one of the experiments - 37 out of 40.
Gabriel used Prophet-5 and Fairlight synthesizers on this track to process his voice and most of the instruments, including the drums that were played by Jerry Marotta (a violin played by L. Shankar is also in the mix). In doing so, he gave the song an eerie, disjointed feel that is in line with the subject matter, simulating what might have been going through the heads of the subjects in Milgram's experiments.
Gabriel summarized the results of Milgram's experiments with the phrase, "We do what we're told," which is repeated throughout the song. The subjects did not want to administer the shocks, but did so because the experimenter told them to.
Gabriel sung versions of this in concerts long before it was released. They can be found on some bootlegs.
When he performed this in concert, Gabriel got the crowd chanting "we do what we're told." Since the song was not yet released and the crowd did not know its meaning, they were ironically aping the results of the experiment by doing just as Gabriel told them.
Gabriel asked Milgram for permission to use video of his experiments for stage displays and music videos, but Milgram refused, not wanting his work used for entertainment.
This song was featured on the 1986 episode of Miami Vice "Forgive Us Our Debts." It was also used in the 1988 movie The Chocolate War, and in the 2018 season premiere episode of The Americans, "Dead Hand."
Milgram's experiments were big news in the '60s, but by the '80s were typically only mentioned in psychology textbooks. Gabriel helped bring them back to the popular consciousness with this song; in 2015, a movie about Milgram called The Experimenter was released starring Peter Sarsgaard.
Guitarist David Rhodes told Guitar Player
he used his vintage Jazzmaster on the track. "It's heavy wang bar," he explained in a 1987 interview. "It's two guitar tracks, both overdubbed by me, in two different rhythms. The first track is just A dropping to F#, beating the wang bar in one rhythm - straight four - bum, bum, bum, bum - and the second track is half-time. The backing track was done about four or five years ago for the third record [Melt
] - the one with 'Biko
' on it. It used to have a baby crying on it, and it was a very worrying song. It's a lot more optimistic now, even though it's moody."
Gabriel initially wanted Nile Rodgers or Bill Laswell to produce the album with him but opted for Daniel Lanois after working with him on the soundtrack to the movie Birdy. Gabriel praised Lanois' ability to create atmospheric pieces and his knack for creating ideal spaces where live performances can grow. "And he makes sure they don't get lost once they're recorded," the singer told Musician in 1986. The following year, Lanois had another hit album with U2's American breakthrough, The Joshua Tree.