We've been looking at the link between rock music and design through the filter of Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, and trained graphic artist.
This column focuses on the rise and rise of the stage show in importance in rock music. And we can start with an event that only Watts could parlay, given his background in jazz, graphics and history.
For the announcement in New York of the US 1975 tour, Watts conjured a street show: the Stones played their hit Brown Sugar on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of NY traffic.: the Stones played their hit Brown Sugar on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of NY traffic. Watts had remembered this stunt as the way New Orleans jazz bands had traditionally promoted upcoming dates, and he converted it into performance art that jammed Manhattan streets.
Until that tour, rock and roll stage designs were simple: a raised, open, bare stage, a light show, and huge speakers to the sides. The Stones were one of the first to move away from that format: for The Tour of the Americas 75 Charlie Watts designed a Lotus stage, the start of a movement that was to evolve into an arms race of increasingly more elaborate shows.
And designing those shows became an industry dominated by architects, particularly Mark Fisher and Ray Winkler (of which more later). I am sure that I am not the only one to harbour dreams of turning my Rotring to it. And I once got very close, but oh so far away, as I shall explain.
In 1985, whilst traveling in Europe, my sister, former catwalk model, TV and movie actress, and her husband, rock musician with the Divinyls, suggested visiting their friends, Clarissa Wilson and Malcolm Luker, an engineer, producer and writer at ARCO studios in Munich. Arriving in late afternoon, as the session was wrapping, we adjourned to their nearby house.
Whilst they got ready for dinner, I was left in the downstairs lounge with one of the musicians. “What do you do?” I asked. “Session guitarist.” “Do you have a band?” “Yes, but you probably haven't heard of us, even though we’re second only to Michael Jackson in album sales last year.” Turns out he’s Steve Clark, the extraordinarily skilled lead guitarist with Def Leppard. Jaw drops.
He then asked me what I did: on hearing I was an architect he said, “I've got three of you”. Meaning he had a team of architects designing his next stage show. And he wasn't happy. The steel grille floor they wanted to be lit from below would curtail his knee slides. I suggested using slippery Perspex instead, which he liked, and wanted to hire me. And then off to dinner.
Which was great, with good food and far too much alcohol. Morning came and Steve Clark had forgotten the offer and I never got to do that stage show. And sadly, the alcohol was to kill him several years later. But what of architects who do design for rock and roll?
Which introduces Pink Floyd, the quintessential designer band; three of the four (originally five) members had trained as architects and wanted to combine their skills to present more elaborate and impressive stage shows. In 1977 they team up with Mark Fisher, an architect who had trained at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and later worked there as a unit master.
After collaborating on the In the Flesh Tour their ambition increases and Fisher, together Roger Waters and Gerald Scarfe design The Wall, the 1980-81 stage show that changes everything. Suddenly every band wants a Fisher stage, and together with Jonathon Park, he founds the Fisher Park Partnership which morphs into Stufish in 1994. He designs big shows for big artists: U2, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Metallica, Elton John and, of course the Rolling Stones.
The first major Stones show was Steel Wheels in 1989. The front edges reference some graphics from that album (covered last week).
The tour continues in 1990 in Europe with a similar set-list but a new stage design called Urban Jungle, clearly different by daylight and the evenings light show. This was the beginning of an increasingly more complex stage design. Once again, Charlie Watts is at the cutting edge, as he and Mick Jagger take a strong involvement in the designs.
The stage becomes even more elaborate in 1994 for The Voodoo Lounge tour. From this time albums sales decline as the basis of a band’s income, to be replaced by the money raised in touring. Design turns from graphics on album covers to architecture of stage shows.
Bridges to Babylon is now regarded as the most complex and ambitious, if not expensive, of all rock and roll stage shows. Again, its presence during daytime, as it's being set up, gives little inkling of its myriad possibilities at night-time, when it was mostly seen during the 1997 tour.
Mark Fisher and his understudy architect, Ray Winkler, who has joined Stufish in 1996, design The Licks Tour, for the band in 2002-3.
The lips and tongue, Rolling Stones symbol since the Sticky Fingers album, becomes the centrepiece of the Bigger Bang Tour of 2005-7. Winkler describes the changes: “In the eighties and nineties, the Stones, like all bands, went on tour to promote their albums. The money was made through album sales, but with the advent of downloading and streaming that changed, and it put different pressures on the touring industry. The efficiency had to be kicked up because it's expensive to do a lavish production”.
When Mark Fisher died in 2013, Winkler takes over and designs the No Filter Show, a restrained set piece described as pared back modernism, with giant stabile of the four members of the Stones. Seems a fitting way to say goodbye to dear Charlie Watts.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].