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  • Dynamite with a Laser Beam
Apr 2010
Apr. 15, 2010 — I am a lifelong fan of the progressive rock band Yes, which surely puts me in league with the least cool music fans ever. Hipsters scoff at the unironic appropriations of classical musical forms, the cognoscenti dismiss the often impenetrable lyrics – based on, for example, the Shastric scriptures described in a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi — and still I hang on. I am what you might call hardcore.

Just last Sunday, I went to see erstwhile Yes singer Jon Anderson in a small, intimate club in New York City. As I watched the elfin Anderson strum an acoustic guitar and sing of the solid time of change, I thought back to the first time I saw the band — long ago in Philadelphia, in the now-defunct Spectrum arena. That was an altogether different performance, I decided, with distinctly Eighties leather pants, a spare, quasi-futuristic stage and, memorably, an intricate laser light show.

The use of lasers in rock concerts dates back to the mid-1970s, with bands such as Yes, Led Zeppelin and The Who incorporating them into their ever larger, ever more elaborate stage shows. "If you’re gonna play to a vast audience,” Yes’ Chris Squire told Circus magazine in 1976, “you’ve got to be able to turn the people on in that kind of size hall. Lasers are just so terrifically powerful, in the way that they don’t die. They're as impressive in a large place as they are in a small place.”

The Who were the first to feature the technology on a large scale.* Their October 18, 1975 performance at Granby Halls in Leicester, England used a 4W Spectra Physics 164 argon laser transmitted through a diffraction grating held in place by hand. (Led Zeppelin had introduced the laser during a show the previous May, but had fired a single beam with an output of only 500-750 mW.) John Wolff, the band’s lighting operator, later recalled the relatively lax security precautions in place that night.

“I used a 4W laser with all moving effects,” he noted in Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle of the Who 1958-1978, “because, potentially, if a beam stands still, it can blind someone. A guy from Health and Safety came down to do an inspection. Every time he went to do a measurement, I’d shift the beam a fraction. I was told not to shine the lasers in the audience, so I said I’d block them out. But as soon as this jobsworth left, I took them off and the audience loved it.”

The band was prohibited from using lasers at its following dates at Wembley.

Laser light shows were a bit of a staple by the end of the Seventies. The Rolling Stones, Blue Oyster Cult and Electric Light Orchestra all developed displays in the two or three years following The Who’s Leicester show. ELO’s was especially elaborate, incorporating fog machines and a gigantic spaceship much like that depicted on the band’s 1977 album Out Of The Blue. As the Seventies gave way to the Eighties, a riot of other bands took advantage of the technology – including Rush, Pink Floyd and Queen, whose song “Killer Queen” gave me the title of this post.

We’re seeing ever more spectacular shows today, at concerts and at a variety of other music events. Next week I’ll look at the role of lasers in nightclubs and raves, focusing on the technique known as audience or crowd scanning.

* The Who are also among the latest to feature lasers in a rock concert, during their Super Bowl 2010 halftime show (See: video). According to the International Laser Display Association, this performance featured 16 sources: eight full-color lasers on the field and eight in the stage, including four 50-watt YAGs and four full-color air-cooled lasers.

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