|Lord of Light, part 2
This is from the April 2009 issue of Total Production International magazine and appears here with their
permission and that of the author Jerry Gilbert. (Cheers!) This is the second half of "a two-part
exploration of the life and career of lighting design visionary Jonathon Smeeton" (part 1 is here)
You can read it as properly laid out by downloading this 744Kb PDF kindly supplied by the publisher
A New Life In America
Although Jonathan Smeeton collaborated little with Hawkwind's visionary graphic designer Barney Bubbles
during the early Space Ritual days, they did work consciously and co-operatively on developing the visuals for
the 1978 Hawklords tour, after the LD had briefly returned to the offshoot band several years later. "Yes, I
came back for the Hawklords, which seemed a good idea at the time, but Hawkwind [by then] was at a new
level of madness!" recalls Smeeton. "That really was the only time Barney and I ever deliberately sat down and
discussed the design. He produced a lot of film footage to be incorporated into the show and we discussed
screen placement and structures - and the timing and such." It was to be projected on screens suspended in
scaffold towers, surrounded by lights. "I finally perfected that scaffold tower design concept for the
Thompson Twins in the mid-'80s... minus the film loops," he remembers.
On tour, Smeeton generally roomed with his old friend, Hawkwind co-founder Nik Turner. "This was
probably because we shared fairly quiet lifestyles," says Turner, improbably. But one incident in Nashville in
1973 was to become a defining paradigm in the Hawkwind hagiography. Turner takes up the story. "We
played a concert in this club and the local promoter also managed of a lot of porn houses. Afterwards we
were hanging out in the manager's office when these hillbillies rode in on choppers. They had this tetra-hydro-
cannabinol (THC) - which is the essential component of cannabis - in crystal form. When you snort it, it turns
you to rubber - it was outrageous." From there they went to a skating rink when suddenly the roof started
shaking. "It was like, everyone lie down on the floor, there's a tornado happening. Comet Kohoutek was also
in the cycle and you didn't know if you were actually experiencing it or whether it was part of the trip. When
we got back to the hotel half the roof was gone and all the windows had been blown out of the cars and the
water sucked off the swimming pool." Once again life seemed to be imitating art, and although it induced a
positive vibe, the chemical world seemed to have mutated with the cosmological, Turner describing it like a
scene from Polanski's 'Repulsion'. This is a classic Hawkwind anecdote. â€œIt was the same as Jonathan's
lightshows," says Turner. "You just couldn't detach it from your own reality."
Smeeton was forever experimenting with new effects, Turner remembers. "Like the rainbow strobe he
developed, using primary colours and sequentially operated to produce rainbow effects - it was fantastic!" His
only regret, perhaps, is that Smeeton hadn't perfected the art of transmuting this, alchemically, into ingestible
form. However, even this may be somewhat surprising when one considers that the occupation given on
Smeeton's passport (according to Hawkwind manager, Doug Smith) was 'Inventor'. â€œIn the early days, Jon
and I spent a lot of time smoking ganga and had lots of crazy ideas," says Smith. One of them was called
'Crowd Control'. "We planned to have lots of little robots like obstacles on the ground; they would be filled
with some very heavy weights and patrol the audience - and when people got silly they would start nudging
"Jonathan was very into drawing and developing things - but there was a humorously wicked side. Dave
Brock wanted to see how many people he could freak out - at one point there was a lot of repetitive music in
the early shows and we used strobes heavily and watched the number of people being carried out." Before
Health & Safety restricted the flash rate of strobes to four flashes a second, anyone with photosensitive
epilepsy could find that the rapid frequency of stroboscopes triggered a seizure. Hawkwind were not alone in
this regard. Paul Brett from Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera remembers their band being plastered all over the
national press after colleges and universities banned their use of strobes, following the overzealousness by
their LD Ron Harwood. "Strobe lighting has a dangerous hypnotic effect upon audiences, particularly on
girls," ran the article.
