BACKSTAGE ACCESS

AMAZING TALES From The Record Biz–You Can’t Make This Shit UP!

For years people have been after me to write a book—not so much for my ego, but to capture the freewheeling times of the music business when creativity and fun were the mantra before it all became about big business and sales targets.

Here then, are some fantastic stories that I call: AMAZING TALES From The Record Biz—You Can’t Make This Shit UP!

There will be ongoing episodes on these pages but from time to time I will shift gears and continue to blog about current music events that cry out for comment.

EPISODE ONE – “OMG!! We’re all gonna go to jail for this one!”

THE BIG GREEN LASER

It was early spring 1976, and we were standing on top of Signal Hill in Long Beach, CA. Actually, standing on top of a work shed on top of Signal Hill. It was Paul Sullivan, the program director at the time for the big rock station there, KNAC FM, a small crew of guys from the Laser Light Laboratory in the San Fernando Valley, and myself. From that height we could see the whole city of Long Beach and all of Orange County.

On top of the shed lying across the roof was a nine foot, 30 Watt, Argon Laser canon—designed to shoot for 30 miles! I had seen it on the local news and called the laboratory to see if I could rent it. Laser technology was brand new at the time and a few rock bands were experimenting with these powerful light beams as part of their production. One of those bands was the Blue Oyster Cult and I was promoting their new album “Agents Of Fortune” (yep, that’s the one with “The Reaper” on it). I was also promoting their upcoming Long Beach Arena show, which would feature their new laser tunnel effect (an entire arena sized audience completely engulfed inside a giant sheet of swirling laser beams).

And, I had the biggest and baddest laser beam on the planet at my fingertips, ready to do a free light show in the skies for the whole city of Long Beach and surrounding Orange County areas while KNAC debuted the new album from beginning to end.

There was a strong feeling of trepidation for a few moments and then we heard the command from the crew chief — “Fire it up!” Instantly there was this gigantic beam of hot green light that was so insanely massive, that all of our jaws dropped at the exact same time. “Holy sh*t!!!!” The thing was so huge, shot so far out across the sky, and landed at such a far distance on the horizon (yup, 30 freakin’ miles, as advertised), that it scared the hell out of us and our first gut reaction was to immediately shut the damn thing off as fast as we could! None of us had ever witnessed anything with this kind of sheer power before and all of us were thinking the exact same thing, “OMG!! We’re all gonna go to jail for this one!”

But I had done due diligence, getting permission from the local authorities and even from the Long Beach airport as they didn’t want any of their big 747’s to land on us thinking that we were the runway!! True!

It was scary all right, but once we caught our breath we saw that the beam was also bold, and beautiful, and elegant in its strength. Now, we just had to control it.

Paul had the Blue Oyster Cult album timed to be played from 8 to 9 PM and we began our light show across the sky pulsing the laser and doing fan moves to the beat of the songs. Because this was a live remote, we could also break in between songs to talk to the listening audience, who by the way, were all having “laser light show parties” at their houses sprawled out on blankets on their lawns drinking wine and getting high as they listened to the music on their FM stereos while gazing up at the huge light show above them in the sky. As we swung the gigantic beam around to hit another area, Paul got on the mic and said, “Dig this Orange County!!” Woosh! A giant trail of light shooting out thirty miles looked like smeared green paint in the atmosphere as we swung the beam from left to right by 30 degrees. If you’ve ever seen the Northern Lights, it looked kind of like that only bigger, much longer, and way more intense.

Wow–this was turning into a huge event, and everything was going just swimmingly until something unexpected happened. What we didn’t realize was, that if you shoot a laser beam of this size off a very high hill that can be seen by all the locals, they will get into their cars and try to drive to the source of the light! Uh, oh.

