BY LIAM MULHOLLAND
Rock music significantly changed in the early 1970s. It moved from the underground youth culture into the mainstream media, egged along by big business and even bigger profits. In the process, rock and roll shows transformed practically overnight into huge theatrical productions that were presented in baseball stadiums rather than mid-size theaters and small clubs. Many bands of the time – such as Kiss, the Stones, Alice Cooper, Yes and Led Zeppelin – cashed in on this new idea and presented spectacular shows filled with special effects and pyrotechnics.
In 1973, I was one of many young drummers who got the opportunity to check out John Bonham on tour with Led Zeppelin. I was at Tampa Stadium (the “Big Sombrero”) watching Bonham, dressed as an iconoclastic Buddha in an Asian kimono and British bowler, playing a now-legendary set of Ludwig Vistalite drums.
Vistalites were made from a sheet of either translucent or opaque acrylic plastic that is formed into a drum shell. The hardware designed for mounting and tensioning heads was made out of standard chrome-covered steel nuts, washers and screws. Bonham’s drums for The Song Remains The Same tour were amber Vistalites in 14″ x 26″, 10″ x 14″, 16″ x 18″ and 18″ x 20″ sizes. This is, without a doubt, the most famous and collectible Vistalite kit one could find. A facsimile of this set in excellent condition can sell for as much as $3,000.
Vistalites were introduced during this period as a way to enhance the visual importance of the drummer. The transparency of the drum shells seemed to play with the special-effects lighting and dry-ice fog that frequently enshrouded rock bands of the era. But in fact, Fibes was actually the first American company to produce clear acrylic drums in 1972, which were played and promoted by Billy Cobham with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Other companies began to follow suit, but in the end, the Ludwig Drum Co. made the largest contribution to the world’s supply of acrylic drum sets.
Vistalite drums began rolling off the assembly line at Ludwig in 1972, although they didn’t appear in a Ludwig catalog until edition number 75-1, which was distributed beginning in 1974. Inside this catalog was a choice of translucent colors that included amber (orange), the most common varieties of clear and blue, plus other available colors, including yellow, red and green. In these colors, Ludwig offered the Big Beat kit featuring a 22″, 12″, 13″ and 16″ with a 5″ x 14″ snare drum in matching finish or 5″ x 14″ chrome Supraphonic. The Pro Beat kit consisted of 24″, 13″, 14″, 16″ x 16″ and 16″ x 18″ floor toms. The ultimate Vistalite kit presented in this catalog was the Jellybean Quadra-Plus set. The Jellybean kit had either a 22″ or 24″ bass drum and carried four melodic (single-headed) toms ranging in size from 13″ to 16″ and a 16″ x 18″ floor tom, each in a different color. A 5″ x 14″ chrome Supraphonic and a hardware package rounded off the kit.
Sonically, the Vistalites were a very loud, bright-sounding set of drums. What they lacked in warmth was more than made up in projection. By design, they were the perfect concert kit for the big outdoor stadiums and sound reproduction technology of the time. However, the shells were heavy compared to wood and had an unfortunate tendency to develop cracks around holes drilled out for supporting hardware. Often a shell would completely shatter like a china teapot if dropped.
Although Vistalite sets proved to be a good choice for a loud concert rock and roll kit, they were almost universally despised by most studio engineers. The drums were too loud and bright for most studio work and the shells rang for days. It was common practice in the ’70s to use an extraordinary amount of muffling and tape on drums (both in and out of the studio) to eliminate all but a very dead-sounding fundamental pitch. Yet it defeated the visual concept of Vistalite drums by playing a see-through kit with a raggedy, stained pillow stuffed inside the bass drum and foam and various appliances duct-taped to the shells.
By 1975, Ludwig had added two more colors to its Vistalite stable, including solid white and solid black. Vistalite shells became available for all kit configurations including Ludwig’s Octaplus kit. Also, Vistalite drums came in a choice of six different patterns utilizing two or more different colors that included horizontal and vertical stripes, swirls and spirals, which were called Rainbow Vistalites. The most common pattern of Rainbow Vistalite that can still be found is the one with three horizontal stripes of red, amber and yellow.
Other changes occurred in various mini-catalogs and supplements offered between ’77 and ’80. Green Vistalite was dropped (according to Bill Ludwig II, only approximately 50 complete sets of green Vistalite were made due to limited popularity), and Smoky Vistalite – a transparent gray/brown acrylic – replaced it. But, perhaps the greatest innovation in the development of Vistalite drums was the creation of the Tivoli outfit.
The Tivoli kit was originally produced in the common Rainbow pattern mentioned before, configured in red, amber and yellow. But before the end of Tivoli’s short life, other three-band rainbow colors were used. The Tivoli setup was even used on some solid-colored kits such as smoky Vistalite.
The Tivoli set was a five-piece kit (snare, bass, two rack toms and floor tom) with two strings of small ornamental lights encased in plastic tubing within each drum. The parallel horizontal placement of each set of lights divided the drum shell visually into three sections – perfect for the three-band rainbow concept. Each drum was plugged into a connector box via a slender cable. The box was connected to the bass drum and was operated by an on/off switch located on the top of the bass. I’ve seen some kits where the lights were either all on or off and other kits where the lights twinkled on and off. Needless to say, as a one-trick pony, the novelty of this kit probably wore off quickly with its owners and the public, making this a short-lived gimmick. Today, these Tivoli kits are unusual collector’s items, prized for their comparative rarity and cheesy, oddball appeal.
In the 1979 movie/musical All That Jazz, the closing sequence is a fantasy featuring the hero of the movie, played by Roy Scheider, ascending to heaven and the waiting arms of a mystery woman played by Jessica Lange. We had goose bumps watching the grand finale song-and-dance number when the hero waved good-bye to his family and friends. While a throbbing disco beat propelled the scene, quick cuts showed a rock band (in a cloud-like setting) playing the music, including an angelic 1970s longhaired drummer (wearing white clothes and face powder) playing a Ludwig Tivoli kit.
To me, this image not only represents the demise of Scheider’s character in the movie (and perhaps of the disco era), but heralds the beginning of the end of Vistalite drums.
By the time Ludwig published its 1981 catalog supplement, the Vistalites had disappeared, a victim of the times and new trends in music, as well as their own limited appeal and inherent flaws. In recent years, old Vistalites have begun to reappear on stages for the same reasons that made them popular to begin with. Their visual appeal and sonic brightness have made them popular choices with drummers like Jay Lane, formerly of the Charlie Hunter Trio, and Brain, esteemed writer for DRUM! magazine and current drummer for Primus.
Editor’s note: Since the original publication of this article, Ludwig has once again begun to build and market its classic Vistalite series.