After Hours

Geek Trivia: Riders of the storm

What was the logic behind Van Halen's "brown M&M" contract rider?

Editor's note: As the Trivia Geek's vacation continues (and he shakes off that Halloween sweets hangover), we've revived this candy-coated Classic Geek, which originally ran on April 28, 2004, from our archives to tide you over. Look for a fresh batch of Geek Trivia on Nov. 9, 2005.

One of the more intriguing, but often overlooked trivial tidbits of the music industry is the concert tour contract rider, a fancy legal term for all the conditions that must be satisfied before a musical act will actually put on a scheduled show. From these documents spring nearly all the infamous stories of prima-donna rock stars complaining that their dressing rooms fail to provide obscure or highly specific items—such as Jennifer Lopez's white drapes or Joe Cocker's thrice-chilled beer.

Failure to provide a specified item will often prompt the talent to throw a show-canceling tantrum. Of course, contract riders didn't start out as exercises in vanity.

We can largely attribute the practice of using contract riders to control backstage conditions to The Beatles, the first touring act with enough drawing power to cajole venue managers into complying with a few hospitality demands, such as refreshments and basic amenities. For example, the Fab Four purportedly requested only a black-and-white television set and a few Coca-Colas after their famous Shea Stadium concert—hardly unreasonable demands.

The Rolling Stones, no strangers to the rock-and-roll touring circuit, have employed several-dozen-page contract riders, with exacting specifications for the serving of gourmet food after the show. In response, renowned concert promoter Bill Graham allegedly served Mick Jagger and company nothing more than hot dogs. (No word on any tantrums that followed.)

Perhaps the most infamous contract rider, however, belongs to 1980s rock heavyweights Van Halen, which specified that a bowl of M&M candies be available in their dressing room—with all the brown M&Ms removed. One-time Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth has admitted to trashing a dressing room or two after finding brown M&Ms in his candy bowl, but he claims there was a higher logic—and a sound engineering reason—behind this oblique request.

WHAT WAS THE LOGIC BEHIND VAN HALEN'S "BROWN M&M" CONTRACT RIDER?

What was the supposed logic behind rock band Van Halen's indulgent contract rider that required the removal of all brown M&Ms—and only brown—from the candy bowls in members' dressing rooms?

The "brown M&M" line in Van Halen's contract rider was a ploy the band used to determine whether concert venue promoters and managers had actually read every line of the contract. Specifically, one article of the rider read, "There will be no brown M&M's in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."

While this may seem like an extravagant method of gauging a promoter's attention, the band had good reason to go to such trouble. Van Halen was among the first musical groups to take a massive and elaborate stage and lighting apparatus on tour, yet still play so-called secondary and tertiary venues, such as college amphitheatres.

In many cases, the buildings the band was booked to play in simply weren't able to handle the structural demands of the traveling stage. The band's lengthy contract rider clearly spelled out the specifications and safety requirements for the stage, but many of the smaller venue administrators simply didn't bother to delve into this intimidating legal document.

Thus, if Van Halen got to the dressing room and found brown M&Ms in the candy dishes, the band knew that a problem might exist with the stage. In many cases, the problem was worth canceling the show, for safety or liability reasons. From such cancellations sprang the rumor that Van Halen would back out of a concert date simply because the band found brown M&Ms backstage.

In fact, this reputation grew so well known that at one point The Rolling Stones, which was headlining a tour that included Van Halen, wrote into its own contract rider a request for all the brown M&Ms that Van Halen threw out. It's ironic, considering that the brown M&Ms were merely a red herring, but such is the basis for great Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia. (To see the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

This week's quibble comes once again from the October 5 edition of Geek Trivia, "Full (moon) circle." As usual, an astute TechRepublic member couldn't help but expose my appalling ignorance of Newtonian physics. This time, it was the imminently polite Rob_cranfill, who tweaked my choice of technical terms.

"The excellent-as-usual article says 'Apollo could take advantage of the spacecraft's inertia and lunar gravity to slingshot around the moon and still return safely to Earth.' That should be momentum—not inertia. Yes, they are related, but the second term in this context would be preferable."

One of these days, I'm going to get the hang of this whole "quantitative science" thing. In the meantime, thanks for keeping me honest, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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