David Knight - 26th Apr 2016

Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, one of the greatest music videos of all time, is now 30 years old.

The single, released in the UK on April 25th 1986, became a huge international hit - it went to No.1 in the US – on the back of a video, comprised of stopmotion animation and pixellation of Gabriel's vocal performance of the song. It was regarded as both so original and entertaining, it has become regarded as the highwater mark for British music video creativity in the 1980s.

It was actually directed by an American, Stephen R Johnson, a director trained in stop-frame animation. Johnson came over to the UK in late 1985 under the auspices of his production company Limelight, after directing the video for Talking Heads' Road To Nowhere, containing similar techniques to those used in the Sledgehammer video.

When Limelight producer Adam Whittaker mentioned Johnson to Virgin Records' video commissioner Tessa Watts, she sugggested introducing him to Peter Gabriel, then about to deliver his new album So. The rest is history. Gabriel and Johnson hit it off, spending weeks developing the ideas that went into the video.

Johnson then engaged with British finest stop motion animators to make it. Most of them were based at Aardman in Bristol - including Nick Park, who famously created the oven-ready chicken dance during the song's unusual instrumental break. The Brothers Quay were not based at Aardman, but they were persuaded to relocate to Aardman to work on their section of the video.

The animators worked at breakneck speed, and the whole video was shot, edited and completed in just over a week.  

Unfortunately, Stephen R Johnson - who went on to make the Gabriel videos for Big TIme (also from So) and Steam – is not around to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his amazing achievement. He died at the beginning of 2015, in his native Kansas.

Tessa Watts, one of London's original video commissioners, who commissioned hundreds of videos at Virgin Records in the 1980s before moving into production, also sadly passed away last year. 

More on the Sledgehammer here.

David Knight - 26th Apr 2016

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