By Phil Hood
The story of Van Halen and the brown M&Ms is the mother of all outrageous rock star demand legends. In the ‘80s the band famously had a rider in their contract that stipulated that M&Ms be available backstage but that all the brown ones must be removed. If they weren’t removed, VH reserved the right to cancel the show at the promoter’s expense.
But the egomaniacal contract requirements were mostly a ruse according to Business Insider. The rider had a purpose: It was a litmus test for promoters. In the early ‘80s the band’s show broke new ground with aerial numbers and a stage and performance setup that relied on serious voltage. The band’s management was concerned with the safety of the band and the fans, and the legal ramifications if a promoter screwed up. They felt safe in venues in Los Angeles but they weren’t as sure about local technicians in Des Moines or Billings. So they figured that if the promoter reads all the way to the brown M&Ms then he or she probably read all the other technical riders and got things right.
Fast forward a few years and the stage shows were getting louder and louder. In 1995 Alex Van Halen complained to his stage engineer Jerry Harvey about it. He could no longer hear the band onstage and was putting his hearing in jeopardy. Harvey built a simple in-ear monitor using two speakers that were originally designed for a pacemaker. He tuned one for bass, the other for treble.
Voilà. Alex loved it. He could hear and was no longer damaging his ears. The whole band soon bought in to the concept, paying Harvey to build them custom in-ears. Not long after Skid Row, the band’s opening act, followed suit, and Jerry’s company, Ultimate Ears (started with his wife Mindy) was born.
Though in-ear monitors existed before Ultimate Ears, the company kicked it up a notch and became an innovation leader. It went on to make monitors for most of rock royalty, from the Stones on down. Today Ultimate Ears Pro is a part of tech accessory firm Logitech. And it is still famed for innovation with services such as its digital ear modeling, which does away with the need for making foam impressions. Just as it was in 1995, drummers remain key customers for in-ear monitors. If they can’t hear, the whole band suffers. (Founder Jerry Harvey eventually parted ways with the company and now builds his designs at jhaudio.com.)
So there you have it. Both modern pyrotechnic stage shows and high-quality in-ear monitors owe more than a little debt to Alex Van Halen.
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Before I Go You Must Listen To
Tony Allen is the legendary drummer behind the great Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat sound of the 1970s. He is playing better today at 76 than most musicians ever will. And on September 8, 2017 he issued his second Blue Note album, The Source. Listen to “Push and Pull” off of that recording.