Things can go wrong and get wacky on tour—just ask our intrepid columnist.
One of the fundamental requirements for any crew involved in staging a major production is the ability to redesign the day as they go. As many of us know from personal experience, plans often go awry, and it is always useful to exercise a little stoicism and restraint when required.
Everyone who travels in the pursuit of excellence in our industry has stories to tell — stories of last-minute roadblocks and solutions on the road. The following stories illustrate some of the things that can go wrong, and do, on a daily basis, leaving fast-on-their-feet crews to find solutions on the fly.
I had the good fortune to spend some of my early touring years in France. One of the problems with working in France back then was that electricity was often a big issue. On more than one occasion, I arrived at venues where there was absolutely no allocation for lighting power. The concept of three-phase 60amps was so far removed from the average Frenchman's staging mindset in those days that I had to explain more than once that no, the technical rider was not our attempt at humor. (I always found this situation perplexing since I believe the French manufacture some of the finest switchgear in the world.)
One particular incident comes to mind. We were in a small town in the mountains in Southeast France. The venue was the Palais de Sports — the local sports hall. Essentially, it was an oblong box with bad acoustics. Because I was the tour electrician, I asked for the house electrician on arrival, only to be told there was no house electrician because it was a weekend. I determined that the only way to hook up power, since the disconnects were locked up, was to hook it up live — and carefully — since we were dealing with three-phase power. I had done this on a number of occasions in the past, so I was not overly concerned as I set to work.
However, while I was making the connection, a stray wire shorted between two power buses. Instead of turning off the next breaker in line, this resulted in the power going off in the whole town!
Voila! An electrician appeared. Almost simultaneously, the concierge's wife came rushing in, demanding that I inspect her goldfish, one of which was floating dead in its tank. She demanded compensation, claiming that I had caused the death of the unsuspecting fish. In the end, she settled for an apology, though to this day, I remain convinced I had nothing to do with the poor fish's death.
Those Wacky Locals
Dealing with various local crews across the globe is always a challenge. Some crews are wonderful, loveable people, and for touring crew, the locals can become friends to look forward to visiting on subsequent tours. Other times, your local crew consists of angry, disenfranchised psychos who are looking for nothing but a chance to stop work. Union or non-union, there are great crews, and there are troubled crews. Here are a couple of brief examples of both scenarios:
Production Communication: It was one of the first dates on the Rolling Stones tour in 1981, and we were supplying a walkie-talkie system to the tour. I am not sure why we were even providing them, because walkie-talkies are normally a production item. In those days, such radios were quite expensive, so the Motorola units we had were worth about $10,000.
During the load-out they suddenly disappeared. The local crew was adamant that they had no knowledge of this event. Later on, we interviewed one of the hands for a job with us, and he offered to tell us where we could find these units in return for a position in our company. We never employed him, obviously.
The Rental Car: During the same '81 Stones tour, one of the production assistants was looking for crew members to pick up rental cars, and one of the lighting crew generously volunteered. It wasn't until later that evening that anyone realized the rental car and the crew member were missing. Two days passed before production notified us that the car had been recovered by the police, along with the driver, in a park in San Francisco. LSD was the explanation we were given.
I remember hearing of another tour (the Marshall Tucker Band, I believe) where one of the crew members went missing. All attempts to find him failed, but, as we all know, the show must go on. Two days later, someone discovered the missing individual while getting his coat out of the closet on the bus. This time, it was reportedly the effects of cocaine paranoia.
The Tour Bus
Who can you trust? All well-oiled, touring productions have seasoned management in place to take care of the crew's needs along the way. Obviously, without the crew, all you have is a bunch of equipment in a truck, so attending to the crew's personal needs is actually a very important part of a major tour. Sometimes, however, management takes on responsibilities in areas where it has very little experience.
For example, there's the story of the Mountain Marrow. A marrow is an English squash, not unlike a zucchini. It resembles a long, bright green cylinder, such as a green 1965 English school bus. The year was 1975, and it was the Nazareth Playing the Game tour. Some management genius had come up with the clever idea of saving a “quid” by retrofitting an old school bus to serve as crew transport and accommodation.
