Lorna Read learns about stage fireworks. We pick up the pieces
At the heart of everyone who has ever struck a match and admired the flame, or "Oohed" in glee at a rocket exploding on Bonfire Night, lurks a potential pyromaniac just dying to light the blue touchpaper and run. Martin Blake was one such person who, obsessed with bangs and flashes from his childhood, actually carried his sparkling dreams through into remunerative reality by forming a partnership with three other like-minded people and starting Le Maitre Fireworks Ltd.
Mick McManus, one corner of the Le Maitre partnership (looking every inch the pantomime demon in red shorts and red and white striped tee-shirt — and even more so when he demonstrated the Cloud Nine smoke machine and vanished in a cloud of smoke!) explained that Martin was the boffin, the brains behind not only their effects division but their disco side, too (LSD — Light and Sound Distribution), the kind of guy who, as a 13-year-old kid with a chemistry set and a copy of Nuclear Physics for Beginners, could probably have figured out how to split the atom if some spoilsport named Enrico Fermi hadn't got there first.
Blake's raison d'etre wasn't just to develop louder and more spectacular fireworks, he was concerned primarily with safety. And the culmination of several years of research, for which he was looking for backers in order to be able to go into production and marketing, was the highly ingenious and very successful Pyroflash System.
"We saw that it had an application in the theatre, for rock shows — for just about anybody putting on anything involving fireworks," McManus explained. "What the Pyroflash is, is a safe form of detonation from an encapsulated piece of flash powder." Having tried it out myself and safely detonated a 'Goldenstar' and a wonderful glowing 'Coloured Fire' within the confines of the factory where Cloud Nine machines and Mirror Balls were being busily assembled around me, I can honestly say that not only is the Pyroflash System a safe and reliable way of detonating explosive cartridges, it's also, in the hands of a responsible person, completely idiot-proof, having a safety key-switch which, once removed by the operator between firings, ensures that no accidental ignition can take place.
All the effects in the Le Maitre range are compatible with the Pyroflash System. A pre-loaded cartridge is fitted into the flashbox and as the Fire button is pressed, a low voltage charge is supplied to the flashbox. Virtually no heat remains after firing and reloading can take place immediately. As the amount of explosive is carefully measured out in each charge, the results are predictable and consistent — a great advantage over the days when the pantomime genie could end up with his whiskers (and more important parts of his anatomy) severely singed as a result of some cack-handed operator measuring out just a little too much loose gun-powder. The use of non-standard connections provides an additional safety factor as it lessens the chance of a stray 'live' lead being plugged in by mistake. Matchbox and Stray Cats are among the bands who regularly use the Pyro flash and Le Maitre fireworks on stage.
Mick McManus likens the difference between the Pyroflash System and the old-fashioned hit-and-miss methods, to the difference between the old cut-throat razor and the modern electric ones. "It's much more safe and enjoyable for everyone. As long as everybody's standing six feet or more away, all you do is plug in. The layman can operate it by just following the instructions".
Which brings us to an important point; does your roadie need any special training or qualifications? Surprisingly, the answer is no. There is a leaflet available produced by The Association of British Theatre Technicians which explains most of the legal and safety matters regarding the use of explosive effects on stage. And of course it is strictly illegal to mix up or tamper with any devices you have bought, which is not only extremely dangerous, as some powders are incompatible with each other and could spontaneously ignite, but a serious offence under the Explosives Act 1875.
There are however various local rules and regulations which have to be adhered to. In the GLC area, for instance, officialdom has to be informed about any explosive effects due to be used in forthcoming rock gigs.
They will then send down an inspector to find out exactly what is planned and it is up to him to decide about whether or not the audience are likely to be in any way endangered, and give the GLC's seal of approval. "One night Wendy O'Driscoll, the bird with the... (Mick used his hands to describe a pair of mighty knockers) who stands out on the stage with no top on, wanted to explode a car on stage. The GLC came down to see it in action and said 'no way' — and that was the end of it. But we've got a fantastic rapport with them because they know we're sensible and we're not going to endanger people."
So basically, all you have to do is satisfy the local safety officials that you are a sane and responsible person and unlikely to run amok with twenty tons of gelignite. It also helps if you don't have any relatives in the PLO or IRA!
McManus also pointed out that a lot of careful planning has to go into the designing of an indoor effects show because of the space limitations. As he says, "It's no use using a rocket shell which goes up 750 feet before bursting, in an auditorium with a 50 foot ceiling. It'd crash right through the bloody roof!"
"WHEN IT COMES TO PLANNING EFFECTS FOR MAMMOUTH TOURS, OR BIG OUTDOOR FESTIVALS, A TEAM OF LE MAITRE EXPERTS - EIGHT PEOPLE IN THE CASE OF THE LAST AC/DC TOUR - WILL GO ALONG TO SET IT UP AND SET IT OFF."
