When I was a kid every household seemed to own a copy of The Guinness Book Of World Records (wasn’t it the second-biggest selling book every year, next to the Bible?). Unlike today, back then the Book Of World Records was the size of a novel – albeit a very, very thick one – and it only had a handful of pictures in it, all of them small and all of them in black & white. Each one of those pictures is permanently burned into my memory; the world’s fattest man, the world’s longest earthworm, the fat twins on motorcycles, and a picture of a scientist working on a newfangled thing called a laser beam.
Even today I can vividly see that picture in my mind; I can see the man in a lab coat leaning over his invention, a look of wonder and determination in his little black and white eyes. I could almost hear him thinking, “At last! I am on the cusp of dramatically enhancing concert experiences and tormenting housecats the world over!”
Case in point: this ticket stub from March 30th, 1985.
It’s funny how at the dawn of a new technology even the most primitive of baby steps can enthral the world. Remember Pong? Intellivision? Pitting one bulbous block of pixels against another in Atari boxing? Dial-up internet? Well, these laser shows at the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto were prime examples. Back then even the most basic laser technology was enough of a wonder to pull a fiver out of the pockets of a steady stream of gawkers, provided the display was accompanied by blaring FM rock-radio staples.
Pink Floyd was one of my favourite bands at the time. The Wall was just it for me, an angst-y Fiddler On The Roof for the latest dystopian generation. I knew every word on the album and could air-guitar every solo note-for-note and I was a sponge for the rest of Pink Floyd’s catalogue, most of which was still foreign to me.
As a matter of fact this event might have been the first time I heard songs from Wish You Were Here. Even though it was so long ago I can distinctly remember them doing Have A Cigar and Welcome To The Machine, the latter accompanied by a clunky, straight-line laser piston going back-and-forth almost to the music, quietly thrilling we in the Neanderthal crowd to no end.
Of course I was most wide-eyed during the stuff from The Wall. For these songs the laser artists had some specific imagery to work with and I’m sure they delighted in recreating the album cover, a basic grid of brick lines that was pretty much made-for-laser. They had the face coming through the wall screaming down at us and everything. It was so, so great.
Of course nowadays any five-year-old could absolutely bury the graphics I saw that day with a few flicks of his little fingers on an iPhone. Heck, nowadays for $19.95 you can project a much more intricate laser show onto your house for the entire xmas season, but at the time the world had yet to see such wonders.
No, back in the heady days of 1985 we were all still naive enough to be astounded by simple, straight flickering lines and we liked it just fine that way, thank-you very much.
And speaking of thanks, thank-you to Arthur Schawlow et al for splitting up light in the first place and making all this magic possible. And a very special mention to Albert Hoffman for helping to make it really, really interesting.