A Love That’s Sound is pleased to present the first of a several features on psychedelic lighting master Lance Gordon of Mad Alchemy Lighting. Invigorating a classic San Francisco liquid oil show with a modern twist, Lance Gordon and his Mad Alchemy Team energetically refine contemporary West Coast psychedelic visuals and color a strong link to the original psychedelic era.
Lance Gordon: The Mad Alchemy Light Show was born in 1969 when I went to my first show at the Fillmore West with the Charlatans, Steve Miller Band and the original Kaleidoscope out of LA. I was very fortunate, Initially I lived in Kansas. My dad worked for a metal-building company and got transferred back to the Bay area in June of 1968.
I was very inspired by the whole Fillmore West vibe. There’s nothing today that’s really quite like it. Although I think that the audience and the bands are very similar, but there’s nothing of that stature. The Fillmore was an experience. A lot of people thought, “it doesn’t really matter who is playing, let’s just go.”
The Fillmore West did amazing light shows, they were quite large, huge operations. A typical light-show was really comprised of anywhere from 35 to 70 projectors of all types. Probably two thirds of them were carousel projectors, which are 35 mm slide projectors which typically had three to four overheads.
That was true of the Avalon and the Fillmore. The Avalon Ballroom was really the place in 1966 and 67 but by 68, 69 it was fading and the Fillmore West was the place to be. That’s when I came in, I was young. The first show I went to I was 16 and a half. It was just a mind-blowing experience. I immediately got into doing light shows on my own. I had aspirations like a lot of people; I wanted to be in a band. I was a drummer but I wasn’t that good at drumming but the light just kind of consumed me. I got into photography and all kinds of things that were visual. We got a liquid light show up and running a year and half after that point.
I ended up going to the perfect high-school. The teachers were all really cool, actually the electronics teacher actually went on to be one of the main speaker engineers for the Grateful Dead. They did these huge speaker towers. Owsley Stanley, their acid guru, was also really into sound. He created the concept of all of those speakers being tied together.
We did light shows in the East Bay, which is about 35 miles east of San Francisco in Conker, Walnut Creek & Danville. We did a lot of shows with fairly famous bands for the time. We did the last vestiges of Big Brother, after Janis Joplin had left. We did shows with John Cipolina from the Quicksilver Messenger Service with his Copperhead band. We did Tower of Power, John Lee Hooker, Elvin Bishop who was really a principle of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band who was also a huge figure in the ‘60s. It was very inspired and we did the light show until the culture changed.
The culture really started changing big time around 73’, 74’. You had kind of a disco element and it just killed everything. The whole scene just changed. Psych was just out. It was really an awful time, to see the psych movement in full bloom and then to see it go away. It was just a tragedy so i really got into photography. I didn’t think that the potential for the light show was that great. In retrospect, that was a real mistake, I should have kept with it. There were some bands that continued to do light shows. The Allmann Brothers, to their credit, have kept a great light show going for 35 years.
At that point, I got into rock and roll photography. I worked with Roky Erickson for a year and half on the Roky Erickson& the Aliens album The Evil One. I did an initial band photo and it was just a miracle that it worked out. I put a lot of money into doing it; I was 26 when I was doing that, I was a little immature and it was very hard for me to talk to bands. It was awkward, I always felt like I was the youngest person in that whole group. But we got some cool photos. The photos from that Roky Erickson time period, he still uses to this day. On The Evil One, there’s a couple of photos that I shot.
At that time, fog machines were really the huge thing. I rented a studio in San Francisco, Robert Hildebrand Studio, from a major fashion photographer. I was very broke, we threw all of my money in and ironically the last frame of that photo shot is the one. I got a lot of band photos from that and a chance to do the album cover photography even though I had no relationship whatsoever with Stu Cook who was the producer. He had no time and was a difficult person to deal with. I did not like him personally but he did a great job on that album, largely the production is completely him. Rocky did write all of those songs, nobody else wrote those songs for Roky. More than anything else, Roky is an iconic American songwriter. Even more than his performance, his songwriting… he has written at least 20 great rock and roll songs. How many people can say that they’ve done 20 great rock and roll songs?
We did a lot of weird photo shoots, I was trying to come out with different concepts but really my art sensibilities were immature. Anyways, we had this guy, Captain Colors, what a corny name, he was a really good contemporary artist in San Francisco. He did the album art, he had tattoos all over. He was ahead of the whole tattoo thing by ten years, i think people copied him. Anyways he did the album art. We finally decided on an image for the album cover. It was going to be Roky’s face. I was so stoked. I spent three days doing different prints in the dark room, it was pre-digital, so it was all wet printing. I toned them specially.