After the royalties from 'Silver Machine', gave Hawkwind more money to play with, the lighting was placed
more in Smeeton's hands and presented properly on stage. "We had monkey rigs with PAR 64s and we started
building the footlights," Smith recalls. Another member of Hawkwind's band of technical support gypsies and
creatives, Gerry Fitzgerald remembers all kinds of ideas that had to be aborted for technical space reasons - a
collapsible 32' eagle for the Space Ritual tour being one that would have seriously interfered with Smeeton's
projection. Other stillborn ideas were the attempt to pump dry ice downwards as a projection screen - but
after a similar attempt at the Farnborough Air Display ended in explosion, it was mothballed. "There was also
the escapade with soap flakes," says Fitzgerald. "A couple of roadies with a big box of Lux soap flakes were
to be dribbled down and picked up by Jonathanâ€™s UV and strobes. But at the Rainbow, there were these
two big fans and by the side of the stage the mains switch for the fans. All a roadie needed to do was kick it
and accidentally switch it on." Sure enough that is precisely what happened - and as the soap flakes were
gently drifting down these huge fans kicked in on full power, sending the soap flakes into turbo mode
(unwittingly creating the first audience blinders perhaps?) â€œBut no-one seemed to bother," said Fitzgerald,
"they just felt that... well, it was Hawkwind."
The Middle Stages
In August 1975, Hawkwind had headlined on the first night of the Reading Festival, which proved to be their
last gig with Jonathan Smeeton. His work with the band would lead him to even greater things although the
immediate aftermath was hardly creative. The music industry was arriving at a fork in the road - disco was
spiralling off in one direction, punk in the other, with the spectre of the 'supergroups' and prog-rockers
hovering over it all. Ironically, I was working in the indie band hotbed of West London in 1976 - a stone's
throw from the old Clearwater offices - but about to launch a disco magazine! "Punk had a total disregard for
everything, and the staple for supergroups was just huge rigs for no other reason than being bigger than the
previous rig," states Smeeton.
By 1982, Gail Colson, manager of former Genesis frontman, Peter Gabriel, had recruited Smeeton, which
provided him with a baptism for the new Vari*Lite - launched by Showco the previous year on Genesis'
Abacab tour. Smeeton used 16 VL1 heads on the Gabriel tour. "It was a very big deal at the time, me being an
independent and Vari-Lite being so incredibly secretive about everything. For a short time Vari-Lite had the
monopoly on 'new'."
Colson had been one of most understatedly powerful women in the music business when I worked at
Charisma Records between 1974-76 (at a time when the company also owned ZigZag Magazine). Although
Tony Stratton Smith had started the label she was unquestionably the power behind the throne. By the late
1970s, however, Charisma's best years were behind them, and Hawkwind's arrival on to the label in 1976
helped to galvanise it and keep its prog-rock roster alive.
A 10-year collaboration with Gabriel was followed by stints for Smeeton with Paul Simon, Journey and the
Thompson Twins. "Without a doubt I enjoyed my Hawkwind reputation for a long time afterwards," he
acknowledges. With Gabriel at the helm, Genesis had earlier immortalised Jonathan 'Liquid Len' Smeeton in
their song 'The Battle Of Epping Forest' in the lyric 'His friend, Liquid Len by name, of wine, women and
Wandsworth fame'. One could speculate that Hawkwind's 1972 'Lord Of Lightâ€™ might also have been a
nod in his direction.
Since then, Smeeton's creative vision has resulted in some of the most original stage productions in todayâ
€™s music and TV business - a legacy of the expertise he gained working with video at BBC Television
Centre in London. "Just getting into the BBC was breaking barriers back then," he says. "'Top Of The Pops'
was run by a load of old conservatives who had never recovered from the massive and rapid change in 'pop
music'. They still thought Muriel Young was cool and that kids should watch more â€˜Blue Peter'!" His good
fortune was that Pete Drummond, a popular BBC radio DJ (who along with John Peel was championing the
new counter-culture), lived upstairs from him. The longtime presenter of â€˜Radio 1 In Concert', Drummond
had just become the anchor man for the new late-night BBC2 programme 'Disco 2'. "Pete got me the gig of
projecting lightshows to accompany the record review segment," Smeeton recalls. "Soon I was lighting the
live act segment before the programme became â€˜The Old Grey Whistle Test'. Finally, 'Top Of The Pops'
recruited us to flash their lights, by which time it was truly old hat! But I did learn to light for TV, sufficiently
to be ready for the MTV video explosion."
