All the musicians can be the stars of the show, but without the road crew, they would be lost. Road crew members have to make sure that the show goes on. These are the people who make sure that the venue is set up correctly. They get the stage ready for the show. They are the last people on stage before the band starts to play.
Intelligent musicians such as Mötorhead understood the value of a good road crew. They went so far as to write a song in tribute to these stalwarts of live music. It was titled “We Are the Road Crew”. This does mean, however, that the title of this article is slightly inaccurate, but let’s face it, the “Sung Heroes of Live Music” doesn’t have as much of a ring to it, does it?
We at Tune Hoppers completely agree with Mötorhead, which is why we’re going to talk a little bit about what roadies are, some notable roadies you should know about, and what life is like for a road crew member.
Without further ado, let’s talk about the road crew!
A road crew is essentially a group of people who tirelessly work day and night to ensure that the live performances, club shows, and concerts of your favourite bands are as spectacular as possible. If the road crew is doing their job right, absolutely nothing goes wrong, and you don’t even notice that there is a road crew. The choice of the word “unsung” in the title makes a little bit more sense now, doesn’t it?
A roadie is a vague term that can be used to describe pretty much anyone in the road crew. As long as they’ve got something to do with a band’s live performances, you can safely refer to them as a “roadie”.
However, the term “roadie” is increasingly seen to be a little dated. The people working their butts off to ensure that you have a great live show would greatly appreciate being referred to as the specific roles that they’re carrying out. Rather than simply being referred to as a “roadie” or “a road crew member”, a guitar tech would appreciate being called a guitar tech and a pyrotechnician would appreciate being called a pyrotechnician.
Now that we know what a road crew member is, we can have a look at some of the different things that roadies do.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the different roles that people in a band’s road crew take on. It’s much better to refer to people by their particular role than it is to lazily label them roadies!
Remember, these are just a few of the many different types of people working hard to deliver a stellar live experience.
Road crew members are essential to the survival of a band, whether on tour or for a standalone show. Some have gone above and beyond their day-to-day duties to ensure that a band can keep playing in spite of adverse circumstances.
You may know John Marshall as the former guitarist for thrash metal act Metal Church but did you also know that he was part of the road crew of legendary metal band Metallica? He served as the guitar tech for lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. Not only did he diligently carry out his tasks as a guitar tech, he also rose to the occasion when the band needed a replacement guitarist.
When rhythm guitarist and lead singer James Hetfield broke his wrist due to a skateboarding accident in 1986, Metallica was on tour to support Ozzy Osbourne so this was no occasion to drop out or cancel tour dates. Enter John Marshall, who saved the day by filling in on rhythm guitar duties for Hetfield while also continuing to carry out his guitar tech responsibilities.
This was not the only time that John Marhsall engaged in an act of heroism for Metallica. When the band was touring with the hard rock giants Guns N’ Roses in 1992, Hetfield sustained third-degree burns as a result of stepping into a 12-foot high torch of fire. Marshall once again filled in for James Hetfield on rhythm guitar, and the band was able to continue performing when James was once again in a position to sing.
Though Henry Smith is a strict adherent of the motto “what happens on the road, stays on the road,” he has learned more than a few things about life on the road after having worked for big-name bands like The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and Aerosmith.
Mind you, he didn’t get the title of “The Horse” for the reason that you think (get your head out of the gutter, you!). He got it because he was able to carry around two Fender bass amps as if they were practically weightless.
Smith also had the privilege to witness the writing process of the second Led Zeppelin album. In fact, lead singer Robert Plant would often ask for The Horse’s opinions on the various ideas that he would have from time to time.
The Horse remains a close friend to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to this day and still holds on to many of the band’s secrets in the spirit of friendship.
And for those of you who still couldn't get your head out of the gutter, Smith has stated in an interview with Rock Cellar Magazine that "there were times when the roadies got more action than the band." Looks like roadies back in the day didn't need to worry too much about getting sloppy seconds. Clearly, they were having a lot more fun than Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Many people will recognise Lemmy Kilmister as the charismatic frontman of rock ‘n’ roll band Mötorhead but what most rock fans don’t know is the fact that Lemmy got one of his earliest jobs in the music industry as a roadie for arguably the greatest guitarist in history: Jimi Hendrix.
Lemmy befriended bassist Noel Redding, who played with Hendrix. Redding brought Kilmister onto an eight-month tour with the guitarist. Not only did Lemmy work as a roadie for Hendrix, but he also received extremely important advice from the guitarist: quit the guitar.