[Laughs] I gave Captain Colors the print and he didn’t tell me he was going to do a collage with it.He tore it up right in front of me. At that moment, I really hated him but really, he did a beautiful job; in time I accepted that. Ironically, for the Evil One album cover, they finally ran the photo the way I wanted it to be run initially. That’s the way I thought it was going to be. I didn’t realize they were going to do this other thing. It’s not like he told me or anything.
I gravitated away from that scene into the more commercial realm.The period 1999–2007, architecturally, was when I finally made my zenith. I was one of the number one architectural photographers in America. I was more than busy. I worked seven days a week. I discovered a few things that were very strange. Things like self projection, Very strange. Things like being almost able to predict the weather, almost Native-American aboriginal concepts. When you are outside a lot, shooting things on an ongoing basis….the process of that is really bizarre. I used very large format cameras. That had a huge influence on my composition and light ability. It was interesting, even at the time, I got into trouble with some clients, they would say “wow your colors are like a light show.” It was not something I was going for, it was something that was in me. This wasn’t a light show, It was a commercial building and yet there were dramatic colors. There was this film, I don’t know if you can still get it, Vilvida 50 film; it had very intense contrast. It was beautiful. Especially for sunsets, you could get the most vivid colours, especially with a long exposure for like 3 minutes, it was intense. It was like a light show, in fact the blue that you would get is a lot alike the carillon blue that I use in my light show as a background. It has that same sort of sky-blue feel, especially with the red, there is this sky-sun connection.
I did a lot of cool things in photography, it helped my composition ability tremendously as well as my art ability. By the time I got back into light shows the great recession of the United States started in 2007. I just got way back into the new music; it was kind of cool because it was completely open. I wanted to do the light show. I met this band named Labcoat in Park City, Utah of all places. They were the major psychedelic player in the state. I ended up, through them, meeting all these new young bands and getting reacquainted with the new psych scene, and very randomly, with very young people. There I was at the time, in my mid 50’s, and everyone I was hanging out with was like 18-24, maybe 30. It was odd. But anyway, they seemed to like the light show. It took me to 2012 to get it to where it’s at today. When I met Parker Griggs, of Radio Moscow in 2011, that was a game changer. Radio Moscow is really a well known band in Europe and South America. We did a European tour and two or three US tours. We toured with Graveyard. That tour was instrumental in changing my plate action on my light show.
The show that I do today is very very different from the classic San Fransisco light shows. The rhythms I use are much harder than what you would have seen in a ‘60s San Francisco light show, which were much more atmospheric. They had the amoeba shapes but the really rapid pulsating actions I use are a technique that I have evolved. It’s like a Jackson Pollac painting, I’m throwing oil on the plate; it’s almost kind of violent. It’s very different. When I was young, I was very, very careful; everything had to be just right. With a rock and roll show on tour, you don’t have very much time to set up; you really have to really feel it.
On the Graveyard tour that I did in 2012, Graveyard is a hard-rock ’70s band, I think they actually have a sound like the Fairfield Convention, especially the Richard Thompson guitar tone. Anyway, they were kind of a metal thing. I wanted the light-show to not be a ‘60s thing. I’m pretty good at imagining, I imagined viking shields with serpents. The pre-visionalization aspect of my photo career really helped with my light-show. I can imagine different techniques to use with different bands.
I have evolved a newer technique since 2012. I’ve been really lucky to work with most of the new psych bands. For instance, the Mystic Braves, we’ve been working with them for the past year, we’ve done shows at the Troubadour, the Teragram Ballroom. We’ve done a lot of shots with Mr. Elevator & the Brain Hotel, Radio Moscow and Allah-Lahs. I’ve done some stuff with Pentagram; they liked the light show, which surprised me. We worked with Temples, we did 5 major shows with them in the US and 14 dates in Europe . It culminated with the London Forum show, that was an amazing event, Temples were great.
Mad Alchemy Lighting have many good experiences. In the new period, since 2006–7, the psych scene in many respects is very similar to the ‘60s. In some respects, it’s almost a friendlier crowd. The rate of change of the ‘60s was so intense. Most people don’t really realize that. When you look at our new period, it’s over seven years that’s, which is twice as long. A lot of these bands are playing some of the same songs, working on some of the same material; it’s kind of cool because its given them time to really fine tune it, to really do a perfect job with it. If you look at seven years in the 60s, say 1965 to 1972, the whole thing was completely different.
The legacy continues in the best way possible. People like to see the light show and I’ve been able to bring it back. We live in a special time, so let’s embrace it. Remember disco, there could be some sort of ugly thing around the corner… let’s also hope there isn’t some other big war. Those are the scary things, those things impact culture. This is a special time and we are fortunate to all be here at this time. One thing that is irritating to me is that the older fans have not embraced the younger bands, not to their credit. They are really losing out. There is a real link but the originally is there too. This isn’t the ‘60s, it’s 2016.
This is the first part of series dedicated to Mad Alchemy Lighting. Meanwhile, Check out http://www.madalchemy.net