Episode 4. Roadies
'How did you get into all this then?’
I think everyone in the music business has been asked that question at least once or, like me, at least a dozen times. I really don’t have an answer other than I just fell into it. I can pinpoint the start date and that was April 8th 1979. Motorhead were playing in my hometown and as usual, an unknown support band is due to kick off the show at 7:30pm and again as usual, me and my friends have only a casual interest in them: we are there to see the heaviest, loudest and fastest band in the world play. That all changed about forty minutes later after a storming set by Girlschool.
(click images to expand)
Marconi Radar. I left school in 1978 and worked here Monday to Friday for three years as a Radar apprentice. The weekends were for Girlschool gigs.
Up until that point, I hadn’t ventured out of my hometown very often to see shows but these girls were something I wanted to see again and again and fortunately for me, they were on the long, hard slog up towards the top of the Rock ‘n’ Roll ladder, playing little venues as often as they could which gave me the excuse to spread my wings a bit and jump on a train or hitch-hike to different cities every week. Along the way, I met others of a similar ilk and a small group of us became the Barmy Girlschool Army (The BGA, more on them in a future column), living for the weekends, the next gig, the next adventure. We all had regular jobs, good jobs – I was an apprentice Radar Technician - but I started to take an interest in the P.A. system Girlschool carried around with them and would often ask their roadies Tim and Pete what all the bits did and how it was put together. If I was early to a gig, I’d help out unloading and setting up until other members of the BGA arrived and as the band got bigger and more equipment was needed, I made myself useful until one day one of the crew told me that if I ever needed a job, he’d recommend me to the P.A. company. I didn’t need any other prompting. I quit my job, packed my bags and headed to London.
One of the many Girlschool gigs I helped Tim and Pete with the P.A. Note the ticket price.
The job of a roadie has changed with the times. Back then in 1981, it was not a job for the mild, meek or weak. It was hard physical work, long hours, sleepless nights, irregular meals, long drives and no shower for three days but we were very happy doing what we did and the camaraderie was second-to-none. At the end of a tour, I always felt a bit of sadness at having come so far with a crew and a band, hauling the equipment from venue to venue, fixing problems along the way and working as a team to put on a show so that the band’s fans may enjoy a couple of hours of their favourite music. For all tours, there were new roadies who have been taken on to replace others that have moved onto other bands and retained roadies who only work for the one band. For the retained ones, it was easy to go back with a band and crew that they all know while for the newer ones, much like any new job, it takes a while to fit it and feel like part of the team. Come the end of the tour however, the road crew are as tight a unit as you can possibly have, unloading and loading trucks with army efficiency at the same time creating a family atmosphere of support and friendship. I cannot emphasize enough how close a road crew is to themselves and the band they work for but just to say that if you happen to pick a fight with one roadie, you had better have an awful lot of friends standing behind you!
There are some quite legendary roadies and road crews that go way back into rock history. Probably the first real ones were Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall for the Beatles but it wasn’t until P.A.s, lights and amplifiers started to become bigger that roadies were needed full-time. This was around the late 1960’s and it is fair to say that most roadies of that time were not technically minded – they were just very good at lifting heavy things. As rock music progressed and became more flamboyant, roadies took on more specialized jobs of tuning and changing guitars, using effects to replicate the sound of an album rather than just mix instruments and creating atmospheres with lighting to enhance the songs that were being played. As bands became more theatrical, roadies were needed elsewhere during performances. Johnnie Allan was Phil Collins’ drum roadie on the Lamb Lies Down On Broadway tour and was also the prop master for all Peter Gabriel’s costume changes ensuring that the production ran as smoothly as the band played. Carl Palmer had two roadies on the massive USA 1974 tour; one to take care of his drums and the other to ensure that he constantly had dry towels and water at hand to refresh himself during those marathon performances. Keith Emerson’s roadie on that tour was a man by the name of Baz Ward and he was also in charge of looking after Keith’s dressing room which was a portacabin trucked from show to show decorated inside as an exact replica of Keith’s lounge in his house in England.
Eventually though, roadies needed to become more familiar with the advances in instrumentation, lighting and P.A.s and the old style ‘I can lift that’ roadie became the ‘Technician’. No longer was it good enough to be able to put a guitar on a stand and plug it in, the roadie needed to be able to re-string it, straighten the neck, fix the electronics, operate effects pedals and repair amplifiers should they breakdown mid-set and hence the Guitar Technician - Guitar Tech - was born along with the Keyboard Tech, Bass Tech, Drum Tech, Lighting Designer and Sound Engineer. Technicians were suddenly very intelligent, stayed healthy, slept whenever they could rather than drank and read operating manuals in their bunk on tour buses instead of pornographic magazines. Today the Tech is as far removed from a roadie as an ipad is from a pocket calculator. It is now considered a very respectable job and pays top dollar for people who really know their stuff. They are very serious workers who are 100% dedicated to putting on a perfect show for thousands of fans in hundreds of cities around the world every year; it’s a very different job. I happened to start at the end of the roadie era and the beginning of the technician era and it was a great time to be on the road.
My first road crew laminated pass.
My first gig as a professional roadie was enormous. A festival named the Heavy Metal Holocuast was due to take place on August 1st 1981 at Port Vale Football Club in England and I was to be
part of the P.A. crew supplied by a company called Audiolease. The company always supplied Motorhead’s P.A.s and had the reputation of being loud so we assembled the largest and loudest sound system ever in rock music which, for a while, put us in the Guinness Book of World Records. The stage took almost three weeks to build as it had to be constructed across the corner of the terraces of Port Vale Football ground and bad weather hampered the construction. Towards the end, we were doing eighteen and twenty hour days just to make sure we were on time for the show but it was worth it to witness Ozzy and Lemmy having a chat backstage and a superb set by Blizzard of Oz and Motorhead respectively. As I was officially the 22nd member of the P.A. crew (a normal P.A crew at a theatre will probably have 3 or 4 members so you can imagine how big this P.A. was), my job was to sweep the stage with a large broom between bands as my senior roadies changed the microphones and monitor settings for the next act. It wasn’t a very glamorous start to my career but from that day on, there was only one job I ever wanted to do.
I started work full-time at Audiolease the following week and I am forever in debt to the classic Motorhead crew of that era who took the time on their days off to teach me how to build a P.A. to suit a tour and also maintain and service it. In return, they grinned as I was volunteered to paint the P.A.s before they went out to the first gig. That’s the way it was back then; you started on the bottom rung of the ladder and proved your worth and if you did that, you would get a helping hand to the next rung. My time at Audiolease was short though and I only stayed there a few months before I met Rock Goddess and became one of those retained roadies which I didn’t so much as consider a step up as a different avenue to go down. Those early days have led me to have a career in music, in various guises, for over forty years and I have to say, it’s not all been good but it’s been an adventure.
Rock Goddess on stage at Reading Festival 1982. Look hard and you’ll see me on the right next to the guitar stacks.
So that’s how I got into it. Now, does anybody know how I can get out?