Lightshows of the Beat era
On 8th March 1968, Bill Graham’s Fillmore East opened for business at the former Village Theatre in the East Side of New York City. On the bill that night were Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Tim Buckley and Albert King. The lights were by the Joshua Light Show - Joshua White and his associates, each experienced in the art of mixing light with colour to create a powerful visual accompaniment for the loud, experimental rock music that rattled the rafters of the 60-year-old building.
From a narrow platform high up at the back of the theatre, White and his crew, stripped to the waist, with their long hair tied back to prevent it from catching fire under the heat of the 1,200 watt lamps, operated a series of specially customised slide projectors, multi-coloured celluloid wheels and overhead projectors, upon which clock glasses filled with unmixable liquids of various colours were slowly heated and projected over the performers and audience. Glycerine, alcohol, oil and water spat, boiled and separated into amoebic patterns during one of these so-called ‘wet shows’ in which the operators would, as in Free Jazz, visually improvise around the music with White conducting. Band and lightshow were fused together to form an experience that intimidated and mesmerised the crowd, perfectly encapsulating the mood and direction of the time. Like some living light laboratory, White and his devoted team of psychedelic scientists continued with their occasionally dangerous, spontaneous, light experiments, knowing that nothing they created could ever be repeated.
The lightshow bubbled into existence in San Francisco during the Beat era of the mid-50s. They were invariably primitive affairs comprising a slide projected on a wall at somebody’s apartment or a university hall, while a black-clad hipster stood in the light, reciting passages from the works of Ginsberg or Kerouac. When Modern Jazz exploded onto the scene, the lightshows became more elaborate. Hot coloured oils and inks were swirled in glass bowls under the cooking glare of several overhead projectors and the results were beamed out over the players, whose free-flowing jazz squawk supplied a suitably bohemian soundtrack to the spectacle. One of the first lightshow artists to emerge from this period was painter Bill Ham, ‘experimenting with methods of plugging his painting into the wall - into the electrical current that musicians were doing with their guitars’. 1
Billed as The Light Sound Dimension, Ham’s primal psychedelic lightshow landscapes became the blueprint for numerous imitators and innovators. As the 60s rock revolution rapidly evolved across America, nearly every major music venue would have its own in-house lightshow. In San Francisco alone there were nearly one hundred lightshow companies: famous outfits like Brotherhood of Light and Glen McKay and Jerry Abram’s Head Lights, who worked exclusively for Jefferson Airplane, alongside the esoterically named Anathema, Black Arts West, Crimson Madness, Dry Paint, Garden of Delights and Heavy Water. Other techniques had been added to the standard mix of coloured oils and inks - Super-8 film loops of train crashes and autopsies were speeded up or projected backwards to surreal effect, overlaid with liquid lights so that the flickering image could only be partly seen, giving the illusion of a trip that had reached its peak.
Back at the Fillmore East, Joshua Light Show were using back projections so that the lights in all their hallucinogenic glory exploded behind the band with the impact of a nuclear love bomb. This technique finally allowed the photographing of lightshows: before the introduction of back projection, any flash would bleach out the background. Once this obstacle was overcome, bands began using lightshow photography on album sleeves and promotional material. Classic examples include the front covers of Iron Butterfly’s million-selling album In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968) and Country Joe and The Fish’s debut Electric Music For The Mind And Body (1967), together with the back cover of Moby Grape’s eponymously titled 1967 debut album and the inside gatefold of Big Brother and The Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills (1968). The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) album also used a lightshow as part of its design. Andy Warhol’s first foray into the seedy world of electric rock music, leather, whips and sexual domination eventually mushroomed into his first Erupting (later Exploding) Plastic Inevitable happening during April 1966 at an old Polish Meeting Hall called The Dom on St. Mark’s Place. In Popism - The Warhol 60s (1981) Warhol described just what went on at a typical EPI show: ‘I’d usually watch from the balcony or take my turn at the projectors, slipping different-coloured gelatin slides over the lenses and turning movies like Harlot, The Shoplifter, Couch, Banana, Blow Job, Sleep, Empire, Kiss, Whips, Face, Camp, Eat into all different colours. Stephen Shore and Little Joey and a Harvard kid named Danny Williams would take turns operating the spotlights while Gerard [Malanga] and Ronnie [Tavel] and Ingrid [Superstar] and Mary Might [Woronov] danced sadomasochistic style with the whips and flashlights and the Velvets played and the different-coloured hypnotic dot patterns swirled and bounced off the walls and the strobes flashed and you could close your eyes and hear cymbals and boots stomping and whips cracking and tambourines sounding like chains rattling’. 2
The Fillmore East’s soft-focus, San Francisco-influenced technicolour explosions and Warhol’s stark, art-house strobe streakings, however, were poles apart in both technique and attitude. When Warhol took the Velvets and his EPI to San Francisco that summer he was greeted with derision by the psychedelic crowd at the Fillmore Auditorium who were deeply unimpressed by what they saw and heard and went home ‘relieved of the burden of keeping track of what might be going on elsewhere’. 3 The social barrier that divided the lightshow operators on the West Coast from the more brutal art rock/gallery scene on the East Coast did not, however, influence the UK’s version of 60s counterculture, which seemingly embraced any new artistic adventure in its rush for change after lingering for too long under the shadow of the 40s and 50s. In 1966, London was swinging, but something more substantial and innovative was happening underground. Just as the US psychedelic/freak scene came out of the beat community, so the UK underground scene’s roots could be traced back to the coffee-house beatniks and Ban-the-Bomb marchers of the late 50s and early 60s. Here, intellectuals, artists, writers, poets and musicians were drawn together by a powerful force. Those involved at the beginning of this important cultural transition were figures as diverse as author and owner of Better Books, Miles, Jim Haynes of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and Paperback Bookshop, Pink Floyd’s first management team of Peter Jenner and Andrew King, lightshow artists Peter Wynne-Wilson, Jack Braceland (previously involved with a nudist colony in Watford), Mike Leonard from the Hornsey College of Art scene, artist Mark Boyle, and co-founder of the Notting Hill Free School, IT and UFO, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins.