Smeeton had already enjoyed a particularly busy video-making period in the '80s with progressive visual artist
Peter Gabriel and The Thompson Twins, Wham! and, later, the solo George Michael - which all proved to be
heavy MTV fodder. He also produced notable touring lightshows for Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, Miles Davis and
eventually Def Leppard, immediately prior to relocating to the States. This filmic experience became invaluable
with the advent of MTV and artists' needs for both promotional and feature-length concert videos. Thus
Smeeton had moved to the L.A. forest of Topanga Canyon, in order to be close to the muse. â€œEverybody
suddenly was making videos. As most of it was still being shot on 35mm film, Hollywood became a hot spot
for shooting short-form video. At this time a lot of commercial film makers got on board and produced some
very fine mini movies. There was also quite a lot of money to be made so it attracted some very talented
During the '90s, Smeeton also found himself lighting many architectural interiors and exteriors "where the
brief called for lighting to create mood, drama, a sense of the extraordinary." His first foray into architectural
lighting had been way back in 1984, after being contacted by Rusty BrutschÃ©, chairman and CEO of Vari-
Lite in Dallas. "He asked me to light a building to demonstrate the effect of moving lights on walls of glass and
stainless steel. Since then I've lit quite few buildings, mostly in a novelty fashion, not truly architectural. But
music is still my core business - Nashville is a clue!" This has now been his home for the past 20 years.
"When one has spent so much time touring a place or visiting the same place over and over, it's hard to say
precisely when one moved [to the States]," he states enigmatically. "This time around? I have lived here since
the late '80s. I particularly like life in the USA. It's near my place of work - namely, the rest of the world." His
route to the deep south had taken him from Topanga Canyon to the beautiful Russian River, in the northern
part of California, and finally a rambling ranch in Tennessee. Clearly, Smeeton likes Big Country... which is
about as cosmically removed from the imbroglio of Ladbroke Grove as it gets. Surrounded by so much beauty
it's little surprise that in his modern work regime global itineraries have become a thing of the past. "I don't go
touring anymore; I send robots and machines and clever young people who think it's fun to live on a bus and
be away for months on end." In fact he spends as little time as possible working. "Over the summer I teach
around 30 people over about four weeks - beginners mostly. And designs can be done in days or weeks. In
total I must work 10 weeks a year."
Working In The Industry
In the 1990s, Smeeton was also a regular on the industry trade fair circuit, mostly designing exhibition
lightshows for Martin Professional. "At a time when I was looking for an alternative to Vari-Lite I found
Martin, or rather they found me. They then asked me to design their trade-show stands and lightshows for
SIB [Rimini], PLASA and LDI. It was all rather good fun - creating lightshows for the sake of lightshows -
but they also produce some pretty fine equipment."
As production designer to some of the greatest names in music he has always seen explaining complex lighting
techniques to lighting directors as part of the job. Thus, the obvious extension to this was to start his own
school, offering regular workshops. At the same time he has also dived headlong into the world of light/video
convergence and content lighting to create multimedia, pixel-driven shows. In fact, he is currently working on
a multi-media event called In Search of Space (the ghost of Hawkwind still haunting him) - along with a
couple of stage play productions. "The wheel has turned full circle for me," he muses. "I've never had a
difficult time getting anything on the screen, the hard part is getting the right thing on the screen at the right
As he completes his fourth decade in the business, Jonathan Smeeton continues to show how in demand he is
from the emerging generation, by pulling a contract that should have made him as happy as a clam. When I
was in Florida last Christmas, the FM airwaves were dominated by the songs of beautiful 20-year old country
singer, Taylor Swift. She has subsequently crossed over into mainstream and mega-stardom, and is currently
on tour... with Smeeton as her production designer and director of creativity.
And so the road, it seems, goes on forever. If Liquid Len & The Lensmen had provided the platform for the
launch of an outstanding career in lighting invention, what had it been that characterised those early
lightshows to make them so special?
"Me," came the unequivocal answer. "And the totally free rein Hawkwind allowed me; plus, of course,
Douglas Smith who really held it all together and believed it could all happen."