Peter Gabriel (’86) & Fifth Harmony (‘14)

I was in a band once where we tried to cover Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, but in an uptempo disco feel (it didn’t really work). At this point my only context for Peter Gabriel was That Song From All The Movie Previews… and a subsequent trip through his super weird discography was highly rewarding.

I first heard Fifth Harmony’s “Sledgehammer” because it came into the office for transcription when it dropped a few years back. I ended up with the chorus stuck in my head for a week straight and wasn’t even mad.

Peter Gabriel’s “Slegehammer” is an 80s horn jam¹ with figurative-but-somehow-still-explicitly sexual lyrics. A live performance of this song on the Secret World DVD includes some very specific choreography which leaves little to the imagination. It was the first of 5 singles from the album “So” (“In Your Eyes” was the 3rd).²

At around 5 minutes, this song is pretty long for a single — even by 80s standards — and is bookended by jamming sections. The structure of this song is interesting: these final jams function more like a bridge, but they’re so strong there’s really no need to return to the chorus afterwords.

Also surprisingly, very little time is actually spent in the choruses. There’s a little false-chorus turnaround between the first two verses, but other than this, the chorus in full only happens twice.

Right out of the gate we are treated to the iconic Shakuhachi sample to set the mood.³ This section lasts for 17 seconds, which is daring. The spell is broken by some rad 80s horns, which drop us into 12 bars of vamping, first on the jam, then the verse. We don’t even get to the first verse until 45 seconds in.

The reason we don’t mind all this vamping is because the rhythm section here is killer and the horns are powerful. Tony Levin on bass and Manu Katché on kit are 💯💯💯.⁴ There’s also a clean muted guitar providing some rhythm in the right channel for the whole song.

It’s clear a lot of production time was spent getting the drums and bass dialed in, and they sound gnarly: there’s an octave pedal or eventide and low-feedback chorus on the bass. The snare is mixed gunshot loud, with a snappy high end crack, and doubled by a tambourine (and maybe an orchestral clapper sample?). Also notable are the high hats, which are pitched high enough to sound almost like a ride. There’s also an interesting baby-rattle-ish sound you can hear poking through during the verses.

This rhythm section’s dynamics remain mostly static throughout the course of the song; shifts in intensity are mainly achieved through changing the note density in the different sections. Every time Levin steps out is awesome.

Harmonically, this song mainly sits on Eb7. It’s in the Mixolydian Mode, which was a popular choice for 80s Horn Jams. The chorus moves up stepwise [ Cm > Db > Eb ], and derives a lot of it’s power from the critical rest between the hits on 1 and 2… also note the unusual contrary motion of the vocal part and baseline:

There’s a fair amount of variation in the horn parts; often there are little stabs and fills on the Eb measures. The 2nd chorus is extend out by four bars, where a wall of sparkly 80s synths moves up from the background — the best part of which is a little Bernie Worrell-esq lick in the left channel during the second measure.

The epic ending jam starts after another vamp following the 2nd chorus. First we get 8 bars of the shakuhachi, then the rest of the song is a lengthy section where Gabriel is trading with the backup singers. This section contains some of the most iconic vocal parts of the song: the climbing “Kick the habit”, “This is the new stuff / we go dancing in”, and “Show for me / I will… show for you.”

On his website, this is how Gabriel describes this song:

‘Sledgehammer’ was … in part, [an] homage to the music that I grew up with. I loved soul music, blues music and that was a chance to work with some of the brass players that had worked with Otis Redding, who’s my all time favourite singer.

In this context, we can see how the not-so-subtly-suggestive lyricism of 50s/60s R&B — filtered through Gabriel’s art-weirdo lens — gets us to verses like:

Show me round your fruitcage,
‘causes I will be your honey bee.
Open up your fruitcage
where the fruit is as sweet as can be.

…and, of course, and the titular Sledgehammer, uh, metaphor.

Fifth Harmony’s “Sledgehammer” is a straight-up pop banger. It’s the 2nd single off their debut album “Reflection”, along with the righteous “Bo$$” (Chorus: “Michelle Obama! Purse all heavy, gettin’ Oprah dollars!”) and Talk-Dirty-alike Klezmer Banger “Worth It.”⁵

5H is a girl group formed during the 2012 season of X Factor USA; however they’ve enjoyed more longevity* and commercial success than such origins ordinarily suggest — 1D’s world domination nonwithstanding. (* Life comes at you fast — I wrote this in 2016.)

