When Peter Gabriel made the transition from prog to pop with 'Sledgehammer' he did it on his own exacting terms...
The words to Peter Gabriel's most commercial song and biggest international hit aren't exactly subtle. Sonically drawing on some of his previous numbers, like 'Games Without Frontiers' and 'Shock the Monkey', as well as 1960s American soul records by the likes of Otis Redding, 'Sledgehammer' is chock full of sexual innuendo: a steam train, an aeroplane, a big dipper, a bumper car, you name it.
Still, thanks to its infectious groove, contributions by the likes of legendary Stax house musicians the Memphis Horns and an iconic music video, it topped the American chart in July 1986 and climbed to number four in the UK.
'Sledgehammer' was the second track on So, Gabriel's fifth solo studio album and the biggest seller of his career, hitting the top spot in his native Britain where it was certified triple platinum and number two in the US where it went five-times platinum. Produced by Canadian musician Daniel Lanois, it melded Gabriel's world-music sensibilities and love of experimentation with Lanois' own ambient leanings to create a stone-cold classic.
"Peter would immerse himself in anything rhythmic, whereas Dan was very soulful as a producer,” says Kevin Killen, who took over as the album's engineer after David Bascombe — who'd recorded the basic tracks — left the project to work with Tears For Fears. "Beforehand, they'd worked on the soundtrack of the Alan Parker film, Birdy, re‑purposing and overdubbing on existing material that Peter had in his catalogue, and this had given them an interesting view into how they might work on So, enabling things to unfold naturally.”
A native of Dublin, Ireland, Killen kicked off his career there at the small 24‑track Lombard Sound studio in late 1979, working on jingles and post‑punk album projects. After a couple of years, he was then hired by the city's premier facility, Windmill Lane, and in 1984 assisted and did additional engineering duties on U2's The Unforgettable Fire, produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois at Slane Castle. This, in turn, led to Killen's association with Peter Gabriel; after relocating to New York City in November of that same year, he secured work as an assistant and then as an engineer at Electric Ladyland while recording several gigs on U2's American concert tour. Meanwhile, Lanois, having worked with Gabriel on the Birdy soundtrack at the latter's Ashcombe House home studio near Bath, Somerset, also started working on So there during the early part of 1985.
"I'd had my fill of instrumental experimenting for a while,” the artist would explain a quarter of a century later, "and I wanted to write proper pop songs, albeit on my own terms.”
When Genesis fan Kevin Killen received a call that May, asking him to help finish the record following Dave Bascombe's departure, he jumped at the opportunity.
"I'd had quite a bit of experience working with SSL consoles,” Killen explains. "An SSL had been installed at Windmill Lane just prior to the making of The Unforgettable Fire, and pretty much all of the studios where I'd been working in New York also had SSLs. Peter and Dan got on the phone with me one day and suggested I join them for four to six weeks to take care of final overdubs and mixing. I agreed and flew to the UK, where I was picked up at Heathrow Airport by Peter's assistant, David Stallbaumer, who informed me I'd be there until the following March. I said, 'How do you know?' and he replied, 'I know Peter. Things don't move that quickly in his world.' As it turned out, he was spot on. The sessions ran into the New Year and the album wasn't mastered until mid‑February of 1986, at London's Townhouse Studios by Ian Cooper. During mastering, I fully expected Peter to call and say, 'I have another idea for an overdub,' Well, we took a week off after mastering and returned to Ashcombe to tidy up some other tracks that were slated as B‑sides.”
The Ashcombe facility was located within the long, rectangular cow shed of a converted farmhouse, with a control room overlooking the valley, but not the recording area that, separated by a small tech area, was situated just behind it. As such, there were no direct sight lines between the two.
"We didn't have a video connection,” says Killen. "When the musicians were tracking, the bass, drums and guitar would typically be in the recording space, whereas when it came to the overdubs pretty much everything — including the vocals — was done in the control room. That studio was very home‑spun; quite basic in terms of its acoustic treatments and trapping, but it somehow managed to sound quite true.”
