You’re at one of your first concerts, down the front and start looking around at how the stage is set up, drumkit on a riser at the back, cabinets at either side with their power light’s switched to red. There’s a couple of microphone stands across the front. With lights above the stage on each side. There is movement at the back. The light’s in the hall go out. The Roar. But who sets this all up ? From small clubs to huge enormodomes somebody has to load the gear on stage and have it all in place for showtime – stagehands and technicians – the crew. They are skilled in rigging, electrics, audio, video/projection, and handling the occasional prop. During shows they are responsible for operating the systems and for the maintenance and repair of the equipment.
To get to know what goes on behind the scenes I talked to former Stage hand and Lighting Designer PAR CAN (some of you reading this will know his ‘real name’…) ‘After taking my O levels in Summer ’77, it was obvious to my parents I was not settling into my A levels. Especially as I had bunked off school to hang around the City Hall way too many times over the previous 3 and a half years, and a medical career was not gonna happen. My mother worked at the Civic Centre in Newcastle and had a word with Bob Brown the City Hall manager, who had a word with Newcastle City Hall Stage Manager Colin Rowell. He rang me and said to come and see him ’10 o’clock tomorrow, don’t be late’. Next day 16th October 1977 and Wishbone Ash was my first paid stage crew gig. I was in’.
What music did you listen to ? ‘I was already an Alice Cooper, Mott The Hoople, Deep Purple fan when as an early 11th birthday present my parents bought me several concert tickets for the City Hall and the first ever gig I went to was Mott The Hoople on 18th February 1972. I watched great concerts from bands like Bowie, The Doors, The Faces and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Mostly thanks to City Hall manager Bob Brown giving my mother complimentary tickets for me.
In 1973 I was introduced via Radio Luxembourg to a new band called Queen, they played Keep Yourself Alive, I flipped over them. Doing various Saturday jobs in a local bakery, bicycle shop and newsagents made me some money to indulge in my new found passion of buying records. Trips to the record shops in Newcastle became a habit and that is where imports by Kiss, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd and another favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren were bought. Because of Todd, I bought the first New York Dolls album…I loved it !
‘In November 1973 I was 12 year old and went to Gosforth Grammar school. I was tall for my age and a rugby player. I don’t recall how but come the day of the Mott the Hoople gig I didn’t have a ticket for the show and was desperate, but had no idea about touts or how else to get a ticket for a sold out show. I was in school assembly when I had a brainstorm and walked out. I got a bus straight to the City Hall and hung around the stage door. If memory serves me right there were 2 x 7½ ton trucks parked outside.
About an hour later, the stage door opened and a bunch of hairy gits ambled out, opened the trucks and load in had begun. I watched, said nowt, I was not exactly Mr Outgoing and besides, what the hell would I have said !
Next thing I knew a bloke (I now know was Philip John, long time Mott roadie) was trying to unload an electric piano by himself and was about to fall, he shouted to me ‘gimme a fuckin’ ‘and will ya’. I didn’t think, just helped him take the piano onstage and looked out onto the empty hall. I was dumbstruck ! Have you ever stood on a stage while equipment is being set up ? Then you will understand.
I ended up helping to unload the last of Mott’s backline with the roadcrew Phil, Richie and Stan. I tried convincing them I was 16, but for whatever reason they took pity when I told them I was a huge Mott and Queen fan. When I told them I was 16 they didn’t believe me. Stan the tour manager, said he would let me in that night for helping with the gear. I was in heaven’.
‘At the time a guy called Moose was City Hall Stage Manager and he just let me hang around and help out…thankfully. He let me ‘work’ other gigs over the next 2 and a half years until Colin Rowell took over in 1976.
Obviously, I had no idea how to wire things up, but Rick Lefrack the American Lighting Director asked me to sit at the Lighting Board and push channel faders as he called for them from the stage, my first time ‘focussing’.
That was it. Any hopes of an academic career died right there and then. I bunked off school regularly over the next 2 and a half years and got to know a few of the Stage Crew who were mostly really canny geezers, but some were a right bunch of dour fuckers !
Some of the stage crew then were Neil ‘Alex’ Hall who would end up working for Van Halen and became Dave Lee Roths assistant. Dave Verow who would work for The Who and Tina Turner among others. Peter and Gordon Barden ‘The Twins’ who somehow ended up in Dallas working for Showco with Genesis, Lynyrd Skynrd and Bad Company. Paul Devine who worked for Pink Floyd on the Animals and Wall tours. Became Iron Maiden’s lighting designer in the late 80’s and now works on BBC Question Time. Richard ‘Bald Eagle’ Anderson who went onto work for Audiolease (sound) on several Motorhead tours.
Now you were part of the stage crew did you focus on a particular role ? ‘A month after Colin Rowell added me to his stage crew, my favourite band The Tubes were coming to town. The Hall was a bit quiet in November ’77 not too many shows needing 6 or more stage crew so I was able to follow The Tubes around the UK. Thanks to The Tubes Stage Manager Chopper Borges and the lighting crew I was able to blag myself onto the crew bus and again, got my foot in their door and that was the biggest change to my life, but more of that later’.
‘So from October ’76 to April ’78 I was part time stage crew. I was making a lame attempt at my A levels to keep my parents quiet. In April ’78 I took a ferry to Holland and joined The Tubes tour. All went well until singer Fee Waybill broke his leg in Leicester on May 9th’.
‘The next day instead of doing the show in Coventry the remaining 18 shows were cancelled. The following day the crew were back in London. Unloading the lighting and sound equipment into the TFA Electrosound warehouse. I spent the next week helping to dismantle and store the lighting equipment getting to know the staff there and as fate would have it I was invited to see Queen at Wembley Arena as a guest for 3 nights. May 11-13th, meeting Queen crew Crystal, Jobby and Ratty, which as fate would have it played a part in my future. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough work to keep me in London plus I didn’t have a place to live and sleeping on one of the lighting crew’s sofa wasn’t a great solution! So Colin Rowell asked me to come back to the City Hall and I worked there almost exclusively from May 1978 to May 1979 when The Tubes went on tour again’.
