Jonathan Smeeton Named 2018 Parnelli Visionary Lifetime Achievement Honoree

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in News
Jonathan Smeeton
Jonathan Smeeton

ANAHEIM, CA - The Parnelli Board of Advisors has announced that concert visualist Jonathan Smeeton will receive the 2018 Parnelli Visionary Award. Smeeton is a founding pioneering of the psychedelic light show, one of the first if not the first to take lights out with a touring band, and through his work and lectures continues to be one of the most influential lighting designers in live event history.

“I have known Jonathan for over 40 years and was delighted when his nomination was unanimously endorsed by the Advisory Board without reservation or hesitation,” said Marshall Bissett, chairman of the Parnelli Board of Advisors. “He has consistently created magic for his clients, when budget and technical problems would have defeated other designers. No two shows look alike and, if there are rule books, he ignores them in the best possible way.”

It’s not just that Smeeton has worked with a lot of acts — it’s the artistic diversity of those acts that underscores the creativity of a designer who is always reinventing himself. In the early days, he built by hand key lighting components, and was also an early designer of one of the first big festivals in England.

Smeeton was the mind behind “Liquid Len and the Lensmen,” and provided light shows for the band Hawkwind in the 1970s. His artistic palette was called out over the next five decades for Genesis (and Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins), Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Def Leppard, Wham, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, and Marilyn Manson. Currently, he’s working with Diana Ross.

“No one deserves this more than him,” said David Milly, VP of 4Wall, who has worked with Smeeton so much they’ve become close friends. “He has always been experience-savvy. You could tell right away when somebody is full of sh*t, and he was not.”

Born in rural England, Smeeton grew up Kingston upon Thames, a few miles from Hampton Court Palace, hunting grounds of King Henry the XIII. After a stint in the Navy, he studied art at Kingston College (Eric Clapton did the same). There he started in sculpture, and moved into graphics before looking for work in London in 1967.

As Smeeton tells it, he and two friends heard a new club called Middle Earth. One of the friends said he’d do any kind of work for the club, so he was made a janitor. Another had run a coffee bar, and got hired to do that. “Now I’m thinking, ‘What can be left for me?’” Smeeton recalls. “The fellow asks what I do, and I replied ‘I’m an art student.’ He said “Oh, so you must know about these psychedelic light shows?’ ‘Of course.’ I lied, and that was the beginning of it all, really.”

After experimented with 1,000-watt projectors and colored ink on slides, Smeeton became sought-after designer. “I am sure that he was the only lighting designer who had his own billing on posters,” said Gail Colson, music manager for Peter Gabriel and others.

Smeeton’s vast touring credits include provided pyro for the Rolling Stones’ 1992 Tattoo You tour and worked on other landmark tours including Paul Simon’s South African-themed Graceland Tour, Journey’s Raised on Radio Tour and Def Leppard’s 1987-88 Hysteria tour, among so many others. In more recent years, he served as production designer for Taylor Swift’s 2009 Fearless tour.

In addition to his impressive body of work, Smeeton has been part of rock ‘n’ roll history. On an early 1970s Frank Zappa tour, while performing at the Montreux Casino on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva with Flo & Eddie of the Turtles, Zappa had to stop the show. “He points to me, and sure enough, there was a fire on the roof, and I had to jump out a window,” Smeeton said. “Thankfully, no one was hurt, though all the equipment was lost. (And yes, the band Deep Purple was across the lake recording Machine Head and witnessing the event. The inspiration lead to the song “Smoke on the Water.”)

“I have had the fortune to be considered theatrical,” he said, of his career. “I’m about illuminating objects and areas on the stage, and I particularly enjoy painting with light.” He added that he is humbled and “thrilled” to be honored with this industry’s highest honor for a lighting designer.

Smeeton will receive the Parnelli Visionary Award at the Parnelli Awards, which are set for Jan. 26, 2018 at the Hilton at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, CA in Anaheim, CA, as part of the NAMM Convention.

For more information, go to www.parnelliawards.com.