|Lord of Light
This is from the current issue of Total Production International magazine and appears here with their
permission and that of the author Jerry Gilbert. (Cheers!) This is the first half of "a two-part exploration of
the life and career of lighting design visionary Jonathon Smeeton"
You can read it as properly laid out by downloading this 949Kb PDF kindly supplied by the author
The Legend of Liquid Len
On March 8, 2009 Hawkwind surrogate, The Hawklords were set to turn back the clock 35 hours and play a
one-off reunion in honour of the late English graphic artist, Barney Bubbles. Fittingly, this would be a Space
Ritual 2009 show, inspired by Bubbles' artwork for the original 1973 album and Robert Calvert's space-rock
opera show, with a nod to the artist's bleak monochromatic concept for the Hawklords' 25 Years On
production later in the decade.
Equally appropriate was the fact that the extravaganza was being promoted by John Curd, whose Head
Records label had enshrined the whole spirit of what was taking place around Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove
nearly 40 years ago: which is where this story begins. According to Wikipedia, "The Space Ritual show [of
December 1972] attempted to create a full audio-visual experience, representing themes developed by Barney
Bubbles and Robert Calvert entwining the fantasy of Starfarers in suspended animation traveling through time
and space with the concept of the music of the spheres." In other words, a lunar safari.
The ringmaster in this traveling circus (or 'Hawkestra'), which included sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock and
the body-painted curvaceous and entirely naked 'exotic dancer' Stacia [Blake], was one of the first real
celebrity lightshows, Liquid Len & The Lensmen.
As a music journalist, I attended many Sunday afternoon Roundhouse Implosions 9the name coined by
promoter John Curd, Caroline Coon and DJ Jeff Dexter) back in the day, diving into the brutal immersion tank
created by Len's battery of unregulated strobes and 1000W projectors. For me, that throbbing, pulsating
juggernaut in the psychotropic / psychedelic Roundhouse rotunda, mixed with Bubbles' gothic sci-fi graphics
and fascist symbolism, remains indelible., Whether you were there acid-charged or not (and many were), by
the time this band of hippy vagabonds had launched into their third number you'd swear you were seeing orbs
of light. Subject to this relentless blitz the band didn't seem so much galactic warriors teetering on the edge of
the astral plain, as crash test dummies.
It was probably too much to expect that Hawkwind co-founder Nik Turner -in attempting to recreate that
zeitgeist 35 years on- would be able to lure the cosmic lightlords back into the fray, despite promoter John
Curd billing an appearance by 'Liquid Len & The Lensmen' on the posters. But the promoter knew the patina
of a reformed Hawks (the Wind or Lord version) would be too irresistible a project for many of their old fans.
In fact the legendary LD (real name Jonathon Smeeton, who for many years has been domiciled in the States)
had agreed to rent his name for the occasion. Would he be making an avatar-like appearance, perhaps? Nik
Turner confirmed not. "The Hawklords' lighting will be tailored to the Liquid Len & The Lensmen blueprint,"
he said, "with Jonathon Smeeton's guidance, collaboration and blessing. Expect the unexpected."
Suffice it to say that Smeeton had agreed to cede his once famous stage name, "since I haven't used it since
Reading...¦". This was a reference to the Reading Festival of 1975 when he formally quit the band, along with
Stacia. However, Hawks fans still harboured the hope that the great man would be controlling the whole
enterprise from his Fortress of Solitude at Leipers Fork, 25 miles outside of Nashville.
The gravitational pull to track down Jonathon Smeeton gathered momentum after I stumbled into Nik â
€˜Thunder Rider' Turner, the band's original sax player, at a Charisma Records reunion in Soho shortly before
Christmas. Three months ago I know nothing about the Roundhouse event but the seed was still germinating
after TPi editor Mark Cunningham, with righteous indignation, asked by Chronicle hadn't yet devoted a
chapter to this scion of light. So instead, we're devoting two.
Then I discovered that one of my chums, Paul Gorman had just produced a biography on Barney, who
tragically took his own life in 1983, and all the cosmic energy seemed to coalesce.
