March 2010 Issue 127
Jerry Gilbert concludes his two-part study of laser technology’s early impact on the live rock’n’roll world...
In a masterpiece of timing, while the ink was still drying on last month’s laser extravaganza, The Who were delivering their spectacular laser production during the Bridgestone Super Bowl XLIV Halftime Show at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, as seen above.
According to former ‘Wolff cub’, Rick Lefrak “the effects were straight out of [Who laser technician John Wolff] Wiggy’s playbook.” He, for one, believes that despite the advances in technology, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, at the hands of the Wigmeister, looked better 32 years ago. “Hats off to him,” he applauds.
The Who’s pioneering laser shows were well documented in last month’s feature — what was not, during those experimental days down at Shepperton Studios, were the developments in holograms.
The successful Holoco led on to Wiggy’s later business LaseFX, before the assets of both companies were purchased by former Who laser technician, Chris Matthews after he set up Laser Creations in 1980. In fact, it had been Holoco who had developed the famous Keith Moon hologram, today co-owned by Wiggy and Chris Matthews (with the latter the current custodian).
When the blue Keith Moon plaque was unveiled in Soho’s Wardour Street exactly a year ago it was the first time in 30 years that the legendary artefact — commissioned just a month before Moon’s death — had been displayed. The holographic image had shown little sign of degrading.
The Who drummer ended up being the only band member to pose for what had originally been planned as a series of four holograms of the band, although a multiplex hologram of Roger Daltrey, slowly moving round on a turntable, spinning his mic characteristically while the camera took images, also existed.
John Wolff produced this with Holoco partner Anton Furst on Shepperton’s M stage — which is where ML Executives, the band’s rental company, was housed. “We filmed it with a 35mm camera, with him revolving. Then I sent the footage to a mate in California and he made it up,” recalls Wiggy.
It coincided with laser tests Wiggy was conducting for Star Wars. “I would like to believe that George Lucas came over and spotted it because the Princess Leia [Carrie Fisher] hologram ended up being made by the same person in Frisco that did mine!”
The Who had owned five acres of Shepperton Studios with the option to buy the remainder from owners, Mills & Allen. Back in 1977 their inventory consisted of eight sound studios as a base, along with The Who Films, Holoco and the provision/storage of complete sound and lighting systems under ML Executives (run by Roger Searle and Dick Hayes) for such acts as Genesis, Bob Dylan and Joan Armatrading.
Chris Matthews remembers: “When the crew and equipment came off tour, that was the start of the rental company. I worked with them for a couple of months and moved into the old house in Shepperton Studios.”
“It was at what was known as the Coronation block, by J & K stages,” reports Roger Searle. “ML Executives’ storage warehouse was on I stage while M stage was their band rehearsal studio which was frequently used by the laser team. They also had a large room at the back which was kitted out with an endless amount of machine tools.”
It was from here that Wolff ran Holoco, which would later metamorphose into LaseFX. “The name was a tilt towards Showco [who provided The Who’s first laser],” he says. “The fact was that my car company had been Flowco [which with typically Wiggy humour, was Wolff’s name reversed].”
But it was the genius of Loughborough University holographic expert Nick Phillips and Oscar-winning set designer (for Batman) Anton Furst, sadly neither of whom is alive today, that completed the formidable Holoco team.
The abiding memory of Holoco was the two Light Fantastic exhibitions which were staged at the Royal Academy of Art in 1977 and 1978.
This event was sanctioned by Sir Hugh Casson, president of the Royal Academy, under whom Anton Furst had studied at the Royal College of Art. “He was quickly persuaded,” remembers Matthews. “Anton had the creative vision and he liked the rock’n’roll vibe.”
The initiative was led by Wolff, Philips and Furst — with the Physics Dept at Loughborough also playing no small part in the event’s success.
Queues stretched way down Piccadilly to see the holograms, made with the 30W argon lasers and a high power, ruby-pulsed laser. Some of these were shown as pseudoscopic images — which was achieved by flipping over the hologram so that it could literally be seen inside out.
“The pulsed laser enabled Holoco to take real action footage — such as a bullet from a gun through an apple at Mach 1 — and catch the whole thing in one instant frame,” remembers Matthews.
In fact the show consisted of dozens of holograms of different types and an automated lightshow every 15 minutes to the accompaniment of classical music. One of the attractions at night was the skyward projection of EIIR symbols over the Academy, using a combination of fast-scanning Minimirrors (referred to last month) and General Scanning G-120 scanners.
