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 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 band mate 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 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.
The video was #4 on MTV's list of the Top 100 of all time. #1-3 were "Thriller," "Vogue," and "Smells Like Teen Spirit
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 promo 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.
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.