From smelly dressing rooms at London pub gigs to traveling as a guest on the biggest global tours in history, I enjoyed a few decades of what the laminate passes liked to call “Access All Areas”.
This was written for Q magazine, March 1988.
I’M WITH THE BAND
The lights are bright and there are muffled sounds of merriment. Large, hairy creatures are carrying amplifiers. People in satin jackets are quaffing free drinks. There are men in suits with metal briefcases and girls with very long legs. And Bowie’s in there, apparently. And George Michael and someone who used to be in The Belle Stars. Quick, the door’s open – and Paul Du Noyer has one of those cards that says Access All Areas…
In a sense it’s like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. On this side is Reality, the world as we know it. Whereas on that side, through a small, obscure opening… there lies an enchanted land. Outside of time, in another dimension.
On that side is a country with its own traditions, customs and history; with its own hierarchies and intrigues, special pleasures and mysterious terrors. There you will find gardens of delight, and dungeons that have never known daylight. Kingly courts, there are, with courtiers and courtesans, loyal lieutenants and knavish ne’er-do-wells, hireling armies, and powerful wizards whose gifts can only be guessed at. There are serfs who toil, and parasites who do not; there are beggars at the gates, and strangers with elixirs for purchase. There is bustle and there is leisure, preening pomp and humiliating self-abasement.
All human life is there, and other kinds as well.
Step, if you will, through the rear of the Wardrobe. Let us enter that place that travellers have come to call… Backstage.
In another sense, it’s not like that at all – at least, not often, and probably rather less than it used to be. In practice, backstages vary greatly. At the bottom level, the most rudimentary pub gig, “backstage” can mean a cubicle in the customers’ lavatory. Things improve as we move up the scale, for sure, but outright opulence is never on the agenda. Even the largest venues, though more spacious, are rarely what you’d call comfortably appointed. They’re just easier to get lost in.
The inner sanctum of a full-scale backstage area is the band’s dressing room. In a small club, the dressing room may be all there is: characteristically it is a concrete box, a functional bunker, windowless and lit by a bare bulb. The charmless abattoir ambience of the décor is only relieved by graffiti’d memos from the musicians who have passed that way. Rootless, itinerant souls, they communicate with their fellows by scrawling on walls: they “woz ’ere”, this hall has a crap sound, their keyboard player has large genitals, and so forth.
During the day of a show, bands are not much in evidence backstage. Until the sound check, in late afternoon or early evening, the building is home to a different breed of men. They are the road crew, who have transported the equipment from the previous gig, and must now install it all – lights, amplification, instruments – in readiness for their employers’ arrival.
We all have an image of “roadies”: coarse-looking ruffians in T-shirts they haven’t taken off since Edward Heath was prime minister; preposterous numbers of keys, attached to their belts, that drag down the waistbands of their jeans to reveal a furry paunch in front, and something even less appetising behind.
But that’s just the roadies who are vain enough to take a pride in their appearance.
Never among Nature’s dandies, one cannot imagine what roadies must have looked like before the hippy style was invented. Even punk groups always had hippy roadies. Only in recent years have short-haired road-persons emerged, and they are still in the minority. (There have never been, and never will be, New Romantic roadies.) This new wave is not much different from its predecessors, but they tend to have stranger names – terse appellations like Spod, or Nug, or Glomp, that their overseers find convenient when shouting abuse at them.
By day, as the road crew is “setting up”, the empty auditoriums will echo to their ribald banter (“Nah, ’e’s not queer – but ’is husband is! Haw haw haw!”). The chief roadie, or road manager, will organise his charges with benevolent authority. He may wear a T-shirt that says something like “I Foresee No Problems”, or “Before You Ask, It’s Not My Fucking Job”, to signify his high office.
Backstage is the roadies’ domain. They dislike outsiders on the premises as much as they dislike halls with stairs. Wherever you choose to stand, you will be “in the way”. Truculent troglodytes, wheeling vast black boxes of indeterminate purpose, only the roadies seem to know their way around the labyrinthine passages, often underground, that are a feature of major venues.
After a show they’re even gruffer, more grimly busy. The crowds go home, the stars unwind, the liggers come out to lig, but the road crew has to start dismantling apparatus, packing gear, winding cables, loading vans and, possibly, begin the long drive to the next town.
If they’re staying in a hotel (and it will often be in cheaper lodgings than the band’s, who will in any case travel separately) the roadies relax in the bar. Their talk of “knobbing” can prove monotonous, but they’re otherwise good company. They work for everyone from Saxon to The Style Council, and their stories would make fine material for anyone who stayed sober enough to remember them. Like certain champion darts players, roadies have special dietary requirements – namely beer, in reservoir-filling amounts. It’s a demanding routine, and they stick to it with immense discipline.
Backstage areas, however seedy or boring, have a mystique for most of us. If you don’t work there, admission is a privilege. The more important the event, the more prestige the would-be entrant believes there is to be had. If you are among those chosen beforehand, you will probably have a Backstage Pass – usually a stick-on affair that bears the tour title or artist’s logo, the date, and sometimes your name. It may be colour-coded, to signify your status or the expiry period. More permanent members of the entourage will have a laminated clip-on pass, possibly with their pictures on it, valid for all the shows.