In about 15 minutes all kinds of cars and kids were driving up the roads to Signal Hill looking for us. They certainly found us, and then they just kept coming and coming. In about a half hour our little plot of ground was strewn with cars all blaring Blue Oyster Cult music out their door panels and people standing and cheering the laser beam as it pulsed across the sky. You have to understand that laser technology was just in its infancy, so most people had never seen anything like it. And if per chance they had, they’d never seen anything this damn big! Some of the kids started drinking and getting high, and it became a real party on the hill beneath our feet. More and more cars were coming and we had no security—but, who would have thought, right?!

Some of the kids got feisty and wanted to experiment themselves—they started throwing their car keys up into the beam to see what would happen. This caused the light to reflect and refract and we had to make announcements to the crowd to lay-off because we didn’t know the consequences of such actions—melted car keys for one?? Perhaps eye damage as the light got reflected in a myriad of directions—who knew?!

Then the unthinkable happened. All of the sudden the water supply that was cooling the giant laser suddenly stopped flowing. CA-RRRRRRR-ACK!!!! We watched in astonishment as the glass tube started to rupture! Holy crap—in fact, holy crap squared!!

Sullivan had made a deal with Shell Oil to turn on one of their water pumps on Signal Hill so that we could cool the big laser. Someone three miles away in their main plant saw the valve on and it wasn’t tagged, so they had simply shut it off!

I thought it was the end of the world and that I’d be fired for sure because the laser laboratory would sue Columbia Records for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Turned out, luckily for me, that they were insured and so the only thing that ended was the promotion event. We had gotten three quarters of the way through the record though, so the point had been made and everyone thought it was a dazzling display of total cool. We even got written up in the local paper.

Yes, it was a magical time in the music business to be sure. You could call the record company headquarters, tell them that you had a very creative and totally insane plan, and if they thought it could sell come records and heighten an artist’s visibility, they’d actually give you the money to do it! In fact, when I called New York and told them I wanted to rent the big laser they said, “Great! Can you get two of ‘em?”

More stories to come.

Thanks for reading,

~Rap

© Paul Rappaport 2013

  • reayx5

    That was an awesome story. I could totally picture it in my mind. Thanks for sharing!

  • rap_classicsdujour

     Hi Johnny,

    Thanks for the story!   Pretty insane (and not poking fun at your guy here).  It must have been pretty fun, even if by accident, knocking those other stations off the air.  And power amps at 500 watts!! Whoa!

    Thanks for taking the time to read my writings.

    All the best,

    ~Rap

  • JohnnyCNote

    While it can’t compare with a massive laser, I can relate a similar story. I was “affiliated” with a rehearsal studio (even lived there for about 15 months) in San Francisco. The “owner” (he really just held the lease on the warehouse) had all sorts of big plans. One was to start a pirate radio station, which he boldly announced in an interview for all to read.

    There was an electronics guy who was really quite phenomenal. Once in about 10 minutes he made me the best fuzz effect I’ve ever had. He built a small FM transmitter that could accept an input from a “boom box”. Sadly, he was also schizophrenic. One day they decided to test out the “radio station”, barely larger than a pack of cigs, with an antenna less than 6″ long. We drove up to Twin Peaks in the mid afternoon and I sat in a car while they went off somewhere to do the deed. That was the last I ever heard of it.

    Well, almost. It turned out that this tiny 5 watt FM transmitter was so powerful that it blotted out a bunch of stations in the lower end of the dial! Unfortunately I never got to hear it, but they got so scared that we raced back to the warehouse, where they hid inside for days. Every time anyone knocked on the door they burrowed deeper into their spaces, dead certain that it was the FCC with a warrant.

    Some time later I heard someone playing a tape in the main studio. It got louder and louder and louder, and finally I just had to check it out. They were testing out their new power amps that they’d made themselves. They were easily 500 watts each.

    A month or so later the electronics guy had an “episode” and had to go to the psych ward. It was too bad because he could have had a great career working with a band, etc., or a pirate radio station, providing the guy behind it was less easily freaked out . . .