40 Years Ago, ELO's Spaceship Reached Boston

On September 27, 1978, Electric Light Orchestra reached the Boston Garden on a tour that had begun in January in Honolulu and then circled the world.  In America since June on that tour, Boston was the third last stop, with the Providence Civic Center the following night and the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine being the final show on September 29.

This was ELO's commercial zenith, the "Out of the Blue" double album had gone Platinum and three singles from the release made it into the U.S. Top 40 singles chart ("Turn to Stone," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," and "Mr. Blue Sky") with the first two getting inside the top 20.  

Jeff Lynne, the singer, guitarist and production wizard who fronted the semi-classical Prog-Rock hit-making machine, was conjuring up some of the best work of his career, certainly until he reached the rarified orbits of Tom Petty and other various Wilburys many years later. 

But the undisputed star of this tour was the incredible spaceship stage, from which the band entered and exited the concert.  Conceived during a time when the band's success allowed the members the luxury of excess, the elaborate prop was seen as genius by fans and derided by haters as a closer approximation of a giant hamburger.

Via JeffLynnesongs.com a detailed description of the 'spaceship' stage follows. Incidently, this website is packed with incredible information for any Jeff Lynne or ELO fan! 

The Spaceship Stage: One of the biggest stars of the show was the stage itself. Conceived by ELO's manager, Don Arden, this was a gigantic metal hamburger-shaped spaceship that opened up at the beginning of the show with lasers, fog machines and taped music of an excerpt of Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by AndrĂ© Previn) blasting out to the audience. As it opened, the band was raised from out of the floor on hydraulic risers. There the band played until the end of the show, when they walked off stage and it closed back up with more laser and fog theatrics and a repeat of the Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 excerpt once again blasting out to the audience. Jeff Lynne has commented in several interviews that he sometimes left the stage after the performance and rushed out to stand with the audience so he could watch it close. The set was designed by Michael Crisp and is reported to have cost half a million dollars to construct.

The magic of the stage was pulled off in a carefully choreographed sequence. The stage holes for ELO members to rise up were capped over and the equipment for ELO and the opening bands would be staged in rows by who was playing (with ELO naturally being in back). The bottom half of the saucer would be hidden in plain sight by simply not adding the plastic covers of the saucer, thus the framework was visible. The top half of the saucer with the lighting would be hoisted high enough and curtains provided if necessary to hide the top of the saucer, but leave the lighting visible so that it appeared as a normal lighting rig during the opening acts. 

Before ELO came on stage, a curtain was lowered to completedly hide the stage. The road crew would move the band's equipment into position and remove the caps for the band elevators. Additional crew would add the plastic covers to create the bottom half of the saucer and the top half of the saucer was lowered to about 8 feet above the stage to allow the crew to add hoses from the top to the bottom for pumping in the show's smoke effects. Finally the top half of the saucer with the lighting was lowered into position to create the closed saucer. The curtain was then removed to reveal the spaceship and the show would begin.

Unfortunately, as much fun as this stage was for the audience, it caused a lot of havoc for the band. It was incredibly expensive to operate and transport. It used many technicians to construct, operate and deconstruct it for each show; and it required thirteen 18-wheelers to transport it from city to city. In fact, it was so expensive and time-consuming to use that it was mostly used at every other performance, with the non-spaceship parts of the tour using a regular stage at the venue (the 'spaceship did not appear in Providence or Portland). 

All shows included a laser light show, regardless of whether the spaceship stage was used or not. The hydraulic lifts did not always work properly, which meant that sometimes the entire band would not be on stage when the show (including the taped song intros) began. Worst of all, it caused the music to suffer as the spaceship set was a very hot place in which to play. This caused the band's instruments to often go out of tune, particularly the cellos and violin. And the acoustics in the spaceship made it difficult for the band to hear themselves properly.

Regardless of whether the spaceship stage was used, the show always offered a heavy laser light show, incorportating an 80-channel light console and four krypton and argon laser units. They used two portable power units to generate 525,000 watts of light. The show was touted as being "four times brighter than the average rock show" at the time. These lights and lasers caused an incredible amount of heat for the band to perform under.

At one of the Wembley shows, Jeff Lynne was surprised after the show to go backstage and find Bob Dylan had been there watching the show. Bob was in London performing concerts at Earl's Court at the time and wanted to come by to catch the show. This was the first meeting of Jeff and Bob, who nearly 10 years later would be recording together for the Traveling Wilburys.


Carter Alan

Carter Alan

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