From 1967 to early 1970, filmmaker Ken Brown belonged to a four-person crew providing the Boston Tea Party, one of the city’s legendary live-music venues, with its light shows and other visual effects. The acts he saw, and created films for, made up a who’s who of rock, pop, and blues superstars: Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, and dozens more.
After teaching film at Boston College, Brown moved to New York City in the 1980s, carving out a career as an animator, cartoonist, graphic artist, and filmmaker. His work has been seen everywhere from MTV to “Sesame Street.” Yet for decades, his trippy Tea Party films went unseen and largely forgotten.
On Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Brown will screen “Psychedelic Cinema,” a 55-minute compilation of his Tea Party work, and answer questions afterward. The silent film will be accompanied by a live performance by Ken Winokur of Alloy Orchestra, Beth Custer of Club Foot Orchestra, and Jonathan LaMaster of Cul de Sac. Brown’s Tea Party work screened at the Coolidge Corner Theater in 2008, one of only a handful of public showings. We spoke by phone this week.
Q. Set the scene for us in 1967.
A. The club’s original Berkeley Street venue was a former temple, I believe. I was 23 and about to take a crash course in cinema. As a music venue, it was a funky environment, with just enough room in the balcony for our projectors. But it was tremendous fun, too, to be part of that era’s cultural stew.
Q. How did you get the gig?
A. I got recruited by John Boyd and Roger Thomas, who started The Road Light Show, joined by my friend Deb Colburn. I’d been taking film courses at Boston University and was basically the man with the movie camera.
Q. Andy Warhol had some influence on you, correct?
A. Right. If there’s a genesis to my exposure to light shows, it was seeing his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show in Provincetown in 1966. I remember being blown away and thinking, “Me want some of that!” A year later, I was doing it.
Q. The Tea Party started as a showcase for local bands but quickly attracted bigger-name acts, right?
A. Definitely. The Velvet Underground was practically the house band for a while. We also had the Grateful Dead, B.B. King, Ten Years After, the Kinks — really an incredible mix. Our job was making this visual tapestry to go with the music.
Q. Were you handling most of the film duties?
A. I was the filmmaker, yes. But I also enjoyed playing with the liquid projections. We took turns with different tasks. Movie projectors, overhead projectors, strobe lights — they were all part of our arsenal. It was all very spontaneous, too. There was no precedent to what light shows were. It was also a great moment to be young and alive and thrashing about in a booth at the Boston Tea Party.
Q. Your filmmaking technique included a lot of creative double exposures.
A. Right. I had the dumb luck of buying probably the only Super 8 camera where you could rewind the whole roll and shoot it a second or even a third time.
I also did a lot of animation work, creating little animated vignettes which I’d fold into the larger body of the film.
Q. Not unlike what we later saw in Monty Python and “Saturday Night Live” films.
A. We were all experimenting then. Monty Python just took it to another level. But the Tea Party shows were a fairly unique combination of new techniques combining film, projection, and live music.
Q. Favorite musical memories?
A. For me, B.B. King and a lot of the blues artists. Sly and the Family Stone. Jimi Hendrix, though not at the Tea Party but at a Providence show we did. We had these large hoops with parachute material stretched across, and I was in the rafters projecting images down onto the hoops while Hendrix played. That was certainly a personal high point from that era.
Q. Did your Tea Party films literally sit in a closet for decades?
A. They did. Then I took my daughter to the “Summer of Love” show at the Whitney Museum [in 2007]. She loved that old hippie stuff. I told her I had a closetful of these films, which I later had transfered to digital files and put on a DVD. When I played it at a couple of parties, people thought it was great. What I love about playing the film in Boston is, people who were actually at the original Tea Party will come out of the woodwork to see it — as well as the mischievous-looking young people who wander in.
Q. So is this ICA screening primarily for nostalgic baby boomers or to show younger generations what the ’60s looked and felt like?
A. A little of both, I think. I refer to “Psychedelic Cinema” as a pop culture artifact. There’s a real fascination with psychedelic music and culture in younger audiences. Part of the draw for them today is, this is the very same stuff that played so many years ago. The magic for the audience, and for me as a filmmaker, is those moments when the audio and the visual get together.Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.