The Who: Painting a Laser Roof by Numbers

The band's light show will now include colored lasers

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LONDON — Laser is the acronym of Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It can be cheaply defined as a tube containing a gas (usually argon or krypton) excited by an electrical impulse to produce a colored ray. This ray is coherent from the source to infinity – this means that you can see the colored light as it travels through the air.

John Wolfe has been creating the lighting for the Who's road show for some ten years. It was his idea to bring the lasers into the show. "We aim a single beam from the back of the stage to a point about ten feet above the highest row of people. Then we put in a grating which splits the single beam into a fan of less intense beams. What I wanted to achieve was a set of nice consistent beams. I started with two argon lasers and split them into about 20 beams each. By pointing the two fans of beams across each other, from 25 feet apart behind the stage, we got a network of rays, kind of a spider's web. Because of the coherence of the beams and the darkened room, the network of rays appears to be a solid light roof."

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After brief European and British tours, using two green-light argon lasers, the Who traveled to the States, where Wolfe added a krypton laser, the one used by Led Zeppelin on their tour. "By crossing the argons and the red light from the krypton, we got more of a three-dimensional roof; the combination of those two colors gives a lot of depth in vision."

The lasers are only used for about three minutes in the entire show, at the beginning of "We're Not Gonna Take It" and in the finale, "Won't Get Fooled Again." "It's a very expensive three minutes, but you don't overdo an effect; if you do it too much, it really loses impact and becomes boring." For "We're Not Gonna Take It," the beams are released one at a time, synchronized with Daltrey's singing of "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me," "If it's not part of the show," says Wolfe, "it's a distraction, both for the audience and the band. The only time it's really great is when it's in conjunction with the band . . . that's because the band's great.

This story is from the April 8th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 210: April 8, 1976