Much of their extramusical appeal lies in the transparency of their construction, and that their diversity of race, background, and [quite unusually for girl groups] body types do not appear to be tokenized, but rather are simply features of being individuals who found themselves in the same place at the same time. In short: they feel authentic.

Written by a pre-breakout Meghan Trainor, Jonas Jeberg, and Sean Douglas, and produced by Jeberg and Harvey Mason Jr.,⁶ “Sledgehammer” is designed to burrow into your brain and Stay 👏 There 👏 Permanently.👏 An astounding 64 of this song’s 92 measures are spent in various forms of the chorus.

Stylistically, this song comes from the long lineage of synth-based midtempo 4-on-the-floor bangers birthed in the late 70s, but who’s au courant incarnation can be traced backwards to Gaga embracing what — at the time (’07–‘08) — was seen as the somewhat gauche sound of the European club scene.

Utilizing buzzy, sidechained synths with an extra FM sizzle around 15kHz, this song follows the can’t-miss production template of sparse verses, huge choruses, and pads in the bridge. The drums are that particular kind of 2010sy multiband-compressed K-thmmbpf where the kick carries roughly as much high end as the snare.⁷

The song opens with a chorus over sustained pads, adding drums on the repetition. From here we get an 8-bar verse (halved to breezy 4 bars the second time around), and a prechorus with an unusual melody built around an oscillating 4th, emphasizing the off-beats — delivered with a nice dynamic arc and time feel by Ally. This line is harmonized in 3rds the second time around. This song’s in G major, and the chord progressions are [C > G/B > D] for the verse, and [C > G > D, C > Em > D] for the chorus.

A breezy 30 seconds later, we are back at home in the chorus. Utilizing a stanza form of [A, A, B, A], the A stanzas are followed by a sampled vocal hook,⁸ and some awesome Phil-Collins-Throwback toms (which get a moment to shine at the end of the 2nd prechorus).⁹

At a relaxed 100bpm, this song is a bit slower than the 120 normally used for these sorts of tunes. This allows for melodic writing which includes a lot of 16th note rhythms, and enables fun vocal performance choices like Camila’s slightly different breathy endings to each line in the verse.

This song does something highly unusual for a modern pop tune: it slows down in the bridge, from 100 to 90 bpm. Presumably this is to allow Normani to really dig into the dramatic, sultry vocal line. This might also suggest the song was originally written at 90 and eventually kicked up to 100.

We also get the only modified chord in the song at the end of the bridge, a sexy B7/Db which resolves (kind of gothically) to an Am. The second half of the bridge is the chorus sung over a bridgier chord progression [Am > G/B > Em > D]. Then we’re back to the races for another full chorus and a tidy ending.

Unlike the lyrics to Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (which are essentially a proposition) 5H’s song focuses on the internal; the uncontrollable physical effects one experiences when in the presence of a crush.

Our narrator feels “the fever”, and suspects her physical reactions are giving away her emotions. The choruses begin with the word “If,” which specifically positions the experience as being unrealized…

Until the bridge, wherein our narrator declares that “The truth is out,” and flirts with the song’s otherwise PG rating by admonishing the subject of the song to “undress my love.”

Also unusual for two songs which deal so specifically with the realm of the physical: although I’ve been using the gendered pronouns of the singers, both of these songs employ exclusively I / You statements, and include no specific gender references. So, everyone is free to perform both of these songs at Karaoke Night without needing to make a call on flipping the pronouns.


[1] See also: You Can Call Me Al and the entirety of Sports.

[2] “So” is Gabriel’s fifth solo album. The previous 4 are untitled, and significantly more experimental.

[3] Hell Yeah

[4] There’s an alternate universe where session musicians get more press coverage, and Tony Levin is a household name.

[5] Which features a stock market-themed music video. Shoutout to The Smartest Guys In The Room.

[6] …who has production credits for the late, great Luther Vandross.

[7] This song is also mastered at maximum loudness, and repeated listens impart a fair amount of ear fatigue… but not ❤ fatigue.

[8] …which would have it’s defining moment a year later with The Dolphin Sound.

[9] It’s practically a Genesis reunion up in here! This famous production technique is called “Gated Reverb”, which I’m sure we’ll get to in a later “Same” article.