The history of psychedelic design is largely focused on graphics: record sleeves by Hipgnosis, for instance, or that ubiquitous Bob Dylan poster by Milton Glaser. And of course, psychedelic is a sprawling term; encompassing everything from drugs to certain sounds, colours, patterns, clubs, fashion and more. But one aspect of psychedelic counterculture that’s far less visible today is light shows – a crucial creative element that brought gigs and clubs in the 1960s and 1970s into even more elaborate realms of trippiness.
A new book promises to be a “joyful tribute” to this “unfamiliar corner of British counterculture”. Titled Wheels of Light: Designs for British Light Shows 1970-1990, and authored by graphic designer, DJ and collector Kevin Foakes, the book brings together images made by key UK-based projection companies such as Pluto, Orion, and Optikinetics, with special attention paid to the latter.
Foakes creates his own immersive light and sound environments together with creative partner Pete Williams, under the moniker Further, and it was Williams that stumbled across the work featured in the book. While visiting Optikinetic’s Luton headquarters he discovered plan chests full of slides, films and huge original art pieces created for the projection wheels – artefacts that seemed to good not to share.
“What followed was a flood of information about all manner of other practitioners and companies who were active from the mid 1960s onwards,” Foakes explains. “Scans of old brochures, effects wheels and more filled up the inbox alongside names to follow up, links and witty observations.”
There are historical reasons, too: “Optikinetics is the last remaining survivor of the 1960s and 1970s UK projection industry that served nightclubs, mobile discos and music venues, filling them with multicoloured patterns and images,” says Foakes.
As well as showcasing artefacts from light show companies, the book looks to contextualise the images through a brief overview of the history of UK light shows from the 1960s onwards. We learn that artist couple Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (also known collectively as the Boyle Family) created some of the first light show performances in the UK in the early 1960s, “more as counter culture art pieces on the underground scene than gig visuals”.
The Boyle Family began to create multifaceted public art pieces inspired by Ken Kesey’s LSD-fuelled bus trips in the USA, known colloquially as ‘happenings’. These included 1964’s Suddenly Last Supper, which featured collage films and slides being burned as they were projected onto screens, mannequins and performers, as well as a piece called Bodily Fluids and Functions at the Roundhouse, which cased controversy thanks to its inclusion of live sex.
Possibly the most well-known hub of all things psychedelic in the 1960s was the UFO club in Tottenham Court Road, central London. Here, the Boyle Family created improvised AV performances for bands like Canterbury’s iconic Soft Machine. But what this book shows is that outside of the most famous images of psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, there were numerous innovative, talented craftspeople and artists pushing the boundaries of technology.
They created live experiences the likes of which had never been seen before, using picture discs, liquid wheels, cassettes and more to reflect the sounds and attitudes of punters in visceral visual forms. “From beautiful abstracts to visions of outer space, the designs for these rotating projections are a snapshot of the creativity and inventiveness of an era,” says Foakes.
Wheels of Light: Designs for British Light Shows 1970-1990 by Kevin Foakes is published by Four Corners; fourcornersbooks.co.uk