Laser rock shows go grunge -- Shows at venues in New York, St. Louis, San Diego, and Seattle prove that alternative music has gone mainstream

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated May 27, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Back when the world was starting to gobble up the ”Seattle sound,” publicist Nils Bernstein and his pals at Sub Pop, Seattle’s leading indie record label, would laugh at the prospect of Soundgarden and Nirvana someday sharing the spotlight with classic-rock dinosaurs. ”What’s next?” they’d ask. ”Laser grunge?”

Well, actually, yes. If you need one more clue that alternative has entered the mainstream, here it is: Laser rock shows, those havens of high-decibel oldies in reefer-scented halls, are going grunge. Every weekend since April, crowds have been pouring into New York’s Hayden Planetarium (and similar venues in St. Louis and San Diego) to catch Audio Visual Imagineering’s ”Laser Grunge in 3-D,” which pairs songs by Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots with a trippy, multicolored display of flying trapezoids, whirling amoebas, and dancing Slinkies. Meanwhile, Seattle’s Laser Fantasy hopes to crank out national shows featuring Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, and Laser Images, which brought you last year’s ”Lollapalaser Show,” is planning the grunge- heavy ”Laser Rage.”

How did the aggressive soundtrack for moshing break into the exclusive domain of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and vegetating stoners from the suburbs? ”We’re constantly looking at what’s new, what’s different, and what’s popular,” says Rob Sparkes, laserist at the Hayden. ”This new alternative rock is really hot now, and it works surprisingly well with lasers.” The shows, then, are a way to draw young customers who wouldn’t be caught dead zoning out to The Dark Side of the Moon. When Laser Fantasy recently put on a Red Hot Chili Peppers light show, ”it even did really well in Des Moines,” says producer Paul Torgeson.

With that crossover in mind, laserists are already linking psychedelic squiggles with everything from Garth Brooks to Gregorian chants. ”If you were surprised about grunge,” Sparkes says, ”watch when we get medieval music in here. Wow!”