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Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel

Album: SoReleased: 1986Charted:
  • This was influenced by the '60s soul music Gabriel listened to as a teenager, in particular Otis Redding, who Peter saw perform at the Ram Jam club in London in 1967. The horn section was typical of this sound.
  • This song is about sex; the lyrics are loaded with phallic symbols. In addition to the word "sledgehammer," other references to the male member include the train, bumper cars, and the big dipper. The innuendo was typical of the blues music Gabriel drew from.
  • Gabriel said regarding the theme of this song: "Sometimes sex can break through barriers when other forms of communication are not working too well."
  • Some of the lyrics were inspired by a quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said a good book breaks through like "An ax in a frozen sea."
  • Gabriel used a horn section (the legendary Memphis Horns, who played on several hits from Stax Records) on this song, which led to criticism that he was trying to copy the style of Phil Collins to gain commercial success. Collins was using horns and getting a lot of radio play with songs like "Easy Lover" and "Sussudio." Gabriel has said that this was never his intent and that he was more of an influence on Collins, his bandmate with Genesis.
  • The wildly innovative video was directed by Stephen R. Johnson and featured stop-motion claymation techniques. It swept the MTV video music awards in 1987, and is considered a major breakthrough.

    Johnson directed the Talking Heads video for "Road To Nowhere" the previous year, where he used many of the techniques that would appear in "Sledgehammer." Jeff Ayeroff at Gabriel's record company showed Peter the clip and had him work with Johnson, who says he didn't even like the song. "I thought it was just another white boy trying to sound black," he said in the book I Want My MTV.

    Johnson, an American who died in 2015, enlisted a team of animators, including the British team the Quay Brothers, to work on the clip, preparing a rough cut on a video tape machine that could job through frames of video for reference.

    Typical of animated videos at the time, the concepts were bigger than the budgets and the timeframe - the chickens were supposed to do a more complex dance, but they ended up doing a some simple steps instead, as the real chickens (the kind you buy in the grocery store) they used for modeling turned foul quickly. There were also some problems with electrical current running through Gabriel when he put on a lighted suit for the ending scene. This was solved by covering a suited Gabriel and the rest of the set in Scotchlite tape. The video starts with an egg being fertilized, then ends with Gabriel wandering into the cosmos, providing an interesting storyline centered on the continuum of life to go along with the eye-catching effects. Johnson also worked on Gabriel's videos for "Big Time" and "Steam."
  • According to some sources, this is the most-played video of all-time on MTV. When the network listed their 100 Greatest Music Videos in 1999, "Sledgehammer" was #4. The Top 3:

    1) "Thriller" (1983)
    2) "Vogue" (1990)
    3) "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)

    It is plausible that "Sledgehammer" aired more than these, as early on they had fewer videos to choose from and played the hits in a tighter rotation. "Thriller" probably didn't get as much airplay because it was a very long video with a twist ending that once revealed, didn't stand up to many repeat viewings.
  • During an episode of Johnnie Walker's Long Players on BBC Radio 2, Gabriel recounted how he spent 16 hours lying beneath a heavy sheet of glass for the video, while each frame was shot, one after the other.

    Gabriel recalled in the same program that stop-motion animator Nick Park of Wallace & Gromit fame worked on the famous scene involving oven-ready chickens dancing to a flute solo.
  • This was Gabriel's first #1 single in the US. His former band Genesis had their first #1, "Invisible Touch," shortly before Gabriel did, hitting the top spot on July 19, 1986, while Gabriel held the #2 spot that week. On July 26, 1986, Gabriel unseated his former bandmates to take the #1 position, and Genesis fell to #3.
  • The "Big Dipper" is a reference to a wooden roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England.
  • The song's video received ten nominations at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards, setting a record for the most nominations for a single video. The clip went on to win a record nine VMAs. Lady Gaga's video for "Bad Romance" also received ten nominations in 2010, but only won seven.

    Grammy voters were less kind to Gabriel, and gave the award for Best Concept Music Video to Genesis for "Land Of Confusion," which featured puppets rather than the band. It remains the only Grammy award Genesis ever won.
  • The So album was largely recorded at Gabriel's Ashcombe House home studio near Bath, Somerset, England, with finishing touches at London's Townhouse Studios. Ashcombe's recording facility was housed in the former cow shed of a converted farmhouse.
  • The original version of this song ran nearly double the length of the five-minute single release. Sound engineer Kevin Killen explained to Sound on Sound: "In its extended version, it sounded like a really cool track that needed to be edited down into a more manageable form so that its great ideas could be presented in a more concise fashion, possibly with a view to being a single."
  • Killen explained how producer Dan Lanois crafted the unique sounds on the track by creating an illusion: "During recording, Dan really liked this idea of combining instruments to create a new part," he said. "So, it wasn't unusual to have Dan playing a 12-string electric guitar, David Rhodes playing his Steinberger six-string guitar or Strat, and Peter playing the CP70, Fairlight or Prophet 5. Instead of their instruments being recorded to three discrete tracks, all of them were treated as a single sound source and recorded to a mono or stereo track to create a sound illusion/part.

    "As we processed each sound source, it informed and affected how David, Dan and Peter would play and, given there was so much interplay between the part and the processing, it really did produce some unique sounds. We tried to avoid recording stock sounds, but they had to have a familiar - yet not instantly recognisable - footprint. In essence, the parts sounded much more keyboard-based or slightly guitar-based, but typically they were neither."
  • Prior to So, Gabriel's first four solo albums were all self-titled (though the fourth was called Security in the US). "I originally thought I would avoid titles and make my records like magazines," he told Spin. "When you look at home at a pile of magazines, you remember them usually by the picture on the cover; I wanted it to look like a body of work."