Imagine being told by the world’s greatest guitarist that you were probably better off ditching the guitar?
This proved to be a crucial moment in music history, as Lemmy heeded this advice and picked up the bass, eventually going on to front Mötorhead as both singer and bassist.
While Hendrix likely was not being mean-spirited in giving his advice, it should go without saying: be nice to your roadie. They might just go on to start one of the greatest bands in rock music.
One of the most obvious things that roadies love about their jobs is the fact that they really do get to travel and see the world. Depending on the tour, some roadies might end up travelling to super-exotic locations that they would never have considered going to otherwise. As such, being on the road can be a truly life-enriching experience.
Roadies get to learn things about bands that most journalists would kill to print. It helps them to feel close to the band in a way that most people will simply never be. They might form relationships with the band members themselves, and these relationships can stand the test of time. This does, however, depend greatly on the kind of tasks that they’re doing. Odds are that you won’t be interacting with band members very much if you’re a light tech and odds are that you would prefer it that way, too.
Most people are all to used to the monotony and repetitiveness of dolling up resumes and CVs. The beauty of being a road crew member is that it’s sort of freelance and sort of continuous employment. If you’ve done your job as a member of the road crew well, you will be referred to another band when the one that you are currently working for finishes up their tour. No annoying job hunt process with CV maintenance, cover letters, and job interviews.
Another thing that makes life on the road so great is the fact that it is an excellent way to get to know people in the music industry. You might just get to meet one of the greatest musicians of your time like Lemmy did, you might find people to start your own band with, or you might find people that will one day offer you the job of your dreams.
Bon Jovi's management assistant, Melanie Kassis, attests to the fact that there are few feelings that can compare to the feeling one gets when a show goes really well. The crowd shrieks with joy and the artist delivers a stellar performance, unhindered by any technical difficulties. Knowing that you had a hand in making something like that happen, no matter how small your part was, is still an amazing feeling to have. It’s exactly what’s keeping people coming back to work like this, in spite of having to work 20-hour days.
Speaking of 20-hour days, there are some downsides to being part of a road crew.
To be a road crew member is to be on a perpetual grind. People working in a band’s road crew are known to work for up to 20 hours a day. Days and nights are spent ensuring that everything from the stage lighting to the microphones and the speakers are working perfectly. There are sound checks to be done, and lots of communication needs to be carried out to ensure that the performance every night is a perfectly co-ordinated effort that runs as smoothly as possible.
Not only are the work hours strenuously long, the quality of life is rarely something to be envied. Even when working with highly successful bands, staying at fancy hotels is more of a rare novelty than it is a day-to-day occurrence. Most nights, road crew members will have to make-do sharing a handful of rooms at mid-range hotels. Many people will have to sleep on the floor and sacrifice their privacy, spending the vast majority of their waking hours with the same people, whether they like those people or not.
Another factor to consider is the pressure associated with getting to the next destination on time. Nothing upsets fans more than a band missing a tour date. According to this interview with tour manager William Pepple, it’s not uncommon for road crew members to urinate into bottles on their tour vans in order to avoid making stops and hence cause delays in reaching the next show. Being on the road can be super tense and stressful. It can really weed out a lot of people who aren’t on it for the right reasons.
It can be worth noting that even though your next gig as a roadie doesn’t require a resume or CV, it is referral-based and as such, a few serious mistakes working for one band can greatly affect your odds of finding another job. People in the music industry know each other and word about a particular road crew member’s shortcomings can spread very quickly.
The most obvious downside to being on the road is the fact that just like the folks in the band you’re working for, you’ll be away from friends and family for weeks and weeks on end. This can make it really difficult to maintain relationships and keep in touch with the people you love. Many road crew members admit that they’re rarely ever sure that the relationships they have back at home will still be intact when they’re back. In that sense, being a road crew member can be quite emotionally straining.
As we can see, the road crew is an integral part of the live music experience. Your favourite bands simply wouldn’t be able to put on their stellar live show without a good road crew to support them, so whenever you happen to run into one of those dudes in all black trying to help set up for a show, shoot a smile their way. They’ll appreciate it. Just don’t try to make conversation with them because you and I both know how busy they are.
Do you live in Dublin? You might want to check out this list of live venues to visit in our lovely little city by clicking here. Tune Hoppers organises meet-ups at places like these, so it's good to be familiar with them for whenever this pandemic calms down.
Thinking about getting together a road crew for your own live show? This site should prove helpful!
Adi Goldstein took the photograph that is featured at the top of this article. See more of his work here.