RIGHTING THE WRONGS: Van Halen and M&Ms

The 1980s were decadent times for rock stars. Stories of bad behavior by some of rock’s finest – from trashing hotel rooms to over-the-top prima donna demands – were splashed all over the headlines. And few of those stories were as famous as the “Van Halen M&Ms” story.

In case you weren’t around during the 80s, the rock supergroup Van Halen had a clause in their concert contracts which stipulated that the band would be provided with one large bowl of M&M candies with all brown candies removed.

Once the “M&Ms” story leaked to the press, social commentators jumped all over it. Some called it an egregious example of the spoiled behavior of rock artists. Some saw it as yet another sign of the decline of Western Civilization. And to this very day, any time a story about a celebrity acting like a diva surfaces, my mom rolls her eyes, clucks her tongue, and asks if “she wants the brown M&Ms taken out of the bowl, too??”

Here’s the thing, though: the band put the “no brown M&Ms” clause in their contracts for a very good reason.

*     *     *

Van Halen was one of the first rock bands to bring truly massive concerts to mid-size cities like Macon, Georgia or Tempe, Arizona. Arena staff in smaller cities were used to bands coming to town with, at most, three tractor-trailers full of equipment. Van Halen’s equipment took up nine tractor-trailers. It was a lot of stuff, and staff at these venues were frequently overwhelmed. And when people are overwhelmed, they make mistakes. At a concert, “making a mistake” during setup can make the band sound bad or it can kill someone… which is exactly what the band was afraid of.

*     *     *

At the heart of any major concert is the contract. Most of these contracts are standard legal text that varies little from performer to performer. In fact, if one were to take the core contract from a Katy Perry concert in Nevada and a Foo Fighters concert in Florida and switch the artist and state names, there’s little chance anyone would even notice.

Each band “customizes” their contracts by attaching specific demands via something called a “rider”. Each contract can have hundreds of riders, which you’ve probably heard about from some of the more outrageous requests artists have made over the years. For example, Willie Nelson requires that all his shows be smoke-free (don’t ask about Willie’s own type of “smoke”). The Beach Boys demand several Bic lighters in the backstage area, but absolutely no green ones. Country group Alabama demands that NO ANIMALS OF ANY KIND be allowed backstage. Meanwhile, animal lover Paul McCartney not only “bans” leather furniture backstage, he’s also “banned” all types of synthetic leather as well. And Prince still requires that EVERYTHING in his dressing room be covered in plastic wrap (yes, really).

Most of the riders you hear about – the bizarre or funny demands from the performer – make up a tiny percentage of the overall riders. Most riders are actually technical in nature. They’ll include the size and weight requirements for the stage, electrical and lighting needs, data and fiber optic cabling specifications, sound and video board requirements, office space requirements for tour personnel, minimum number of security personnel, etc. For instance, a rider might say something like

“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, causing lead singer David Lee Roth to quip that the band’s contracts looked “like a Chinese Yellow Pages”.

The staff at large venues in big cities were used to technically complex shows like Van Halen’s. The band played at Madison Square Garden in New York and The Omni in Atlanta 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 included a request for “a large bowl of M&M candies” with their backstage demands for typical things like Coca-Cola, whiskey and sandwiches. But, hidden deeply in the technical riders, the band added this clause:

“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 backstage area and look for a bowl of M&Ms. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes. 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.”

The “no brown M&Ms” clause became a national news story after an “incident” at Colorado State University. The national press told a story of unacceptable behavior from the band, and how they caused $85,000 worth of damage to the arena. David Lee Roth remembers it a bit differently:

The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747.

I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean “What is this before me?” . . . you know, with the skull in one hand . . . and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.

The staging sank through their floor. They didn’t bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and this sank through their new flooring and did eighty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the arena floor. The whole thing had to be replaced. It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area.

Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?

25 thoughts on “RIGHTING THE WRONGS: Van Halen and M&Ms”

  1. “Stone age history”….. Go make a band, see if you can sell one SINGLE record, not to mention millions. Then come back with your opinions. Or maybe your the venue representative at Colorado State University?

    Anyways, that was a nice and informative article. Very clever way of determining whether someone actually read the contract.

  2. @”lenon john”: is there some way I can downvote your bullshit comment, or at least punish you for abusing another man’s good name?

  3. @Bob: Huh? This story has been all over the place for years. NPR hardly has an exclusive on it. And I wrote everything myself, except for the DLR quotes. So no, I don’t think I “owe”anyone anything.

