11 Items in Van Halen's Contract Rider (Including No Brown M&Ms)

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Van Halen is back! Featuring David Lee Roth and three Van Halens, the band has reunited for a North American tour, and their new record was released just three days ago. So I thought I'd take a look back at the band's infamous early-1980s tour rider*, the document that specified no brown M&Ms, among many other things.

First a historical note: the "no brown M&Ms" thing was actually a business strategy (this has been discussed on This American Life and confirmed by David Lee Roth). The complexity of the show -- with its massive lights, sound system, rigging, and dozens of crew members -- required attention to detail, or the show would be in jeopardy...and so might people's lives: the gear was sufficiently heavy that it could destroy floors that weren't strong enough, and we're talking about serious electrical requirements too. By embedding hyper-specific details in their contract, Van Halen and its tour managers created a way to spot-check the attentiveness of the venue. As someone who has worked as a front of house engineer, I can attest that many bands have riders containing specific clauses like this, and they are there for a reason: because the venue signs a contract agreeing to provide x, y, and z services. If "z" is "no brown M&Ms" but "y" is "sufficient electricity to power our lighting system," it's crucial that every spot be thoroughly examined. So, with that out of the way, let's have some fun.

1. Salt & Pepper, on Penalty of $100 Fine

Part of the "Misc." clause of the "Dinner" section reads: "Salt & Pepper (any caterer not providing adequate condiments, utensils, or ice will be subject to a $100.00 fine.)" Oddly, the rest of the dinner menu doesn't mention any condiments aside from salt and pepper, so we must assume the boys really liked to shake it up. (Later, under "Supplies," it is specified that salt and pepper must be provided "in shakers.")

2. Six (6) Gallons Chocolate Milk

Throughout the contract, meals are specified in great detail. In total, I found six gallons of chocolate milk (not including the many gallons of regular and whole milk necessary for the crew). The contract also requests fruit [sic] loops.

3. Three (3) fifths Jack Daniels Black Label bourbon, Two (2) fifths Stolichnaya vodka, One (1) pint Southern Comfort, Two (2) bottles Blue Nun white wine

"NOTE: These drinks to be served at room temperature."

4. Two (2) gallons non-carbonated, bottled spring water, One (1) bottle Rose's Lime Juice, grapefruit juice, apple juice, grape juice, Twelve (12) bottles Perrier, Eight (8) quarts Gatorade (non-carbonated, lime flavor), various soda pop

Presumably to be served as mixers. A note on the "Food Requirements (Band)" section, which mentions all of the above booze and mixers, also says: "When not specified, quantities should be sufficient for four (4) people." I refer to the previous list including five fifths of vodka and bourbon, a pint of whiskey, and two bottles of wine...sufficient for four (4) people, of course.


The idea here was to get some poor caterer to pick through the M&Ms and remove the brown ones, so the band or producer could glance at the bowl, verify no brown, and feel good -- if brown candies were present, all hell would (and did) break loose (read the Snopes article for one first-hand account of what David Lee Roth did when he spotted this problem, among others, at one venue). Note that directly beneath this requirement, in the section labeled "Munchies," are requirements for Twelve (12) Reese's peanut butter cups, and Twelve (12) assorted Dannon yogurt (on ice).

6. Ten (10) dozen doughnuts

For breakfast and lunch, the crew required a large quantity of doughnuts. I recall working a gig where doughnuts were referred to as FTUs, or Fat Transfer Units.

7. One (1) large tube KY Jelly

I can really only speculate what this was for. It certainly couldn't have been related to the requirement for "one (1) day bed" to be provided in the "Band Room." Nope, it was probably for surgical use, as Wikipedia suggests. Yeah, that's the ticket!

8. A pleasant temperature

The rider repeatedly discusses temperature, insisting that various rooms and spaces be heated or air-conditioned to "maintain a pleasant temperature." While this demand isn't outlandish at all, it's interesting that it had to be specified three times in order to stick -- I'm guessing the band encountered some venues that were of an unpleasant temperature! Oddly, the "Crew Room" was specified to be at only a "comfortable temperature."

There is also mention of a "Tuning Room" which is used to tune stringed instruments. It has a specific requirement that the room be kept at a temperature identical to that of the stage, plus or minus 5 degrees F. While this may seem persnickety to non-musicians, it's crucial to proper tuning of instruments -- a significant temperature change can cause a guitar or bass to expand or contract, going out of tune in the process.

9. Herring in sour cream

Under the otherwise unremarkable "Deli Tray" section, the band specifies this rather particular item. Herring and rock 'n roll clearly taste great together. Oh yeah, and it should be provided in quantities sufficient for four (4) people.

10. Five and one half (5 1/2) cases of Coke

The soft drinks specified in the rider are remarkable. Over the course of the day, at least 5.5 cases of Coke are required, but there are also calls for 6.5 cases of 7-Up, 1/2 case Tab diet soda, 1 case Pepsi (heresy!), 1 case Country Time lemonade, "assorted other soft drinks," and endless requirements for many gallons of orange juice. The crew dinner alone calls for 6 gallons of "various juices, including orange juice."

11. Beer!!!

The section marked "Food Requirements (Crew)" says "NOTE: No beer to be provided until dinner at 6:00 p.m." Clearly, someone had learned a lesson. In all, the rider calls for five (5) cases of beer prior to the show, three of those Budweiser and two Heineken. Additionally, the band required four (4) cases Schlitz Malt Liquor (16 ounce cans) just for themselves. (Note that the five cases of beer appear to be mostly for the massive crew; the Schlitz and booze are another matter.)

* = What's a Rider?

A rider is a portion of a contract in which the performer lays out a series of requirements (like food, stage space, electricity, etc.) necessary in order to perform. Riders are part of the contract the venue signs with the performer, and thus have some legal weight. In practice, many venues (at least the ones where I worked in the '90s) are somewhat lax on the specifics of most riders, though we did tend to read them and make an effort -- if the thing said "deli tray" we'd go buy a deli tray. You can read a bunch of riders from The Smoking Gun to get an idea of what these documents are like.

Further Reading

You can read the good parts of the rider, along with some analysis, at The Smoking Gun. It's well worth a read, as there are lots of items I left out of this list (Tupelo honey, anyone?). See also the This American Life discussion of the rider and the Snopes page about it.