How concerts shifted from songs to spectacles

Author: Steve Knopper
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In the beginning, there was Alice Cooper.

By the late ’60s, rock bands had been tinkering with rudimentary special effects, like the oily projections the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane used as psychedelic backdrops. Cooper, however, was a guerilla showman. In addition to employing the snakes and guillotines that would make him famous, he and his resourceful crew cut up pillows and floated the feathers into strobe lights. They turned backstage mops into weapons. Ron Volz, one of Cooper’s early effects men, had spent his youth setting off fireworks. So when somebody on the crew suggested, “We can go get smoke bombs!” he bought some at a fireworks stand, twisted three wicks together and tried them out in a coffee can. The experiment worked.

epa04215205 Divers for Hi-Dive show perform a jump from a springboard during a media preview of a new attraction at Sunway Lagoon theme park in Selangor, Malaysia, 20 May 2014. The show runs until 03 August 2014. EPA/AHMAD YUSNI

So during one of Cooper’s encores, Volz crawled to the front of the stage, careful not to disturb the show, and lit the wicks in three separate cans. “It would proceed to smoke out the entire nightclub,” recalls Volz, now a veteran art director for dozens of music videos and TV commercials. “I’d burn my finger many times.”

From these explosive but humble beginnings developed the modern, multimillion-dollar concert special-

effects industry. Over time, smoke bombs gave way to pyrotechnics; levers and pulleys gave way to hydraulics, then robotics; strobe lights gave way to lasers; video advanced from oil on a projector lens to complex LED displays. Whenever Lady Gaga acts as the ringleader in a circus of flames, explosions and spurting fake blood; whenever Taylor Swift surfs on a huge floating robot catwalk; whenever Pink spins head-over-heels in a spherical cage 30 feet high — that’s because of generations of tinkerers and pioneers, beginning with Volz, who risked their fingers for theatrical immortality.

“It’s totally changed from what it used to be,” says veteran effects man Jimmy Page Henderson, 67, vice president of Syncrolite, a Dallas lighting company that has provided installations for Disney World and Epcot Center. “Everything’s digital now. It’s so complicated now, you almost need to have a degree to go out and become a roadie.”

Alice Cooper was one of rock’s first great theatrical showmen. His 1973 Billion Dollar Babies tour included mannequins, a crazed dentist, a giant toothbrush and floating weather balloons full of baby powder and play money. British rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis picked up the mantle, beginning a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses era in rock-and-roll special effects that continues today. Led Zeppelin’s 1973 tour included more flashpot explosions than anybody had ever seen, and at the end of “Whole Lotta Love,” drummer John Bonham’s gong burst into flames.

“Back then, there were no real rules,” says Mark Grega, who started out touring with Deep Purple and is now a partner in Chicago’s Strictly FX. “If John Bonham wanted to set something on fire, I’m sure a roadie walked up there, doused it with kerosene, and lit a match. That was probably the first time that anybody was setting something on fire.”

Whole lotta lasers

In 1975, Led Zeppelin also became one of the first bands to use an actual laser — a single red beam that connected the back of the stage to the audience. (Blue Oyster Cult, the American hard-rock band, had been using the effect around this same time.) John “Wiggy” Wolff, production manager for The Who, took one mesmerized look during a London concert and said to himself: “That’s the future, right there.” Wolff, who had the reputation of being a bit crazy, explained his vision to the band and received a blank look. “Everybody in those days thought lasers meant James Bond,” he recalls. “So I did it on my own, quietly.”

The Who’s first laser was a four-watt Spectra-Physics argon beam — more powerful and versatile than Led Zeppelin’s beam had been. From the back of the stage, Wolff manipulated the laser, by hand, splitting the light into multiple beams using a diffraction grating. (Because the lasers were so hot, he had to have a garden hose on hand for cooling.) He covered the laser with a piece of cardboard and, during the band’s dramatic “See Me, Feel Me,” he slowly pulled it back to reveal a “ceiling of light.”

Recalls Wolff: “When Pete [Townshend, guitarist] saw beams coming out, he actually dropped a chord and looked at me, and he mouthed, ‘Oh, [expletive], what’s that?’ The audience just went ludicrous — they were jumping up, trying to grab the beams.”

