A prog-pop, world-rock wizard once said, “Sometimes sex can break through barriers when other forms of communication are not working too well.” That was Peter Gabriel in defense of his 1986 bop “Sledgehammer.”
“Sledgehammer” broke barriers, for sure. Its use of shakuhachi flutes and synth organs was unlike anything riding the airwaves at the time. The song’s innovative music video is still emulated today. And the walloping number of sexual innuendos packed into one song is unmatched.
Yes, the tune abounds with phallic symbols of sledgehammers, steam trains, and big dippers. And yes, Gabriel uses the term “fruit cage” two too many times. But the song’s meaning goes deeper than just referencing sex.
Join us for a deep dive past the innuendo into the meaning of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”
Meaning Behind the Lyrics
Some “Sledgehammer” lyrics were said to have been inspired by a quote from existential philosopher and novelist Franz Kafka, who said a good book breaks through like “an ax in a frozen sea.”
Gabriel waxes philosophical throughout the song. You just have to listen for it. The tune opens with:
Hey, hey, you
Tell me how have you been?
And then he wastes no time getting into the … philosophy?
You could have a steam train
If you just lay down your tracks
You could have an aeroplane flying
If you bring your blue sky back
Maybe by singing You could have a steam train / If you just lay down your tracks, Gabriel means opportunities will come to you as long as you’re open to them. Okay, not the best example, but then it continues with:
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
If you’re open, who knows what amusements will come into your life… Right?
I wanna be your sledgehammer
Why don’t you call my name?
Oh let me be your sledgehammer
This will be my testimony
Maybe I wanna be your sledgehammer simply means “I wanna… ” Okay, moving on.
Show me ’round your fruit cage
‘Cause I will be your honey bee
Open up your fruit cage
Where the fruit is as sweet as can be
A quick lesson in pollination fits into any song. A few more I wanna be your sledgehammers and then the Kafka-isms come through.
I get it right, I kicked the habit (kicked the habit, kicked the habit)
Shed my skin (shed my skin)
This is the new stuff (this is the new stuff)
I go dancing in (we go dancing in)
Oh, won’t you show for me? (Show for me)
I will show for you (show for you)
Please, show for me (show for me)
Huh, I will show for you
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I do mean you (show for me)
I kicked the habit, shed my skin, This is the new stuff, Gabriel sings. He’s having a metamorphosis. One of Kafka’s best-known works, Metamorphosis is a story of isolation, alienation, and the struggle to simply be. “Sledgehammer” shares a similar tale of … nevermind.
Okay, “Sledgehammer” is unabashedly about sex—big dippers, fruit cages, and all. But the song was also Gabriel’s way of paying homage to the ’60s soul that soundtracked his youth and drew him to music. The playful sexual references in the tune were attempts to capture the spirit and recreate the style of the music that excited him as a teen. “This is my contribution to that songwriting tradition,” Gabriel once explained of “Sledgehammer.”
The Music Video
Painstaking production produced whiplash-inducing animation in the iconic music video for “Sledgehammer.” Directed by Stephen R. Johnson, produced by Adam Whittaker, and animated by Aardman Animations and the Brothers Quay, the video is a claymated, pixelated, stop-motion adventure.
At times uneasy to look at, the music video depicts Gabriel singing the tune in a disjointed, frame-by-frame manner as items sung in the song, like trains and fruit, swirl around his face. The filming required Gabriel to lay under glass for 16 hours as the video was shot one frame at a time.
“It took a lot of hard work,” the singer recalled. “I was thinking at the time, ‘If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them.'”
The hard work certainly paid off. “Sledgehammer” took home nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, which is the most awards a single video has won. Over a decade after it was released, the video also topped MTV’s 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made, coming in at number four.
Revisit the song and video below.
(Photo by Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)