“Lighting is to disco as love is to marriage, as tonic is to gin, as music is to dancing,” wrote Billboard editor Radcliffe Joe in This Business of Disco, a club owners’ guide published in 1980. “Disco would not be disco without it.” It’s a claim that applies to disco as much as it does club music as a whole. While light shows proliferated during the disco era of the 70s, the history of lasers and dance music goes back even further.
An acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” the laser had been in commercial use for decades; starting in the 60s, the technology been used for cutting steel and diamonds, as well as in microsurgery. In the early 70s, pioneering DJs like Nicky Siano, Grandmaster Flowers, and Pete “DJ” Jones, as well as their late-70s successors Larry Levan and Tee Scott, were bringing their own laser lights to parties they threw in hotel ballrooms and other venues around New York City. Siano helped invent modern dance DJing in the early 70s, while Flowers and Jones are a pair of uptown legends who helped pave the way for hip-hop. “They created techniques and styles that people use today,” New York native and veteran DJ-producer Boyd Jarvis told me in a 2012 interview, referring to the primitive light shows they created to accompany their sets.
But the occasional refracted high beam showering a dance floor with colored light via a spinning disco ball was peanuts compared to the way lasers were infiltrating rock at the same time. On November 19, 1973, Los Angeles’s Griffith Park Observatory hosted the debut of Laserium, the first-ever evening of laser images set to a recorded-music soundtrack. Founded by engineer Ivan Dryer in Van Nuys, Laserium did so well that on the final night of its month-long residency, a crowd showed up that was nearly double the observatory’s capacity.
At a time when digital technology seemed practically Martian, Laserium shows featured something positively space age: colorful, high-powered beams creating flashy, constantly morphing 3-D displays of color in real time, all set to music. “Laserium is the definition of a laser show,” says Jon Robertson, Laserium’s associate creative director. “Lasers are the show; they’re not part of the show.” That first run at the Griffith Park Observatory set the stage for much more: “Other planetariums came to us and said, ‘We’d like to make some money at night too,'” Dryer told Spin. (The company’s “Inside Laserium” page for the still-active business features a helpful overview of laser’s technical aspects.)
Though its first program was a mixture of classical music like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” progressive rock from the likes of English supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and all-synthesizer recordings, Dryer’s company soon became so closely identified with epic classic rock that you could forgive a person for thinking that “Laser Zeppelin” and “Laser Floyd”as Laserium’s shows devoted to those groups were dubbedwere actually band names. Coincidentally, the cover of Dark Side of the Moon, released the same year as Laserium’s debut, even depicts a laser refracting into a rainbow.
Though the imagery could be corny (during one Dark Side Laserium show, you’d see cash registers during “Money”), an environment in which participants were encouraged to stretch out on their backs naturally led to other forms of relaxation. “It was just a place to go and get high,” Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne told Spin. In 1999, his band released the song “Laser Show,” where Schlesinger sings, “They come from Bridgeport, Westport, Darien/ Down to the Hayden Planetarium/ We’re gonna space out to our favorite tunes/ We’re going straight to the dark side of the moon.”
Big rock bands were soon using lasers as well. “Laserium did Alice Cooper and Tangerine Dream way back in the 70s,” says Robertson. In 1975, the Who’s production manager, John Wolff, obtained a four-watt Spectra-Physics argon beam that he’d seen Led Zeppelin use, keeping a garden hose on hand in case the laser accidentally burned something. “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,'” wrote Steve Knopper in the Washington Post. Knopper quotes Wolff: “When Pete The music was getting too belligerent, too ravey, too circus-like. You know, lights, lasers, smoke, and not the reality, no kind of social commentary.”
Artists and DJs have raised similar charges against the EDM movementan era that was catalyzed by a show that combined every kind of lighting trick imaginable, helping to translate the sensory experience of a rave for fans of larger-than-life rock concerts. Think: Daft Punk’s carnival-of-lights show at Coachella 2006. “They’re obviously revolutionary,” says Laserium’s Jon Robertson of Daft Punk’s eye-popping sage presentation. “They definitely set the bar, then raised it and redefined it, and smashed the envelope several times.”
Still, he’s disparaging about what’s come in their wake. For Robertson, the newer stuff, made more cheaply (and oftentimes in China), doesn’t measure up to the more expensive, water-cooled lasers of yore. The light isn’t as sharp; the colors aren’t as vivid. “Some of the biggest EDM stars out there, the biggest showsthey still do the same stuff. Nowadays, practically every club on every corner has some kind of laser tchotchke,” he says of Intellabeams and their ilk.
(Photo via Jrg Weingrill)
Still, not every modern-day laser show is cheap. Take the Disco Duck, the $2 million moving installation that has appeared regularly at Burning Man since 2008. In an account of Black Rock City for Dancecult, scholar Graham St. John described the Disco Duck as “the most audacious sound art vehicle on the playa.” The mobile, three-level club was shaped like a yellow bath-time duck, and came attached to a fur-lined, double-decker bus stocked with champagne. “After dusk, the giant duck with its green lasers for eyes and a fire-spitting Mohawk, became integral to the nightworld at Burning Man,” wrote St. John.
The relationship between lasers and dance music has come a long way, from DJs bringing rudimentary lights to a hotel ballroom to help their dancefloors feel a little more like Shangri-La, to the multi-million-dollar spectacles at today’s EDM festivals. But the ultimate power of lasers their ability to connect electronic dance music’s space-age futurism and love for technology with a visible, if not tangible, experience.
Take Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2013, the site of Armin Van Buuren’s A State of Trance show, which hit a dozen cities worldwide that year. At the climax, Van Buuren stood atop the decks, wrappedlike so many imports before himin an American flag emblazoned with the words “A State of Trance” written on it. A blast of rainbow-colored lasers refracted off his body as he luxuriated in the glow of his CDJs. He wasn’t just a star in America, he wasn’t just a star around the worldhe was a star in the galaxy. The vividness of laser light takes us all, for at least a moment or two, to a similar place. Beam us up, Scotty.
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