This Is Why Van Halen Really Banned Brown M&Ms on Their Rider

(MANDATORY CREDIT Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images) Van Halen at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, Osaka, September 1979. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)
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When Van Halen insisted that brown M&Ms should be removed from their dressing rooms back in the 1980s they pushed their way to the front of the line of pop stars putting bizarre and outlandish demands on their riders. However, there was more to this request than there might have seemed. In fact, many years later, Van Halen’s frontman David Lee Roth revealed the truth about the story – and what really lay behind the seemingly inexplicable request.
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Over time, the story of Van Halen’s objection to brown M&Ms might have actually made it the most famous rider item in music history. It seemed to indicate a band that was completely out of touch with reality; for decades, the tale was brought up as a high-water mark of rock star self-indulgence.
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After all, it wasn’t just a ludicrous demand, but it actually required an individual to painstakingly sort through the candies for no apparent reason. When the truth eventually came out, though, a different picture emerged – and it’s one that might just put the story in a whole new light.
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Van Halen formed in Pasadena, California in 1972. The band are known for their anthemic, high-energy hits and their powerful live shows, as well as for legendary lead guitarist, Eddie Van Halen. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 – and Eddie was voted the number one guitarist of all time by Guitar World magazine in 2012.
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Given this, it’s hardly surprising that Van Halen ruled hard rock radio and the arena circuit back in the 1980s. The band’s iconic line-up in its foundational years, between 1974 and 1985, included Eddie Van Halen, lead singer David Lee Roth, Eddie’s brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, and Michael Anthony on bass.
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The band’s elaborate shows of the time dazzled their fans, who came in droves to see them knock out hits like “Jump,” “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “Dance the Night Away.” And the band had extensive requirements when it came to the stage construction and set-up – which was a key part of making their performances truly spectacular.
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Everything about Van Halen was huge: the sales, the drugs, the hair and the stage shows – which were perhaps the grandest of them all. And many venues simply weren’t equipped to cope with their scale. As David Lee Roth wrote in his autobiography, “Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max.”
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And at the peak of their fame, Van Halen tours lasted for months and could cover four continents. The Van Halen World Vacation Tour in 1979 had 108 shows in total across North America, Europe and Asia. The act was a finely honed machine, that required expert technical support and huge amounts of logistical planning.
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But perhaps the biggest concert of Van Halen’s career was on Heavy Metal Day at the U.S. Festival on March 29, 1983. The event was partly organized by Apple’s Steve Wozniak, who wanted to utilize and demonstrate the power of the latest technology during the event. Van Halen were paid a record-breaking $1.5 million to headline – and they stole the show. That said, the band spent a staggering $500,000 on the appearance.
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David Lee Roth would argue years later, however, that – unlike so much else – Van Halen’s notorious M&Ms clause wasn’t just an example of “simple rock star misdemeanor excess.” Instead, the stipulation had an important part in keeping everyone in their entourage safe, he said. And it was all down to the fact that the band had been one of the biggest rock acts in the world.
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Put simply, riders cover the custom extras prepared for the talent by the gig’s promoter. They’re also listed as part of the act’s contract, though, so they have to be respected. Hence, if the band doesn’t like certain candies, for whatever reason, then you’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure that they don’t come across those candies.
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Common riders include things like food and drinks. You don’t want to upset the band before the gig, after all. It can go far beyond that, though, and bands may have specific requirements for the number of dressing rooms that they get and how these rooms are furnished. Riders can also include plenty of details about sound equipment, lighting, security and ticketing.
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Back when Van Halen was touring in the 1970s and 1980s, rock stars were absolutely huge. After bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones came on the scene, live music events were getting bigger and bigger, and promoters were making more and more money from staging concerts – and the relationship between artists and promoters was changing.
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Whereas the promoter had once been responsible for handling the sound and lighting, bands would increasingly bring their own equipment. This left the promoter with the still-significant responsibility of managing the space, laying out the backstage and handling the set-up to the band’s requirements. It was important that artists felt like they could trust them on every level.
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Richard Ames, who has served as a tour manager for acts as wide-ranging as Duran Duran, The Grateful Dead and Supertramp, explained how the rider evolved while speaking with The Guardian. “In the early days, if bands weren’t careful they would be given chicken on every night of the tour,” he said. “So the first riders would just specify chicken Monday, vegetarian Tuesday, fish Wednesday and so on.” Inevitably, these demands began to become much more specific, though.
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Gregg Perloff, an executive with San Francisco-based promoter Bill Graham, recalled the rising tide of rock star extravagance. “Things didn’t happen overnight,” he told The New York Times. “First there was no food backstage. Then there was food backstage. Then bands started traveling in limousines. Then each member went in a different limousine. Another band member would say, ‘Well, I want two bottles of champagne in my limousine.’”
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Indeed, it seemed that each act was attempting to one-up their competition with their list of demands – and the more obscure the better. While Led Zeppelin had earned a reputation for trashing five-star hotels and throwing TV sets out of windows in the 1970s, Aerosmith would arrive to a Thanksgiving dinner at every concert. And it didn’t end there.
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“On one tour rider, Queen demanded a mud-wrestling ring outside the dressing-room to provide them with some after-show entertainment,” Harvey Goldsmith told the Daily Mail. Needless to say, he took care of the request. “I even sorted out the mud wrestlers,” he explained. Ron Delsener, one of the most influential promoters in the history of the music industry, even recreated a New York street scene backstage on one occasion.
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In Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, meanwhile, the band is depicted refusing to go on stage if their sandwich bread is too small or if the olives don’t have pimentos – which might actually be less ridiculous than some of the real requests of the time. And that was from a band that had their speakers dialed to go up to 11.
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This brings us back to Van Halen’s epic performances. Their touring show was one of the biggest concert productions ever staged – and that had consequences. In fact, it proved to be difficult to prepare the full stage setup, and to do so quickly, as many crews lacked the necessary experience required by Van Halen’s mammoth productions.
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“Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights – huge lights – around the country,” Roth wrote in his autobiography. “At the time, it was the biggest production ever.” And, on occasion, the venues simply weren’t ready for the band and the phenomenal technical demands of their show.
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“There were many, many technical errors,” Roth recalled in his book, “Whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.” And there was one particular incident that made the band rethink how they should approach staging.
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Indeed, David Lee Roth said that a member of Van Halen’s crew had almost been killed due to poor workmanship seen at one venue. The band had exacting standards – as Roth noted, their specifications would run from the spacing of sockets to the load-bearing weight of the stage. And if the details were ignored, things could go wrong.
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