POP / Flex and drugs and rock'n'roll: They don't sing, they don't dance, so what do they have to do to become the Roadie of the Year? Not a lot, as Mark Jolly discovered

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I organise rotten events that lose money,' says Alan Wise, just before Britain's first Roadie of the Year competition begins. 'My forte is crap ideas.'

The competition - part of Manchester's 'In the City' music convention - is his latest brainchild, conceived with the help of James Young as a way of paying homage to the unsung heroes of rock'n'roll: the rude mechanicals whose thankless task includes the rigging of PAs and the lugging of heavy equipment.

Some roadies - Rod Stewart, Sid Vicious and the Oasis singer Liam Gallagher among them - have moved to front of stage. But most are ordinary blokes (only two women entered the competition, and one of them was really a sound engineer) who spend endless hours setting up concerts and taking them down again.

'It's not really a proper job, although they think it is,' said Wise, the Mancunian manager of performance poet John Cooper Clark and the late Nico, who sang with the Velvet Underground. 'Roadies work much harder than most. They get no sleep, they work long hours, they're very poorly paid, but they love it.'

Roadies live hard, too. According to legend (which is where you must file most anecdotes about roadies), they, and not their employers, are responsible for most of the hotel-wrecking chapters of the sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock 'n' roll story. As Wise puts it, 'They're the people you don't really want to meet when you go backstage.'

On Monday, the contestants were doing their best to live up to their reputation. The other female contestant, who roadies for New Order, left 10 minutes before the start of the show because she was 'pissed off with the whole thing'. Three of the remaining nine participants, including a former roadie for Led Zeppelin, had already pulled out because they were too drunk to compete. (Some said they should have won on those grounds alone.)

The whole thing was beginning to look like a bad joke. Not that roadie culture is without its comic potential: all those grown men loping around in Grateful Dead T-shirts; the deafening screech of feedback; those hard-drinking, hell-raising heavies, their Wranglers fighting a losing battle to conceal some rear cleavage; the mike-testing mantra of the soundcheck, which requires a great deal of shouting for 'more reverb on 10' or simply, 'two-two'.

It was time to get the show on the road. After a lot of confusion and wandering about, the six remaining roadies were at last assembled before a distinguished panel - Peter Grant (the legendary Led Zeppelin manager), the Radio 1 DJ Gary Davies, and the girlfriend of ex-Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson - in the Alexandra Suite of the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel. These 'top roadies' were to be challenged on their cerebral as well as their physical prowess. 'Roadies, by nature, are shy, retiring creatures,' explains Wise. 'If you put them in the limelight they'll act unpredictably. I think we're going to see their sensitive side. They're really more interested in Proust and Heidegger.'

The compere told us to expect fun, frivolity and improvisation. But for nearly 90 minutes we sat and watched contestants perform such mind-numbing activities as replacing a guitar's G-string, and moving an amp stack from one side of the stage to the other, to the soundtrack of Motorhead's 'Ace of Spades'.

When asked to recount his most bizarre professional experience - a test of his conversational charm - Ian White from Leeds responded with a five-second silence. Perhaps suspecting that he was doing himself no favours in the cerebral prowess category, he attempted to make up for lost marks by juggling three cans of beer. Things were not looking good for Ian. He dropped one of the cans, and it exploded all over me. Nigel Banks, who had worked with Nirvana, proved only slightly more congenial. He was asked how he found Kurt Cobain. 'Alive,' Banks said.

'Flat Nose' John Truman was a little more forthcoming about his profession. Flat used to be a boxer and has been on the road for 18 years. He started off, he said, as a dogsbody roadie (surely a tautology) for three pints a night. Now he can earn up to pounds 3,000 in two days, as he did last summer at a gospel show in Sheffield. 'It was the neatest thing I've ever done, daft as that sounds.'

You name it, Flat's done it. 'You may get up at two in the afternoon and do a local band or you might go on a tour, drive a great big truck 200 miles, set up a monitor mix and do 20 hours a day and it kills you.' He once fell off a flight of ladders because he forgot to tell someone to hold them.

The high point of the evening was supposed to be the roadie chat-up line, as delivered to Sarah Parish, aka Vera, the girl in the Boddington's commercials. She must have upset her agent. First up was Flat Nose John. 'You'll have to excuse my laryngitis,' spluttered Flat, before mumbling something rude in Parish's ear and kissing her on the cheek.

It was Dougie Marnoch who eventually established himself as the roadie's roadie. Last year he got married on his one day off and spent his honeymoon touring with Jethro Tull. Forty-five years old, Dougie was introduced as the oldest man in the business. He was also the coolest; he came on stage and directed an assistant to carry the amp instead of him, and suggested getting a new guitar instead of re-stringing the thing. He politely accepted the prize of a two-foot torch 'with the contempt it was given', before making a plea to change next year's event into a managers' competition.

Peter Grant, who has seen it all in a career that has seen him manage Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis as well as Led Zep, looked on with the eyes of a man who didn't want to see any more.

(Photograph omitted)