I had tickets to see Radiohead at Downsview Park Saturday. I was preparing to leave when I saw the news on Twitter. The stage had collapsed, leaving a member of the crew dead, and the concert was cancelled.
That was a horrible accident, and it reminded me of Van Halen's brown M&Ms. Snopes explains it nicely.
By far the most notorious of these whimsical requests is the legend that Van Halen's standard concert contract called for them to be provided with a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but with provision that all the brown candies must be removed. The presence of even a single brown M&M in that bowl, rumor had it, was sufficient legal cause for Van Halen to peremptorily cancel a scheduled appearance without advance notice (and usually an excuse for them to go on a destructive rampage as well).
The legendary "no brown M&Ms" contract clause was indeed real, but the purported motivation for it was not. The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen's contracts not as an act of caprice, but because it served a practical purpose: to provide an easy way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read (and complied with). As Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explained in his autobiography:
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.
The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. 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, 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.
Pretty smart. And to think we all just thought Van Halen were just prima donna assholes.