Meet the real scene stealers
When legendary Birmingham band and heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath embarked on their yearlong farewell tour in January 2016, they called it simply The End. And to go out in style, on stage they had an enormous light wall, equipped with 260 lamps and a movable upper half that could turn vertically and horizontally.
“Ozzy Osbourne’s wife Sharon, our client contact, knew exactly what she wanted, which was a simple and clean stage show that felt contemporary, but at the same time acknowledged Black Sabbath’s position as one of the greatest bands of their generation,” says Ray Winkler, CEO of Stufish Entertainment Architects in London, who have been building ever more spectacular sets for some of the largest acts in the world for four decades.
Stage sets for concerts are temporary structures, which are designed and manufactured to be assembled for each show, then dismantled and placed in heavy-duty boxes to travel to the next stop on the tour, often in several trucks.
It’s a far cry from the 1960s, when rock concerts were much simpler affairs, at least from an organizational point of view. For example, when Cream – Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce – performed their farewell show in November 1968, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, a wall of lights was the last thing on their minds.
“In retrospect, it just seems so small, somehow. We were three guys in the band and we had three road crew to set the gear up. And that was it! These days, a concert can involve hundreds of people,” Bruce has said.
In May of the same year, Pink Floyd staged an unusual concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Billed as Games of May, the band performed the first-ever surround sound concert, using a custom-made quadrophonic speaker system. As tape-recorded birdsong swept around the hall, one band member chucked potatoes at a gong, another sawed logs, and a crew member, dressed in an admiral’s uniform, threw daffodils into the audience, while a machine filled the air with bubbles.
By 1977 though, Pink Floyd’s ambitions had grown way beyond logs and daffodils. The band enlistedarchitect Mark Fisher and engineer Jonathan Park to design a spectacular stage show for their In The Flesh tour.
And spectacular it was, featuring large inflatable puppets, a pyrotechnic waterfall and an elaborate stage set, with umbrella-like canopies that would move up and down throughout the gig.
Three years later, Fisher and Park were back for Floyd’s next tour, to support their classic album The Wall. The set left the New York Times proclaiming, “This show will be the touchstone against which all future rock spectacles will be measured.”
It also cemented Fisher and Park’s reputations as the go-to-people for bands wishing to dazzle their audiences. In 1984, the duo founded their own company, Fisher Park, and went on to design several classics, including The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour in 1989 and U2’s Zoo TV.
Ten years later, Fisher and Park went their separate ways, with Fisher starting his own company Stufish, which would later morph into Stufish Entertainment Architects.
Mark Fisher passed away in 2013, but his spirit is still very much alive within the company, according to Ray Winkler, who joined in 1996 and has worked on many incredible projects over the years, for The Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga and AC/DC, to name just a few.
“If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour in 2015. The stage was designed as a combination of an arrow, a cross and a heart. A long catwalk led out from the main stage to a heart-shaped platform. Halfway down the platform were the arms of the cross. The design enabled her and the dancers to get really close to the audience,” he says.
The materials for the sets have to be lightweight, in order to be functional, but also reliable and sturdy enough to withstand extensive transportation. Therefore, most of the structures today are made of aluminum.
To avoid any legal surprises, Stufish sets are designed according to the strictest regulations the show will meet during the tour.
“For construction, we use the German DIN Standard, the most rigorous currently in place. Everything is specified – materials, technical details, how everything is to be mounted,” Winkler says. And like Cream’s Bruce noted, three crew members just won’t cut it anymore.
“It’s not unusual for a big tour to have 400 staff.”
It does indeed take a village to raise hell.
Text: Michael Dee
Published: May 23, 2017