Sunday, December 27, 2015

In Memoriam: Stephen R. Johnson

Anyone who reads my stuff would probably have bet on an In Memoriam post about the late Daevid Allen, of Soft Machine and Gong, who died on March 13, 2015. But I’ve already written about him here, and decided to look in a different direction--Stephen R. Johnson, one of the most important people in music history that you have never heard of, who died back on January 26, 2015.

If you are a person who came of age watching MTV when it still played music videos, and someone asked you what the most memorable video was, there’s a pretty good chance that you would say, “Sledgehammer,” by Peter Gabriel. And, considering that the video won a still unsurpassed 9 MTV Video Awards, and was the most played video on the channel, it is fair to say that it changed people’s perceptions of what a music video could be. The song is great and moved Peter Gabriel’s solo career from a prog-rock niche into mass popularity, but the video was what made it stick in our minds. It was directed by Stephen R. Johnson.

The animation was done, in part, by Aardman Animations, which went on to create Wallace and Gromit, and the production of the clip required that Gabriel remain under a glass sheet for 16 hours. I’m really not a huge fan of music videos, but this one was special, and still holds up. Johnson also directed similarly wild videos for Gabriel’s “Big Time” and “Steam,” which won a Grammy. He also directed the video for Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere,” and Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” (which, at Mark Knopfler's direction, included sports footage and no shots of his large-nosed profile), and received an Emmy nomination for directing the first season of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and did work for Amnesty International.

Johnson was born July 12, 1952, in Paola, Kansas and attended college at Kansas University and the University of Southern California, where he created an award-winning movie using the stop-motion technique that he would use in many of his music videos. His first music video was an awful one for an awful 80’s band called Combonation, redeemed only by an appearance by a pre-stardom Robin Wright, and the fact that a guy in the video is wearing a Mets hat. From that humble beginning, his career went on a rapid upswing to the heights of “Sledgehammer.”

Unfortunately, Johnson passed away, too young, on January 26, 2015, of what was described as “cardiac complications.”

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