The History Of Light In Music And Festivals


Light shows have been used by pop musicians at festivals for almost as long as pop music itself has been around.

Hard rock and early metal bands, especially those towards the more, uh, “psychedelic” end of the spectrum, have been marvelling at the pretty colours since at least the ‘60s.

As for who has control of the lights themselves – that’s a story that takes us all the way from progressive rock to The Prodigy, and maybe back again.

Photo by Claus Ableiter, under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License 3.0

In the early days of big festivals and tours, the band itself was the overwhelmingly dominant force. Fireworks, light shows, anything to do with the performance were exclusively reserved for the big progressive and hard rock monoliths, who were revered as great all-round artists and geniuses.

The heyday of this sort of monumental pyrotechnic and light extravaganza was probably the ‘70s, when bands like Genesis, Yes and Rush pushed progressives self-indulgent tendencies to breaking point – but put on some pretty amazing shows in the process!

From there, it became a rock cliché, parodied by bands like Spinal Tap and GWAR, and taken to ridiculous extremes by mainstream rock groups such as KISS, with fire bursting from all sorts of unlikely places.

It also became somewhat tamer, an expected part of a festival rather than something with a hint of danger to it, and the idea that you’d experience a concert as some sort of massive synaesthetic love-in-cum-artwork gave way to an experience that was easier to enjoy and participate in.

Photo by Flickr user “Jamiecat” under a Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

It’s probably partially because of the decreasingly elitist atmosphere in popular music that rave took off when it did, and when rave took off, so did light in music. Larger acts have always been able to provide a decent show, and new nightclubs spent thousands of pounds on lighting and so on, but the place that most of the lights at a rave came from was dramatically different from where lights at rock concerts and festivals traditionally came from.

Photo by Kyle McCluer under a Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives License 2.0

Thanks to radical advances in the fields of glow stick technology and shiny jumpers, rave saw a huge transition in how lights were used to create a spectacle. Instead of one guy planning out and committing to his own personal vision, you got a massive collaboration and celebration.

The music started to become, with the exception of a few huge names, an interchangeable backdrop. People weren’t out to recognise an artist’s genius, they were out to have a good time and express themselves with dancing, weird and wonderful clothes, and flashing lights everywhere.

This huge change in how we interact with music soon spread to other genres, first by genre-crossing bands such as Enter Shikari bringing a touch of rave to metal, and later just because people realised it was really fun to use colourful lights at a concert – any concert. The sight of someone draped in glow sticks, portable fairy lights and neon glow-in-the dark clothing is now common at most major festivals, and can even be sighted on occasion at serious business fests such as Download and Trondheim.

Thanks to rave, the festival light show can now belong to everyone, and it’s more brilliant and bizarre than it has ever been in the past.

Patrick Robson is a writer for LDJ Lights, who sell party lights and fairy lights, and also an old school prog rock fan who doesn’t understand all you young ravers with your hippity-hop and double-step.

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