Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Van Halen and brown M&Ms

I can't believe it took me this long to post about Van Halen. Van Halen is arguably the greatest hard rock band ever. I'd even say one of the greatest bands ever. Even if for some insane reason you don't like them, you can't deny that their influence is vast.

If I could only pick five songs to put on my ipod one of them would be Hot for Teacher (I'm not sure of the other three, the second song would be Detroit Rock City). And not only did they make great music, they were quintessential rock stars. They always looked like they were having fun and they were larger than life.

One of those infamous stories about their rockstar lifestyles was the fact that in their contract for concerts they put a clause in that required a bowl of M&Ms with all of the brown ones taken out be placed in their dressing room backstage. At first you think, that's kind of crazy. But here is why they did it:

At the heart of any major concert is the contract. Much of the text of these contracts is standard legal boilerplate, but each band may attach specific demands via something called a “rider”. Most of the contracts involving concerts at large venues are jam-packed with riders, most of which involve technical details specific to the band’s stage design. For instance, a rider might say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, spaced evenly, providing nineteen amperes total, on beams suspended from the ceiling of the venue, which shall be able to support a total gross weight of 5,600 pounds each, and be suspended no less than 30 feet, but no more than 37.5 feet, above the stage surface”. Van Halen’s concert contracts would have several hundred such demands, and their contracts ended up (in lead singer David Lee Roth’s words) looking “like a Chinese Yellow Pages”.

The staff at venues in large cities were used to technically-complex shows like Van Halen’s. The band played in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden or Atlanta’s The Omni without incident. But the band kept noticing errors (sometimes significant errors) in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in. The band put a clause smack dab in the middle of the technical jargon of other riders: “Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”. That way, the band could simply enter the arena and look for a bowl of M&Ms in the backstage area. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes with the equipment. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract. Roth himself said:

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Sounds reasonable to me. Plus, who likes the brown ones anyway?

Another story I've heard is that Dave wasn't happy that the crew would take so long to take down the stage and get all of the equipment packed up and back on the road. So he told the roadies that they could keep whatever backstage passes (the ones they gave to groupies who the band had sex with) they had left over after the shows. But they could only make use of them and the groupies after they had packed up everything. Dave said after that it took them about 45 minutes to do their job when before it took them a few hours. So not only were Van Halen music innovators, but motivational innovators as well.

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