Rock music and the development of staging

view from audience, whose waving arms are silhouetted in the foreground, of laser beams shining across a stage in a dramatic light show

© iStockphoto.com/nazzl

As rock musicians became internationally successful, stage shows became much more elaborate. In part this derived from the success of psychedelia, which became prominent in 1966 and 1967, and stage shows began to reflect the visual imagery that had become associated with the counterculture and drug use. Slide shows and the use of oil wheel lighting projections became commonplace. These visual elements had started off as a reflection and enhancement of the LSD experience first used in the Acid Tests undertaken by the author Ken Kesey and his acolytes in the mid-1960s. These events were 'happenings' where free LSD would be given out to participants dissolved into the soft drink Kool-Aid. The drug experience was accompanied by light shows and performances by the Grateful Dead (then known as the Warlocks). This combination of sound and visuals began to work itself into more conventional performance settings almost immediately. In San Francisco, Bill Graham's Fillmore venue became known for the swirling lightshows and strobe lighting that accompanied performances at the venue whilst the UFO Club provided a similar experience in London.

Both Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were house bands at the UFO and their audiovisual shows became renowned as a highpoint of British psychedelia. Pink Floyd went on to make psychedelic light shows an integral part of their stage shows in collaboration with lighting technician Mike Leonard. Leonard experimented with an innovative technique of sending coloured light through a series of convex and concave Perspex lenses, which in combination were able to bend and shape lights into a myriad of complex patterns.

As the superstar rock bands of the 1960s sold more and more records they began to play much bigger venues. In the early 1970s bands such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd embarked on arena tours that surpassed anything seen before in terms of scale, organisation and cost. These tours saw new innovations in staging, such as large-scale portable lighting rigs fashioned from scaffolding, and movable lighting consoles that travelled with the act for each concert. The sheer size of the venues that these acts were playing and the numbers of people attending meant that these stadium shows had to provide some form of visual excitement which could be viewed from a distance. Accordingly, as the 1970s progressed, staging and lighting became ever more elaborate. In their 1973 tour Pink Floyd utilised a huge circular projection panel to project specially made films and animations. Along with high tech laser shows these projections became a trademark of the band's shows.

The same period also saw the introduction of computer-operated automated lighting consoles. These electronic devices could control multiple lights at once and enabled increasingly synchronised and highly sophisticated light shows through their use of moving and colour-changing lighting and other elements such as fog machines and lasers.

These developments were in keeping with the main progressive aesthetic that was common in rock music at the time. The drawn out, epic nature of many songs and arrangements was echoed by the lighting used. Bands of the era also used elaborate stage props and costumes. Genesis were known for Peter Gabriel's elaborate stage outfits including a flower head-dress and a Britannia costume and specially constructed stage sets that echoed the mystical element in the band's lyrics. Other examples of such elaborate staging included Rick Wakeman's performances of his rock operas, which at one stage included a choir and various dancers performing on ice. But again it was Pink Floyd who provided the most over-the-top examples with stage props - including a large scale model plane that flew over the audience and crashed onto the stage, flying pigs, and the famous wall that was gradually dismantled to reveal the band.

Later in the 1970s genres such as pub rock and punk reacted against what they saw as the indulgence of these shows by adopting a back-to-basics approach that rejected such elaborate staging in favour of more physical performance in a simpler arena. The conventions of progressive rock staging were seen as reinforcing the separation between performer and audience and the simplification of staging in punk shows echoed punk's concern with making popular music practice more open to participation. Nevertheless the innovations of the progressive rock era continued to be used in large-scale popular music shows. Throughout the 1980s a new generation of superstars undertook stadium tours that took advantage of further technological advances. Artists such as Prince and Madonna toured with highly choreographed shows with sophisticated automated lighting, costume changes and revolving stage sets.