A History of the Laser in Dance Music
From disco parties in the 70s to Daft Punk's carnival-of-lights show at Coachella 2006, here's how lasers became a big part of what defines a rave.
"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 dubbed—were 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 [Townshend, guitarist] saw beams coming out, he actually dropped a chord and looked at me... The audience just went ludicrous—they were jumping up, trying to grab the beams."
Though bands like U2 and Nirvana would also get the Laserium treatment in the 90s—specifically, in the form of an alt-rock cavalcade dubbed "The Lollapalaser Experience"—lasers in rock are still heavily identified with the 70s. Lasers in clubs, however, were rare during that decade. You can see why in John Wolff's garden hose, or in the fact that This Business of Disco devotes only three pages to lasers—not in the chapter on club lighting, but in the one on club safety.
Lasers, after all, were more acute heat-generating sources than even regular high-powered club lighting; remember, "radiation" is part of the name. A mishandled laser, Radcliffe Joe wrote, "can result in irreversible retina damage." He added: "A high intensity laser is defined as one exceeding 10/100th of a watt in power. Lasers exceeding this must [....] be diffused by prisms and other optical devices before the light is permitted to travel into the open spaces of a discotheque."
Moreover, the US federal government exercised heavy restrictions on laser use, demanding "clearance from radiology officials and local authorities before they can start setting up their equipment for the show," wrote Joe. "Our controls are in the public's interest, and are very stringent," an official from the Bureau of Radiation Health, a branch of the FDA, told Joe. As of 1979, failure to comply could mean fines of up to $1,000 and the impounding of equipment that didn't meet code. (The laws are similarly stringent in the UK.)
The equipment was expensive enough as it was: between $10,000 and $75,000 per laser. (Triple those amounts to see what they'd cost today.) No wonder a mere 7 percent of US clubs had lasers by the end of the 70s.
In the early 80s, following the lead of New York nightspots such as the Mudd Club and Danceteria, a number of clubs switched from full-time discos to showcasing both bands and DJs, sometimes on the same night; a popular acronym of the time for acts like Duran Duran and Culture Club was DOR, for "disco-oriented rock." One such place was the Palace in Hollywood, a Jazz Age theater that had shuttered in the early 70s. Part of its 80s revamp—during which it became a showcase club for the first wave of British MTV stars, like Duran Duran, the Culture Club, and the Eurythmics—was the addition of what one fan referred to as "a rather novel and fun laser light show that projected animated images which moved in time to the pulsating music" onto the venue's remaining movie screen.
Lighting is to disco as love is to marriage, as tonic is to gin, as music is to dancing.—Radcliffe Joe, author of This Business of Disco
The Palace continued to upgrade its laser shows over the years. By 2002, Live Sound International reported that its most recent iteration included "a full-color 10-watt laser system consisting of an Argon and Krypton blend," as well as "a NEOS Color Crystal that provides one billion user colors." Repeat: one billion.
Even if lasers weren't in vogue for much of the 80s, they had a busy decade anyway, thanks to the compact disc. Five inches in diameter, aluminum, and played by a laser in an enclosed space, compact discs debuted in Japan in 1982 and were formally introduced to the US market in 1984. A CD cost double what an LP did, and played for up to 80 minutes—or twice as long as most two-sided LPs. The record business put its chips into this format, spending the next two decades cashing in bigger than ever while vinyl LPs were being rendered obsolete.
But lasers unto themselves gained a lot of traction at the end of the decade, thanks to the early UK rave scene. Lasers were a key element of early London parties: Paul Oakenfold's Spectrum, which began in April of 1988, followed the foundational Shoom—where Danny Rampling had kicked off the UK's "acid house" craze the previous December—and blew up even larger by ladling on the gewgaws, lasers being key among them. The swiftness of acid house's rise was remarkable: Within a year, Shoom's MDMA-fueled model had metastasized from 500 people (the size of the gym where Rampling threw Shoom) to mega-parties of 15,000. Not coincidentally, that meant more money to buy lasers, which became a crucial part of the carnival atmosphere surrounding the mega-raves that soon began sprouting up, and the perfect cutting-edge tool for elevating an age-old bacchanal into a cheesy sci-fi future.
One such mega-party, London's first Energy rave on May 27, 1989, which drew 5,000 people to the Westway Film Studios in Shepherd's Bush, featured a laser-festooned lighting rig to enhance one of the themed rooms: "[It] literally had a Roman temple in the middle of it, with a huge great prism and a laser shooting through the middle and firing in all directions," DJ Jazzy M told author Sean Bidder in his 2001 book Pump Up the Volume. "I remember playing two copies of 'Strings of Life' and winding the crowd up, playing it and then cutting it out and then cutting it back, repeating the beginning of the track again and again and again, until finally letting it go into its major part, which then obviously sent the crowd nuts."
