Concerted effort

On the eve of the Rolling Stones’ world tour Nick Smurthwaite takes a look at the mechanics of rock concert stage design

It all started with Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1980. A 12m-high wall of cardboard bricks was constructed during the first half the show, and knocked down in the second. Hard to imagine, but as conceptual design for a live rock concert, it surpassed anything that had gone before.

‘It certainly set a new benchmark for indoor shows,’ says its designer Mark Fisher. ‘It was so complicated I had to get a structural engineer in to help me, and had to go on the road with [the band] because no one else knew how to assemble it.’

Fisher went on to become the acknowledged genius of pop/rock concert design on both sides of the Atlantic, working with the Rolling Stones, Elton John, U2, Tina Turner, Aerosmith and Janet Jackson, to name a few.

For the past year he has been working on the forthcoming Rolling Stones tour with director Patrick Woodroffe. Compared with some of the gothic excesses of his earlier work for the Stones, Fisher says this tour will be quite restrained, using backdrops made out of photo-collage created by artist Jeff Koons, a giant video screen and pyrotechnics. ‘We’ve gone for a strong focus on the music this time with no narrative theme,’ he says.

Pop concert design wasn’t always lasers, giant screens and decadent sets. When Fisher started out in the late 1960s, after training as an architect, lighting was the main form of presentation, and bands travelled with their own lights and lighting engineer.

He began making inflatables for exhibitions and parades, graduating to stage shows like Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and films such as Zardoz, a long-lost sci-fi movie starring Sean Connery.

Then, in 1976, he got a call out of the blue from Pink Floyd saying they had lost their inflatable pig during a photo-shoot for the album Animals, and could he make them another one.

He went on the road with Pink Floyd to the US, and then did a six-month tour with Stevie Wonder. His legendary sets for the Rolling Stones tours Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge and Bridges to Babylon in the 1980s were as ambitious as any operatic extravaganza, and inspired a generation of live show designers. It remains, however, something of a closed shop compared with other areas of designers.

Even after three decades of rock extravaganzas, you can still count the number of people gainfully employed in designing and producing these shows on the fingers of two hands. This is partly because there is less money in it than you would expect, unless you are in Fisher’s league.

Peter Barnes, another member of this elite design corps, believes the discipline’s exclusivity stems from the myriad skills needed to be successful. ‘In the 1970s, when most of us started out, live shows got by on 20 lamps and a couple of metal towers. Now the technology is so complex you need a degree in electronics to work it all out,’ he says.

In addition to technical know-how, design skills and artistic flair, the live show designer has to be on top of his or her game when it comes to people management. ‘It helps to be a cross between a shrink and a clairvoyant,’ says Fisher, who is so laid back it is hard to imagine anything or anyone fazing him.

‘Talking to bands about what they’re trying to do can be an incredibly intense and complicated process. They are usually the sort of people who would be successful at anything they had chosen to do. What the designer has to do is to balance the emotional goals of the show with the technical realities of this rather arcane world in which you are working,’ Barnes says.

Barnes, who is currently working on the forthcoming Will Young/Gareth Gates tour, says pop stars today don’t welcome arty-farty indulgence on the designer’s part. ‘It might be OK for Radiohead, but the Young and Gates’ audience would be scratching their heads,’ he says.

British-born Jeremy Railton, who now lives and works in the US, has lately been set-designing for Cher. It is the third time he has designed a tour for her. He says she is ‘deeply involved’ with all aspects of the design process. For her most recent tour, he and director/ choreographer Doriana Sanchez had five days of creative set meetings with the star before they started working on her tour.

Railton says, ‘Having lots of meetings with the artist [reduces] the fear factor of the performer seeing the set for the first time. After all my years of designing touring sets, I am still scared at that moment of presentation.’

He operates on two principles. First, that the scenery should support the music without overpowering the performer(s), and second, that they feel comfortable and ‘at home’ on their set.

For Fisher, it is all about making the star, or band, as visible as possible. ‘Rock stars always look for novelty, but basically it’s all about being there as big as you can be,’ he says.

Certainly, the use of giant video close-ups has become an indispensable part of the live show designer’s toolbox. In the age of the mega-gig, it is a way of achieving intimacy against all the odds. But designers have to guard against the experience becoming indistinguishable from watching television or seeing a film. In short, prevent it being unexceptional.

While Barnes and Railton seem happy to continue to carry on touring, or at least designing tours, Fisher has diversified into other areas of showbusiness, notably designing the West End musical We Will Rock You, based on the music of Queen, and working with the new circus group The Generating Company, on its acclaimed shows Storm and Gangstars.

The Rolling Stones’ 40th Anniversary World Tour begins on 3 September in the US. For tour details see www.rollingstones.com

The Will & Gareth Tour starts at the London Arena, Docklands, London E14 on 3 October

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