You can usually judge a band by the company they keep. You want to hang out with starlets and sycophants? Congratulations…you’re Kurt Cobain and you’ll soon be dead. You want to hang out with accountants and business advisors? Congratulations…you’re Gary Barlow and you’ll soon make the front page of the Daily Mail for all the wrong reasons. You want to hang out with either god or satan? Congratulations…we’ve already forgotten you even existed. Walking the tightrope of celebrity is no mean feat and, let’s face it, everybody’s going to laugh when you screw it up.
It’s more reliable to gauge a band’s potential longevity by the strength of the supporting pyramid which keeps the thing afloat. A band, after all, is just a collection of childish egos driven by vanity, talent and self-doubt. The supporting cast of heros and villains, on the other hand, is the lifeline on which any band must rely. Since no one buys records any more then most bands have to hit the road in order to survive. You’re going to need some help. You’re going to need a stage crew that can dismantle and assemble absolutely anything at any time. In darkness. You’re going to need caterers to rustle up 40 edible meals in the middle of nowhere on a 2 hob gas oven. You’re going to need an accountant who can resist the urge to squander your assets on strippers and off-shore bungalows. You’re going to need a tour manager to get your lazy arse out of bed and onto a stage in front of people who have paid good money to see your circus. And you’re going to need some long-suffering scapegoat to handle the media. Or get you into the media. Or keep your name out of the media. Or sell their story about you to the media after you fired them because no one liked you any more.
Unsurprisingly, diva demands are seldom tolerated by the Press unless they’re funny. The Press have deadlines and editorial briefs. They don’t have the time to blow smoke up your arse for a backstage pass. The list of ridiculous celebrity demands is well-documented and legendary. From Mariah Carey’s ever-revolving litter of fluffy white kittens to Van Halen’s ban on brown M&Ms backstage, no request is too stupid or preposterous to expect with a straight face. Actually, Dave Lee Roth – canny old operator that he is – once admitted that the whole brown M&Ms thing was the band’s way of catching out sloppy promoters. If a promoter hadn’t noticed something as trivial as the M&Ms in the contract, then what else? Dave Lee Roth might have been a clown but he was no fool.
Some demands and actions, however, are quite simply incredulous. Like the petulent Hair Metal band from LA who, deliberately and inexplicably, once locked a visiting journalist and photographer in their dressing room for the entire duration of a stadium show. No explanation or apology was ever proferred. The resulting cover story published a few weeks later effectively ended the band’s career forever. Or Glenn Danzig – the pumped-up mega-midget from his own mock-gothic doomsters – who issued instructions that every photographer who had applied for a pass to his show at the London Astoria must submit their portfolio for his critical inspection. The UK music press is noted for many things, but jumping through hoops for a small American man with anger management issues is not one of them. No portfolios were ever submitted. No passes were issued. And no pictures of Danzig ever accompanied the mixed bag of reviews in the papers the following week. Nose. Face. Dumbass.
The list of restrictions isssued to live photographers by the majority of bands is now set in stone. Some of these restrictions even make sense. The No-Flash rule, for example, is quite reasonable. Let’s face it…if you’re hoping to over-power an average sized lighting rig with a hot shoe-mounted flashgun then you shouldn’t really be in the photo pit in the first place. But the 3-Song-Only rule is a pointless restriction and one that no one seems able to properly justify. It’s just one of those petty-minded missives which has been passed down over the decades and still spouted as gospel. Why? What’s the point of being allowed to only photograph a band for about 15 minutes? Believe me, if we could get the shot in 30 seconds then we’d be out of the venue and half way across the car park before you’d even drawn your first breath. Similarly, if a band is going to spend the first three songs just standing there like dicks then the photographs will reflect this. And what’s going to happen after three songs anyway? Is the band suddenly going to get any better? A magic show? A spaceship?
Despite the tall tales from the gnarly old-timers who once photographed Jefferson Airplane in a cardboard box or something, the photo pit is not a war zone. It’s certainly noisy and uncomfortable, but you are unlikely to get shot in the face or beheaded on YouTube. Some live photographers apporach the pit like a live-fire paintball exercise. They dress in full camouflage fatigues complete with head-bands and dog tags. In case they fall in combat, I guess. Speared and trampled by the bug-eyed, blood-stained zealots of Nickelback. You should avoid these guys (and they’re always guys) at any cost. You can see them buddying up with the fans in the front row. They’ve got stories. They’ve seen stuff.
“Yeah, man, I was in ‘Ham with the Cult back in ’87. Fuckin’ long night, dude. Lost a lot of good friends. Shit happened.”
“Birmingham, man. The Electric tour. Astbury ain’t never comin’ back from that one, dude.”
Other photographers simply turn up wearing earplugs with a single 24-70mm lens and an expression of quiet resignation. These are the photographers who will probably get the shot that will hang on your child’s bedroom wall until they discover alcohol and internet pornography. These are the photographers who can immortalise a band with just one particular pose or a glint in their eyes. These guys actually know what they’re doing. Stick to them like glue if you want to learn anything at all.
The list of restrictions is slowly growing longer and more mean-spirited. There are stories of photographers being banished to the sound desk. Usually the desk can be found in the middle of the arena and sometimes in another postcode altogether. Since every photographer working from the sound desk will get exactly the same shots as the next guy, this seems to be both pointless and churlish. I’ve no idea who first came up with such an oafish plan but I’m betting it had something to do with Guns N’ Roses. It might be a way to hide the fact that W. Axl Rose has ballooned into the size of a large planet, but one fat, ex-rock star’s vanity should not be a reason to introduce yet more tiresome limitations.
Since moving to Greece, I have had to learn to deal with a whole new set of restrictions. Unlike the arena circuit in northern Europe, however, these new restrictions are purely circumstantial. I have given up, for example, on the whole concept of effective stage lighting altogether. The best I can expect is four coloured spotlights hanging from the ceiling and that maybe just one will actually be pointing at someone on stage. That would be a luxury. Usually I am faced with a dark bar lit by a few candles in jam jars. I’ve had to learn how to break the No-Flash rule with off-camera Speedlights and radio triggers. It’s far from ideal but ultimately it is a compromise solution that works
So basically and in a nutshell, what we’ve learnt over the years amounts to just this:
1: Most rock stars are actually not very tall. Resist the urge to pat them on the head when they say something stupid.
2: No American band really wants to play anywhere in Europe except London.
3: All festivals are a pain in the arse.
4: Every management team in New York is in bed with the mafia.
5: You can’t bribe photographers.
6: Revolving drum kits are just stupid.
7: Don’t speak to anyone backstage. You’ll learn far more by just listening.
8: If you want accurate information about anything – ask the tour bus driver.
9: Stop banging on about Spinal Tap. It’s not that funny anymore.
10: All rock stars will die one day. Get over it.