Like, wow! Light shows of Sixties hailed as art

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The Independent Online

To the saucer-eyed fans transfixed for hours on end by the swirling illuminated blobs, it was a trippy spectacle to match the weird sounds they were hearing. The druggy light show was a staple of the psychedelic music scene of the late 1960s, so much so that few movies of the era would be complete without a rock band bathed in the glow of oil projections and slide shows.

To the saucer-eyed fans transfixed for hours on end by the swirling illuminated blobs, it was a trippy spectacle to match the weird sounds they were hearing. The druggy light show was a staple of the psychedelic music scene of the late 1960s, so much so that few movies of the era would be complete without a rock band bathed in the glow of oil projections and slide shows.

Now a major exhibition is to show they were an art form worthy of serious consideration. It will restage some of those projections with a soundtrack by Soft Machine, as well as show films of the performances at the Summer of Love exhibition at Tate Liverpool next month.

Early performances by bands such as Pink Floyd, the Doors and the Velvet Underground were enhanced by experimental visuals. Dozens of light-show creators began to spring up on both sides of the Atlantic, and their kaleidoscopic images echoed the visions described by people on hallucinogenic drugs. In the early days the lights were shone on to the barely discernible band against a backdrop at the rear of the stage. As the shows became more sophisticated, they were backlit so only the area behind the band would be decorated.

Among the leading practitioners were the Boyle Family, whose work included projections of bodily fluids and examples of which will be seen at the Tate show. Gustav Metzger - whose updated liquid crystal projections feature in the exhibition, which begins on 27 May - provided visuals for acts such as Cream at the Roundhouse in north London.

Christopher Grunenberg, the director of Tate Liverpool, said: "It is interesting how the light show became an art form in itself. The Boyle Family did these live experiments with all sorts of liquids and bodily fluids, Coca-Cola - anything they could get their hands on. Even little worms would be put in the slide projector. There would be these liquids flowing into each other, creating amorphous shapes. It worked pretty well together - listening to the music, dancing, taking drugs and watching amazing live shows."

Joshua White, whose light show was in residence at the leading New York venue Fillmore East in 1968 and who provided the know-how for a party scene in the film Midnight Cowboy, said: "The light show was very powerful, so it provided a kind of light on the stage that was exciting to play in. I think from a musician's point of view it was pretty nice to be out there and they would sense the light show because it was totally manual and never automated."

The ubiquity of light shows eventually faded. Music writer Edwin Pouncey said: "The lights went out when the underground bands found fame. They no longer wanted to be hidden in the beautiful chaos of a light show."

However, bands such as Hawkwind kept the idea alive, and more recently the Flaming Lips have revived the concept.

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