by Asif Khan
I first saw Van Halen in concert when I was about 15. We’re talking about the real Van Halen! Not Van Hagar and definitely not the lame Van Halen with that singer from Extreme. We’re talking about David Lee Roth! Spandex! Kung fu kicks! Pyrotechnics! 20 minute guitar solos! The sweet smell of chronic all around me–but not from me because that would be illegal 😉 THAT Van Halen!
Not only did my best friend Andrew and I break our piggy banks for 10th row floor seats at the Long Beach Arena, but we rushed the stage during the encore and risked getting crushed for the chance to high-five the master, Eddie Van Halen! To top all that, we somehow snuck backstage after the show and actually got to meet the band!
While we were hanging out backstage (shortly before we were kicked out), some guy was telling us the now infamous brown M&Ms story. In case you haven’t heard it, Van Halen had a clause in their contract that, when they go on tour, the backstage area must be stocked with M&Ms at all times. But…if they find one brown M&M anywhere, they get to cancel the gig, trash their hotel room and the promoter has to pay for EVERYTHING!
“Why brown M&Ms?”, I asked. Because “Mr Roth says M&Ms are already brown on the inside. If they are also brown on the outside, you’re getting ripped off.”
Wow! To a couple of gullible starstruck teenagers, it didn’t get any better than this! When we got back to school on Monday, we couldn’t wait to tell our friends how we partied with the most bitchin’ rockstars on the planet and especially the breaking news about the M&M’s!
By the following summer, the M&M story grew legs. Someone heard Van Halen wanted their friends to hang out with them on tour so they gave them jobs as “brown M&M hunters.” Someone else heard that Van Halen had a secret endorsement deal promoting M&Ms (in those days, rockers didn’t have sponsors so that would have been quite a scandal!) and so on.
Wait, I Thought This Was a Technology Blog?
I’m getting to that…don’t worry, this story is about to get a lot LESS interesting. Fast forward about a decade. I was playing lead guitar in a now-defunct band called RedEye. I met a guy at a gig one night who used to be a roadie for Van Halen and he had some great stories to tell. We swapped stories and I eventually got around to asking him about the brown M&Ms.
He confirmed the M&M clause in their contract but said that I got the rest of the story all wrong. He said David Lee Roth loved to brag about the brown M&M clause because trashed hotel rooms made them sound like BADASS rockstars. But the actual reason for having that rider in their tour contract was far more practical.
Van Halen staged a very complex light- and pyro-filled stage show and the theatrics got more elaborate (and dangerous) with each new tour. Luckily, they had a very experienced and clever tour manager who had checklists for everything.
The checklists were to be followed EXACTLY for everything to work properly–no questions asked. To ensure compliance, he added several superfluous steps (e.g. no brown M&Ms) to make sure the crew was paying attention and following orders to the letter. No one was ever sure which steps were fillers…that was a closely guarded secret.
As a 15 year old, I would have been devastated to hear the truth about the M&Ms. As a 25 year old starting out on my career, I thought it was kinda cool!
I remembered my Van Halen experience because I recently read a brilliant book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. The book is about how pilots, surgeons, Navy SEALs and other highly specialized teams increasingly rely on simple checklists because the cost of mistakes has become unacceptably high.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
“There’s a story behind rocker David Lee Roth’s notorious insistence that Van Halen’s contracts with concert promoters contain a clause specifying that a bowl of M&M’s has to be provided backstage, but with every single brown candy removed, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation to the band. And at least once, Van Halen followed through, peremptorily cancelling a show in Colorado when Roth found some brown M&M’s in his dressing room. This turned out to be, however, not another example of the insane demands of power-mad celebrities but an ingenious ruse.
As Roth explained in his memoir, Crazy from the Heat, “Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third level markets. We’d pull up with nine 18-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, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be article 126, the no-brown-M&M’s clause. “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” These weren’t trifles, Roth pointed out. The mistakes could be life-threatening. In Colorado before a show once, the band found that the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and the staging would have fallen through the arena if they had proceeded…”
So Van Halen’s M&M clause is now being used as an example of project management excellence. Now THAT is BADASS!
OK so I didn’t really relate this story back to technology but I am planning on expanding the scope of this blog to include management and leadership topics alongside the technology posts. Thanks for letting me indulge and back to our regularly scheduled programming next time…
By the way, in case you haven’t heard, Van Halen has recently reunited with David Lee Roth (the longstanding feud between Roth and Edward Van Halen is apparently over…I guess they both needed the cash) and they kicked off their US tour earlier this year to promote their latest album (album? CD? Set of new MP3’s available for download from your favorite online music store? What do we call it now anyway?). Check them out if they come to your town. The new music is actually pretty good.
However, I couldn’t help but notice that their first single, She’s The Woman sounds an awful lot like the 1970’s theme to Wonder Woman! Hear for yourself:
First, listen to this – Van Halen – She’s A Woman (chorus at 0:52)
Then, check this out – Theme From Wonder Woman
Now if you buy into this conspiracy, here’s another one that was pointed out to me by a reader (Wasima Khan from the Tiffin Unboxed blog). Check out the similarity in Wonder Woman’s logo and Van Halen’s logo. Crazy!
What say you?