"The reverberation of the hall became the dominant signal as the PA system died..."
June 08, 2012, by Mick Whelan
Touring around Britain and Europe during the early 1970s was quite a challenge; most bands carried their own public address (PA) system and used it for every gig, as “house PA systems” simply didn’t exist.
Local work crews didn’t exist either so this meant that you and your fellow roadie carried the rig in and out of the venue one piece at a time; the wheel hadn’t been exported to the UK at this time, or they cost too much, and the upside was that you were incredibly fit and agile.
The most popular PA equipment used for touring was made by Watkins Electric Music (WEM) and was used by all the major players, from Pink Floyd to Gary Glitter. As shocking as it sounds today, most national touring acts carried PA systems that were only around 1 kW and used a 5-channel mixer, also some bands were known to carry two of these mixers for a whopping 10-channel mix.(!)
The usual circuit in the UK involved clubs, pubs, town halls and universities. The UK has many venues, but they are typically quite small—even the very famous Hammersmith Odeon only has a sitting capacity of around 3,700—and so it can get depressing doing these labor intensive, up the stairs, down the stairs, challenging load-ins for small (but keen) audiences.
About six months after I gave up my budding telecommunications career to join the crew of an up-and-coming band, we got word that we would be on the bill of a 24-hour non-stop rock n’ roll festival at a 10,000-12,000 seat indoor arena in Essen, Germany.
Manfred Mann & Uriah Heep crew, Central Park July 1974. (click to enlarge)
In those days I couldn’t imagine a facility being that big for an indoor concert. Forget about advance production; it simply didn’t happen. Somehow we’d get it sorted on the day.
On the other hand, one of the easier aspects of touring at that time was that there was no portable lighting to get in the way of things, which was just as well because none of the facilities carried the power required for any additional loads. It was challenging enough trying to plug in 10 amplifiers plus the hack line.
The other thing that hadn’t been invented was monitor systems: no monitors, no monitor engineer, no feedback, no grief (I still have the utmost respect for you Davy). Some facilities had rudimentary lighting supported with follow spots.
There were some exceptions to this rule, one of them being a group named Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, a 14-person collective of poets, singers, musicians, dancers, sound and lighting technicians. As I left my dependable telecommunications position behind me, one of the members from another local band from Coventry, Asgaard, said to me, “If ever you are on the same bill as Principal Edwards be sure to give my best regards to the lighting designer.”
Sure enough, Principal Edwards was scheduled on the bill for Essen.
Left to right, Mick Whelan, Mick Tucker (Sweet-drummer), Terry Price (Taseo), Hong Kong 1973. (click to enlarge)
How do you do the sound for 12,000 when you are only carrying enough for 3,000? You cooperate, that’s how.
A quick study of the schedule showed that I knew a few of the sound guys from bands playing both before and a little after my band’s slot.
As each of us used WEM systems, linking up was simple. It was common practice on a regular three-act show for each band to use a different system: all three rigs would be set up in position, and as each band finished, their PA was torn down and moved off stage.
In combining our three WEM systems, we would have enough PA for the gig and be able to rent the system to any band that needed it.
One of the headliners was Atomic Rooster, with Carl Palmer on drums.
As this was one of my favorite bands, I decided to watch them from the FOH position instead of the side of the stage.
About one minute into the band’s set, the reverberation of the hall became the dominant signal as the PA system died.
The soundman jumped up and started checking connections real quick. The audience was getting very impatient, and an uneasy air filled the room (I’d never seen a riot at this stage of my career).
As this was my first overseas gig, I was very nervous about assisting the troubleshooting team; after all, I’d only been in the business for 10 minutes.
The crowd was now getting ugly and the system was the same make as mine so I offered my services. “Go ahead,” said the engineer. Thirty seconds later the rig fired up, the crowd settled down and I saw one of the best bands of the ‘70s play a great set: back to the dressing room to celebrate.
One of the great things about Germany is that great beer is in abundance; it was also free to the crew. Unfortunately food was not free, and if I remember correctly, unavailable. Free beer and no food is not a good combination for a 24-hour festival.
Back in the dressing room, shared between my band and others from the same agency, enterprising musical discussions were taking place. The door opened and a slender male walked into the room.
“Hey,” I said. “Who are you? Are you with Principal Edwards?”
“Yes,” the visitor replied, and then he left, only to return a minute later with two cases. I asked him if he was the lighting guy for Principal Edwards, which he affirmed. I asked a series of technical queries but received no response.
“Can you tune a guitar?” he finally asked, handing me a Stratocaster.
“Of course,” I responded, when in fact I could not. So I held the guitar, strummed the strings, listened to the notes and pronounced, “this one’s good.”
While I was doing this, he was putting on a black silk shirt with a laced-up neck. I noticed the room had gone quiet—too quiet when a dozen musicians are present. He handed me a second guitar, and I repeated the effort—strum, listen, and pronounce it in tune.
He pushed open the door, held it with his foot, picked up both guitars, and left.
The bass player from my band, Pete Becket (more recently with Player) asked, “Mick, do you know who that was?”
“Well, it wasn’t the flippin’ lighting guy from Principal Edwards,” I responded.
Ritchie Blackmore, circa 1977. (click to enlarge)
“Mick,” he replied, “That was Ritchie Blackmore.”
In the span of two milliseconds I went from feeling as good as you can possibly feel (like when you’re mixing a top talent, they do something outstanding, and chills go down your spine) to as bad as you can possibly feel (like leaving the channel muted after a clothing change). I had messed with the headline act, and in Europe, at that time, no one was bigger than Deep Purple.
Ritchie Blackmore, Ritchie Blackmore—how could I have taunted one of the guitar gods and not known it? This wasn’t fair; there should be a warning label about the dangers of being burned.
But before I actually crashed at the absolute bottom of my world, the door opened slightly, and a black-silk covered arm snaked through the opening, extending an open hand of friendship.
We shook hands and he said something like “Hey, nobody’s given me that much grief in years, thanks.”
I exhaled, breathed a huge sigh of relief, and went out front to watch the show. And yes, they were incredible.
Mick Whelan has designed and commissioned touring and installed sound systems for more than 30 years. His credits include Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, the Beach Boys, Carole King, and many others.