In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Peter Gabriel is one of the great sonic explorers of pop-music history, a classic restless spirt whose wanderings have always demanded attention. Gabriel has a decades-long history of big, bold gestures. He was early on all sorts of things — art-rock theatricality, massive drum-sound reverberations, the pop-music embrace of various different forms of African music. He championed worthy global political causes and worthy global musicians, exposing them to people who would’ve never otherwise known much about them. Few artists have had as much effect on the texture of pop music, on the way that you can turn songs into complete sonic environments.
So naturally, the one time Peter Gabriel hit #1 in the US, he did it with a janky, digital white-soul song about his dick. That’s pop music for you.
“Sledgehammer,” Peter Gabriel’s big hit, is one of the many, many songs that owes a great deal of its success to its music video. That’s another thing that Peter Gabriel embraced early: The warping, convulsive possibilities of music videos as an art form. Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video is one of the all-time masterpieces of the medium. The year after its release, “Sledgehammer” went Titanic on MTV’s Video Music Awards. It won nine trophies, the most ever for a single video. By some estimates, “Sledgehammer” is the most-played video in the entire history of MTV. So before we talk about “Sledgehammer” itself, we need to talk about the video.
Here’s the thing about the “Sledgehammer” video: It’s the fucking best. It rules so hard. It’s an experimental short and a Bugs Bunny cartoon at the same damn time. In its five minutes, the clip veers in all sorts of wonderfully weird and goofy directions. It turns Peter Gabriel’s face into a jittery glitched-out mirage, a blue sky, an ice sculpture, a sentient fruit garden, and a claymation hallucination that kicks itself in the face, along with who knows what else. I love it.
Before making that “Sledgehammer” video, director Stephen R. Johnson had made the similarly wild clip for the 1985 Talking Heads song “Road To Nowhere.” That video, in particular its stop-motion sequences, were what attracted Gabriel to Johnson. Johnson, in the oral history I Want My MTV: “I didn’t even like [‘Sledgehammer’], frankly. I thought it was just another white boy trying to sound Black. But Peter Gabriel took me to dinner, got me drunk on wine, and I agreed to do it.” With the “Sledgehammer” video, Johnson just went nuts, and Gabriel did everything necessary to bring Johnson’s visions to life.
In making the video, Johnson enlisted the help of the groundbreaking experimental stop-motion animators the Brothers Quay. At Gabriel’s behest, he also brought in Aardman Animations, the British production house that would later make the Wallace & Gromit films. Nick Park, who went on to create Wallace & Gromit, personally animated the bit in the “Sledgehammer” video where the two chickens dance. Park used real chicken carcasses, and they started to rot and stink while he was working on them. (Later on, Park co-directed the 2000 hit Chicken Run, so the experience apparently didn’t put him off working with chickens.) In working on the video, Gabriel himself had to spend 16 hours laying underneath a sheet of glass, and he got a bunch of electric shocks while wearing a Christmas tree costume. It all worked out. Gabriel, Johnson, and all their collaborators made something immortal.
A spectacle as outsized and surreal and popular as the “Sledgehammer” video makes for a fitting peak of Peter Gabriel’s career. Gabriel had been building to something like that for a long time. Gabriel, in his mid-thirties when he scored his one #1 hit, grew up in the English town of Surrey, and he became one of the founding members of Genesis as a teenager. From the very beginning, Gabriel was an unconventional frontman. On Genesis’ early albums, he played flute and oboe. Later on, he started wearing outlandish costumes onstage, something that he never cleared with his bandmates beforehand. Gabriel was the one who had the big ideas that led to absurd, ambitious concept albums like the 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
While Genesis were working on that album, William Friedkin, director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, approached Gabriel about working on a a screenplay, and he temporarily dropped out of the band, pissing off his bandmates in the process. After Genesis finished touring behind the LP, Gabriel announced his departure from the band, kicking off the chain of events that would lead Genesis drummer Phil Collins to unlikely global pop stardom. Soon afterward, Gabriel started off a solo career, releasing his first album in 1977. On his early albums, Gabriel played around with synths and textures and ideas.