Since the bus carpenters were behind on their project, however, we ended up driving the band's cars to the first show in Paris. The bus duly arrived a short time later, only to break down before we set foot on it. A failed regulator and no power — no one had thought to install an A/C generator — were not deterrents to jumpstarting the bus and driving from Paris to Brussels overnight without lights. Off we went, in convoy with the truck.
The first gig was in Paris at an old, converted slaughterhouse. There, we proceeded to install what was then a “giant” lighting system: six Genie towers and a 48-channel board. Within an hour of load-in, though, the whole of the stage right area collapsed (early French abattoir staging), and one of the Genies ended up in a distinctive banana shape, curled over the PA.
By load-out, the mood for the tour had thus been set. A series of misadventures lay ahead, mostly involving the bright green bus, a vehicle that should have been sent to the Smithsonian long before.
In the UK in the 1960s, air conditioning was a novelty and would have been unheard of on a school bus. So the concept of having 12 sweaty roadies sleeping on rudimentary bunks was a lesson in micro-climatology. It was winter, so providing heating was a humane and thoughtful gesture on the part of management. There's nothing like a bottle of propane and a gas heater strapped in with a bungee to keep the boys warm.
Unfortunately, there was a humidity issue for the top bunks, as condensation dribbled down the roof onto these beds, resulting in the unfortunate victim having to hang the soggy mattress out to dry during the day. The upside to the bus was that it was so poorly insulated we were spared the indignity of death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
By the time we reached Oslo, the bus had shown its true colors, with the image of the mountain marrow now firmly burned into our subconscious. Push-starting the bus in minus-20 degree temperatures did nothing to dispel the sentiment.
To make the journey more interesting, the management company hired an enthusiastic and slightly toothless driver, who felt that making a U-turn on the Autobahn was a perfectly legitimate way to get from point A to point B, even while losing a muffler in the process.
Reaching the Ostende-to-Dover ferry was easy — vehicles parted as they heard us coming from far away. Naturally, when we arrived in Dover, we were the last off the ferry because the bus wouldn't start. The commotion of the push-start combined with the unforgivable racket of the unmuffled vehicle must have interrupted the afternoon nap of the customs agents as they descended on us with a vengeance. Strip searches were in order for the few crew left who had not wisely opted to take a train. The only booty that they found were the dubious magazines the driver had in his possession.
In the mid-1970s, the Guru Maharaji was a popular visionary with a respectable group of pleasant, well-heeled followers. For whatever reason, he decided to do a “come to the guru” show in Rome, Italy. Our crew went to Rome to hang lights for the show, but the guru's crew insisted on using their own expertise and rigging equipment. This was reasonable — many riggers make this demand since safety issues loom so large.
The rig went in relatively smoothly, and the event began. Toward the end of the first day, though, it became apparent that something was awry — the grid and rigging were 4 feet to 5 feet lower than at load-in. By day three, the grid was removed altogether, since it was too low. The reason: The rigging “steels” were made from aluminum. This is another good reason to leave it to the real experts.
Advice for the Road
Touring in the rock-‘n’-roll industry is often characterized by absurdity and misadventure, camaraderie and merriment. Even for the seasoned roadie, unexpected challenges can arise, and the crew must be able to handle any situation.
The best advice I can give to anyone on the road is to roll with the punches, and at risk of sounding like a DARE spokesperson, say no to drugs. If you follow these two guidelines, touring can be an incredible and rewarding experience.
Clive Forrester has worked in the staging industry for 28 years, starting as an electronic service engineer for Showlites, Ltd. in Europe in the 1970s, before working on major rock tours and other large events in the United States, in both technical production and sales capacities. In 1991, Forrester formed All Access Staging and Productions, along with partner Erik Eastland, formerly of Showstaging, Inc. All Access is currently one of the leading U.S. companies in staging and set rentals and sales. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org