May 15, 2013

LASERIUM (1977-1990) - Londoners' opportunity to stare at lasers

In the 1970s, what were the alternatives to going to the cinema or the pub? Well, one evening went to the London Planetarium, listened to loud prog rock and watched lasers!

I've been struggling to remember my visit. But at the time I associated lasers with sci-fi weaponry, most famously as a powerful cutting tool, as in Goldfinger's attempt to make James Bond go in separate ways. I'd not been to any rock concerts at this point, so hadn't seen any lasers in action. I went with several friends, half expecting to die by decapitation because I was the tallest.

The Planetarium, recognisable by the green dome, was an adjoining attraction to Madame Tussauds (the building is still there). The comfy, padded chairs inside were arranged in circles, tilted back to face you towards the hemispherical ceiling. With the lights dimmed, a complex projector emulated scientifically-accurate views of star constellations and planets.

But the science stuff was for the daytime, in the evening they showed Laserium instead! We sat in the same seats, but while they cranked up an eclectic playlist of psychedelic rock, the operators shone brightly-coloured holographic laser-shapes over our heads (we might even have had protective glasses on). I believe each show was different, the show wasn't pre-programmed, the operators 'played' the lasers live!

On offer were two different programmes of music, called Laserium and Laserock. This programme that I bought on the day (shown at top), lists the default playlists of music they used.

The thin blue 'membrane' that floats over the egg chamber in Alien (1979), is the vivid memory I have of an actual laser used in a movie, but a couple of years later I remember them being used in nightclubs, shooting into the eyes of the crowd indiscriminately (we still didn't know if that was safe or not). They also cropped up in a heap of early 80s pop videos, like the refilmed version of 'Relax' by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

Lasers continued to be cool all decade, and the London Laserium attraction lasted until 1990 - no doubt with a few changes to the playlists.

The American Laserium experience - a website for the uses of Laserium technology in the USA.

The Australian Laserium Facebook page - a nostalgic take with more photos.

Here's an amusing radio advert for the London Laserium, circa 1979 when I caught  the show. This depends mainly on users comments making vaguely trippy references and calling it "indescribable"! On the day, I was disappointed that the backing music for the advert (Vangelis - 'Pulstar') wasn't part of the show...


  1. I was a Laser Operator at Madame Tussaud's 1989 - 1990. I was a Waxworks guide and then a Zeiss Projector operator in the Star Show.
    I used my staff free entry to go to the laser show after work each night for months and eventually blagged a laser job by sheer tenacity ("giz a job - I could do that!!!").
    The show was partially automated and partially manual with a lot of room for improvisation. The Jean Michel Jarre show was replaced by Michael Jackson and U2 shows whilst keeping the "London Rocks" variety show.
    Re your point about cutting lasers, the (VERY POWERFUL) show lasers were set and tuned to "diverge", whereas if they were set to converge, yes they could have cut your head off at close range. And maybe "holed" the dome. But even as it was you could light a cigarette from the beam as it left the laser head inside the cabinet if you didn't have any matches (oops!!!) ; )
    I may have been the last 'laserist' to be taken on as they were heading to almost full automation as the Laser Dept was folded and the Electricians Dept took over, a shame really as one could "play" the laser consoles as you can a modular synthesiser.
    The equipment was actually an incredibly sophisticated setup with much customisation, but "Gobo's" and other cheaper lighting effects were being introduced and electricians with their automated setups instead of laserists were cheaper and less variable (the kit went incredibly wrong for me one night and I had to abandon performance, I got in big trouble with the management!)

    There was always talk of "low-light" video recordings of the show, and they tried it but I don't think any were produced in the end. I would love to see a video of the Jean-Michel Jarre show...

  2. I left school in 1980, i had got myself into a band of much older musicians most of them from America, we used to go often to see the laser rock show, it was awesome, really something. shame to see it lost its appeal to the broader public and is gone.
    Fantastic memories,Thanks Steve,you were probably the guy running it, you might remember us, our manager a young women used to hand the operater a small neat weed doobie, this was actually Pete The fish, from electric wood ( wal basses ) home grown!

