Friday, January 19, 2018

UFO and The Pink Floyd Sound

Despite Warhol's traveling sideshow in the States, "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable," the UFO in Tottenham Court was the first legit psychedelic night club. By 1967 it was ground zero for subterranean counter-culture in Swingin' London. Friday's "Allnighters" began around ten until the Underground (London's subway system) reopened at 6am (conveniently approximating the length of an acid trip).
UFO founder, Hoppy Hopkins recalls the brilliance of the club's light shows: "Halfway down the wide entrance stairs we put a snow machine, a theatre light producing the effect of continuously falling snow. Stand in it for a minute or two and you begin to be disoriented - the same as driving a car into a snowstorm – definitely hypnotic. Add to that a whiff of incense and by the time you reached the bottom the atmosphere was set, with music drifting out as the people drifted in."

Using the same kinds of effects Warhol was using in the States, the UFO, essentially the basement level of old cinema, covered its stark white walls and ceiling with liquid lighting. Light show pioneer Mike Leonard worked closely with Pink Floyd while still known as Leonard’s Lodgers (they lived in Leonard’s home). Working with colored cellophane and glass attached to rotating wheels and various prisms and lenses through which light was projected, Leonard managed to create lysergic effects that complimented the psychedelic sound.

Similar to the visual effects that Douglas Trumbull was creating for Kubrick during the filming of 2001, Leonard based each week's lighting extravaganza on experimentation with oil and water, household cleaners and  Roger Waters remembers that "Leonard wanted some improvised music around experiments he was doing with light. He had projectors and things, and he would wrap up tubes of shiny Smelinex and shine light through it, and crinkle it, and see what it did when it hit the wall. And we would play music to it."

London's International Times, an underground newspaper, wrote, "The Pink Floyd psychedelic pop group did weird things to the feel of the event with their scary feed-back sounds, slide projections playing on their skin - drops of paint run riot on the slides to produce outer space/prehistoric textures on the skin - spotlights flashing on them in time with a drum beat." A review from November 1966 in The [Kent] Herald stated, "Without [the] psychological visual effects, the act would not be the same." In January 1967, Melody Maker's Nick Jones wrote, "The Pink Floyd have a promising sound, and some very groovy picture slides which attract far more attention than the group." Syd Barrett remarked, "We think that the music and the lights are part of the same scene; one enhances and adds to the other," but Nick Mason saw it differently. "The trouble with the projected slides is that everybody tends to ignore the music.... To us the sound is at least as important as the visual aspect."

Opening night, December 23, 1966, was billed as "UFO presents Night Tripper." In addition to bands, poets, and experimental performance artists, several additional lighting designers were given space to create lighting displays. Quickly The Pink Floyd Sound became the UFO resident band. In February '67 Chet Helms, who ran San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom, came to London with an idea to open a club in London. While the club never evolved, Helms was struck by the Floyd/UFO spectacular: "The Pink Floyd were pretty much the house band, the way Big Brother and the Holding Company were for me. I remember feeling that our music was much more musical, probably because it had its roots in American R&B. What was unique about [The Pink Floyd Sound] was they worked invariably with the light show; [it was] part of the act." 
Ultimately their tenure at the club was surplanted by The Soft Machine, as the band's success began to blossom, but it was those dates at the UFO that set the tone for The Pink Floyd Sound.