Rock and Roll History

Excess has always been the chief aesthetic of rock and roll, as anyone who lived through hair metal and Axl Rose in biker shorts can attest. Or consider concert lighting: the flashiest bands lavish fans with the biggest beams, the widest video screens, the brightest, whitest spotlights—enough current, in some cases, to power a small city. Leave it to Radiohead, once deemed “the Knights Templar of rock and roll,” to change everything.

On its latest tour, which ends in October, the quintet has been commanding stages exclusively lit with LEDs, from the 20,000-capacity Ford Amphitheatre, in Tampa, Florida, to London’s 57-acre Royal Victoria Park. Gone are the 10,000-watt searchlights and electricity-draining dimmer racks. Instead, custom LED luminaires hover over the stage, itself aglow with a vast LED screen and six dozen 20- and 30-foot-tall LED tubes arranged around the musicians like a stand of light sabers. “The band expressed a desire to cut the environmental impact of the tour,” production designer Andi Watson says. “The only truly efficient way was to use LEDs.” Indeed, each show draws one fifth the current of a typical previous tour.

Early rock-and-roll audiences provided their own lighting entertainment (psychedelic films, liquid-light shows), according to James L. Moody, author of Concert Lighting: Techniques, Art and Business, but stars soon demanded the limelight, and the powerful beams and white-hot glow of incandescent lamps became a concert hallmark. LEDs entered the market about five years ago, helped along by adventurous bands (such as the Beastie Boys and Daft Punk) and a cashed-up concert industry willing to toss R & D dollars at a fresh look. But LEDs have always been used in tandem with conventional fixtures, as their icy dimness, full-color spectrum, and multimedia capabilities better highlight scenery than people. They can make a rock concert look like downtown Tokyo.

Watson proved otherwise, enlisting the British firm i-Pix to engineer a high-power, narrow LED beam light intense enough to shadow band members. Each fixture consumes 210 watts at 110 volts; a comparable spotlight might devour four times as much. “Andi and Radiohead are proving this can be done,” i-Pix’s Chris Ewington says. “They’re always doing something new that eventually other people will copy. It’s only a matter of time.”

Still, practical concerns remain. “If you want to brightly spotlight a performer in white, that’s almost impossible to do with LEDs currently,” Watson acknowledges. And, while Radiohead might be rich enough to buy its own lighting, most musicians rely on rental companies. But perhaps the most stubborn barrier is cultural. “The lighting industry is notorious,” Ewington says. “Lighting designers judge the size of the show and always brag about the power.” Radiohead, for its part, is sounding the first drumbeats of a rock-and-roll revolution: in concerts, if not in lifestyle, less can be more.

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