All of Gabriel’s first four solo albums were self-titled — not exactly the kind of decision you make if you’re aiming for pop stardom. Still, Gabriel’s early singles did pretty well on the UK charts. In the US, Gabriel was less of a presence. A couple of tracks charted: 1977’s “Solsbury Hill” at #68, 1980’s “Games Without Frontiers” at #48. But Gabriel was more of a culty, esoteric figure until the advent of MTV made him harder to ignore. 1982’s “Shock The Monkey” reached #29, largely on the strength of its memorably freaked-out video. Still, a song like “Sledgehammer” represented a real and self-conscious turn towards the pop mainstream.
Gabriel co-produced his 1986 album So, his first album with an actual title, with Daniel Lanois, a producer whose work will appear in this column again. Lanois and Gabriel had worked together on the soundtrack of the 1984 movie Birdy, and they made So together at Gabriel’s Bath studio. Gabriel obsessed over the record’s sound, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to painstakingly put it all together. For “Sledgehammer,” he had an unlikely inspiration: Previous Number Ones artist Otis Redding.
In 1967, Gabriel had seen Redding play the London club Ram Jam, an experience that made him want to become a full-time musician. (Imagine how much confidence it must take for a 17-year-old white British kid to look at Otis Redding and think to himself that he could do that.) “Sledgehammer” is Gabriel’s conscious attempt to salute Redding and his ’60s soul contemporaries. That’s why “Sledgehammer” is basically nothing but clumsy sex metaphors. Gabriel figured that he was working within a lineage. In the So press release, Gabriel wrote that the song was his attempt to replicate “the spirit and the style” of ’60s soul: “The lyrics of many of those songs were full of playful sexual innuendo, and this is my contribution to that songwriting tradition. It is also about the use of sex as a means of getting through a breakdown in communication.” (Gabriel’s first marriage would end in divorce a year later.)
Judged as a ’60s soul song, “Sledgehammer” is an abject failure, a total boondoggle. In its lyrics, Gabriel essentially compares the following things to his dick: a steam train, an airplane, a big dipper, and a bumper car. (I’ll admit: I am now very curious what Peter Gabriel’s dong looks like.) Gabriel also sings that you should show him ’round your fruit cage because he will be your honeybee. He wants to be your sledgehammer. Won’t you call his name? It’s all very dumb and silly, mostly in an endearing way.
As a singer, Gabriel is obviously no Otis Redding, but he’s still pretty effective. His voice is a strained, chesty baritone grumble, and he pushes it hard on “Sledgehammer.” Purely as a vocalist, Gabriel never had the effortless grace of his old bandmate Phil Collins, but that works out fine for him, since a song like “Sledgehammer” should be effortful. I like the interplay between Gabriel and the backup singers at the end of the song. He’s not a soul singer, but he tries.
But “Sledgehammer” doesn’t work because it’s a soul song. It works because it’s a slick, loud, fun ’80s club song. The mix is huge and overwhelming, full of noises and tones that drop in out of nowhere. The opening flute-tootle has an uncanny sort of echo on it; it’s an intro that lets you know you’re about to be swept away. The sound came from an E-mu Emulator II sampler; Gabriel took it from a sound-test demo. Much of “Sledgehammer” is just as digital as the sample: The airless sheen, the giant drum sound, the Fairlight and Prophet synths that Gabriel plays on the song. But there’s a nice mix of the electronic and the tangibly organic.
For the song, Gabriel brought in Wayne Jackson, the great Memphis trumpeter who played on tons of Stax Records tracks and who backed up Otis Redding that night that Gabriel saw him at the Ram Jam, along with Jackson’s group the Memphis Horns. Gabriel has dismissed the notion, but it seems likely that Gabriel had noticed how much success his old bandmate Phil Collins was having when making records with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns. On “Sledgehammer,” the Memphis Horns do the same kind of work that the Phenix Horns had done on Collins’ “Sussidio” the year before, and they give the song a similar adrenaline charge.
Gabriel has acknowledged that “Sledgehammer” owes much of its pop success to the video. It’s one of those songs that’s impossible to hear on its own, without visions of that video dancing across your brain. But on its own, “Sledgehammer” is a charmingly goofy dance-pop song with production that makes it sound fucking huge, like a spaceship taking off. Even without the video, it would’ve been a hit. Even without the video, it’s a lot of fun.
