Sonic innovators don’t come much bigger than Pink Floyd who not only re-imagined sound, but also changed how we take in live music. When the band performed the world’s first-ever surround sound concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 12th, 1967, the group would change how we consume live audio forever.
The concert was titled ‘Games for May’ and promised to be an upmarket occasion at the newly opened Queen Elizabeth Hall, an occasion that would see the band debut their brand-new custom-made quadraphonic speaker system. The technological advancement would raise the standard of what audiences would come to expect from concerts and lead to the whole industry increasing the bar in response to Pink Floyd’s fresh ideas.
Floyd, at the time, were still very much in the middle of recording sessions for their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but had already garnered a reputation as pioneering figures at the forefront of the booming psychedelic scene that was taking over the English capital. Due to their name beginning to carry a heavy weight in Britain, the band’s management was approached by Christopher Hunt, a music promoter with a who believed they were the perfect act to debut this new technology and headline this immersive experience.
The upstarts were all aboard the planned project and returned to an idea they had first tested at Abbey Road a few weeks previously with engineer Bernard Speight. The engineer had hooked up an additional set of speakers to the usual stereo pair and set them at the back of the room, creating a surround-sound effect which Pink Floyd now wanted to bring to the live arena.
Speight would then build a box of four separate 90-degree potentiometers, one for each speaker, all controlled by a single joystick. The new tool would then be given the futuristically sounding name of ‘Azimuth Coordinator’ with extra speaker stacks also being set up at the back of the venue.
In his 2005 memoir, Inside Out, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason described how it worked once it was placed on top of keyboardist Richard Wright’s organ. Mason wrote: “If the joystick was upright, the sound was centred, but moving it diagonally would dispatch the sound to the speaker in the equivalent corner of the hall. Rick could send his keyboard sounds swirling around the auditorium, or make footsteps — supplied from a Revox tape recorder — apparently march across from one side to the other.”
The band would play for two hours that night, an impressive amount of time for a band who were still yet to release a studio album. The show began with an artificial sunrise created by their innovative lighting crew who steeped the stage in red. Syd Barrett even wrote a new song specifically for the evening titled ‘Games for May’ which would later be renamed ‘See Emily Play’ and become a huge success for the band.
Roger Waters would later vividly recall the show and state: “The sounds travelled around the hall in a sort of circle, giving the audience an eerie effect of being absolutely surrounded by this music.”
That evening on the South Park was one of the pinnacles of the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd before LSD took its grasp on him and he was still functioning at his full capabilities, Nick Mason would later call the show in his memoirs as being “one of the most significant shows we ever performed.”