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In Search of Van Halen's Brown M&Ms
Contract riders and the meaning of a modern pop star
Hello, Snackers. Everyone’s gotta eat, but not all of us have a contract laying out the specifics of our snacks. Pop stars, though, live a very different life.
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The history of music is full of outlandish tales with varying degrees of truth. Maybe you’ve heard this one.
Back in the ’80s, the rock band Van Halen had a long list of demands in their contract rider. Just endless picky stuff about the stage setup and the lighting and all kinds of technical details, along with various food mandates. The wildest thing, by far, was a line item that read, “a bowl of M&Ms, with all the brown ones removed.” Total rock star move, a real “We have enormous egos and don’t you forget it” situation.
You can find versions of this tale going back to May 1980, following a concert by the band at the Milwaukee Arena. “In catering to the taste of the stars,” the article in the Racine Journal Times said, “the stage manager of Landmark Productions had to pluck out all the brown ones out of six bags of the little goodies.”
More coverage of Van Halen’s M&M contract rider followed in the next few months, the item serving as a proxy for broader griping about the excesses of rock music and modern celebrities and, you know, kids these days. But autumn 1980, the M&Ms seemed to be nearly as famous as the band itself—in September, the candy came up in a Rolling Stone interview and was the subject of an entire story in the El Paso Times:
Just in case you were skimming, let me highlight the last part of that clip. According to a widespread rumor, Van Halen trashed a dining room because the caterers hadn’t removed brown M&Ms.
While there’s a lot here that’s not fully verified (more on that in a bit), that rider definitely did exist—you can see a scan of the original document right here. “No brown M&Ms” was a real thing.
In the late 1990s, though, the story shifted as additional context emerged. David Lee Roth, the band’s lead singer in those early years, published an autobiography in 1997, titled Crazy from the Heat, in which he claimed that, actually, the bowl of curated candy had an entirely functional purpose: it was a quick way to see if the venue had actually read the whole contract, line by line.
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. And there were many, many technical errors — 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.
… So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say "Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes ..." This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: "There will be no brown M&M's in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."
So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl ... well, I would line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error. They didn't read the contract. Guaranteed you'd run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.
Clever, right? No wonder the band was so pissed off when a venue failed!
After Roth’s late-’90s clarification, the M&M test took on a new resonance for those in the know: it shifted from a sign of imperiousness to one of ingenuity and clear-headedness. Over the years, in fact, it has become a favorite anecdote of self-help (and self-help-adjacent) books, cited in the likes of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, and The Winning Mindset.
Both the original and updated versions of the story are instantly intriguing, even outlandish, in their own ways, so you can see why “remove all the brown M&Ms” has become the most well-known example of things pop stars put in their riders. It’s likely, in fact, that for many casual music fans, the legend of those candies has served as their introduction to the very existence of riders. It even gets special attention on the Smoking Gun website’s repository of band contract riders riders, which is probably the largest collection of such documents.
I began this post thinking I’d do an overview of food-related concert riders, with Van Halen as an entry point. But the more I dug into the brown M&Ms story, the more questions I had about David Lee Roth’s “real” explanation for the line item.
The Curious Case of the Brown M&Ms has already been revised once in the public narrative, but it’s time for another reevaluation.
Here’s the earliest article I could find that mentioned pop stars’ contract riders:
That’s the Calgary Herald, June 22, 1974. The upshot is that bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are out-of-control jerks, as evidenced by their contract riders. “Neil Young always wants Baby Duck wine, perfectly cooled in a bucket,” the promoters grumbled to the newspaper. Young also demanded steaks and pen and paper, and the band stipulated that the four members would ride in two limousines from the airport.
Within two years, this sort of story was a small but growing trend in music journalism. The Tampa Tribune had a multipage article about it in 1975 (Heineken, Budweiser, and buffets of Chinese or Italian food for The Eagles; Budweiser, Michelob, and assorted fruit for Alice Cooper). In 1976, the Associated Press was on the case (peanut butter for Aerosmith; lime Gatorade and hot vegetarian meals for Peter Frampton), and so was the Bloomington, Illinois Pantagraph, which ran a full-page of analysis, thousands of words, on Joni Mitchell’s contract rider (two limos, two bottles of Blue Nun wine, Seven-Up, Coke, cheese and sandwiches, hot hors d'oeuvres).
