Lights, lasers and LED: How concerts have shifted from songs to spectacles

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Lights, lasers and LED: How concerts have shifted from songs to spectacles

Posted on: June 1st, 2014 by tommyj

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When it comes to concert spectacles, Kiss didn’t so much innovate new tricks as pile up all the old ones into an almost punishing show of pyrotechnics and lights. Here, KISS singer/guitarist Paul Stanley in mid-song during a 2003 summer concert in Bristow, Va.

Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post


Items on permanent display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland include "The Teacher," a 30-foot-tall inflatable sculpture that was part of the stage set for Pink Floyd’s live performances of "The Wall" album.

Lisa Delong/The Washington Post

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 fireworks, twisted three wicks together and tried them out in a coffee can. The experiment worked.

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 an 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 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. “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 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.

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. In 1975, Led Zeppelin 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.

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.

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 tour 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.

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. Daft Punk took advantage of evolving laser technology and built pyramids and other spectacular light shapes.

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, Beyonce 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.

With the summer concert season about to blast into high gear with the latest and greatest in digital innovations, production designer Jake 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.”

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