The glory days of Rock really began in the seventies. Larger stage productions and the larger than life personas became a more common perception of the major bands than they had been in the fifties and sixties. As we rolled into the eighties this continued not only with the musicians themselves but with the live setting. Venues with massive capacities such as arenas and hockey rinks replaced theaters for the biggest acts of the day. But sometimes the memory gets more grandiose as decades slip by. How “massive” were the stage set ups of the legends of Classic Rock in their prime years?
Let’s take a look at some photos of some of the concert pictures of these bands. One thing I’m struck by is the lack of set adornment. Most stages were small to medium size, and contained exactly what they needed, a drum set and some amplifiers for the guitarist and bassist. Some stage lights completed the look.
Here is Led Zeppelin in 1972. The outdoor stage is about two feet off the ground and the backdrop is, well, there isn’t one.
Here’s the mighty Zep a year later. “Commanding the Stage” required dominating about a twenty foot section it seems.
Even the band that helped usher in the excess of the eighties, Van Halen, had a pretty minimalist stage on their first headlining tour in 1979.
As we ventured into the early eighties, larger crowds meant bigger stages. You could only see so much if you were 150 yards away from the music. Canadian Trio Rush started much the same as everyone else. Here they are on their tour for their second album, Fly by Night.
By the early eighties they were a firmly established act with hits like “Tom Saywer”, so to add visual pop they added a projector screen. This was necessary to show the infant technology of laser graphics.
The animations shown behind the band look today like something a child would draw on an Etch-a-Sketch. But it was entertaining stuff back then! The groups that have become known as influential in hindsight had even less impressive set ups. Here is the Runaways in the late seventies at CBGB’s in New York…
They barely had room to turn around without banging instruments together.
The minimalist look reigned for years. Mainstay rock acts like Tom Petty…
…Had much the same setup as wild rockers like Ted Nugent.
Ok you say, but what about the real visual spectacle bands? Bands like KISS for whom appearances were just as important as the music? Well, the famous album KISS ALIVE! had this enormous territory to stretch out on…
Doesn’t look so overwhelming when you pan out a bit, huh? If you tripped climbing up there and fell you’d be halfway across it when you landed.
But like we all know, the eighties brought in ever larger productions. Simple stages gave way to Broadway theater like settings. Here is Iron Maiden in their early days
And here is Iron Maiden in 1985
Maiden built on the musical topics of the albums they created and were able to create themes for each tour. Another development in the “more is more” train of thought was “Why just have the amplifiers we need? Let’s build a wall of them!”. Here is Van Halen’s 1981 stage:
And their 1984 stage:
The trick is, 99% of the mountain of speakers were just empty shells. But it made an impression!
As time went by some musicians went back to a less grandiose production. What made this possible? Video screens. Great. Big. Video screens.
Above is Tom Petty in 2017. Below is Van Halen in 2004.
The ability for images to be not just shown, but shown in enormous scale and in high definition is what made elaborate castles and stage props less necessary. Although many bands still do both. But the large screen can not only replace the props, it greatly enhances the concert experience for those in the back row. I have found myself, if far enough back, mainly watching the monitor behind the band as much as the band itself.
So the trends evolve with the times. Decades ago it was all about the music. To be fair that is what it’s all about. But with changing technology and ever escalating ticket prices people coming expect to be wowed. With holograms of deceased musicians now “touring” the countryside it’s hard to guess what will be next. Will everyone in the audience have a virtual reality headset? Time will tell…
Dio hologram onstage.