Hard rockers Van Halen were infamous in the 1980’s for their onstage antics, off-stage partying, and the capricious demands they made from promoters. The best-known request in the very lengthy rider to their standard concert contract for was for a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown candies removed from the rest. If any brown M&Ms were found with the rest of the catering food backstage, the band reserved the right to refuse to play, and still be fully compensated.
Based on these stories about the rider, I had always assumed that Van Halen were spoiled musicians, taking advantage of their rock star status. Radio DJs and fans spread this urban legend. The band’s reputation as bad boys continued to grow, fueled in by stories such as the 1980 Pueblo, Colorado show, where the band allegedly caused thousands of dollars of damage by trashing their dressing rooms.
But the actual reason Van Halen wrote in the brown M&M clause is simply brilliant! In his 1998 biography, Crazy From the Heat, original front man David Lee Roth explains that the odd request was actually a test to ensure the safety of the band and the quality of the concert experience for the fans. After some bad experiences with inattentive concert promoters, the band added the M&M clause into the contract.
Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors, whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.
So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say ‘Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes…’ This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: ‘There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.’
So I would walk backstage, if I saw brown M&M’s 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.
Besides the genius of having a simple “quick-check” like this, what I love about this story is the complete contradiction between the public perception of the M&M clause and the band’s real reason for having it. Van Halen apparently did nothing to dispel the rumors about their behavior. Being known as a safety-conscious group with pencils and clipboards would have detracted from their rebel reputation. It was more than a decade later that David Lee Roth publicly explained his rationale for placing a candy canary in the concert coal mine.
Van Halen had every reason to put on a safe, reliable show. And at the same time, they had every reason to maintain their hard-rocking image.
The M&M story contributed to both goals.
In this video, “Diamond Dave” explains the thinking behind the peculiar request.
M&M photo by Matthew Keefe
Tour Rider page by The Smoking Gun
Infographic by SONOS