  4. @ lenon john.

    … and, “stone age” and “history” are contradictory. And I don’t even much like Van Halen.
    Good article.

  5. Lemon John… speaking of Stone Age History, did you ever stop to think how many generations back, a pair of humans (for the most part anyway), did the big nasty and you are the current result?

    Young people who think that they have discovered the universe, and the rest of us just ain’t cool, don’t really have a clue.

  6. Many people brought up the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit as evidence our tort system was out of control. What was left out of the story? 1) McDonald’s had been repeated warned that their coffee was kept too hot for their convenience, but dangerous for human consumption; 2) the woman suffered 3rd degree burns and had to get skin grafts over 8 days hospitalization with medical expenses over $10,500; 3) McDonald’s refused to offer more than $800 and refused a $90,000 settlement offer; 3) the jury based its $2.7 million punitive damages on 2 days worth of McDonald’s coffee revenues 4) the $3 million decision was reduced to $640,000 on appeal.

    Despite these facts, most Americans think that McDonald’s was robbed and the plaintiff got away with theft for her own negligence.

  7. lol@ all of you idiots even responding to lenon john. you actually think he was serious? google “what is an internet troll”, with quotes.

  8. Nice piece. They talked about some of this in a Van Halen documentary that’s streaming on Netflix. GOOD STUFF! Ya gotta check it out if you’re even a slight fan.

  9. As a front of house sound engineer, I deal with band’s riders constantly. I don’t often do productions quite as big as a “Van Halen,” which now-a-days would be more like a “Rammstein” or “Lady Gaga.” Lots of bands do this or something similar, even for small shows.

    For one thing, it can ensure that an appropriate guitar or bass amp is provided. For another, it can mean the band won’t be eating quick and cheap pizza or pasta every night for a week.

  10. To quote a famous quality guru “Quality is in the details”! I was here in the 80s, loved Van Halen, and have listened to NPR for years, but somehow I missed this story at the time, so better late than never to get it. Thanks for publishing “again”. Its message is priceless (cost) and timeless (schedule) and relevant (performance)!

  11. I hope the people who scoff at this article and the underlying meaning don’t work in the quality field. If they do, they won’t last long.

  12. Rob L…I was wondering when that point would come up. I have used that story as an argument that human inspection is not 100% long before I worked in quality field!

  13. LisaS: I agree that 100% inspection does not provide 100% perfect results and I’ve seen the proof over and over.

    andy ivy: I also appreciate the learning opportunity given by ‘andy ivy’…I now know what an internet troll is. That bit of information should keep me from putting myself out there as an idiot (or, an “uninformed” reader/responder). It’s kind of like getting upset with a fellow airline passenger who obviously didn’t hear the announcement to “turn off” our cell phones, only to learn later that there was now an “Airplane Mode” that didn’t require the phone to be “turned off.” I’m so glad I held my tongue!

    Good article – I’d never heard the story, but enjoyed the tie-in to “poka-yoke”!

  14. One error in the recitation of the CSU incident is that the geography does not match up. The incident either did not happen at CSU or it did not occur in Pueblo. CSU is in Fort Collins, which is about 60 – 75 minute drive from Denver up I-25. I am not sure what college (if any) is located in Pueblo. Anyway, just a little thing. I liked this story. I remember hearing the Brown M&M story a lot back in the day but never knew what the band’s rationale was for it. Actually makes a great deal of sense.

  15. I think that most times when a story gets told it gets bigger .Thats just the nature of people everyone loves a good story.So it’s good to read a cut through the bull story.Right on!

  16. The school is now called Colorado State University-Pueblo, but back then it was the University of Southern Colorado. I was there. I helped build the stage. I was in Concert Crew. But it wasn’t my job to read the contract. Those were the days, boy!

  17. Thank you for the informative and entertaining article. As a first time band manager, tour manager etc. I am happy to hear the meaning for the brown M&M’s. The contract critical and a short cut to ensure an inspection necessary is ingenious! I am planning a small two week tour, first time ever doing so, and I might not include my self on the trip. Instead hire a runner to complete the run through of the rider. I am in need of good information such as this article.
    To retaliate against the first comment by ‘lenon john’ VAN HALEN IS BACK BABY! And better then EVER! Get their new CD and have fun! Plus a giant tour including our town and high kicks from David Lee Roth, GOD BLESS ‘EM! I am glad their diligance of high quality standards have kept them alive!

Leave a Reply!