If there’s one thing that we here at MVD feel it is probably our duty to do, seeing as we are a site dedicated to exploring the marriage of music and video in all it’s forms, it is to take a look at those music videos which can be seen for one reason or another to be milestones in the history of the form, ones that genuinely pushed boundaries and explored new techniques and artistic territory.
And if it’s milestone videos you’re after then they don’t come any more milestone-y than this! I can clearly remember the fuss surrounding this at the time, almost as if people were watching it in hushed awe. Of course, no-one really knew what it all meant! “I want to be your sledgehammer?? What on earth does that mean?? And what the fuck are those dancing chickens all about..???”. It was a triumphant video, one that got people talking, created a buzz and in no small way contributed to the success of the song itself.
Ok, so in the mid 1980’s the pop video was still a fairly nascent and developing medium. From a technical point of view film-makers still lacked the digital box of tricks that would become available to them later as the technology began to rapidly move forward. We take things like CGI for granted these days but it’s easy to forget that in the not-too-distant past such things were nothing more than ideas, dreams.
Therefore it was down to the director to make the best creative use of extant means of manipulating the moving image and one technique that began to make it’s way in to videos in various ways was stop-motion, an animation method that involves filming still images one frame at a time.
A notable case of this occured the year previously when Talking Heads released the video for ‘Road To Nowhere’ which, like this, featured a variety of clever manipulations and some inventive use of stop-motion animation. In particular there is a scene towards the end of the video featuring David Byrne sitting in a chair whilst various clay-mation figures and paper cutouts are used to create a scene very similar to some of those featured in ‘Sledgehammer’ and it’s easy to think that it may well have been an influence on its artistic style.
Before we delve deeper in to the video, a bit more about the song itself. Released in April of 1986 and taken from his enormously successful album So, still the best-selling LP of his career, Sledgehammer was and is maybe the most ‘pop’ thing Gabriel has ever done.
Built around a winding funk groove, driven by Tony Levin’s grooving bass and fantastic brass from the legendary Memphis Horns, and a lyric full of fabulously inventive sexual innuendo (“You could have a big dipper going up and down, all around the bends. You could have a bumper car, bumping, this amusement never ends…”) the song reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart and the Canadian chart too, and number 4 in the UK and remains both Gabriel’s signature hit and one of the standout pop singles of the decade.
In an odd twist of fate Gabriel replaced his former group Genesis at the top of the charts, with them having also just had their first and only US No.1 with ‘Invisible Touch’.
As for the video, where to begin??? There are so many good moments and watching it again now I realised that the bits that stuck in my head were the same as when I was younger and they are….
1.31: The bumper cars bumping! This particular moment makes me smile every time…
2.20: More hilarious innuendo (“Show me round your fruitcage ‘cos I will be your honey bee. Open up your fruitcage, where the fruit is as sweet as can be…”) and one of the scenes filmed with Gabriel lying down under a plate of glass (for a total of 16 hours apparently) culminates in this fabulous fruity face…
2.57: a wonderful and highly bizarre claymation sequence featuring moments like this and last but definitely not least…
3.15: Dancing chickens!!!!! The real stars of the video, these are two actual supermarket chickens and this section, and other bits of the video were created by Nick Park of Aardman Animations, who was of course to end up being the man behind the enormously successful Wallace & Gromit films a few years later.
A technical feat par excellence, this is a highly-detailed and endlessly amusing piece of film-making which works so well because the visuals are constantly empathising with both the lyrics and the rhythmic pulse of the song creating a perfect synthesis of the two. Although the techniques used weren’t new in themselves, the combination of so many of them in one video was and it would win a record-holding 9 MTV Music Video awards, as well as a Brit and is consistently listed highly in greatest videos of all-time lists.
More than the awards though what is really a testament to the video is it’s enduring appeal and the lasting impression it left on everyone who lived through the 80’s. I must have watched this a thousand times and I never get bored and every time I notice some small detail I hadn’t before (this time round I noticed the appearance of 2 girls at 4.06 who it turns out are his daughters…). Not only that but I really appreciate the sexual humour in the song now in a way I didn’t when I was 15 years old. This amusement never ends.