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Getting hit with a sledgehammer

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The song that spurred this monstrously popular video was released the same day things spun out of control at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the U.S.S.R.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – The music of Peter Gabriel has been coming up a lot lately, as I wrote in my recent Dust Devil Dreams piece “Red rain and red skies.”

That, of course, is the first track on Gabriel’s blockbuster 1986 album So. Another song – Gabriel’s one-and-only number one hit in America – “Sledgehammer” – also stands out, but is more about sex than politics.

Still, it packs a soulful, poppy punch. A great tune and the most played video on MTV – and for good reason. It’s a visual delight and hard not to watch when it comes on. Interestingly, pop tart Miley Cyrus is seen making out with a sledgehammer in her video for "Wrecking Ball." 

The “Sledgehammer” single, as it turns out, was released on Friday, April 25, 1986.

That same day, as pop music fans and radio deejays began to take in the world-music sounds and infectious vibes of “Sledgehammer, “ in the Soviet Union, in Pripyat, Ukrainian S.S.R. (there’s Ukraine again!) things weren’t going so well. In fac t during some tests at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on the evening of the 25th and into the early morning hours of the 26th, a catastrophic accident took place.

A power surge, steam explosions and a disaster of epic proportions that would kill many – and contaminate the countryside for hundreds of miles around – made the Chernobyl accident the worst nuclear accident ever (although Fukushima is pretty darn close).

As the steam explosions continued and the brave firemen fought the radioactive fires and plumes of radioactive smoke billowed into the Ukrainian night sky, the first words of “Sledgehammer” were heard for the first time by many: “You could have steam train / If you’d just lay down your tracks / You could have an aeroplane flying / If you bring your blue sky back …”

Peter Gabriel would have a hit a few years later with a song called “Steam.”

And the aeroplane? MH370?

The hammer, of course is one half of the symbol for communism – the other is the sickle. And as I first heard “Sledgehammer” today, as I coincidentally popped on So in my office stereo, I looked down at the book on my desk (Woody Guthrie: American Radical) and I looked at the words – italicized, no less – Sledge Hammer. This, as Gabriel was literally singing: "I want to be your sledgehammer ..."

The context was: “In Charley Guthrie’s own Okemah, the Sledge Hammer went to press with a mission ‘to hammer the system, not the individual.’” That’s a Debsian credo we here at Red Dirt Report can agree upon.

So, just as these serendipitous, synchromystic things were happening, I felt compelled to pick up Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s 1988 album Big Circumstance, my favorite of his catalogue. I randomly open the CD insert and see the following “The plant manager at Chernobyl …” What? Yes. That was one of the people whom Cockburn thanked in the liner notes (tongue in cheek, I imagine).

That’s because Cockburn went to perform in Germany right after the Chernobyl accident and recalled what was going on there in the aftermath: “(I)t was a very interesting experience., and, uh, quite frightening.in some respects and funny in others. The extremes that people went to. The extremes that governments went to to try to sort of suppress people’s anxiety about the whole thing and it became ridiculous at a certain point, you know?”

Out of the experience, Cockburn wrote the dirge-like “Radium Rain.” As he says in the chorus: “Ain’t it a shame about the radium rain?”

This, of course, echoes Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” which came out around the time Bruce Cockburn was writing “Radium Rain.”

This anxiety people are feeling right now – and a lot of people are feeling it, make no mistake – is that the war drums are pounding, getting ever louder and that this time, the forces against us aren’t some third-world nation. This time, we are provoking the Russian Bear, as we did in the old days. And while Chernobyl, heralded the beginning of glasnost and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, elements of the old U.S.S.R. never quite died out. We shall see where this all takes us.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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