Explosions and acrobatics

The ’70s and ’80s were a time of elaborate experimentation, from Pink Floyd’s flying pig to Parliament-Funkadelic’s mothership to the Plasmatics’ exploding cars. “We used to be able to get away with what we’d never be able to get away with now,” says “Pyro” Pete Cappadocia, a longtime special-effects man who works for Stage and Effects Engineering in Albuquerque. “We’d have the chemists in the shop working and building stuff.”

Kiss didn’t so much innovate new tricks as pile up all the old ones into an almost punishing show of pyrotechnics and lights. For its 1976 Destroyer tour, the stage filled with thick smoke within the first 40 seconds, and bassist Gene Simmons breathed fire and blew up a torch. “Kiss was known for intense everything,” Grega says.

In the late ’70s, Michael Jackson worked with magician Doug Henning to achieve a special effect where he seemed trapped in a cage and, after an explosion, reappeared elsewhere. But the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory tour was where Jackson turned tricks into art. The band opened every show with a brightly lit, “Star Wars”-style laser sword fight. Jackson referred to the light show as “my laser heaven” and sweated every detail. “He never missed anything,” recalls Steve Jander, a retired lighting designer who worked on the tour. “Out of thousands of lights, if one light was out, he would notice it.”

One key innovation in moving parts came with Tommy Lee’s drum solo during Motley Crue’s 1987 tour. As Van Halen, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Queen followed Kiss’s lead, adding more and more lasers, explosions, flashpots and general pyro to their productions, Lee won the arms race by drumming high above the audience and rotating upside down.

Lee’s acrobatics turned out to be delightfully primitive. Engineers built an arm onto the drum riser and attached the whole thing to a converted forklift, which operated the contraption via old-fashioned levers. “It would probably be deemed totally unhealthy by Health and Safety, but that’s how we did it,” recalls Jake Berry, who worked on that tour and moved on to be the production designer for recent shows by U2, Madonna and others. “We had a guy that sat on the forklift and we would get cues from Tommy — if he would say, ‘Hello, Chicago!’ we would know that was a cue to tip up a bit.”

Computer world

By the ’90s, computers were beginning to coordinate mechanical productions to rhythmic click-tracks, removing human button-pushers and improving timing. U2’s 1992 Zoo TV may not have been as visually impressive as the band’s later tours, such as Pop (with its giant golden arch) and Vertigo (with elaborate LED walls), but it innovated video, stacking TVs on top of each other and displaying Bono’s shtick of calling the president nightly on a big screen. Madonna’s tours of that era, such as 1990’s Blond Ambition and 1992’s The Girlie Show, began to use video to support the stories she told on stage.

“Because she was a director, she wanted scenes,” Berry says. “So our video was great at changing scenes — it opened up with a cathedral scene, and the next scene was a cabin where she was shooting people, then it was ‘Vogue.’ It all matched the songs.”

By the 2000s, computers and robotics had taken over. Theme parks, Cirque du Soleil and Hollywood movies were innovating with computer-generated graphics, video, moving productions and green screens, and concerts followed their lead. Mark Fisher, the late set designer and concert architect, floated Tina Turner over the stage on a robot arm. Daft Punk took advantage of evolving laser technology, which made the beams far more sophisticated and flexible than they had been in the days of The Who and Zeppelin, and built pyramids and other spectacular light shapes. In so doing, the duo helped turn electronic dance music (EDM) into a theatrical phenomenon, helping festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival to draw more than 400,000 fans in a single weekend.

“Because EDM is just one or two guys sitting on stage with a notebook computer, spinning MP3s,” Grega says, “they realized they needed to bring more production value.”

In recent years, the biggest concerts have taken on a sleek, professional feel. U2’s 360 tour, from 2009 to 2011, was almost overwhelmingly huge, with a bank of LEDs and colorful lights suspended from a spider-like structure in the middle of a stadium. For her tour beginning a year ago, Beyoncé eschewed elaborate video production to erect a wall of lights made out of mirrors and moving fixtures, in front of which she floated above the audience between two stages. Roger Waters’s The Wall tour one-upped his old mates in Pink Floyd by integrating the set design into the show, as carpenters built the giant wall throughout the performance.

With summer concert season about to blast into high gear with the latest and greatest in digital innovations, Berry can’t help but reflect on the advances made within the industry. “Who would have thought, running oil over a lens and making all those psychedelic effects on a screen in the ’60s, that now we would just have computer graphics?” he asks. “We’ve come a hell of a long way.”