Magic Instruments: Ludwig Vistalites – Living In The Plastic Age

By the start of the 1970s, it rather felt as though society had rather fallen in love with plastic. It was lightweight, easy to clean, and cheap to produce. It was the smooth, sleek feel of modernity, leaving a textured, scratched up past behind. At the same time that this was happening, rock music was beginning its transformation into becoming An Event. The days of seeing the biggest bands in concert halls, ballrooms, or just on a stage in a field were over. In 1969 they colonised the parks and other big open spaces. In this country, the Rolling Stones took over Hyde Park, in the USA a temporary town was built in Woodstock. It was the first, faltering steps of White Rock Orthodoxy.

The biggest acts soon began to turn away from festivals. Altamont was enough to make them seem like a bad idea. Something more ordered was required. Somewhere they could make a bit more money, because money trumps free love, and doesn’t make you itch. It began to corporatise. A select group of bands found that they could sell enough tickets to fill a stadium. With this, however, came the responsibility to turn up and put on a show. The visual became more integral to most of the stadium bands, though not all, of them. It was less necessary if you had the musical chops. Kiss went overboard, Led Zeppelin didn’t. Just saying.

The first acrylic drum kit was designed by the drummer for Ron Bushy of Iron Butterfly in 1969 by Bill Zickos. Bushy used these drums for the next three years as his touring kit. These drums were loud. Manfactured from sheets of either translucent or opaque acrylic plastic, thse drums were loud, bright-sounding and, with some skill, could be tuned to sound not dissimilar to wood. A smaller company called Fibes turned out to be the first company to produce clear acrylic drums in 1972, which were used by jazz-rock drummer Billy Cobham with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. but it was the launch of the Ludwig Vistalite later in the same year that proved the huge boost to their popularity, not least on account of their association with one of the greatest drummers of all-time.

Founded in 1909 in North Carolina, Ludwig Drums grew steadily as a producer of percussion intruments over the decades, but its sales grew rapidly after the 9th February 1964, when The Beatles’ made their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan show, in front of an audience of seventy-three million people. Ringo Starr had only chosen a Ludwig drum kit because he liked the Black Oyster Pearl finish in which the drums came, but this had led to Ludwig’s logo being stamped on his bass drum at this enormously significant moment in music history. Sales doubled over the next two years, and the company struggled to keep up with demand, closing its factory for only three days – Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Yeard Day – a year, whilst lumber to make the shells became scarce, requiring the company to source alternative suppliers. At least Vistalites skirted this problem.

Upon their release, Vistalite drums were available in six colours – clear, blue, green, red, amber, and yellow, with clear and blue being the most popular. Four years later, the range was expanded to include multi-coloured shells, with “Tequila Sunrise” (red, orange and yellow stripes) proving to be the most popular. Vistalites were perfect for stadium rock in several different ways. First of all, they were loud. Extremely loud. Some didn’t like the sound. Although they could be tuned to sound close to a wooden drum kit, they couldn’t replicate that sound. But this didn’t matter so much for stadium rock, where a certain degree of compromise was expected in terms of sound quality and anything that could reduce a dependence on microphones was considered to be a very good thing.

There was another significant issue with Vistalites, though. They were heavy, and this was a big issue. Drum kits  come under considerable stress simply from being played, and this stress often builds up around the joints where the shell attaches to the hardware that holds it in place. The combination of weight and the acrylic material used to make the shells being more brittle than wood could and did lead to cracks appearing around these joints, threatening the structural integrity of the drums. The stadium rock drummer, though, could always afford to buy a replacement, and they looked really good under the increasingly sophisticated lighting rigs being used for shows. In the recording studio, however, they caused issues. Vistalites were too bright-sounding for studios in an era during which drum heads were often covered in tape or stuffed with pillows to produce the “flat” sound popular of the time regardless. But it might be counter-argued that they were primarily designed to be played live, and that the recording studio wasn’t their natural environment.

And just as they had done with Ringo Starr eight years earlier, Ludwig were lucky in who they had playing their drums. Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham had been playing them since the band launched four years earlier, and his performances on the four albums released since then had only fuelled the belief that he might be the greatest rock drummer on the planet. In addition to this, Bonham was loud – he used a 26″ bass drum when just a few years earlier the standard size bass drum for a rock and roll band might have been 20″ – and he was also a showman, playing lengthy solos at live shows, of which Led Zeppelin were doing a lot at the time. He switched to Vistalites for the band’s 1973 North American tour (as such, it can be seen throughout their 1976 live-show-cum-fever-dream The Song Remains The Same), and his endorsement of them sent sales up considerably. Ludwig would also go on to produce Vistalite kits for, amongst others, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and The Who’s Keith Moon. Karen Carpenter had a “jellybean” set, in which each drum was a different colour.

Bonham stopped using them for live shows in 1975, but Ludwig did continue to innovate with them and in 1978 came out with the Ludwig Tivoli, a Vistalite kit which came with rows of lights along the horizontal seams of a three band design. The Tivoli kits had problematic bulbs and power supplies, though, which led to a high failure rate and slow sales. By the end of the decade, Vistalites had outlived their usefulness. Eight years of availability had dulled their visual impact through familiarity, and rises in oil prices throughout the 1970s had made them steadily more and more expensive to manufacture. The oil shock of 1979 made it impossible. In 2001, however, Ludwig reintroduced Vistalites ater a two decade absence, and the biggest selling unsurprsingly became a replica of the kit used by Bonham on that 1973 tour. There are also now a plethora of other companies making them, including relative giants such as Sonor and Tama.

Could there be anything more representative of the 1970s than a drum kit developed for stadium rock, which had to be withdrawn after oil price increases made it too expensive to produce any more? The Ludwig Vistalite was so much a product of its time that it couldn’t survive that decade, but its influence and importance can be placed in this very specific time period. They’re a response to a demand from within music to be more visual, that loudness was important, and that the shape of the music industry was about to change. We would, from now on, be in a crowd of tens of thousands if we ever wanted to see these bands play live, and their reply to the poor sound and even worse view would be to try to create a spectacle. The Vistalite was only a small part of this, but it was part nevertheless. That they remain cult heros of the percussion world to this day is a reflection upon the extent to which this stuck with so many people.