Lasers were a visual analogue to the air-raid sirens festooning early house tracks like Todd Terry's "Can You Party." In fact, British police busting early raves were hesitant to use their squad cars' sirens because "the dayglo freaks started jumping up and down and shouting, 'Can you feel it?'," Matthew Collin reported in Altered State.
When raves went stateside, Laserium naturally got involved: On September 7, 1990, seventeen years after its Observatory debut, the venerable company would erect an installation at Stranger Than Fiction at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, which featured New Yorkers Frankie Bones and Vandal (AKA Peter and Vanessa Daou) and Londoners Baby Ford and Trevor Fung. In an era when most raves were dubbed "undergrounds," the show was heavily advertised instead of relying on word-of-mouth, and took place in an above-board venue rather than a janky warehouse—making it one of Los Angeles' most visible parties at the time.
Lasers, in fact, were a big part of what defined a rave. Kids at raves would play with the lasers, dancing with and around them, especially if they were under the influence. "[Lasers] can project light onto mirrors, which create a 3D image in the room," Montreal technician Neil Robertson explained to the Globe and Mail in October 1993. "The mirrors are really small, maybe five inches, and can be used to make the image of maybe a pyramid." The reporter marveled at how, at the Montreal club Place Newman, "lasers are being used to create illusory tunnels and surfaces." "A ceiling of luminous green bars shoots out from the stage, just above the heads of the dancers," he wrote. "Then the flat surface appears to contract, transforming itself into a green-spoked spinning wheel."
Nowadays, practically every club on every corner has some kind of laser tchotchke.—Laserium's associate creative director Jon Robertson
Lasers even played a role in the chill-out arena. Ambient, the music that soundtracked rave's chillout rooms via the Orb, Aphex Twin, and Mixmaster Morris, particularly appealed to an audience that would, in an earlier decade, have been following the fledgling Pink Floyd, then graduated to watching laser shows set to full plays of Floyd albums. To help publicize its Excursions in Ambience series—which featured such artists as Ultramarine, Spacetime Continuum, the Future Sound of London, and Aphex Twin—Astralwerks Records founder Brian Long put together a series of planetarium concerts: "Fifteen to twenty planetariums across the country would play the record and do their planetarium show," he recalls to me. "We would do it with the local rave promoters."
A big reason lasers became so ubiquitous at raves, and later in clubs, is that the prices for lighting across the board fell, hard, just as the underground dance scene began to rise. In 1989, the Texas manufacturer High End Systems brought out the Intellabeam, an automated lighting system that quickly became a club, rave, and concert standard. By the early 90s, the bar for rave lighting was rising. Clark Warner, a former vice-president at Beatport, told me in 2013, "Intelligent lighting was just starting to come on board—you couldn't just have a strobe light, you had to have Intellabeams or fog machines. You had to have more than just the basics." By December 1993 in San Francisco, a night's laser rental would run a promoter $300 a night, according to an SF-Raves post from a promoter that month.
Intellabeams aren't exactly lasers, but they did similar things, and for most promoters that was good enough. "Where a laser scanner pair could have done some of those effects—obviously with a much sharper, more intense impact—[Intellabeams] were a lot cheaper and easier to maintain than a laser projector," Laserium's Jon Robertson, an old-school laser purist, tells me. "So you could put 10 or 12 of them up in a club for far less than you could a laser projector or fiber projectors."
Robertson continues: "The wow factor comes from having five or six or seven or eight or ten laser projectors doing all these fan effects and aerial effects, making them crisscross and making pretty cool visual experiences—and varying them. But by and large, they're all the same effects. It's like having an entire band, or maybe even an entire orchestra, with nothing but electric guitarists in it."
A mishandled laser could still lead to trouble. At the first Furthur on Mayday weekend of 1994, headlined by Aphex Twin, the promoters' Argon laser got misaimed, leading to UFO reports when the beam went out over the freeway, the original event's promoters told me. Nevertheless, lasers or the next best thing were mandatory. When concert promoter Gerry Gerrard put together the Organic '96 package, helping usher in the "electronica" gold rush of the decade's latter half with a roster of headliners that included Chemical Brothers, the Orb, and Underworld, he made certain to hire more than 80 Intellabeams, as well as a 70-watt laser for mid-air pyrotechnics.
In fact, "lasers" became a de facto insult associated with the music of younger, druggier kids by older techno and house DJs, who thought of their trashy "Dominator"-type Euro-rave tracks as "laser music" (the quotes are mine), whereas Detroit techno wasn't. In the 2002 book Raw Music Material, Detroit techno master Robert Hood told author Walter Hueglithat his work beginning in the mid-90s "was an escape from the rave and gabber sound." "I didn't want to do that hard 160 BPM stuff," he explained. "Nothing against it personally, but I saw the whole techno scene going in that direction [...] 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 movement—an 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 shows—they 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.
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, wrapped—like so many imports before him—in 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 world—he 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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