There are plenty of ways you could describe Van Halen at the height of their fame: exciting, excessive, inspiring, potentially alcoholic. Wild antics and debaucherous behaviour were everyday activities for David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony, and the Van Halen brothers. Whether it was performing dramatic onstage leaps or taking inhuman amounts of drugs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the legendary rockers weren’t terribly concerned with their own safety.
As it turns out, however, the band were meticulous in their requests to maximise their own longevity, both as a band and as human beings. The best example of this actually comes in the form of one of the most ridiculously prima donna rider requirements in the history of bitchy rock star rider requests: the famous “brown M&M” clause.
In case you didn’t know, at the bottom of Van Halen’s touring rider during the height of their arena rock powers in the early ’80s, the band made a seemingly ludicrous request under the ‘Munchies’ section: “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)”.
So what’s the deal? Just another bunch of self-important rock stars on a collective power trip busting the balls of venues because they can? Well, as it turns out, the band didn’t actually have a strong aversion to brown M&M’s. The band included the minute detail as a test to see whether promoters and venue workers had read the entirety of the rider, which also included incredibly heavy lighting setups that hung directly above the band while they performed.
According to Roth, who helped design the stage set up, if the band walked into their green room and saw brown M&M’s, it was cause for a complete shutdown and inspection of the venue. The band’s onstage performance might have seemed feral, but the backstage preparation requires a careful eye in order to keep everyone involved out of danger.
“Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights — huge lights — around the country,” Roth said in a 2012 interview. “At the time, it was the biggest production ever.” Breaking the contract meant having to pay the band in full without the show ever taking place, something no promoter would ever agree to.
“If I came backstage,” he continued, “Having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I saw brown M&Ms on the catering table, then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious line check”. Imagine Eddie Van Halen busting out the ferocious tapping solo of ‘Eruption’ one minute and being flattened by an 850 par light lamp the next.
Hey, speaking of ‘Eruption’, check out this incredibly 11-minute live version of ‘Eruption’ played on the original Frankstrat, complete with precariously perched lights.