It’s not hard to understand the reason for this growing attention to the nuances of these contracts during this period: pop music was blowing up, with ever-larger crowds and record sales as Baby Boomers entered adulthood, their cultural clout increasing alongside their personal budgets. Rock music’s stadium era had begun in 1965, when the Beatles played at Shea Stadium and by the late 1970s, more and more bands were touring extensively, in major venues. When more than 5,000 people attended an Aerosmith concert in Iowa in 1977, the promoter hailed it as part of a nationwide trend of big acts drawing big crowds.
Audience growth went hand-in-hand with a meteoric rise in music journalism, pop culture attention, and obsessive fandom. As writer Ellie Field noted in a recent post for National Museums Liverpool, there’s a direct line from Beatlemania to the present-day BTS Army and other massive, organized, and ever-aware groups of fans loyal to a particular artist.
Much has been written of late about the parasocial relationships people sometimes build with celebrities (in short, feeling like you genuinely know a famous person based only on the things you’ve read about them), a phenomenon that has soared during the era of social media and the endless availability of information. If you want to know the favorite foods of Harry Styles or Lizzo or members of One Republic, just ask Siri and she’ll tell you right away.
But this dynamic also existed in the world of pop music in the 1960s and ’70s. There were Beatles magazines and endless coverage of the Fab Four in every form of media. In a big profile of the band in 1964, LIFE magazine noted that, ever since its members had mentioned they like jelly babies, fans had been throwing the candies onstage during concerts. (“Have you ever tried walking on jelly babies?” Paul asked the reporter. “They’re one of the most adhesive substances known to man. Sometimes kids think I’m trying out new little dance steps when I’m really trying to get my foot up off the floor.”)
If you’re interested in the personal details of a rock star’s life, a contract rider is a gold mine. A press release or ghostwritten autobiography can feel like it’s written to present a certain image, but a contract rider feels, at first glance, more mundane and more personal, a series details not actually meant to be publicized. The feeling is: Here, in this boring legal document, is the truth.
Some bands hate it when their rider gets out. In 2015, Jack White became incensed when a University of Oklahoma student newspaper published his guacamole preferences (via The Current):
Last winter, student journalists at the University of Oklahoma couldn’t have guessed they were breaking a story that media around the world would find absolutely delicious—even though it was a story about guacamole. Specifically, the story was about the detailed (“we want it chunky”) guacamole recipe that Jack White and his crew required backstage for a February show on campus, according to the tour rider that The Oklahoma Daily published with sardonic commentary.
During the show, White commented angrily about the student paper’s decision to publish the rider, saying, “Just because you can type it on your computer doesn’t make it right.” (The contract was available to the paper under Oklahoma state law, since the university is a public entity.)
Other brands embrace the fact that riders often go public, especially in the internet era. The Foo Fighters know that their contract riders will end up on The Smoking Gun, so they have some fun with the documents, including demands that, in a tongue-in-cheek way, fit the stereotype of spoiled rock stars. Here, for example, is a part of frontman Dave Grohl’s thoughts on ice, from the band’s 2011 contract rider:
In the 1970s, though, when contract riders were first getting attention in music journalism and everyday newspapers, it seems clear that musicians weren’t actually trying to send a message to the public—the contract riders were, at that point, intended to stay private.
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Which brings us back to Van Halen.
The band formed in 1973 and released its debut album to great critical success in 1978. As David Lee Roth has noted, during this decade of music industry growth, there was often a disconnect between the technology rock bands expected and the technology venues could provide. For example, I found a story from 1977 about Boston canceling a gig at Miami-Dade Community College because the stage was a mere two-and-a-half-feet high and the electrical hookups didn’t meet the band’s needs.
It’s also clear that it wasn’t uncommon for bands to include quirky line items to double-check attention to detail. Here’s how it worked for Kansas in 1985:
But do you see what’s interesting here? Kansas didn’t actually need double-scoop tutti-frutti ice cream cones. Venues just had to mention it to the band; the expectation was that it would be noticed, not necessarily fulfilled.
In all those articles I found about contract riders in the ’70s and ’80s, it was clear that venues ask bands all the time if they can skip or adjust certain items in the contract rider. These are long documents; not everything’s going to be feasible or available in every location.
