Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Far Out/Alamy)

Music

The Story Behind The Song: How Peter Gabriel returned to his soul roots with 'Sledgehammer'

With Genesis, vocalist Peter Gabriel proved he could write pastoral anthems, but as a solo artist, he was determined to widen his antenna to incorporate more diverse and far-reaching influences. Where Genesis channelled their country’s poetry and stories in their symphonic outlet, Gabriel re-fashioned himself as a man of the world, bringing a more rounded view on his first album, pieced together by a collection of American session players.

From that point, Gabriel widened his journey to incorporate elements from all over the world, starting from the pulsating blues of the African plains, to the Asiatic undertones of ‘Shock The Monkey’. By the mid-1980s, he had become something of an international celebrity, and he was spotted at a selection of high-profile gigs, often with a lady by his arm.

But there was one genre that tied his work together, and it was soul, a genre that was heard on the yearning Lamb Lies Down On Broadway standout, ‘The Carpet Crawlers’, to the boisterous ‘Sledgehammer’ that proved his biggest hit in the USA: ‘Sledgehammer’ appeared on his fifth album, and it was a stripped-back affair, heavy on brass and light on drum effects.

Gabriel delivers one of his more urgent vocals on the ‘Sledgehammer’ recording, which was fitting because the song is about sex. He was determined to break the taboo, feeling it was time for people shout about their experiences in the bedroom: “Sometimes sex can break through barriers,” he revealed, “When other forms of communication are not working too well.” He was growing more conscious of his celebrity and didn’t want to discriminate against non-English speaking natives.

A lifelong Otis Redding fan, Gabriel was determined to stick as truthfully to the genre as he could, which is why the song avoids the trappings of the 1980s – there are no drum machines heard – sticking to more traditional instruments. Roger Waters vocalist P.P. Arnold sings on the chorus, and the track initially ran for twice the length of the finished piece. Ultimately, Gabriel and producer Daniel Lanois – who would go on to produce The Joshua Tree – whittled it down to a more palatable run time.

Gabriel was growing tired of the comparisons between him and Genesis, and he was certainly bemused by what the press perceived as his attempt to ape Phil Collins by using the Memphis Horns (who had played on a number of high profile Stax songs) on his work. Collins and Genesis had used brass on anthems ‘I Missed Again’ and ‘No Reply At All’, leading many to feel that Gabriel was following in their footsteps.

Ironically, Genesis had to defend themselves in 1991, when the stripped-back blues of ‘I Can’t Dance’ was perceived by some to be a copy of Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’. There was nothing derivative about ‘Sledgehammer’, as it was the voice of a soul singer hoping to express his sense of truth. Gabriel made the song more commercial by way of a selection of metaphors (“train”, “bumper cars”, and “the big dipper”), so more conservative radio hosts couldn’t take umbrage with the song as they had with Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s more overt ‘Relax’.

Gabriel had previously sung about masturbation on ‘Counting Out Time’, so this wasn’t new territory for the prog stalwart, although the line “I kicked the habit” suggested that this was the voice of something who enjoyed the steamier side of celebrity. The title of the song was inspired, in part, by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that a good book breaks through like “an ax in a frozen sea”.

Gabriel’s sledgehammer was more concerned with sexual come-ons than Arctic expeditions. But the song holds another link to Genesis, in the form of a flute, as the singer momentarily takes his mouth off the microphone, and let the instrument wail away. Gabriel’s tenure with Genesis was known for flamboyance and theatricality, as he frequently wandered onstage with a series of outlandish outfits.

His performances were bolstered by verve and fire, frequently injuring himself, much to the horror of songwriting keyboardist Tony Banks. By the 1980s, the video was swiftly turning into the lexicon of the era, and Gabriel was eager to jump on the medium, in an effort to showcase his flair for visuals and ambition.

Aardman Animations worked with Gabriel on ‘Sledgehammer’, creating a hybrid art-piece that combined pixilation, and stop motion animation. It looked splendid, but it was an uncomfortable experience for Gabriel, who was forced to lie under a sheet of glass for 16 hours while filming the video.

Ultimately, the video won Best British Video at the 1987 Brit Awards, and came second in a poll conducted by Channel 4 for ‘Best Music Video’, but Gabriel was uneager to repeat the filming. “It took a lot of hard work,” Gabriel revealed. “I was thinking at the time, ‘If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them.’

But it made his name, and then some, and no concert is complete without a run through of ‘Sledgehammer’. And although he left Genesis on good terms, he must have enjoyed the notices that were coming his way, just as his former band released Invisible Touch. “I read recently that Peter Gabrielknocked us off the No 1 spot with ‘Sledgehammer,” Genesis drummer Phil Collins recalled.”We weren’t aware of that at the time. If we had been, we’d probably have sent him a telegram saying: ‘Congratulations – bastard.’ ”

Follow Far Out Magazine across our social channels, on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.