Smeeton's early experimental work -with Hawkwind and before- had a major influence in shaping modern
lighting design. Harnessing technological innovation to his artistic vision, today his creativity remains in high
demand, not only in concert touring, but the worlds of film, architecture and lecturing.
I can't pretend to have seen Jon Smeeton prior to that Roundhouse experience and have only met him in
person once - a chance encounter on the stand of LSD at (probably) the 1992 LDI Show in Dallas. And as
for famous early 70's lightshow, the only other I can recall was Joe's Lights, who were resident at London's
Rainbow Theatre, and also became the light artists for the 1972 Bickershaw Festival.
Ancient of Days
Jonathon Smeeton's story begins at the legendary UFO club in 1967, two years before I arrived in London to
join Melody Maker and became inducted into London's W10 (Ladbroke Grove) and W11 (Portobello Road)
This was the holy grail of free festivals, featuring 'People's Bands' (think Pink Fairies, Quintessence, Deviants)
and influential management like Doug Smith's Clearwater Productions (Hawkwind's management) and
Blackhill Enterprises' Peter Jenner and Andrew King (Pink Floyd's original managers).
I had experienced Dantalian's Chariot's spectacular psychedelic launch at the National Jazz & Blues Festival in
Windsor, but nothing had quite prepared me for the Hawkwind experience several years later. The emerging
creative spirit at that time was largely incubated in the incendiary womb of the art schools (Farnham,
Hornsey, Kingston-upon-Thames, etc) - all hotbeds of social unrest. It was while at art school that Smeeton
built his first lightshow, which he would use at UFO and Electric Garden (later Middle Earth), featuring three
But these inventions had less to do with any 'art school movement' than a simple fiscal imperative. â€œIt was
sheer lack of money - it was 1967 and I needed a summer job. I found Middle Earth, a hippy night club about
to open in Covent Garden who needed someone to run their lightshow...¦which meant fixing their projectors,
learning how to boil ink and stay up all weekend long. Middle Earth is where it started for me. I just walked
through the door, asked for a job and became the lightshow guy...¦just like that!" In keeping with the
idiomatic nomenclature of the day, he called his lightshow The Ultradelic Alchemists.
Apart from all-night weekend stints at the landmark venue, Smeeton also worked Friday all-nighters at UFO. â
€œWhen UFO moved from the Blarney Club in Tottenham Court Road to the much larger Roundhouse [in
Chalk Farm] lightshows were recruited to fill the extra screen space...¦and there we were." He soon
supersized his rig. Lighting artillery back in 1967 consisted of "just lots of Aldis projectors - usually, three per
screen. Little by little, I acquired more and more projectors to fill more and more screen space. We all got
paid by the projector so the more, the merrier!"
In this brave new world the method of projection in the UK was to boil ink and transparent glass stain
between multiple glass 2" slides using conventional slide projectors. "It wasn't long before we added
footlights, and started to use multiple slide projectors to produce crude five cell animation loops." The
footlights -three (RGB) per unit- were all controlled individually from a keyboard arrangement, The Colour
Organ . "There was no dim, it was just flashing and flickering. Then came slide animation using five GAF
Anscomatic 500W slide projectors. Strobes were also a new effect."
It was during the summer of 1970 that Steve Winwood had persuaded Smeeton to build a show, which
incorporated for the first time that keyboard control system. Between residencies at UFO/Middle Earth and
joining Hawkwind full-time, Smeeton had provided stage lighting for bands on the Notting Hill-based Island
Records label like Free, Traffic and Mott the Hoople. "I was using mostly footlights -a hold-over from the
lightshow days- and two, three, even four pipe and base towers, mostly for town hall gigs around d England.â
Through '68 and '69 the LD spent time on the road in Europe by which time the first wave of psychedelic
lighting was all but over. He turned his attention to stage lighting, adding Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart
to his roster. "The first theatrical lighting I used was rented from Strand Electric, before they became Rank
Strand - Pattern 23s, 123s and later, 232s. The Pattern 252 effects projector was also a favorite. I used them
well into the '80s because they produced particularly good effects. I also used the Strand 'Tubular Ripple'
effect, which I still, on occasion, use to this day."