A 56‑input SSL 4000 E Series was complemented by a stock Studer A80 24‑track machine and a modified Studio A80 with customised Colin Broad Audio cards. Outboard gear included an EMT echo plate, AMS 1580 digital delay, RMX 16, Delta Labs DL2, Lexicon 224, Quantec Room Simulator and Decca compressors, as well as Revox B77 quarter‑inch and Ampex ATR half‑inch tape machines.
"The live room had a PA system that we also used as an echo chamber,” Killen recalls, "and the control room was where Peter had his keyboards — an Emulator, a Fairlight, a Prophet 5 and a Yamaha CP70 — in addition to some percussion instruments and a bunch of guitars. The stock Studer A80 served as the A machine during the initial tracking sessions, while the modified Studer was used as the B machine. An Adam Smith synchroniser, which controlled sync between the two machines, was installed a day before tracking began. Peter's original demos of his songs had consisted of a Linn 9000 drum pattern and chord progressions on the Prophet 5 or CP70, and these had been played back on the B machine while the A machine was used to simultaneously record the band and a rough mix of the demoed parts for reference on playback.
"The basic tracks had mostly been recorded in long form, so the arrangements that we now hear weren't necessarily on the multitracks when I got involved. Some of them were almost the same, but others were really elongated; 'Sledgehammer' was close to 10 minutes, as opposed to the five minutes that ended up making it onto the single and the five minutes, 16 seconds on the album version. When they were tracking, they'd do these extended sections and extended vamps, because at the time Peter just had basic chord arrangements that he'd wanted to pursue. That also allowed the musicians freedom to explore new ideas, which sometimes ended up in the next take of the song.
"Lyrically, Peter likes to ponder his choices over a long period of time and he will play around with various ideas. Initially, he would come up with sounds for the basic track and try to fit key words into those sounds — he describes this process as Gabrielese — and then the lyrics would develop from there. When people came in to record overdubs, they might be playing to something that was still only partially formed or completely blank vocally. As a result, even if they came up with a great part, there was no guarantee it would stand the test of time. Peter was constantly upgrading his ideas, and so original parts would have to be replaced to accommodate the new arrangements.”
"The first song I heard on my arrival was 'Sledgehammer'. The drums, bass, guitar and keyboards had been recorded in their most basic form. Peter was working on a lyrical idea and he was trying to cement a melody for those lyrics. There was no lead vocal, no backing vocals, no horn parts, no organ. Even the bass part changed, going from a slightly different tone to what it became with Tony Levin's Boss octave pedal. In its extended version, it sounded like a really cool track that needed to be edited down into a more manageable form so that its great ideas could be presented in a more concise fashion, possibly with a view to being a single.
"Obviously, what [drummer] Manu Katché played had much more of a soulful feel, so that served as the master drums. Tony came back and redid the bass part at some point during the summer, based on conversations as to where the track was heading, and [guitarist] David Rhodes, Dan and Peter provided additional groove parts, including organ, in the middle of that summer.”
While Levin's bass was recorded direct, the guitars went through a Roland JC120 and a Fender Deluxe, miked with Shure SM57s and, on occasion, a Sony C500. Gabriel's keyboards were either DI'd or they went through a PA stack in the live room, recorded with Neumann U87 room mics.
"During recording, Dan really liked this idea of combining instruments to create a new part,” Killen says. "So, it wasn't unusual to have Dan playing a 12‑string electric guitar, David Rhodes playing his Steinberger six‑string guitar or Strat, and Peter playing the CP70, Fairlight or Prophet 5. Instead of their instruments being recorded to three discrete tracks, all of them were treated as a single sound source and recorded to a mono or stereo track to create a sound illusion/part.
"As we processed each sound source, it informed and affected how David, Dan and Peter would play and, given there was so much interplay between the part and the processing, it really did produce some unique sounds. We tried to avoid recording stock sounds, but they had to have a familiar — yet not instantly recognisable — footprint. In essence, the parts sounded much more keyboard‑based or slightly guitar‑based, but typically they were neither.
"There's a real feel to that song and there's definitely ebb and flow in the way that the track grooves. Manu has a very distinct feel, as does Tony, and they're playing around with the time a little bit so that it pushes and pulls in a very musical way. It has some sassiness to it. Even though they were listening to a drum machine pattern, the track undoubtedly makes you want to get up and dance from the very first measure. It isn't specifically metronomic.