When it comes to planning effects for mammoth tours, or big outdoor festivals, a team of Le Maitre experts — eight people in the case of the last AC/DC tour — headed by Martin, will go along to set it up and set it off. They've done special effects for Queen, Blue Oyster Cult, Barclay James Harvest, and particularly the Stranglers, and may be providing some 'flash, bang, wallops' for Status Quo in the near future.
Last year, for the Royal Wedding, Le Maitre put on a £12,000 firework display in Torbay, which is the biggest thing they've done so far, though AC/DC ran it a close second by using £10,000-worth, including a 24ft x 17ft picture of Angus Young up in the sky, complete with moving arms! (perish the thought! — Ed.) Effects like this (Le Maitre also depicted the Stranglers' 'Raven' album sleeve at their Wembley gig) are mapped out on a grid, then transferred to the full-scale model. Designs like this come expensive in view of the creative expertise involved, but anyone who's seen them will know how breathtaking they are.
"AC/DC also had £3,000-worth of rockets set off in one enormous volley. Eighteen seconds and £3000 gone, wallop, just like that. They really know how to put on a show!" comments McManus.
Outdoor gigs can present their own type of problems. At Castle Donington the Le Maitre team's display was taking place right on the flightpath of the East Midlands air route, and they carried on a running dialogue with the Air Traffic Controller via a two-way radio to find out when it was safe to press the Fire button.
Any interested band can order a set piece which Martin Blake and his team will design and operate for them. But amongst the items in the Le Maitre Firework range which bands can purchase and use themselves are Theatrical Flashes — great for atom bomb effects — Theatrical Maroons which must be placed in a metal bomb tank or, as Mick described gruesomely, "they could take your arm off up to here"— making a throat-cutting gesture) the Confetti Cannon, the largest size of which will chuck paper confetti 25 feet into the air, Gerbs, which produce a glittering spray, Rotating Wheels, various smoke effects and, for outdoor use only, such things as Ariel Maroons and Napalm Bursts. A handy tip in their brochure warns that loud bangs can damage sound systems, something well worth keeping in mind.
As Le Maitre also do work for various outfits specialising in battle simulation, such things as Machine Gun Simulators, Ground Mines and Shellbursts are also available (NOT to be used to frighten hell out of the manager of your local branch of Barclays). Red, white and blue smoke effects, have been selling very well since the start of the Falklands crisis..!
As well as the Pyroflash, a unit which any band who are heavily into effects would find extremely useful is the Cloud Nine smoke gun. In their explanatory booklet, Le Maitre warn that "some of the machines on the market are no better than flamethrowers". An inefficient smoke machine will tend to leave an oily film over everything the smoke has come into contact with. They also point out that a good smoke gun has virtually no smell. "Tales of Strawberry and Vanilla tasting smoke should be regarded with deep suspicion", they say.
Having stood in the midst of a fog of Cloud Nine smoke (the machine is adjustable so that you can achieve either a ground-level graveyard-type mist or a veritable steam-train billow), I can vouch for the fact that there was practically no smell, nor did I emerge slimy as a stoker after a six-week trawling trip. The Cloud Nine operates either with an aerosol canister or by making use of an external feed into an inert gas cylinder, e.g. CO2 or Compressed Air. The machine is designed not to operate until the correct working temperature has been reached, thus preventing the formation of a 'film'. The fireworks themselves are manufactured in a special factory in Peterborough where stringent safety precautions have to be adhered to — so much so that, if there is a thunderstorm, all work has to stop instantly. The factory was opened last year to fulfil the growing demand for Le Maitre effects. They have recently entered the film market and produced effects for the third in the 'Star Wars' series. The side they really want to concentrate on expanding though is the rock show market.
"Bands have now gone through that ugly stage where they feel they've got to do an Ozzy Osbourne biting bats' heads off scene; shock rock," reckons Mick. "Now they want extras which, whilst spectacular, are sensible at the same time. And fireworks are perfect." So Le Maitre are constantly working on new ideas, new surprise whooshes and whizz-bangs for the pyro-maniacal roadie to set off to his heart's content.
They have also recently launched the independent Le Maitre record label, the first offering of which is a single called "Fools Are Friendly" by two beautiful blondes who go under the name of Xclusiv and probably create enough fireworks of their own on stage not to need the help of Mick, Martin, Rick Wilson and Harold Berlinski. There's more chance of even a small band being able to use stage effects like these than most people realise. In fact, without having to spend a small fortune, almost any outfit could include this sort of effect in their act. All it requires is a little thought and a lot of care.
Bands who feel that they cannot afford to buy a whole system, but who want something dramatic for a special gig can even hire equipment (Le Maitre's hire number is (Contact Details).) Whichever way you look at it, stage fireworks can only continue to grow in use, and their use shouldn't be dismissed by any band — not only heavy bands can use effects! So, now it's down to you.
Thanks to Le Maitre for their help with this article.
Feature by Lorna Read
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