Passes will often carry the line “Access All Areas” but they usually fail to live up to that promise. There are sometimes several grades of pass, entitling you to entry into designated areas. In the absence of a pass, or a recognised companion to usher you through, your immediate problem is getting past security.
Either employed by the venue, or hired by the promoter, security staff must distinguish between genuine cases (close relatives, celebrity visitors) and brazen freeloaders. Their qualifications for the job, it’s fair to say, are sometimes physical more than intellectual.
Thus, you are confronted by somebody large, who wears his nose at a jaunty angle. He may have two ears, maybe less. With pitiless, unseeing eyes he will survey the scrum of pleading, wheedling supplicants and bullshit artists. For these glamour-besotted wretches (and the occasional person with a bona fide reason to get in), standing at the stage door can be a masochistic exercise in ritual degradation.
Assume, however, you are in. Stumbling through a poorly-lit maze of corridors, stairwells and tunnels, you have quickly understood that backstage is nobody’s idea of Shangri-la. The only sensible course of action, now, is to find the refreshments. Arrangements vary. There may be a separate hospitality room, wherein you will be furnished with vol-au-vents and an aggressively fresh white wine. With luck, there will be a TV screen to relay the show out front, which means you can enjoy the whole performance without ever lifting your nose from the trough.
If the tour has its own catering team, which is becoming more common nowadays, there might be a makeshift canteen, serving full meals.
Failing these, there is no alternative but to go to the dressing room. The band will have had a “rider” section added to their contract, specifying the food and drink they want supplied by the promoter. Depending on their status, their contract rider might range from cans of lager and cheese sandwiches to gourmet feasts resembling Harrods’ Food Hall. (Whatever the cost it will always, ultimately, come out of the group’s earnings.)
Contract riders can cause difficulties. “Artists are picky,” says one tour manager. “Some British acts get very upset in America when they can’t get PG Tips.” Tears For Fears are most particular about having “real” (ie French) champagne. The Thompson Twins are religiously vegetarian. Duran Duran had to have Smarties, even if it meant flying the said confectionary from across the Atlantic. Blue Oyster Cult were apt to require a large bottle of every spirit known to man; much would be left untouched at the end of the night, becoming the subject of fierce altercations between the crew (who considered the band’s leftovers as theirs by divine right) and the promoter, who couldn’t see why he shouldn’t hang on to the stuff for another show.
Pink Floyd, on their current tour, insist upon a fridge’s worth of ice cream. Another popular request, today, is “non-fizzy” mineral water. “It’s quite important,” reasons former Whitesnake bass-player Neil Murray. “The other kind makes you burp on stage.”
The important point to grasp is that, so far as you’re concerned, it’s all free. This fact is not lost upon many backstage visitors, sometimes to the visible distress of the artists.
If you’ve arrived before the show (and preferably long after the sound check, which is tedious to a quite stultifying degree), you’ll often find the food, at least, is relatively untouched. Most musicians seem more concerned, before they go on stage, with visiting the toilet than with eating. (Cans of lager, though, are apt to sprout from every other hand, like a natural appendage.) The road crew is elsewhere, making last minute preparations, and the sound engineer is settling in at the mixing desk. The band now crowd around the mirror, teasing their hair into elegant disarray. They may leave for the stage on time, or they may not.
One is tempted to imagine a gig where the band starts promptly, on the dot, but where the entire audience turns up 25 minutes late.
Audiences are commonly known in backstage argot as “punters” – or even, as a derivation of that word, as “Billy Bunters”. In some quarters they’re also called “treble absorbers”, on account of the acoustical difference between an empty hall and one full of bodies.
After the show when the band come off stage (following their third or fourth “entirely spontaneous” encore), backstage protocol dictates that you let them have the dressing room to themselves for a while. You comply happily, if only because they’ll likely be sweaty to a really disagreeable extent. More importantly, they’ll be using this time to carry out a post-mortem on the gig.
Essentially, such post-mortems involve a lot of moaning – about “the mix”, and “the monitors”, about who couldn’t hear himself properly, who fouled up his solo, whose idiot of an assistant didn’t tune the guitar properly. It’s a good place to be out of.
Eventually you are re-admitted, but the discussions might go on. Or worse, there might be no discussion: just a room full of people and the loudest silence you ever heard. Normally, though, your opinion will be sought. Compliments are safest, and sincerity doesn’t seem to be compulsory. But avoid conversation with anyone carrying screwdrivers and gaffer tape, or else flounder helplessly in talk of mid-range speakers, compressors, noise gates and crossover boxes. It’s just not worth it.
Now is the hour of the Ligger. The tiny room is filling with humanity. The manager has disappeared somewhere with the promoter, to do furtive things with fat wads of banknotes, but the drummer is slumped in a corner, wearing a glazed expression that says, Who are all these people and why are they drinking my beer? “Bands as a rule like to have the dressing room to themselves,” says an ex-tour manager. “I used to feel it was the main part of my whole job just to keep people out. But you never can, not completely.”