The combined talents of the London underground collective finally merged on Friday 23rd December, 1966 with the opening of UFO at 31 Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish watering hole called the Blarney Club, which Hopkins and his cohorts temporarily transformed into a psychedelic dance hall. Pink Floyd supplied the music, and the lights were provided by Peter Wynne-Wilson and (later) Mark Boyle’s Sensual Laboratory, whom Hopkins invited to provide regular liquid light environments. Before UFO landed, Boyle had been involved in a series of projects, the most notorious of which, Suddenly Last Supper (1964), took place in Boyle’s flat in front of an invited audience. The event involved superimposing random films and burning slides (including one of Botticelli’s Venus) over the naked body of his wife Joan, while the furniture, fixtures and fittings were secretly smuggled out of the door. When the lights came on, spectators were astonished to find themselves standing in an empty space. Boyle’s later Son et Lumière for Bodily Fluids and Functions (1966) saw natural secretions such as snot, saliva, earwax, tears, urine, sweat, blood, gastric juices, vomit and sperm projected onto the wall. During the sperm sequence, a couple (previously unknown to each other) ‘celebrated intercourse’ after being wired up to ECG and EEG oscilloscopes. The results were then televised on closed-circuit television and projected onto a large screen behind the couple where their heartbeats and brainwaves were made visible. While one critic found the piece ‘an insult to civilised man, and those who left the theatre in disgust were more to be admired than those who might pretend that it had any association with art’, Boyle’s Son et Lumière for Earth, Air, Fire and Water (1966), which he performed at UFO and the ICA, was received far more favourably by the press. 4 From 1967 Boyle and his Sensual Laboratory embarked on a long collaboration with experimental jazz-rock band the Soft Machine, a vehicle that allowed him free access to push his ideas about light and sound to the limit. ‘Mark Boyle was burning himself to pieces doing these experiments with different coloured acids’, ex-Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt told writer Jonathon Green. ‘You just saw him with these goggles, looking all burnt and stuff, high up on some rigging. You couldn’t see exactly what he was doing from on stage, but the atmosphere was good’. 5
As Wyatt indicates, the lightshows were a major part of the performance, in which music, lights and the audience were all inseparably entwined. ‘The performers didn’t want to be celebrities’, explains writer/musician Jon Newey. ‘The lights went over them and that’s what added to the whole mystique of it. You could make out vague images on stage which heightened and deepened the whole experience. You were aware of bodies moving in the murk of these lights, but you were never quite sure if they were there’. To create these slightly eerie effects, UK lightshow operators used an arsenal of techniques that included film loops, coloured spotlights, dishes and triple-tiered sandwiches of liquid slides, which were put together on site and blasted out through a bank of fanless projectors for maximum amoebic effect. But according to Newey, the best lightshow ever seen in the UK was that brought over by Dantalian’s Chariot from San Francisco: ‘It knocked spots off the Floyd’s one because it was so bubbly. They were using overhead projectors with the dishes in and amazing slides that these guys had made up. They were projecting through big metal grids and it was completely wild. In order to heighten the effect, Dantalian’s Chariot wore white robes and white kaftans and had all their equipment painted white so you virtually saw the entire lightshow’.
As the underground scene ballooned, early venues like UFO and Middle Earth proved to be too small to hold the genuine freaks and crowds of curious onlookers. Larger halls and conference centres were hired for all-night events, such as the legendary 14-Hour Technicolor Dream Benefit at Alexandra Palace and Christmas on Earth Continued, which was held at Olympia. This ‘night of the lightshows’ was one of the last, all-night, mass freak-outs featuring nearly every important UK underground band, including Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Jimi Hendrix and Tomorrow. The performers were illuminated by a non-stop barrage of kaleidoscopic, boiling lava effects, beamed from a trio of scaffolding towers, each holding eight projectors. The ceiling was hung with giant silver-polythene spheres that reflected the lights, screens were placed at 360 degrees around the hall and a helter skelter had been mysteriously erected. But for many, the party was over when the underground went overground.
The lights went out when the bands found fame. They no longer wanted to be hidden in the beautiful chaos of a lightshow, they wanted to be seen onstage and photographed so that they could sell records and appear in all their glory on the covers of the music press. The slides, liquids and dishes were cleared away to be replaced by modern spotlights and lasers. When The Doors played the Roundhouse in 1968 they demanded clear spotlights instead of liquids to be used while they were performing. Morrison was keen to enhance his image as a rock god rather than cover it up behind a blur of exploding colours. For the lightshow and those who had refined the art of making something tangible out of the intangible, this was the end.
1. Gene Anthony, The Summer of Love - Haight Ashbury at it’s Highest, Celestial Arts, 1980, p. 39.
2. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism - The Warhol 60s, Hutchinson, 1981, pp. 162-163.
3. Charles Perry, The Haight Ashbury - A History, Vintage, 1985, p. 57.
4. Mark Boyle, Journey to the Surface of the Earth - Mark Boyle’s Atlas and Manual, Edition Hansjorg Mayer, 1970.
5. Jonathon Green, Days in the Life - Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971, Heinemann, 1988, pp. 138.
Thanks to Jon Newey whose knowledge and first-hand experience of lightshows helped in the preparation of this article.
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