Riders ©1999 David Bennun
Available now from Ebury Press:

British As A
Second Language

More details here
Click here to buy it

Also published by Ebury:
highly acclaimed African memoir
Tick Bite Fever

This page is part of David Bennun's online journalism archive. Main Index

[Mail On Sunday, 1999]

BACK IN the early days of rock'n'roll - and nowadays, itŐs not too great a stretch to imagine this - pop stars were treated as so much chaff. In Britain, particularly, where no singer was presumed to have a shelf-life longer than a brief few months, exploitation was the norm. Grasping managers teamed up with rapacious promoters to send their acts on brutally punishing concert tours. Bands both local and foreign would be lined up as part of ramshackle package events, sent reeling from town to town, night after night, gig after gig, around the country, in whatever assortment of cars, vans, buses or charabancs the organisers could lay their hands on. Amenities were minimal or non-existent. The comfort of the performers was rarely considered; they were people of no importance, soon to be supplanted in the affections of the teenage public by the next strumming, crooning, knock-kneed, bequiffed, fifth-rate Elvis Presley impersonator.
 Pop singers were shabbily used even by those who claimed to have their interests at heart. At a press conference in 1959, the impresario Larry Parnes, whose “stable” of stars included Tommy Steele, Billy Fury and Marty Wilde, presented his 19-year-old charge Vince Eager with a spanking new Triumph Herald in which to drive from show to show. No sooner had the photographers gone, complained Eager, than the car was hurriedly returned to the showroom whence it had come. “The boy's ingratitude,” Parnes would later grumble, “appals me.”
 It was Parnes, too, who in 1960 sent The Beatles on their first concert tour, during which their then drummer, Tommy Moore, was concussed by a tooth-loosening blow from a falling amplifier in their overloaded van. Even after Beatlemania took hold, touring remained a wretched business for the new gods of rock'n'roll. The band's idea of after-show luxury involved despatching their long-serving assistant Mal Evans to get hold of some Scotch and Coke. On their triumphant first tour of America, in 1963, they politely requested only two cases of cold soft drinks and two spotlights at every performance.
 Then things began to change. The Beatles ushered in a new era not only in pop music but in the way business was conducted. Here was a teen sensation with staying power, guided by a manager, Brian Epstein, who saw them as more than a short-lived cash cow, who wanted to protect his protegés rather than join forces with some vulturine promoter and line his pockets at their expense. The balance of power began to shift towards the bands, and a new phenomenon came into its own: the rider.
 Simply, the rider is that part of the contract between an artist and a concert promoter which details the provisions and facilities to be made available to the artist before, during and after a show. Technically speaking, a rider could be any clause or amendment to the contract, but it was only in the wake of The Beatles that acts began to realise this could be used to their advantage.
 Rock'n'roll bands had very humble expectations. Says Gerry Marsden, lead singer of highly successful Beatles contemporaries Gerry And The Pacemakers: “We were so pleased to be getting gigs, we didn't think about riders. We were amazed to be getting paid, we were over the moon that they laid on sound and transport, although we had to pay our own hotels and sandwiches and so on. They'd say, 'Do you know what a rider is?' I'd say, 'No.' 'Good,' they'd say.” Later on, promoters would ask Marsden what he wanted in his dressing room. “A chair?” he'd suggest.

