Daleks

A symphony of weird shapes and violent colours.” 

PF in colourful action, 1967

Do you want to bring dead aliens back to life? Well, now’s your chance and Men On The Border have taken the initiative to make it happen! The Daleks are lights which stunned Pink Floyd’s audiences in the early days. Named after Dr Who’s archenemy, they were built by “fifth member of the band” Peter Wynne Willson, who discovered a “colour beat-frequency oscillation effect” in the 1960s. Later he built new Daleks for Floyd’s Division Bell tour, after which they were left outdoors and severely damaged. They can be revived – but this needs financing! Do you want to be part of this fantastic project and help us bring these amazing aliens back to life?  

Kickstarter campaign here

Some interesting background for all you music fans! Rock journalist Penny Valentine wrote an article for the April 1967 issue of Disc and Music Echo, about a newly signed pop group breaking fascinating new ground.

“The Pink Floyd burst onto the London club scene in a kaleidoscope of colours some months ago. Literally, because colour, shapes and light gave impact to the staggering, tumultuous waves of sound which made up their act. Pop—or pop in Britain, at least—was never like this before. Pre-Pink Floyd groups were content to go onstage and grind out a succession of old hits or bad copies of American records. The Floyd have denounced this visually boring performance. “Our lighting man is the fifth member of the group,” they say—and engulf the audience in a symphony of weird shapes and violent colours which confound the senses as much as their driving, thirty-minute-long songs.” 

Syd Barrett: The Summer of Love,
Berwaldhallen, 14 November 2020

Peter Wynne Willson was that original lighting engineer and “fifth member” of Pink Floyd. This year, on the 14th of November, he will bring his liquid light gear to Stockholm and the prestigious Berwaldhallen for something of a “trip the light fantastic” to illuminate the symphonic tribute to Syd Barrett, “The Summer of Love” with guest star, guitarist Janne Schaffer of ABBA fame and more. Incidentally, a young Janne Schaffer opened for Pink Floyd when they visited Stockholm in 1967, and Syd actually borrowed Schaffer’s amplifier for the gig.

It was in early 1967 that Peter discovered what he refers to as “the colour beat-frequency oscillation effect”. After small-scale demos and discussions with Syd Barrett, he built a pair of units suitable for the size of venues Pink Floyd were playing. The first time he used them for a gig Roger Waters named them the Daleks, after the whirring tank-like robotic aliens from the Dr Who TV series, also known for their cries to “EX-TER-MIN-ATE”.

Daleks at a summer of love freak-out

Their baptism of fire was at a small venue with about 200 in attendance. Peter tells the story: “The effect was good and very cool, but the control got away from me and the units started to accelerate to unrehearsed speeds. They were vibrating so much that even their industrial rubber mountings could not dampen the imbalance. Think washing machine trying to spin an unbalanced load! The light was in full shimmer – Nick’s arms and drumsticks referenced rainbow trails – and with the last crashing bars of Interstellar Overdrive, first one disc, then the second one, shattered. After the dramatic sound effect, the stage was bathed in the steady bright white light from the floodlights without their colour wheels. I reached for the home-made thyristor dimmer board and brought the show to a fitting blackout.”  

The simple resistance-based speed control was clearly unsophisticated even for those days, but with some modifications, the original Daleks went on to serve into the 1970s. Cutting ahead to 1994, Pink Floyd was now a mega group and planning The Division Bell tour. David Gilmour asked the lighting designer, Mark Brickman, for the Dalek effect and Robbie Williams, the tour manager, was told to find Peter Wynne Willson and see what could be done. Peter did a small-scale demonstration in a London studio with the result that Mark started hopping around from foot to foot with glee and by the end, careening around the place, cackling with delight. That’ll be a “Yes!”. In the September 1994 issue of Lighting Dimensions, Mark Brickman and Peter Wynne Willson were interviewed. 

“So we got the Daleks and also the liquid light show from Peter,” Brickman said. “And both of his contributions to the show are brilliant.” 

Coloured glass Dalek disc

“Around 1967, Susie and I used to do a lot of liquid lighting effects for Pink Floyd – it was a heated liquid slide style,” Wynne Willson explains. “For this tour, I’ve recreated that effect onscreen to a certain extent — but now I’ve made it so it could be controlled with a good operator, which there is. It enhances the music — it’s not an automatic sound to light sequence, but it also isn’t random — it does work with the music.

“There are basically three liquid light effects: one recreation, one enhanced, and one done with the projector in overhead mode, which is no mean feat because these are 6k HMI projectors — so between the two numbers, they have to reorientate the projector and set it to predetermined stops,” Wynne Willson says. “The operator has to set it with “a spirit level” so that when the projection comes on, it is spot on.” 

Dalek projector

The real gem of the show, however, was the new, improved Dalek effect. Each of the Daleks was an order of magnitude brighter than the 1967 version, with 4000W HMI enclosed arc lamps. In all, they produced about a million lumens of swirling coloured light on stage, enough to flood even a large stadium. David Gilmour and the band celebrated the Daleks’ return to the stage by incorporating the Dr Who theme on guitar when the light effects showed up on the screen during the mid-section of One Of These Days.

The devices were meant to be a high-speed colour effect, “more of a subjective effect than an image on the screen”. Peter explains: “Each person has their own sort of internal images when they see it. Unfortunately, the screen they had on the Division Bell tour was 70% grey, and so the high-speed effect was lost on the grey screen”. Still, the Daleks had been upgraded to transmit many times the amount of light from the old days with big six-phase, squirrel cage induction motors, tamed by inverter motor drive units. The colour wheels were nearly a metre in diameter and made of 6 mm thermally toughened glass. Since no organic pigment can survive the brutal heat from the arc lamps the colour segments were dichroic coated borosilicate glass with a low coefficient of thermal expansion. After each gig, the great colour wheels were removed from the motor shafts and put in their exquisite foam-lined nests in a flight case, each the size of a good coffin.

The cases for the Daleks themselves were big enough on their own, and at the end of the division Bell tour, Peter arranged for the Daleks to be temporarily housed in a grain store barn. Peter was so relieved to find a home for them that he was selectively deaf to the ‘temporary’ condition and so visiting the farm a few years later he was surprised and devastated to find the Daleks had been parked in an open field and open to the elements because: ‘When the harvest comes home, nothing can stand in its way, the barn must be totally clear’. Since then, the Daleks have been under cover, but the damage caused by the weather was profound in all areas: electronics, optics and mechanics.  

Men On The Border understands that with skilled work and parts, estimated at €8,500, two units could be brought back to life. This would be something to behold again! The legendary high-speed colour effect from 1967 with overlapping colour wheels. The speed and direction of rotation could be finely and independently controlled and at high speed, it throws a shimmering white light which, when playing on a moving object or person, produces rainbow trails. At low speeds, it creates swathes of colour on the stage or screen used. In the mid-range, with careful control of the differential speed, beat-frequency oscillation of colours can be generated and it is these frequencies that can enable truly unexpected effects. 

Many people seem to have the impression of a honeycomb pattern overlaying the colour, and laid-back observers may start to experience colours that do not lie within the human visible spectrum. Peter imagines that a part of the brain, that which normally deals with optical signals from the eye, is generating these colours in some kind of closed-loop system, in the face of sensory input overload. A light-trip fantastic by all accounts.

Men On The Border would love to bring back this experience, but we are lacking the funds to make it happen. How cool wouldn’t it be to see these legendary lights at work again, and on many other occasions to come? €8,500 is needed to revive the alien monsters. Do you want to help us make it happen?  

Kickstarter campaign here