    He gave the new album a "universal title so that people won't end up buying the same record twice."
  • Gabriel credits the music video for the success of the song because, he told Rolling Stone, "I think it had a sense of both humor and fun, neither of which were particularly associated with me. I mean - wrongly in my way of looking at it - I think I was seen as a fairly intense, eccentric Englishman."
  • An extended dance mix was also released in 1986. This remix was done by John Potoker, who had a lot of material to work with, since Gabriel recorded lots of jams for the song. Potoker also did a lot of work remixing songs for Gabriel's former Genesis bandmate Phil Collins.
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Comments: 32

I don't care if the song is about Hot Garbage; it's slammin.Markantney - Biloxe
German rapper Sido's song "Bilder im Kopf" seems to use some sledgehammer horn samples in the beginning of the track. Does anyone know any facts about this?Chris - Munich, Germany
OMG, I'm so naive. I just figured he was being very "eighties"; I had no idea it was about sex!! And I'm in my forties now!Susan - Airdrie, Ab
The main theme of this song is Peter Gabriel changing his style of music and breaking out of old style shell.Lou - Hartford, Ct
This song is AMAZING!!! So catchy! DANG! I love it so much:)Megan - Stevenson, Al
I don't care what the lyrics of the song mean; it's just a terrifically fun song to sing along to. This video was incredibly popular when it came out, and deservedly so.Camille - Toronto, Oh
Re: 'cocaine...everybody's using.' I'm sorry, but that has to be the greatest example of selective hearing and revisionist history I've ever encountered since the FBI hearing dirty lyrics in "Louie, Louie"!!Brian - Chicago Area, Il
Awesome song, love it very much!!Roberta Trevisan - S?o Paulo, Brazil
Annabelle: That's a panflute added with some echo..Budoshi - Sandnessj
Whatever this song about, noone can deny the fact that this is a great song..:DBudoshi - Sandnessj
I thought the second half of the song ("I kicked the habit...") was Peter Gabriel announcing he was now a R&B/Soul singer, rather than the rocker he was in Genesis.Ken - Louisville, Ky
This video is so much better than Smells Like Team Spirit. It deserves #2 or #3.Electric926 - Unknown, Nj
this is for sure about sex. Watch the video if you disagree. But i understand the drug connections especially towards the end of the songChris - Seattle, Wa
i'm sorry to inform you that you're all idiots. (well, not YOU) the song is not about sex. listen again and you'll notice at the very top he says, in very slurred fashion, 'cocaine...everybody's using.' then he goes on to say, 'you could have a steam train, if you just lay down your tracks. you could have an airplane flying, if you bring your blue sky back.'

he's talking about what you can gain if you get off drugs, as the next verses also echo.

why do i believe this? because later in the song he says, 'i kicked the habit. shed my skin. this is the new stuff. i come dancing in.'

draw your own conclusions.
Tony - Los Angeles, Ca
This song came out when I was about 8, I had NO IDEA it was about sex. Heard it again when I was about 18 and laughed me wee little arse off. Ok, not so wee...Mel - Riverbank, Ca
@ Jim from Dayton: Actually, he played drums on "Big Time" and hi-hat on "Red Rain". Nothing on this song, though.Angie - Jacksonville, Fl
2nd best song on the So album, 1st best is In Your EyesEd - York, Pa
great song, neverthelesssHunta - St. Louis, Mo
Oops, someones already answered that, and done a better job...Jonathan - Thame, England
the strange flute is a shakuhachi, it's a flute from japanJonathan - Thame, England
"Fruit cage is evidently a British slang term for a woman's reproductive organs". You maybe right, Im from England and I have never heard of "Fruit Cage".Rich - Birmingham Uk, England
Stewart Copeland of The Police played drums on this track.Jim - Dayton, Oh
Don't you love how - in the "fruit" part of the video - the last fruit Gabriel eats is a cherry? Sexual innuendo, indeed.Mike - Brooklyn, Ny
According to petergabriel.com, the video was directed by Stephen R. Johnson, not Steve Jordan. He also directed the videos for Big Time, and SteamSean - Chesapeake, Va
The flute sound that is heard in this song is from a Japanese bamboo woodwind instrument called the Shakuhachi. The shakuhachi sound being played in the song was sampled and manipulated on an E-Mu Emulator II synthesizer.Chris - Charleston, Sc
Actually, this song knocked out Genesis first no.1 "Invisible Touch" from the top of BillboardMirza - Jakarta, Indonesia
It's not really a flute, it's a synthesizer (A Prophet or a Fairlight not sure)Pete - Sydney, Australia
"Show me 'round your fruitcake" is one of the most mis-heard lyrics of all time. The line is actually:

"Show me 'round your fruit cage"

Fruit cage is evidently a British slang term for a woman's reproductive organs.
Knowing this fact, and then seeing Peter perform these lines with his daughter must've made things a tad uncomfortable if they stopped to think about what they were saying.
Brad - Chicago, Il
In some parts of the song, there's a strange flute part. What kind of flute is that?Annabelle - Eugene, Or
the footage of swimming sperm was included in the video partly because Gabriel wanted to get pictures of sperm shown on Top of the PopsTravis - Somwhere, United States
This song was played so often by MTV when it was popular that Peter Gabriel himself called MTV and asked them to quit playing it, but they refused.Jordan - Aberdeen, Sd
The part of the video with the dancing chickens was animated by three-time Oscar winner Nick Park (co-director of "Chicken Run").Brad Wind - Miami, Fl
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