‘Apart from the odd few days at TFA doing warehouse work mainly wiring bars of 6 PAR CANS. I did however do Bette Midler at the London Palladium for 5 days in September 1978 as a lampie for TFA, my first paid crew gig. That was with Penny Fitzgerald and Nigel Gibbons, both now sadly dead. We all know when the ‘stars’ die, especially 2016, but man… I lost a lot of old crew mates in 2015/6 and so far this year, 6 other crew I worked with over the years have died; mostly from various cancers.
The summer of 1978 a lot of the old hands moved to London so we needed new guys. That’s when I brought in Alan ‘Alla’ Armstrong, Kev ’Bessie & the Zinc Buckets’ Charlton, Ian ‘Ryles’ Rylance, Gary ‘Lil’ Lillee and Dave Linney and Ainsley…The Sheels Mafia were now in residence!’
‘The Tubes were managed by a guy called Rikki Farr, he had set up the 1970 Isle of Wight festival among other things, one of which was setting up a sound & light company, TFA Electrosound. They were one of the ‘go to companies’ at the time, so in 1978/9 we saw many tours come to the City Hall using TFA equipment. I got to know a lot of the TFA crews, which would be a great help to me in the near future. I was always more fascinated by lights, so when The Tubes toured again in 1979 stage manager Chopper Borges rang me and said be in Glasgow the day before the opening night as load in was a day early so the band could have a few hours rehearsal. I worked with the lighting crew, one of whom was Simon Tutchener who would be the last Lighting Designer Queen used with Freddie Mercury in 1986. I would start at 9am putting the rigging in the roof with Simon, assemble, wire and repair the rig with Simon and the other tech Bob Birch. Then focussing with director Tom Birch who worked for The Eagles for many years. I ran a follow spot for both support act Squeeze and during The Tubes set to earn extra money. After the show we tore everything down put it in the 3 Edwin Shirley trucks and drove to the next city overnight. I made lifelong friends on that tour, the lighting crew, The Tubes crew and the band themselves whom I will be seeing when they tour the UK this year with Alice Cooper in November. I worked for TFA Electrosound until they went bankrupt in the Norton Warburg financial fiasco in 1981/82. Pink Floyd lost over £2 million ! After that I was completely self employd and worked for anyone that paid’.
What are the logistics to setting a band up on stage ? ‘It primarily depends on who it is you are working for. Setting up for Abba and Queen weren’t as complicated as you may assume. Most bands have teams of legal and technical folk who plan the logistics. So by the time I would be involved it was mostly looking at lighting and staging plans, then building the systems as directed.
Local North East UK band The Kane Gang was my personal hell on earth tour ! They should never have gone on tour, they had no stage presence; Really lovely guys, but terrible live. They and their management hadn’t a clue what they were doing. They were totally disorganised. The week before the opening night tour manager Harry was ringing me in Newcastle every hour trying desperately to organise rehearsals and power generators ! ‘Yeah sure Harry I will just magically organise a venue and power for you at the drop of a hat’.
I remember trying to book Tiffanys nightclub in Newcastle – what a bunch of arseholes running the place, they wanted utterly ridiculous amounts of money plus a list of demands longer than a Queen rider! Needless to say none of this happened.
Plus half the gigs were either cancelled or rearranged into smaller venues. If I remember rightly even the London date at Hammersmith Palais was cancelled. Imagine your first tour and you can’t even play London. They really should never have toured, and remained a studio band. They were really lovely guys and I liked the music but man the people around them really hadn’t a clue. I’m sure I will get grief for saying all of this. But look at their career and tell me I am wrong. The Kane Gang had their 10 minutes but pretty much sank without trace’.
(Martin Brammer ex-Kane Gang, did work in a studio and went on to write and produce songs for James Morrison, James Bay and Olly Murs).
‘But in their defense I have to admit that was not a good time for me. I was in the grip of Absynthe, Jack Daniels and Cocaine. Not addiction, but certainly abuse and I completely lost sight of what was important. I just wanted to get back to America ASAP. During load in at a gig in Leeds University I smashed my right hand as we had decided to use the theatrical fly bars instead of our trussing…big mistake. The fly bars collapsed and all but crushed my right hand. I broke my wrist, 3 fingers and a bone in the hand…it bloody hurt! After being patched up at Jimmys (St James’ Hospital made famous in the TV documentary) I got back to the venue where Harry was waiting to ‘have a word’. It was decided I should go home….basically I was fired – the nerve. I breathed a sigh of relief, caught the train back to Newcastle for a week then flew to San Fransisco to start planning the next tour by The Tubes – Love Bomb’.
‘I was a roadie/lighting designer/rigger until The Clash Of The Tytans tour finished at Wembley Arena in October 1990. By then it was 13 solid years without a break and a lot of abuse. I had to get away or I was going to die ! What I should have done was take a 3 month holiday, instead, I retired, flew home to Newcastle and my mother took one look at me and nearly fainted. 5 months later I was married. Don’t regret the marriage, but even today I bitterly regret the career change’.
Lastly what do you think of the Motorhead track ‘We Are The Road Crew’ ?
Personally I love it… and most crews I know do too. I think however, it’s of its time, because the more I see of modern touring life and the ‘young guns’ running things, part of me doesn’t miss it. The FUN side of things seems to be a dirty word now. It always was a BUSINESS, but that’s ALL it is now’.
House light’s up there’s no encore.
Interview by Gary Alikivi 2017.