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100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Sledgehammer / Stephen R. Johnson

100 Greatest Animated Shorts, Featured

UK / 1986

In the mid eighties former prog rocker Peter Gabriel’s career was rather on the wane. Earlier, as a result of his insistence of dressing up as various plants, animals and elves while singing for Genesis, his bandmates reportedly had a quiet word in his ear that he should maybe take some time off. And now his solo career seemed to be rather stagnant, its most memorable commercial highlights up to that point were the rather tedious singles ‘Games Without Frontiers’ from 1979 and 1981’s ‘Shock the Monkey’, both of which followed up the musical dreariness of Genesis by adopting contemporary production techniques and tackling political subject matter in an attempt at relevance, in this era of punk protest and songs about reality rather than elves.

So it must have come as some as some surprise and delight to his record label when five years later Gabriel came out with an excellent soul influenced pop track entitled ‘Sledgehammer’. Realising they had a potential hit on their hands and encouraged by the MTV airplay ‘Shock the Monkey’ had received due to its elaborate video, Virgin Records Tessa Watts commissioned a bold animated promo for the song and the rest is history. The video for “Sledgehammer” rejuvenated Gabriel’s career, he was relaunched as an unlikely MTV pop artist and achieved his first and only US number one single (ironically replacing Genesis ‘Invisible Touch’, which had somehow reached the top spot).

The video, capitalising somewhat on Gabriel’s reputation for wacky art performance, was an amazing pixilation/stop-frame animation epic. It was directed by Stephen R. Johnson (who sadly passed away earlier this year), also the director of an earlier music video for Talking Heads ‘Road to Nowhere’ which employed similar techniques,.

Somewhat influenced by Švankmajer’s films with its animated fruit and objects, it featured Gabriel singing while immersed in a variety of crazily imaginative surreal situations, including being fully garbed in vegetables (not for the first time), doing pixilated dancing and animation being painted onto him. It became one of the most famous music videos in history, was MTV’s most ever played promo and voted as its all-time number one animated video.

Largely animated by Aardman Animations, Nick Park animated the dancing cooked chickens, his first job for Aardman, while Brothers Quay animated other sequences featuring objects interacting with Gabriel’s head. The Brothers however state that they are not happy with their contribution as it was too close to the work of Švankmajer, a somewhat odd reason as this accusation could be leveled at a lot of their personal output.

Meanwhile lyrically Gabriel and had abandoned all high brow mystic or political ideas and got down to the nitty gritty of human relations. “You could have a steam train, if you’d just lay down your tracks.” he sings, as a Brothers Quay train chugs round his pixilated head “…a roller-coaster, going up and down and round the bend” as a roller-coaster ride is shown in chalk playing out behind his jerking, ecstatic face. He then sings about how he wouldn’t mind examining the object of his affections’ “fruitcage” if they would let him be their “honeybee” (as he is filmed pixilated under a glass sheet while all manner of ripe juicy fruit envelopes him). If you haven’t got your head around the subject matter by now, casting your mind back to the human sperm at the beginning might help the penny drop. Yes, that’s right – it’s basically a surrealist Carry On film.

Other memorable sequences include a full on plasticine Gabriel beating himself up with hammers until tiny naked Gabriels are born from his face (which must have some Freudian angle, repressing rude thoughts will only lead to more being born perhaps, I dunno ), and finally a large gang of pixilated people (which included the animators and Gabriel’s children apparently) try and wake the singer from his pervy dreaming.

The follow up single ‘Big Time’ was another corking good pop song accompanied by a Stephen R. Johnson directed video of stop frame mayhem, but as this time it didn’t seem as rude it predictably didn’t hit the big time (see what I did there) as much as its predecessor and Gabriel found it hard to recapture the huge commercial success of ‘Sledgehammer’. His image however had been recategorised forever in the mind of the public, moving from a place dangerously near the section marked “slightly tiresome whiny navel-inspecting kind of eccentric bloke who you avoid sitting next to on the bus as he would probably bombard you with conspiracy theories ” to the category of “funny, bonkers but slightly pervy eccentric bloke who looks like he might a good laugh down the pub larking about with the barmaids”.

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!

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