AT FIRST, the rider existed simply to ensure that performers were given basic comforts which had previously been denied them. A hot meal, say; something to drink; showers and decent changing rooms. But as rock'n'roll changed into rock, and as bands became ever more wealthy and powerful and pampered, the rider was transformed into a reflection of their growing excesses, eccentricities and indulgences. How else is one to explain the provision of a miniature golf-putting course to Pink Floyd, or twelve blueberry pies to Seventies rock giants Foreigner, for an end of tour pie fight?
 Riders were at their most lavish in the Seventies and early Eighties. There were vast amounts of money sloshing around the music industry. Concert promoters, who stood to make fat profits from just one successful show, were only too happy to accommodate the stars. Filet mignon and lobster for Stevie Wonder's entire crew of 150? No problem. Dry cleaning services, three limousines, two 15-seat passenger vans and a police escort for Elton John? He's the boss. Or is that Bruce Springsteen? The Boss, as he is indeed known, was once rumoured to like having a canoe handy on tour, perhaps in case of heavy rainfall.
 Riders can be divided into three general categories; the routine, the extravagant and the idiosyncratic. Into the first category fall everyday essentials such as food, drink, transport when necessary and, above all, clean towels (a popular act with a large road crew in tow will invariably need enough clean towels to service a medium-sized hotel.) Many big stars make surprisingly moderate demands in this area. Many others don't.
 In the late Sixties, The Rolling Stones pioneered the modern style of large-scale pop tour, and concocted the most taxing and exorbitant riders yet seen. They sent a document to the great American promoter Bill Graham, setting out exactly where each and every ludicrously expensive item of food and drink should come from. It was forty pages long. The irascible Graham served them hot dogs. Perhaps they learned their lesson; come 1972 they took to the road with a seven-line rider requisitioning merely an assortment of liquor, some simple deli snacks, and Alka Seltzer. That the subsequent tour became a byword for debauchery rather belies the wording of their plea for towels and soap: “A clean group is a happy group.”
 The Stones were not alone in their rock'n'roll depravity. The Seventies was rife with it. One perk seldom written into the contract was nonetheless acknowledged to be an essential part of almost any rider - cocaine. “No snow, no show” ran the slang phrase of the time. Today, in relatively clean-living times, champagne is a more frequent prerequisite, and the saying has been revised to “No Moet, no show et.” Those who crave anything stronger must see to it themselves. Jamiroquai's Jay Kay, for instance, who has made no secret of his fondness for marijuana, asks for King Size Blue Rizla rolling papers, cigarettes and lighters - but nothing illegal.

