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 demands – were splashed all over the headlines. And few of those stories were as famous as the “Van Halen M&Ms” story.
If you weren’t around in 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.
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Van Halen was one of the first rock bands to bring truly massive concerts to smaller 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. But Van Halen would roll into town with 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.
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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 such riders.
You’ve probably more familiar with the “outrageous” personal riders artists have included 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. Madonna once requested some $200 French candles for her dressing room. And to the very end, Prince required that EVERYTHING in his dressing room be covered in plastic wrap (yes, really).
The thing is, although the nutty personal riders make headlines, the vast majority of riders are actually technical in nature. They’ll include the size and weight requirements for the stage, electrical and lighting needs, pyrotechnical needs, data and fiber optic cabling specifications, sound and video board requirements, office space requirements for tour personnel, minimum number of security personnel, etc. It’s like an instruction manual for a concert, only in legalese. 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 joke that the band’s contracts were so thick they looked “like a Chinese Yellow Pages”.
The staff at large venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden and Atlanta’s The Omni were used to complex shows like Van Halen’s, so the band usually played there 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, cigarettes and sandwiches. But, hidden deeply in the middle of 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 University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University-Pueblo). 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?