"Dave and Dan miked Manu's kit with a Sennheiser RE20 and a D112 on the kick drum; SM57s on the snare; Sennheiser 421s on the toms; an AKG 451 on the hi‑hat; and 87s for the overheads. They also printed an AMS effect on the snare: a combination of non‑Linn and ambience with a little echo plate to produce that very signature sound. As the bass and the drums are really driving that song, their balance is key to its fantastic groove.”
"Peter and Dan went to New York in early September to add the horns, leaving us with a decision as to whether we should send over the extended version or an edited version, and we decided to edit the multitrack to get it down into a more reasonable form, including four or five cuts to the end section. We had to get to a place where it felt like the rise and falls were musically significant and tied together.
"Part of the situation I walked into was the issue of drifting sync between the master and slave reels. The synchroniser was installed they day before basic tracking and the assumption was that both Studers had the same sync card; even though the stock one had an FM sync card and the modified one had a DC card. Therefore, the synchroniser was sending the wrong pulses to the modified machine. Additionally, the Studer A80 was notoriously inconsistent in terms of its tape speed for the first and last two minutes of each reel, so there was an additional bit of slippage going on. When the synchroniser was sending out the pulses to the two machines, they were slowly drifting apart. With 'Sledgehammer' there were six different reels because they did so many takes and there were great parts on all of them.
"Dan had made this map in his project notebook; I had first experienced this on the Unforgettable Fire album. He was very meticulous in terms of keeping notes and we could see where the parts were. But when we lined up reel one with reel five, they would start together and then they'd drift apart. We therefore had to devise a process to get parts back in sync onto a master reel. Having worked with Bob Clearmountain on a project in New York where we'd used a Mitsubishi 32‑track digital machine, I suggested that might be a good solution, because we could create a brand new digital master and preserve the quality of the analogue reels without having to degrade via multiple passes. On top of that, we could then create a new slave reel based on the new digital master and give ourselves plenty of tracks if we wanted to experiment. That's what we ended up doing. Prior to Peter and Dan going to New York, we actually rented and flew the Mitsubishi 32‑track from New York over to England, because it was cheaper to do that than to rent it from London. It wasn't a minor difference; it was a substantial difference! We couldn't really wrap our heads around that; it was pretty staggering, but I guess the British pound was going quite strong in 1985!
"We took delivery of that machine in August, so now we had the two Studers and the Mitsubishi, and this was going to require physically editing the multitracks. At that time, track 24 was usually where you'd print the time code, and you have to do identical edits on the master reel and all the slave reels. Well, for us the only absolute truth was that the drum machine printed on all the reels for each song would be our timing benchmark, enabling us to align things musically. Cutting into the timecode stripe would render a song's master and slave reels un‑sync'able. Fortunately, Peter's console tech, Mike Large, worked for SSL and, after taking a look at the Adam Smith manual, he found a preference in one of the tiny sub‑menus that basically told the synchroniser, 'Okay, if you see an edit go across the head stock and you see the numbers jump, ignore it.' This, in effect, enabled it to soft‑lock over a multitrack edit without making the slave machine rewind, fast‑forward or stop until it recognised the next complete timecode frame to sync to. Consequently, even though there was still a slight disparity between the two machines, they remained in sync and, so long as nothing rhythmic was being copied from the B reel over to the master reel, we could sync the edits to create a new digital master for Peter and Dan to work with when they returned from New York.”
"They came back with the horn parts and that was an exceptional moment. Everybody thought 'Sledgehammer' was shaping up to be a really great song — even without the lyrics it was totally infectious. Peter was still working on them and beginning to hone in on what he wanted to say in line with the melody. When he had them nearly complete, his vocals would usually require five or six takes and then we'd just comp between them. If he did a lyric change, we'd come back in and do the same thing, and I'd re‑comp the new vocal parts into the existing one. In early October, the backing singers PP Arnold, Coral Lewis and Dee Gordon then came in and we recorded them facing each other with a 47 and a 67 onto one track, doubled.”