Living in Ladbroke Grove, Smeeton knew Nik Turner, who would often convince him to turn up for their free
shows with Andy Dunkley DJ'ing. Turner was at the centre of the social network in W10 and W11 -
London's own little Haight Ashbury. He spent his time sleeping on the floor of Barney Bubbles, who was
artistic director of Frendz magazine, or dossing at the Clearwater offices with future Hawkwinder DikMik,
while by day delivering silk screens for the Family Dog shop, who sold hippie / psychedelic accoutrements in
Blenheim Street. "I think I then moved in with [Robert] Calvert and we formed a bit of a commune." Starting
as Hawkwind's roadie, once Turner had picked up his sax he was immediately drafted into the original line-up,
and while Dave Brock was the front-man, he became the glue that held the whole thing together.
Smeeton, meanwhile, was continuing to tour. But after losing his stage equipment in the legendary 1971
Montreux Casino fire whilst working with Zappa, he was formally invited by Hawkwind to form the new
lightshow prior to the Space Ritual tour.
"I had heard about him and knew he was working quite a lot for Blackhill Enterprises and doing quite a lot of
Island acts," remembers Turner. "He was always busy. He developed a style of multiple projection and had
about 20 with a different image in each - like cartoon butterflies and so on. Ultimately I approached him about
doing lighting for us because we had no regular lighting person and we were getting big for our boots. Up
until then I think we used whatever lighting happened to be at the gig."
As psych bands started to attract audiences way beyond the scope of London clubs it was Smeeton's ability to
produce ground-breaking shows stadium-sized shows, using mainly slides rather than kinetic wheels, which
would attract the attention. "Around the same time, supergroups arrived and so did the 1000W PAR 64 light
along with the first trussies [usually crude antenna truss]. Everybody wanted big, and they paid well too. But
I chose the Hawkwind route and the experience has served me well."
Although Hawkwind manager, Doug Smith's memory is sketchy. Smeeton's own recollection of the
metamorphosis [into Liquid Len] was that the manager had wanted a name to put up on the bill: 'Lights byâ
€¦'. It's a play on words, 'Liquid Lens' - plus I think I was reading a [space opera] book called â€˜The
Lensmen' at the time. Of course I was thinking that it had to be 'Someone & the Somebodysâ€™. A dig at
Motown perhaps? Little did I suspect the name would haunt me for the rest of my days!"
So were there actually any 'Lensmen'? Well yes, of course. The wingmen originally comprised biologist
'Molton Mick' Mike hart (who later became a veterinary haemotologist), 'Astral Al' Alan Day, John Perrin and
John Lee. "But later, as Hawkwind became more committed to touring and traveling to the USA more often,
the permanent core became myself, John Lee and John Perrin: Mike and Alan both had proper jobs." With
John Lee contributing his 17cwt van to become Britain's first lightshow â€˜roadie', they hauled a 20-projector
show around the increasingly large venues, to meet increasing demand after Hawkwind's 'Silver Machine' had
gone to No.2 in the singles chart...¦and the money started to flow.
What a farrago the collective represented. Liquid Len was expected to animate a scenescape comprising an
exotic dancer, a poet, sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock, the audio generator work of DikMik and graphic sets
of Barney Bubbles. Small wonder he added a pinch of nitroglycerine to the mix.
The 1972 Space Ritual tour had been a landmark, but by 1974, as they embarked on the second of their three
US tours in 12 months, most of the slide material had been replaced and new concepts evolved, with the band
threatening to spiral out of control in the face of ever more revolutionary equipment. From a content
perspective there was little of Bubbles' work. The main providers were Sally Vaughan, who had been
responsible for the first sets of animation slides for the Traffic show back in '70, Nick Milner, plus leading sci-
fi artist David Hardy, who contributed a fund of 'spacescape' slides. There was, in fact, very little integration
whatsoever among the creatives, Smeeton remembers: "The band were the band, the lightshow was the
lightshow; I don't think we ever projected any of barney's art other than the Hawkwind double-headed Hawk
logo. We both lived in the Ladbroke Grove area in London so we saw a lot of each other. Things were
discussed in normal conversation, but we never really sat down and had a production meeting."