The Minimirrors complemented their existing General Scanning systems by adding far more complex imagery to their capabilities — while the GS scanners were great for patterns, sheets and cones, they had a limited controlled image scanning capability.
This was the period when the ruby pulsed laser really came of age. Chris Matthews: “The ruby laser is a short waveform but it’s a pulsed laser, with a flash of 16 joules — which is thousands of watts in micro-seconds, and potentially slightly dangerous to the eye; It’s like a death mask and makes you look like a wax model.” However, ruby lasers declined in use with the discovery of better lasing media.
Another Who laser man, Gerry Leitch, remembers: “They used mechanical boxes bolted on to the old Who laser tubes and were switching mechanical solenoids with diffractions and bursts; Wiggy ensured it could be panned in X and Y.”
In 1977 Light Fantastic featured the same six Spectra Physics 171 tubes, which went up to 30W in green/blue argon, that had provided the showstopping finale to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ on tour.”
By the second year they also had the massive Spectra Physics 921 60W laser — the largest ion laser in the world. “This was used to fire the EIIR up to the sky,” says Wolff. “In the courtyard is a Joshua Reynolds statue, and he is holding a palette and brush, pointing to the sky. I put a mirror on the palette and hit it with the 921 — and it was like he was putting a laser into the sky.
“We then introduced a second mirror, collected the beam off the original mirror and shone it around London. I managed to hit Nelson [at Trafalgar Square], blinding him in the other eye, and also the restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower. Any high building was fair game!”
The 921 had to be sanctioned by Royal assent — allowing it to be projected over EIIR’s front garden (The Mall & St. James’ Park) on to Big Ben. The laser shone on England’s top monument for a month and was used as the opening shot for ‘News At Ten’.
Most of the Who equipment (and all the holograms) from the two Royal Academy exhibitions was purchased by a German company, while the events were followed by John Wolff’s own Laser Light Circus at the New London Theatre (using nine 4W argon lasers).
Back on the Shepperton film lot, Holoco became heavily involved with blockbuster and big effects movies like Star Wars, Superman, Alien, Clash Of The Titans and, over at neighbouring Pinewood, Moonraker. These were happy days, with the road crews and ML Executives technicians intermingling comfortably with the film crews in the Shepperton canteen or Winston Churchill pub.
AN ERA DISSOLVES
By 1980 the dream had all but died. Although a hugely successful company in its day, Holoco changed to Advanced Holographics in 1980 after The Who withdrew its funding, and Nick Phillips relocated it to Loughborough, where it later became part of Markem Systems.
Chris Matthews had already jumped ship in 1978 — after the second Light Fantastic — before The Who’s tenure of Shepperton had come to a somewhat ignominious end when their money was embezzled by one of the accountants.
“I just couldn’t see the future there,” he said. “Keith Moon had already died, the band were falling out and no one quite knew what was going on. I left because I wanted to get on — but I never fell out with Wiggy.”
Matthews set up Laserpoint with Andy Holmes, who worked for Cambridge-based Laserscan Laboratories, the company that had supplied The Who with those super-fast, Minimirror, low-inertia moving coil galvonometer scanners (having earlier serviced Pink Floyd). This was a world away from its core business of developing cartographic plotting systems.
The new operation was kick-started as a result of winning the contract to provide lasers for the Ford Transit and Ford Capri III launches for Purchasepoint Productions at Brighton Metropole (followed immediately by an IBM event in Venice for Roundel Productions, who approached Andy Holmes during the Brighton get-out).
“I rang Chris and said we have this job,” says Holmes. “We sat in the Duke of Cumberland in Wardour Street and thought up the name Laserpoint — hardly original since our client was called Purchasepoint.
“I had the scanning system and he already had a laser on loan from Coherent in the States — he simply called the guys at Coherent and got the loan extended. I drove to Shepperton at the crack of dawn in January 1978 and we manhandled the power supply, which was as large as a fridge. We needed to get it out before anyone came in!”
Following a near two year stint with Laserpoint, which had seen him commute from West London to Cambridge, Matthews had had enough, and by late 1979 he set up his own company, Laser Creations.
The falling out between the two partners had taken place at Reading Festival that summer when they were providing lasers for Whitesnake — but although Matthews headed off to form his new operation, taking Tony Gibbs and Geoff Jones (who later started and ran the highly successful Laser Systems) with them. However, Matthews’ brother Dave remained behind, and became a partner in Laserpoint.