Around that time, the Virgin and Geffen execs also visited the studio to preview six or seven of the album's tracks, all of which underwent rough mixes beforehand so that they could be presented in the best possible light, considering the more pop‑oriented direction Peter Gabriel was taking. The verdict: completely positive.
"From that point forward, we never actually did another overdub on any of the songs without recalling those rough mixes,” continues Killen, whose credits include Shakira, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, Jewel, Bon Jovi and Suzanne Vega (whose latest album he recently mixed). "We felt it was imperative to use those roughs as a basis for any future consideration. In the case of 'Sledgehammer', we still had to record the lead vocal and some minor bits and pieces. Peter was always coming up with ideas such as a little vocal grunt here or an ad‑lib there, like that chorus part where it goes 'Sledge! Sledge! Sledgehammer!' He originally sang 'sledgehammer' and then Dan suggested sampling and truncating that word with the AMS 1580 to make it sound artificial and robotic. There were also little tambourine hits and the synthesized shakuhachi flute that Peter played with the Fairlight.”
"Getting a great lead vocal on there really helped focus the track, and we could then see which sections needed attention. By late October, he had 90 percent of the vocal, after which it was a case of, say, adding a little part to make a specific section transition more quickly, changing a lyric, or adding the odd word to plug a hole. By then, we were very good at taking things and moving them around, either manually or by sampling and dropping them in.
"Peter recorded complete takes of the vocal and then we compiled. That wasn't true for all songs, but for 'Sledgehammer' we created a comp track. Shortly after I arrived, we'd started setting up for vocals and he had told me he normally sang through an SM57. Dan said, 'OK, we'll set up an SM57 but let's set up other microphones as well and do a blindfold test.' Peter was game enough to do that, so we had about six different mics set up in the control room, he put on the blindfold outside and walked in. He wasn't allowed to touch the microphones, and all the gains were set the same so that he couldn't tell which was which in terms of level. He went through each one, walking from one to the other, and the one he ended up picking was the Neumann U47.
"This particular Neumann had a really great, silky high end, but it didn't have as much bottom as Dan and I had expected. It had an unusual tone, and Peter has that lovely little rasp in his voice as well as a certain airiness. We thought the U47 sounded really good on him and then, just before we ready to record, our tech Neil Perry said something was shorting out in the cable connecting the mic to the power supply. After fixing the cable, we had Peter step back up to the microphone and it sounded different; much more full‑bodied. We liked that, but we pined for the airiness of the pre‑modified version. We asked Neil , 'Is there any way of mimicking that response? He did by removing the shield on a patch cord. Then he said, 'We should plug the microphone's input into a mult on the patch bay, take a regular patch cord out of that mult into a fader, and mult the dropped shield patch cord into a secondary fader. You'll have the normal 47 response with the modified 47 response on separate faders. You can use that to balance between the airiness and roundness of Peter's voice.'
"That became the way in which we approached the vocals. Peter likes to sing in the control room and to not be totally isolated with headphones. We had small NS10 monitors and a pair of Tannoys as well. So, we'd flip the phase on them, placing the U47 at the apex position from the speakers while monitoring at a moderate level, and then Peter would sing with a pair of Sennheisers around his neck. Afterwards I'd record a track at the same monitoring level of just the backing track minus the vocal. Then I'd comp with that backing track out of phase with the vocal to see if we could get it to cancel.
"In terms of vocal performances, Peter would usually take three, four, five passes to get a great end result. He's an incredibly great vocalist. It's rare that Peter sings out of tune and he's really got the most soulful sounding voice. It might take him a long time to arrive at a finished lyric that he's comfortable with, but once he gets there his delivery is impeccable...
"Personally, it was a life‑changing experience. Dan was gracious to invite me onto the project, and the challenges it presented allowed me to grow exponentially as a person and as an engineer. Meanwhile, Peter was incredibly gracious both as a person and as a performer, and he made me feel welcome from the first day. We were a competitive group, and this manifested itself in our daily games of boules, as well as our runs to Solsbury Hill with David Rhodes, PG and myself. There was exceptional humour and compassion, and enough creative tension to help maximise our contributions. I cannot imagine my life or career without that experience and the friendships that ensued.”