Robert Calvert + Hawkwind / annex

Throwing a little light on Hawkwind
An article on Hawkwind's famous light-show-artist
LIQUID LEN and his shiny gang 'the Lensmen'

from "Disc"; Jan. 1973
by Peter Erskine

Liquid LenLIQUID LEN crouches near the door rolling a cigarette of sorts and claiming, amongst other things, that he was responsible for the two miles of fairy lighting at the 1970 Bath Festival; in fact, it was he who handled all the lighting there. Len is head of the lighting team for Hawkwind. He's also worked with Traffic, Free, Mott The Hoople, Black Sabbath and toured with Zappa's Grand Wazoo through Europe in the summer, but that's not ready the point. The point is that Len (alias John Smeeton) is something of a lights freak and a dab hand at getting amazing things from what started out as fairly standard equipment.

He and the Lensmen - Molten Mick (Mike Hart) and Astral Alan (Alan Day) - have been running light units since the UFO days of six Years ago, when it was all down to liquids and rotating cards and just about anything else that could be improvised-mind you, the whole thing is still in its experimental stage, but their attitude is extremely professional and scientific to the point where they're probably the definitive British lightshow, employing over a ton of equipment humped by Britain's first lightshow roadie, a certain John Lee, and designed and built by them and John Perrin, who also builds sound systems for bands.

They've been working as a part of Hawkwind's Space Opera since May, and according to John, the combination has acted as a tremendous catalyst for them and the band.

"Everything I've wanted to do in the last two years has really come about in the last few months," he claims, dipping into a tobacco pouch, then adds: "We've really reached a point, from working with Hawkwind, where we can do something serious to expand the whole scope of lighting, and get the business away from the connotations of bits of whirling cardboard and slides of The Pope . .

It's more or less impossible to explain the technical set-up of this formidable combination, but, between them they have been responsible for the revival of the mirror ball - that rotating globe fixed with millions of tiny mirrors that you can still see in dying ballrooms around the country - and claim to be the inventors of that bubble blowing machine that was featured on the Top Of The Pops "Silver Machine" film clip.

However, they've reinterpreted the use of that old mirror hall - it's now enclosed in a box with high-powered spots focused all round it - the whole thing being controlled remotely by an amazing machine called a colour organ - a direct relationship between colours, light and shade, and sound. Alan explains: "It has 61 keys like a piano keyboard, and pedals. Each key corresponds to a certain effect, and within the framework of each key you have light and shade and phasing from the position of the pedals. It controls the whole set-up."

Hawkwind live - 1973

"The whole set-up" is something like nine industrial projectors fitted with long-range lenses, so that the rig can be positioned right at the back of a hall out of an audience's way, with 15 stage lamps on John's, side, while Alan and Mike use another nine projectors and smoke apparatus.

It's all scripted. The whole lights sequence is arranged and follows a lengthy and complicated script with allowances for the omission of some numbers and the addition of others.

"I listen out for what Lemmy or Simon is doing rhythmically," adds John. "One of the nicest bits to 'play' is the electronics number 'Brainstorm'."

Aside from Joe's Lights' collaboration with the Grateful Dead, this is the first time that light and sound have fused as a whole, each a part of the other, and the fact that it's worked so well makes the future look good. John explains excitedly that he can foresee a time in the near future where video becomes incorporated into the set so that actual "live filming" could take place and a kind of collage of fantasy and reality built up. Multiple images simultaneously.


And the other difference between Liquid Len and yer run-of-the-mill cardboard kaleidoscope merchant is that old Len's something of a dandy at something called "front projections" - simply the projection of an image on the front of the stage, rather than the usual blanket image that swathes both band and stage. They also use a low wattage laser capable of projecting three dimensional images, via a complicated system of mirrors, on to a flat surface onstage.

Plans for the future may include some kind of light/sound collaboration between John and Del Dettmar (synthesiser) and the setting up of a kind of lighting "pool" in the New Year, where outfits can exchange after and develop existing equipment and work together on devising visual machinery that can keep up with the advances in what can now almost be termed musical machinery.

As John says: "We'd like to raise the status of the whole field; create almost an industry, where we can work on our own employing our own ideas independent of the big manufacturers.


Robert Calvert - the spirit of the p/age