Like a whole lot of music consumers of the day, being raised at the time on top-40, I had a limited awareness of the British supergroup Genesis (my loss, since rectified). What I therefore had no way of knowing was of the huge role that Peter Gabriel had in it, nor his inimitable sense of artistic style, which is why when his song "Shock the Monkey" became popular and started to get heavy rotation on MTV. This was in 1982.
To this day I'm not sure I even like the song really. But I can't resist listening to it, even today. And if I see the video playing (which you can probably find on YouTube). I'll always pause to take the whole thing in.
In 1986, Gabriel broke a string of self-titled, avant-garde'ish solo albums with a sparely-designed album sparely titled: So. Compared to what I've heard of his previous effort, it was almost unabashedly commercial, but since Gabriel was as Gabriel did, it didn't sound like a sell-out; it was listenable but still had all the interesting quirks and influences and experimentation that made Peter Gabriel's music what it was.
The song "Sledgehammer" was an interesting bean, notably opening with the sound of a shakuhachi flute, then going right into a brass-heavy blues sound. The lyrics were fun and entendre-laden:
You could have a steam train/If you just laid down your track/You could have an aeroplane flying/If you'd bring your blue sky back...But the real triumph of "Sledgehammer" was in video form. In the 1980's, having a good song was one thing; having a good song backed up by a killer video took you to the top. And "Sledgehammer" has a killer video:
Watch it, then, we'll discuss.
The joke of the video is that it took the lyrics and purified them. In each scene, the metaphoric content is represented literally, making it a sweet, fun, jokey sort of song. It couldn't be otherwise–the human/animation of the video had a power that couldn't be denied.
The power of the content arrested so much attention over that year that it seemed to be in heavy rotation on MTV nearly all that year, from the time it was released. In 1987, it garnered (according to Wikipedia):
...nine MTV Video Music Awards, a record which still stands as of 2007. It ranked at number four on MTV's 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made (1999). MTV later announced that "Sledgehammer" is the most played music video in the history of the station. "Sledgehammer" has also been declared to be MTV's number one animated video of all time.It's impossible not to watch it, once you stumble on it. There's so much going on in every frame you want to go back and look at it again, just to make sure you don't miss anything.
Technically, the video's most obvious technique is "pixilation" (which must be distinguished from pixelation, which is what happens to a GIF or JPEG when you zoom in on it, or pixelization, which is how they obscure faces and logos on shirts on television). Pixilation is essentially an stop-motion technique in which your subject is a person; the person becomes the stop-motion puppet.
For many of the stills in the video, Gabriel had to lay prone, under a sheet of glass, over a process that took some 16 hours, according to the legend. Staging in this way explains quite a few visual aspects of the video, such as how in several animated scenes, Gabriel's face doesn't exactly look like it's quite being pulled by gravity in the traditional way, and how so many of the other stop-motion effects seem to magically maintain themselves in from of his face (the produce and the woodwork, most notably).
Many (if not all) the stop motion effects were done, in their pre-Wallace & Gromit days, by Ardman Animation, who, like Jim Blashfield, has a long and famous history with the music video. This would explain the familiarity of the stop-motion clay animation in the late-middle third of the video.
That's all for now.
Tags: Attack of the 80's, Peter Gabriel, Sledgehammer, So, 1986 Music Videos, Ardman Animation