A History of the Laser in Dance Music
Where did the laser come from and why did it become such a staple feature in dance music? THUMP's Michaelangelo Matos digs deep into the history books to discover how the laser first was introduced to the dance music scene.This article originally appeared on THUMP
"Lighting is to disco as love is to marriage, as tonic is to gin, as music is to dancing," wrote Billboard editor Radcliffe Joe in This Business of Disco, a club owners' guide published in 1980.
"Disco would not be disco without it." It's a claim that applies to disco as much as it does club music as a whole. While light shows proliferated during the disco era of the 70s, the history of lasers and dance music goes back even further.
An acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation," the laser had been in commercial use for decades; starting in the 60s, the technology been used for cutting steel and diamonds, as well as in microsurgery. In the early 70s, pioneering DJs like Nicky Siano, Grandmaster Flowers, and Pete "DJ" Jones, as well as their late-70s successors Larry Levan and Tee Scott, were bringing their own laser lights to parties they threw in hotel ballrooms and other venues around New York City. Siano helped invent modern dance DJing in the early 70s, while Flowers and Jones are a pair of uptown legends who helped pave the way for hip-hop. "They created techniques and styles that people use today," New York native and veteran DJ-producer Boyd Jarvis told me in a 2012 interview, referring to the primitive light shows they created to accompany their sets.
But the occasional refracted high beam showering a dance floor with colored light via a spinning disco ball was peanuts compared to the way lasers were infiltrating rock at the same time. On November 19, 1973, Los Angeles's Griffith Park Observatory hosted the debut of Laserium, the first-ever evening of laser images set to a recorded-music soundtrack. Founded by engineer Ivan Dryer in Van Nuys, Laserium did so well that on the final night of its month-long residency, a crowd showed up that was nearly double the observatory's capacity.