Neither was Gerry Leitch going to let the new disco boom grow under his feet, heading off to Germany to help Avitec GmbH’s Ernst Weimer develop the laser business there, before co-founding Laser Grafix up in Royston with Dave Matthews and another ex-Laserpoint employee, Lorraine Ludman.
The business was later acquired by former Laser Creations man Mark Brown, who today runs Eclipse in Dubai — a company which Andy Holmes originally helped set up. Lorraine Ludman, meanwhile, is also running her own successful laser and lighting business (DLC) in the Gulf.
A CHANGING WORLD
Between 1977 to 1981, Roger Searle stayed off the road to look after the Shepperton facility and the 1982 Farewell tour in the USA was the last full tour he did with The Who.
However, by the time he‘d left the band and its associated companies he had given 19 years of his life to The Who, and ML Executives continues to this day (more on ML in a future edition).
As arguably the first commercial laser company, Laserpoint had influenced a number of markets including TV, advertising/promotion and the West End stage.
“I had learned that the potential was in the commercial side but as soon as bands had it discos also wanted the same FX,” says Matthews who, with Holmes (jointly and severally) had hit a fledgling club market ignited by the cinema release of Saturday Night Fever.
While Europe’s star performer in 1978 was unquestionably Le Palace in Montmartre, set up by Paris visionary Fabrice Emaer with three lasers, the real turning point in the UK came with the opening of Camden Palace in 1982 (bearing two Laserpoint lasers).
Most of the early Laser Creations work was for the turnkey international five star hotel technology suppliers, Julianas and Bacchus — typically 100mW air cooled argon ion lasers — as oddly, this is where lasers were first seen in a big way.
In 1983, Peter Stringfellow opened the Hippodrome — also with a Laserpoint laser (coincidentally laser specialists, set designers Jonathan Park and Mark Fisher had been entrusted with developing the club’s futuristic concept).
“From great showcases like Camden and The Hippodrome we soon hit over 100 5W lasers per year into the UK alone,” recalls Andy Holmes. In fact Matthews and Holmes eventually became reunited in 1985 when Laserpoint’s Spectra Physics 168 tubes at the Hippodrome became augmented by a twin-colour air-cooled laser from Laser Creations.
Mainstream clubland slowly sprang into life once the potential of full writing and graphics capabilities and lissajous patterns were possible. Gerry Leitch remembers: “We were learning as we went along. We knew about the dangers and there was no audience scanning, but you could put the diffractions into the audience because they were diffused. Now we have meters that will simulate the human eye.
“But the club environment would hammer the laser with smoke machines — and there was also all the cigarette smoke. The owners wouldn’t do the basic housekeeping of cleaning.”
The Health & Safety Executive were also quickly into action, developing the notorious PM19 document for the safe user of lasers.
Lasers, too, fell out of favour in clubland for many years — but thanks to cheap Chinese imports, air cooling, ease of use and all-in-one control, they have found a resurgence in the new millennium. The new momentum has been provided by the arrival of LED technology, which has seen high power 30W multicolour laser systems running on 13A — with no water cooling necessary.
For many years, both Laserpoint and Laser Creations (now Laser Creations International) went from strength to strength. Matthews’ acquisitions had brought with them some great personnel, such as John Carr from LaseFX (think the 1985 movie Morons From Outer Space), and with the further purchase of Mike Cuppage’s company, Coherent Light, came George McDuff, who helped Chris develop some of their popular controllers.
Through Carr’s movie connections, Laser Creations also managed to get back into film work while in 1984 it provided the laser for Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria.
Looking back, Chris Matthews says: “Everyone’s worked for me at some time. I like to think I’m the guardian angel of something I enjoy.”
Today, he runs his own multimedia production business with a global span. “Lasers are still very much a part of my life today, having supplied them for many live shows including the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Grace Jones and Led Zeppelin’s reunion concert at the O2. The disco business has also turned yet another full circle as we are now supplying laser systems into nightclubs.”
Andy Holmes meanwhile, went on to achieve success in his own right after the sale of Laserpoint to his American distributor, Pennysylvania-based General Video Corporation, in 1999 — moving out of lasers into the world of optical multiplexing, videowall processors and then fully-fledged multimedia. Laserpoint, itself, was folded two years after the sale.
Having helped Mark Brown set up Eclipse, he is currently a consultant and part-time CEO of Bits AV, a Reading-based installation and maintenance company.