Song of the Day: Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer”
One of the biggest hits of the ’80s, Peter Gabriel‘s “Sledgehammer” merges funk, pop and art rock elements for a track that remarkably still sounds fresh decades later. Released in 1986 both as a single and on Gabriel‘s smash LP, So, the song brings together a number of Gabriel‘s pet obsessions and puts them all in one robust package. While the song is grounded in a rock-solid pile-driver of an R&B groove – complete with a bassline that is pure Motown and some bright synth horns – the song proves to be a lot more slippery than all that. It is so much more than just a 1980s update of the classic R&B sound.
“Sledgehammer” is started with a shakuhachi bamboo flute figure that recalls many of Gabriel‘s (still ongoing) World Music obsessions and which almost gives the track an avant-garde feel before it really gets going. This figure is recalled a number of times in the song, adding to the song’s texture. Texture was so important to Peter Gabriel that he the song (and its accompanying album) were produced by the great producer and master of texture, Daniel Lanois. Lanois tends to bathe proceedings in seas of shimmering guitars and polymaths, something that suited Gabriel with his intense interest in African and Asian music perfectly. While grounded in a four-on-the-floor drum beat, the bass, guitars and keyboards suggest a number of counter rhythms throughout the song, with space also intelligently used to increase the gravitas of each of the songs elements.
The meticulous blending of R&B, World Music and textured art-rock might have all been for naught if Gabriel didn’t also possesses one of the most distinctive voices in rock music. His performance on”Sledgehammer” is a career highlight, with Gabriel managing to convincingly pass himself off as one of the most soulful white guys around while still retaining his Genesis-era persona of being a little distant and spacey. It’s a neat trick that pays dividends.
And of course, it is unlikely that the song would have been quite the early MTV hit that it was if it wasn’t for its innovative and highly experimental music video. The video was a technical marvel, combining claymation, pixilation and stop motion animation that gave life to the frequently poetic imagery in the song’s lyrics. All-in-all, “Sledgehammer” is a carefully and brilliantly constructed pop artifact that remains a key cultural touchstone of the 1980s. It highlights everything that Peter Gabriel did well throughout his career and highlights why he remains such an important popular artist to this day.