Ian Peacock blazes a neon trail from LA to New York
Ian Peacock journeys across America in search of neon signs past and present, to examine the story of the promoters and geniuses who fashion colour and light, electricity and information into icons.
Neon Schmeon by Ian Peacock
Nobody has a favourite lightbulb. If you have one, please don't email me or
approach me by the fridge at a party. I don't want to meet you. Ever. I
suggest you get a therapist or call Home Truths.
But neon...well...I see neon in a totally different light. In fact, it IS a
totally different light. Unlike your average 60-watt screw-fit, every neon
tube makes a statement, tells a story, has a life of its own. As Freud said
(or didn't say), "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But neon is never just
Neon's never neutral. It's always love-hate. And it always means
Imagine the following (thankfully imaginary) scenes:
1. Neon all over the Cotswolds, the Highlands and the Fens.
2. A mass switching-off of every neon sign in the USA, from New York to
California. Times Square vanishes. So does most of Los Angeles, Miami,
Broadway, Route 66. Las Vegas disappears.
3. The Queen delivers her Christmas speech under a flashing neon corgi.
I think I've made my point.
So what is it about neon that makes it so otherworldly, camp and utterly
Well, there is a theory that it hits your eye in a different way from other
light and can be seen ten times further away. I also read on a website for
neon anoraks that it resonates on a weird mystical frequency (which is why
American clairvoyants and trendy vicars like it so much). Whereas your
Umberto Eco types say it's about cultural resonance: the ultimate symbol of
brash America, indelibly linked in our minds with sex, glitz and
gorgeousness: the Liberace of light.
Frankly, I don't give a wiggletube (insider jargon there...sorry). I'm an
out and proud neonophile and always have been. I don't care where my urge
comes from. If there were neon bars, I'd frequent them and earnestly discuss
the subtleties of bending and flashing. If there was a Neon Alliance, I'd
march with it to defend the age-old right of townies to be loud and
Yes...I'm ridiculously biased and so is my programme. Green activists,
people with taste are conspicuously absent from it. But I think my producer
Adrian has just about prevented me from sounding like a neon bore, thanks to
editing out most of my spontaneous and heartfelt neon eulogies (not that
difficult really...they only filled 26 hours of tape). He also persuaded me
not to propose a 17-part series on neon trivia to Radio 4, but I'm sure
he'll see the light eventually.
|Producer Adrian Washbourne|
Some thrilling neon facts from Ian's Neon Notebook...
Queen Victoria was the first monarch to see neon. The gas was isolated in
1897 by Sir William Ramsey and Morris W Travers. They first demonstrated it
at her Diamond Jubilee.
The first ever commercial neon sign was in Paris, outside the Palais
Coiffeur barbershop in Montmartre
"Neon" means "new"
Neon is colourless but becomes orange when it's animated. The blue lights
often described as "neon" are in fact Argon. The other gases used in "neon"
signs are Krypton, Xenon and Helium.
Names for neon tubes: Crackle Tubes, Wiggle Tubes, Whirlygiggs and
Frenchman Georges Claude pioneered neon signage and even published a neon
fanzine in the 1920s. It was called "Claude Neon News". Readers thought
"Claude Neon" was the editor's name
Early visitors to the neon spectaculars of Times Square wrote of "glow worms
in the sky", "liquid fires" and "ribbons of living flame." An early European
visitor exclaimed: "Pity the sky with nothing but stars".
Steam was used in 1930s neon spectaculars. A giant "Smellorama" coffee cup
once emitted real steam and a coffee aroma in Times Square
|Ian (left) with neon creatures|
Busby Berkley's 1933 film The Gold Diggers featured 100 platinum blondes
playing neon violins
Raymond Chandler was an enthusiastic neonophile: "There ought to be a
monument to the man who invented neon light"
Neon was introduced to Las Vegas ("Glitter Gulch") by a gangster and a
mormon. Las Vegas has the world's largest neon sign graveyard
Neon was once banned in San Diego and Vermont
Pop and neon: Bjork wrote a song called "All Neon Like" and there's a Verve
song called "Neon Wilderness"
They like their neon bright around Broadway and Times Square. According to
Law ZR81-732 (1987), there are minimum requirements for the size and
luminosity of neon signs, measured scientifically in "Luts" ("Light Units of
The Museum of Neon Art in LA is a popular setting for weddings, memorial
services and bar mitzvahs
The NBC building boasts a neon peacock
Ian Peacock's nickname is now "Neon Peacock" thanks to his obsession with
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RELATED BBC LINKS
What is Neon?
History of Neon
Neon Lights, Lower Manhattan
Museum of Neon Art, Los Angeles
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