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Now we know: Van Halen’s M&M rider was just a test

By Michael Smerconish, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

So it wasn’t about the candy after all.

This week, lead singer David Lee Roth resolved a question of rock lore: why Van Halen wanted no brown M&Ms backstage during its concerts — and it turns out there is a Philadelphia/Spectrum connection.

“How many times have I been emailed or tweeted and everything in between — ‘What’s the real story about the brown M&Ms?’” Roth asks rhetorically at the start of a five-minute video explanation. He says this was not a case of “rock-star misdemeanor excess. … In fact, the reality is quite different.”

According to Diamond Dave, VH was driven by safety, not sugar concerns.

Roth said VH had a large and complicated stage show in the 1980s, one that demanded the attention of promoters and the people moving the band’s equipment. To ensure that those responsible for staging their concerts had thoroughly read about the many technical needs, band members inserted the M&M reference in their contracts as a test. If the candy wasn’t right, they had reason to be concerned about similar inattention to serious issues like electricity and load stress.

“Van Halen was the first to take 850 PAR lamp lights, huge lights, around the country,” Roth explained, referring to parabolic aluminized reflector lamps. “At the time it was the biggest production ever, and getting it in and out of older buildings like the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the hockey team played, or the Maple Leaf Gardens — these places were built in the ’50s or ’60s and ’70s and they didn’t have even the doorways or the loading docks to accommodate a super, forward-thinking, Gigantor-epic-sized Van Halen production.”

To ensure that those working at buildings like the Spectrum were prepared for the complexity of staging a VH show, this “munchies” paragraph was inserted in the 1982 contract:

Potato chips with assorted dips

Nuts

Pretzels

M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)

Twelve (12) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Twelve (12) assorted Dannon yogurt (on ice)

Ike Richman remembers. He is not only arguably the band’s biggest fan in Philadelphia, but at the time he was the Spectrum’s vice president for public relations. Richman has seen VH 57 times in concert and plans to see the band nine times on its latest tour, including the sold-out March 5 show at the Wells Fargo Center.

Richman told me that most concertgoers in Philadelphia correctly remember the Spectrum as a “fantastic venue,” but don’t know how cumbersome it was for roadies to access. He specifically recalls the massive lighting VH used in the early 1980s to highlight its logo during the shows.

“The only way to get equipment like that in and out was through one long tunnel, which could be accessed by only one truck at a time, whereas at the Wells Fargo Center we can accommodate five trucks at once,” Richman said. “If you were doing a show like Van Halen with, say, 20 trucks unloading one at a time, it was a long move-in.”

As for the contract rider, Richman said, he had seen it and always recognized the real purpose in VH’s demand.

“It was always a test, if you will,” Richman said. “Bands always had specific needs, and they were not trying to be nasty. They were not being mean. But it was really a way to say: ‘Hey, guys, make sure you read the rider. Make sure you read the details.’ … (VH) had fun with it.”

As David Lee Roth explained:

“If I came backstage having been one of the architects of lighting and stage design and saw brown M&Ms on the catering table, that guaranteed the promoter did not read the rider and we had to do a serious line check, because frequently we had safety issues.”

And so, the brown M&Ms go on a shelf of Spectrum concert history, alongside notables that include Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters once needing a preconcert injection from a doctor during the “Animals” tour, giving later inspiration to his penning “Comfortably Numb.”

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