This is where some cracks start to form in David Lee Roth’s explanation for the M&M test. If removing the brown ones really was a fact-checking mechanism, surely Van Halen would have been fine with getting a bowl of uncurated candies, as long as someone asked about it. But it's clear, based on the band members’ own quotes from the 1980s, that they expected to get an actual bowl of M&Ms, sans brown ones.
Beyond that, there’s no way the M&Ms were a useful signal once they became well-known as a test. This image is from The Tennessean in August 1980, when the band was still newly famous:
Think about this: the M&M test was essentially a meme in 1980. Even people who weren’t fans of Van Halen surely knew them as The Rockers Who Don’t Like Brown M&Ms. Venues anticipated it and made light of it and gave interviews before the concerts to show off their efforts to carefully remove the candies. It was a running joke.
The problem, of course, is that if everyone knows about your top-secret line item, it’s no longer an effective way to ensure people are paying attention. If anything, the brown M&Ms probably became an easy way for a venue to show Van Halen that they’d read the contract carefully, even if they hadn’t, in a neat inversion of the “clever band tries to fool the venue” narrative that emerged with Roth’s autobiography in 1997.
Another point against Roth: as writer Chris Dale observed in a 2020 story for Metal Talk, Van Halen’s whole contract was 53 pages long and at any concert venue, there are many people doing different things, so it’s unlikely that the people working on catering were the same people working on the technical side of things or even reading the same pages of the contract. “Even at the smallest of club venues, the person making sandwiches for the band at tea time is not the in house electrician,” Dale writes. “The accuracy of backstage snacks is therefore no guarantee of safety onstage whatsoever.”
The only conclusion I can draw from this is that the M&M test is almost certainly what it seemed to be in the first place: a way for some of rock music’s biggest egos to make a statement about just how demanding and brash and obnoxious they could be. In the 1980s, there were rumors that Van Halen’s candy demands were an attempt to emulate KISS, which (supposedly!) had banned red M&Ms due to the red dye scare of 1976 (a real thing) or because Van Halen had once played an especially good gig after eating M&Ms that just happened to not include any brown ones. Those stories seem plausible, as does the possibility that the band just wanted to give the impression that they were kinda assholes—WE’RE CELEBRITIES, DO AS WE SAY.
Whatever the real origin story, when this line item became public, Van Halen clearly embraced the message it sent. Interviewers asked them about the M&Ms throughout the 1980s, and every time the answer was a smirking acknowledgment: Yeah, we ask for that, isn’t it wild?!
The M&M test fit their image as Bad Boys of Hard Rock, one they’d worked hard to build. A posed newspaper photo of the band from 1978 showed them drinking heavily and looking at a porn magazine together, as a handgun sat on the table in front of them. That vibe was essential to their brand and their ability to sell records and draw an audience. The M&Ms, and the waves of attention they got from them, were fully intentional efforts to convey a sense of outrageousness and ego, in the same way that the Foo Fighters use their rider to show that they’re loveable guys who are in on the joke.
If there’s any credit to give for innovation, it's this: Van Halen was probably the first band to understand that their contract rider could be a form of publicity, a way to show off their message and attitude in a way that felt authentic and not posed. It was indeed clever of them to insist that venues remove brown M&Ms—but not because of any concerns about safety. It was marketing, pure and simple.
UPDATE (JULY 10, 2023)
After I published this, an astute reader named Len Testa got in touch via email with some additional details that seem to confirm my theories. Len’s a big Van Halen fan whose first-ever concert was a Van Halen show in 1982.
The incident Dave describes about the stage sinking in, is likely the March 30, 1980 Van Halen concert in Pueblo, Colorado. The town newspaper, the Pueblo Chieftain, ran an article about the concert that mentioned the M&M's clause AND interviewed a stagehand who worked the show, who confirmed the damage to the floor from the weight of VH's stage setup. (He said it might have been due to insufficient floor padding provided by another company.)
Because the M&M's clause was already in the rider for that show, that show can't be the source of the clause.
And then, a follow-up that seems to end any lingering doubts:
Confirms the story of the Pueblo show damages from 1980.
Says that the brown M&M's clause is part of Van Halen's "sense of humor", and notably doesn't link it to that damage from the Pueblo show that they just talked about.
Also says the M&M's clause was Dave's idea.
The relevant section is only a minute or so and starts around the 4:20 mark.