“Sledgehammer” is by far Gabriel’s biggest chart hit. Only one other Gabriel single, the ironic yuppie-clowning dance-funk follow-up “Big Time,” even made the top 10. (“Big Time” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.) Other Gabriel songs have lingered longer in the popular consciousness, though, mostly because they also pair nicely with other images. “Solsbury Hill” was in so many movie trailers that it became a meme in the early-YouTube days, while the So ballad “In Your Eyes” earned teen-movie immortality when Cameron Crowe used it in the climactic scene of 1989’s Say Anything… (“In Your Eyes” peaked at #26, but it’s by far Gabriel’s best-known song today.)
Gabriel didn’t seem that interested in maintaining his pop stardom after “Sledgehammer,” anyway. After So, Gabriel’s next project was scoring The Last Temptation Of Christ, a movie that pissed a whole lot of people off. (My dad once described that film, without irony, as a hate crime against Catholics.) After that, Gabriel got really into CD-ROM technology. He advocated for good political causes. He covered Arcade Fire and Radiohead and the Magnetic Fields. He sang the Oscar-nominated closing themes for Babe: Pig In The City and WALL-E, two of the best kids’ movies ever made. These days, Gabriel only seems to work when he feels like it, when he’s interested in something. Really, that’s all he’s ever done.
I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention that the second concert I ever went to was Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival in 1994. Gabriel headlined, but I don’t remember too much about his set other than the big jets of steam that shot up from the ground during “Steam” or way the lighting cast a gigantic Peter Gabriel shadow during some other song. The rest of the bill’s big names were as 1994 as it gets: Midnight Oil, Arrested Development, Throwing Copper-era Live. But Gabriel also booked people like South African reggae singer Lucky Dube, or, like, some traditional Chinese flute players. If you can get a suburban American kid listen to some Chinese flute music, you have accomplished something. Maybe if Peter Gabriel hadn’t sung that song about his dick, he wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.
BONUS BEATS: In 1991, in what might be the first recorded case of one popular white rap artist playing gatekeeper against another, the New York group 3rd Bass released “Pop Goes The Weasel.” On the song, they went after Vanilla Ice, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. For the beat, 3rd Bass, producing themselves, used a sample of “Sledgehammer.” (They looped it, they looped it.) Here’s the extremely entertaining “Pop Goes The Weasel” video, where Henry Rollins, doing a pretty amazing Vanilla Ice impression, catches a beatdown:
(“Pop Goes The Weasel,” 3rd Bass’ highest-charting single, peaked at #29.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1993, Naughty By Nature opened their single “Hip Hop Hooray” with the flute sample from the “Sledgehammer” intro. Here’s the classic Spike Lee-directed “Hip Hop Hooray” video:
(“Hip Hop Hooray” peaked at #8. It’s an 8. Naughty By Nature’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “OPP,” peaked at #6. It’s a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head discussing the “Sledgehammer” video on a 1993 episode of their show:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Jermaine Dupri built “I’ve Got To Have It,” his contribution to the soundtrack of the 2000 movie Big Momma’s House, from a “Sledgehammer” sample. Here’s the video for “I’ve Got To Have It,” which also features Nas and Monica:
(As lead artist, Dupri’s highest-charting single is the 1998 Da Brat/Usher collab “The Party Continues,” which peaked at #29. As a guest-rapper, Dupri’s highest-charting single is Dem Franchize Boyz’ 2005 “I Think They Like Me” remix, which peaked at #15. As a producer, Dupri will eventually appear in this column. Nas’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “I Can,” peaked at #12. Monica will eventually appear in this column. Lil Bow Wow isn’t on “I’ve Got To Have It,” but he gets a solo showcase in the video, so I might as well mention that Bow Wow’s highest-charting single, the 2005 Ciara collab “Like You,” peaked at #3. It’s a 3.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Harry Styles and his band covering “Sledgehammer” during a visit to The Howard Stern Show this past March:
(Harry Styles will eventually appear in this column.)