ELO at Wembley Stadium

by Mark Cunningham
in Event Staging
ELO - Alone in the Universe, Wembley photo by Kris Goodman
ELO - Alone in the Universe, Wembley photo by Kris Goodman

Jeff Lynne's Spaceship Rises Again on Stageco Tower

His aviator shades, curly mop and beard may appear to be cryogenically frozen in time, but the renaissance of Jeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra continues to move ever forward in popularity and — with assistance from Stageco — sheer physical size, as witnessed by 70,000 ecstatic fans at Wembley Stadium on June 24.

Lynne led his latest ELO incarnation through a two-hour set rammed with highlights from his vast catalogue of self-penned hits, including ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, ‘Livin’ Thing’, ‘Evil Woman’ and ‘Shine A Little Love’, while ‘Handle With Care’ served as a reminder of his brief but perfect career as a Traveling Wilbury.

The big talking point of the night, however, was the breathtaking, 18-ton spaceship hovering above the band that evoked memories of ELO’s celebrated Out of the Blue album and tour, nearly 40 years ago, bringing the living legend into present day orbit.

At the helm of all things technical, production manager Chris Vaughan, whose name is inextricably linked to large-scale touring, explains how one of his longtime clients was instrumental in getting Lynne and the ELO brand back in front of audience after a protracted absence.

“We became involved with Jeff in 2013 when he came to play at the Children In Need Rocks show that we were producing for Gary Barlow and the BBC,” he says.

“Jeff really enjoyed performing with Take That’s session musicians [including Mike Stevens and Milton McDonald] who were the house band and the reaction was so incredible that BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans coaxed him into playing Hyde Park the following year, again with the Take That band who have been there for him ever since.

“Jeff was so blown away that he released his first new ELO album in 14 years [Alone in the Universe], and we followed it with a very successful arena tour with him as well as last year’s Glastonbury Festival,” Vaughan continues. “Then this came up. It was presented to us originally with a regular Stageco four-poster festival stage, but this was going to be such an iconic moment in Jeff’s career that we wanted to take it a step further.

“Our aim was to be more imaginative but without the expense of having a massive, bespoke stage, because this was effectively a one-off, and Stageco have been outstanding in how they’ve worked with us to realize our ideas.”

Stageco erected the staging. Photo by Kris Goodman.

‡‡         A Mash-Up Design

While still at the drawing board stage, Vaughan asked technical designer Malcolm Birkett to add the curved back wall from another of his projects, Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations tour of 2006, and then add the transparent band roof from the 2007 Genesis reunion, both of which originated from Stageco.

“I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity,” Vaughan smiles, “and, of course, it looked tremendous and there was a very good reason for that. What we’ve effectively got is a Mark Fisher-designed stage, stolen by Malcolm and I, and adapted for ELO by Tim Routledge and Misty Buckley, the creative designers.

“We’ve tinkered around with the blend a little, such as changing the video screens, but we put those elements together because of how successful they had been, knowing they would work perfectly in this context. Also, a lot of the brainwork had already been done with those original drawings, so it helped to speed up the entire process.”

As the Wembley concert was being filmed for future release, it was important from a design perspective for Stageco to build the stage from a set of all-new black steel, delivered in 14 trailers in time for construction to begin five days before the show.

ELO - Alone in the Universe. Wembley photo by Kris Goodman

Created by Total Fabrications from Jeff Lynne’s Birmingham home town, the spaceship was installed by Stageco’s team halfway up a 27.5-meter-high tower that was anchored to a concrete base and formed from a number of different Stageco tower formats, decreasing in width from the 5.6 meter section of XXL tower at the bottom, and linked by special adaptor brackets.

“This was a massive undertaking that worked brilliantly,” says Vaughan, who also worked closely with site coordinator Glenn Binley, Stageco’s project manager Tom Bilsen and the company’s R&D contact Patrick Martens.

“Total Fabs did a great job of placing the ‘Big Man’ on top of Stageco’s towers for Take That’s [2011] Progress stadium tour, and the spaceship was something they could do organically. Stageco sent us the central hub of the black steel for a test build, and Total Fabs began to assemble an aluminum structure to support lights, video, LED, smoke machines and [ER Productions’] lasers, completing it with multi-colored fiberglass cladding.

“The spaceship doesn’t move or fly — although, with all the effects, it does give the impression that it’ll take off at any moment!”

ELO drawing by Stageco

‡‡         Curves

Behind the spaceship was the rear, curved wall of eight towers providing support for the main upstage video displays from Video Design as well as Neg Earth’s lighting. The towers were connected by a mix of straight and swivel truss sections and topped by shaved beams that enabled cable to pass through via a pulley and hoist system.

“For the most part, this was a straightforward job, although achieving the correct positions and angles of the bases of each tower, in order to create the curve, was the difficult part,” states David Van Assche, who headed a freshly assembled Stageco crew of 13 Belgians, Dutch and Irishmen. “We marked out those positions with a theodolite, the most convenient tool for the job, and then assembled the towers with a few crane picks.”

Meanwhile, the transparent, lightweight band roof, previously a focal point of Genesis’ Turn It On Again tour 10 years ago, consisted of six bowed steel beams and corresponding uprights. “This roof had remained idle in Stageco’s storage yard for some time, but it was resurrected, cleaned up and given a fresh set of skins so that it looked pristine for the film cameras,” notes Van Assche.

Stageco built a video screen portal at each side of the 53.5m wide stage using 750 tower material, the same steel used to construct the two towers carrying Skan’s PA delays. The company also supplied the front of house riser and numerous additional platforms.

“I’m very happy with what Stageco have done for us, just as I have on other projects,” Vaughan says. “They do exactly what they promise, on time, and the quality of their work is constantly second to none.”

Jeff Lynne’s ELO followed the Wembley show with just one additional stadium date, at Hull’s KCOM Stadium on July 1 as part of this year’s City of Culture celebrations.

“I’ve been really excited about this show, because it’s been a long time coming and I would love it if this production could tour for longer,” Vaughan concludes. “It’s the perfect size for a stadium — big enough to be interesting, but not so enormous that it kills you!”

For more information on Stageco, go to www.stageco.com.

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