  3. Through a friend in 78/79 I got an invite out of hours. Bit hazy on the actually date, to much weed !
    A friend had heard my Hi Fi system and asked if I could bring some Reel to Reel tapes down.
    Pioneer reel to reel using a Sugden P51 Pre, Fonz CQ30 , Mayware Formula 4 , Dynavector 10 X MC. Pioneer Reel to Reel.
    Awesome, loud, very ,very loud. I good some good comments how good the recordings were.
    The two guys that night were both American, I would love to know what Kit they were using.

  4. Ahhh....Loved it ! Four of us went here at least every other weekend between 1980-82. Nothing better than having a good buzz, and then heading into the show. I think the guy who did it was from L.A. if I can recall. Still tell people about it to this day, and I think they get it ! It was something that you had to def witnessed !!! Those were the days eh ? Cheers, Joe USA

  5. I was taken to the London Lasarium in 1978 for a birthday treat. It must be hard for kids today to appreciate just how "state of the art" this show was back then. The spectacular show climaxed with the full 15+ minutes of Yes' recently released track Awaken. That was the first time I had knowingly heard a Yes track and I have remain a fan to this day. The programme also included many other prog-rock tracks which have informed my music tastes ever since.

  6. The various Laserium "concerts" at the Planetarium were a stalwart of my teenage years and an education in loud rock music with the added benefit of lasers and "how do they do the beam modulation" (not easy) thrown in.

    The LA guy referred to previously was Ed Bryzcki (spelling?) who was partially deaf which made the music louder and better (but not if you were a Baker Street neighbour, apparently). I went once or twice (a month) and Ed's intro is indelible for me:
    "Is there anybody out there (whispered)... great, there's somebody out there. Welcome to the London Planetarium here at Madame Tussauds, what you are about to see is produced live before your very eyes. In the centre of the room is the mighty Zeiss planetary projector and to my left is the Laser images Mk 6 [this number changed periodically] Ion/Krypton gas laser projector system. The laser system is made up of 4 colours: red, yellow, green, and blue and come out of the box the diameter of a pencil lead and happen to be the purest colours known to man. Sometimes I see more than 4 colours, like 5, 6, 7, or 8 colours... and I'm usually having a thoroughly good time when I do. So if you see more than 4 colours, we assume that you are having a thoroughly good time, too. Please note the Exit signs are above the doors, not beside it - the doors work infinitely better than the walls in the darkness. We would appreciate it, and your friends would appreciate it if there was no flash photography during the performance, all you will see is a blank dome and 150 angry faces who will no doubt find you and separate you from your equipment. No smoking, no toking, no having a good time.... no, we want you to have a good time. The best seats are on the floor [they certainly were!] and so have a trip and pass that candy"

    I may have missed bits but that was the gist. The laser operator was, therefore, a hero for me and my mates and we loved going there for new shows. The other operator I chatted to, Mark Suttonvane (again, spelling?), wasn't so reckless with the volume controls as Ed so the shows were quieter [awwww]. I'd have killed for that job.

    One of the best shows I saw there was the Helden concert. Hans Zimmer and Warren Cann doing a concert around the Zeiss in the centre of the dome with Ed doing the Laser magic (and in charge of the volume - man that was LOUD!).

    Is there anywhere in the world still doing these types of concerts?

    1. Amazing that you got to see Hans Zimmer back then. The Helden album surfaced on YouTube!

  7. 27 Sept 1978, 10cc at no. 1 with Dreadlock Holiday, plucked up the courage to ask out the most gorgeous girl at my school. Amazingly she said yes. Took her to Laserock. Lasers, Doobie Brothers' Listen to the Music. Job done. Celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary in July. Then 40 years first date on 27 Sept. The power of lasers! It was a magical experience. And she's still gorgeous.