Who do we see? Journalists and photographers, possibly. People from the record company. PR types, maybe an official biographer. Well-wishers and hangers-on, and friends of well-wishers and hangers-on. And people that nobody knows at all. The most prized sort of visitor is the celebrity who has “dropped by” to say hello, to meet and greet.
You will not always come across the support band. They may have gone home, sulking about not being given time for a decent sound check. Often, the headline band has no idea who the support act is. Where they tour together, in one party, relations may be sour, especially between the respective roadies.
At a home town show, you may get old mates, even forgotten school friends, renewing acquaintances, paying respects. Or else – potentially awkward, this one – members of the band’s family. Here you are, a rock’n’roll renegade, a wild-livin’ outlaw-man, or a challengingly radical “art terrorist” dressed in black with a neo-constructivist haircut. And here are your Auntie Doreen and Uncle Donald, along with that loathsome little cousin who last saw you at a Christmas party in 1976 in your final pair of hip-huggin’ velvet flares (and says so, very loudly).
More typical of life on the road, though, is the absence of loved ones. For some bands, this means misery; for others, it’s an opportunity. One sometimes hears the ghastliest debauchery excused with a line like “Ah, it’s sweet, really – he only does it cos he’s missing his wife and kiddies.”
At an outdoor festival, backstage is commonly a stockade containing various tents, cabins and caravans. There will invariably be lots of mud; you witness the pop glitterati in its glad-rags, picking their paths most gingerly, for all the world like 18th century aristocrats negotiating the filth of a London street.
That apart, it’s just conceivable there will be some actual fans backstage. The more cult-ish bands can find their most devoted followers will make pilgrimages across the country. (Stiff Little Fingers, for example, used to stipulate in their contracts that fans should always be given access after a show.) A few fans do it so often they become an accepted part of the entourage, fully-accredited “backstage people”.
Then there are the autograph hunters, the Instamatic snappers (“cos no-one’ll believe I really spoke to you!”) and those earnest seekers after wisdom (“What did you really mean in that line on the second album?”). Depending upon the star’s man-of-the-people quotient, he’ll either deal with these quite patiently, or discreetly ask security to get those creeps the hell out of here. The Billy Bunter’s lot is not a happy one.
But will there be – you enquire, cautiously – any evidence of sex, or of drugs? Well, drugs have traditionally been one means of backstage access. After the excitement of a show, performers are sometimes in the mood for some recreational shopping, and certain kinds of merchant may be welcomed. And, given away for free, drugs can be a way of ingratiating yourself into a backstage elite. But there is perhaps less of this than formerly.
Groupies, too, are more of a 1970s phenomenon. True, their roots stretch back to antiquity, and even in these AIDS-conscious days they are by no means extinct – your average winsome bimbette appears to experience less difficulty getting backstage than other categories of ligger. Also, some promoters believe it courteous and stylish to arrive with a pouting coterie of call-girls. But many is the rock musician who’ll confess, morosely, that they get far more male fans backstage than female. The Beastie Boys are just one of several modern bands who’ve taken to requesting condoms in their contract riders. “But mostly,” says one insider, “it’s just wishful thinking.”
You’ll hear old lags recall, with feeling, the golden years of Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin tours, when every appetite was indulged, excess was applauded, self-annihilation was admired, and whatever was going around, there was plenty left over for everyone. One looks to the stadium acts of today – Dire Straits, U2, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel – and senses that a newer mood of seriousness and sobriety stalks the world of rock’n’roll.
“It used to be a good crack,” remembers one tour manager, “but bands today don’t seem to be in the vibe they used to be. They take things more seriously. Everything’s changed, and that’s partly because there’s so much more money involved now. When money comes through the door, fun goes out the window.”
The reality is prosaic.
At major shows, especially, the stakes are just too high to fool about. Today’s backstage is a place of work, organised with industrial efficiency. Energies are conserved for the activity that brings in the money. Smoothness of running is everything.
Such partying as there is will generally happen off the premises, whether at the hotel or an après-gig nightclub. Backstage itself, all is the hum of disciplined operatives – from university-trained lighting specialists, to macrobiotic vegetarian chefs – going diligently about their tasks. You are more likely to meet an accountant than a groupie. You are more likely to find top acts in tracksuits, limbering up, than in toilets, shooting up.
Turn up brandishing a bottle of Chablis, an “amazing chick” or three in tow, announcing yourself as ready for “a bit of a loon”, and you will not be welcomed.
It will be only too clear, in this relentlessly professional environment, that you are not a modern Backstage Person. You are an anachronism. There’s probably a clause about you in the tour’s insurance contract. Already, three well-built fellows in matching satin bomber jackets are grouping around you, quietly. Why, they appear to have taken hold of you. By the ankles.
From Billy Bunter-dom you came, and there you shall return.
All in all, you might surmise, there is more fun to be had in the back of your wardrobe.