THE Nineties have proved a more modest era altogether. The crossover between the remaining two types of rider, the lavish and the downright odd, has diminished. Acts making unusual requests do so in the knowledge that they will ultimately have to pay for these themselves. Unsurprisingly, they tend to err on the low-budget side. Electro-punks The Prodigy, for example, claim that there is only one article on their rider: “a plastic bucket to spit in”; while current R&B star Janet Jackson's contract is said to call for a brand new black toilet seat at each destination.
 There are precedents for such frugal curiosities. When Neil Diamond was reportedly the world's highest paid entertainer, his rider entailed no feature more outrageous than the provision of six bottle openers, so he would always have one to hand. Frank Sinatra, in addition to chicken salad sandwiches, required only several rolls of the breath freshening candy Life Savers (cherry flavour), and two bars of Ivory soap. Here, clearly, was a man who believed that a happy Frank should indeed be a clean Frank, not to mention sweet-smelling. Most unassuming of all is Pete Seeger, who despite having been, for over 50 years, America's most celebrated folk singer, insists on little else but a lift home from one of the crew.
 When current pop stars Blur revealed that the principal item on their rider took the form of four new pairs of Marks & Spencer “passion killer” underwear, still in the wrappers, it was assumed they were trying to be funny. Far from it - after an energetic and sweaty performance, clean pants (and socks) are a genuine boon. As their tour manager, Craig Duffy, points out, “If you haven't got the time or the inclination to do laundry, it's very pleasant.” What's harder to explain is Blur's hankering for chocolate Kinder Eggs, and for the numerous boxes of Lego which Duffy has just inherited for his children.
 “Nine times out of ten,” he says, “the rider's there because you want it, drink and food and so on. Other things are a bit whim-ish.” Duffy should know; his previous job was on the other side of the fence, working at concert venues and attempting to satisfy the caprices of visiting bands. “We recarpeted the entire backstage at Wembley two hours ahead of U2's arrival. Afterwards I took away the new carpet and used it in my flat. It was a horrible green colour, but I was poor.” On another tour, the Dublin megastars attempted to recreate an Irish fishing village backstage, complete with lobsters suspended from the walls.
 Duffy recalls that the hugely successful funk-rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers would specify that the dressing room be transformed into a Sixties-style hippie “hash den”, with drapes, mood lighting and candles. Hardest of all to please was soul legend James Brown, who ten minutes to showtime demanded a hair dryer. Easy enough, you'd think, but Brown would not sully his sculpted locks with a hand-held blower. He wanted a full-size, over-the-head salon model.
 “Sometimes,” says Craig Duffy, “you put quirky things on the rider to see if people can be bothered to read them, and bothered to get what you want.” This goes some way to explaining perhaps the most notorious rider of all time. During their eighties peak, the massively popular hard rock band Van Halen famously told promoters that they wanted every brown M&M removed from the dishes of sweets which dotted the backstage area. Woe to the promoter who disobeyed. Discovering a brown M&M, the band's then singer, David Lee Roth, would throw an enormous wobbly and scream all manner of abuse, then vandalise the dressing room and threaten to cancel the show.
 This was long held up as the ultimate example of spoilt, childish, rock-star petulance. But there was method in Roth's madness. With a show on such a grandiose scale as Van Halen's, involving intricate set-ups for lighting, sound and mechanical props, there was no room for mistakes. “How do we prevent technical errors in this monster production?” asked Roth. “We'll write something about M&Ms in the middle of the contract rider. If there were no brown M&Ms, it meant they read the contract and things were going to run smoothly. If you saw a brown M&M, guaranteed you'd find technical error after error, all of which would happen during the show.” This reasoning didn't prevent The Rolling Stones, who headlined above Van Halen on one tour, presenting Roth with a fleet of Volkswagen Beetles painted brown and embellished with the M&M logo. Mick Jagger also added a line to the Stones' own rider claiming all the brown M&Ms Van Halen didn't want.
 Such epic eccentricity is scarce today. In its place are wry oddities such as those on Robbie Williams' rider: a Japanese ceremonial tea set, a Formula 1 Scaletrix racing game; Dr Scholl sandals complete with foot powder; Mr Kipling's fondant fancies; a small packet of Dreft hand washing powder; two pump action water pistols with a range of at least ten metres; fresh starfruit (“superstar size”); and a game of table-top blow football with one team in the colours of Port Vale.
 This endearingly boyish grab-bag of goodies is echoed by All Saints' rider, which reads like a shopping list for a kiddies' birthday party. The foursome subsist almost entirely on junk food, so it's McDonalds all round before the show. Bowls of fun-sized chocolates - mini Mars Bars and the like - fill the backstage area, along with Coca-Cola and mixed flavour crisps. All Saint Shaznay Lewis has recently rediscovered the joys of school dinner puddings, and her evening is incomplete without rhubarb crumble or jam roly-poly and custard - carefully prepared to take account of her allergies, of course.
 But the most telling item on any rider, the one which neatly illustrates the difference between the profligate past and the temperate present, is one of Robbie's: a clause which states that no alcohol whatsoever should be supplied. This proviso is increasingly familiar. Rock titans Aerosmith, now clean after years of drink and drug insanity, make the same stipulation on their rider, just below the part about wanting a whole cooked turkey. So does heavy metal star and former boozer Ozzy Osbourne, albeit minus the turkey, and similar bans are common to a host of artists who have come through alcoholism or some other addiction to face the new millennium bleary-eyed but sober.
 Perhaps they should have taken a leaf out of Steppenwolf's book. Big at the start of the Seventies - the era of rock's most outlandish degeneracy - this band are now best remembered for their motorcycle outlaw anthem, Born To Be Wild. Their rider, however, is best remembered for containing nothing more profligate than Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission, dagnabbit.

Back to Music Features & Essays
Back to Main Index

Looking for David Bennum, Dave Bennun or Dave Bennum? Might be me, or might be a similarly named scientist chap.
Text to separate 1Text to separate
Text to separate 1Tick Bite FeverText to separateBritish As A
Second Language