Musicians aside, the tour manager is arguably the most important cog in the machine of a rock band on the road, whether he’s ironing the lead singer’s trousers or trying to make sure he doesn’t fall off the stack of speakers he’s climbed on to.
The unflappable Dennis Sheehan worked with two of the biggest groups of all time: Led Zeppelin, between 1975 and 1979 (“As we approached the end game, his charm and humour were a beacon in the meltdown,” as that band’s frontman, Robert Plant, put it); and U2, from 1982 to last week’s run of five concerts at The Forum in Los Angeles, the second of which Bono dedicated to his memory after his death from a heart attack at the Sunset Marquis hotel the previous night.
“U2 is a kind of family, U2 is a brotherhood,” said Bono in tribute to Sheehan. “Although there are a lot of sisters in it now that I think about it. The extended family are everything to us. We look after each other. Last night, we lost a member of our family. He wasn’t just a legend in the music business, he was a legend in our band. He is irreplaceable.”
Born in Wolverhampton in 1946, he was the son of Irish immigrants who returned to Dungarvan until the mid-1950s before moving back to the UK. In his teens, he took up the guitar and played in cover bands. However, in the mid-1960s he made the switch to tour-managing, first with Them, the Belfast band fronted by Van Morrison, and then with the popular soul group Jimmy James and the Vagabonds.
“It was very basic. You did sound and you got people from A to B,” he recalled of his apprenticeship. “There isn’t an easy way in. You have to be prepared to do the work. It could take you five years, it could take you 20 years. It is a learning curve. As technology changes, you have to change as well.”
Indeed, the primitive staging prevalent in the early 1970s nearly did for Sheehan. In May 1972, he received an electric shock when he rushed to help the Stone the Crows guitarist Les Harvey, who had touched an unearthed microphone while standing in a puddle on stage at the Swansea Top Rank. “I ran and pulled all the plugs as quickly as I could, and an ambulance was called, but Les was declared DOA,” said the tour manager, who had joined the company set up by the formidable Led Zeppelin impresario Peter Grant in 1970.
For a while, he continued with Stone the Crows, as their frontwoman, Maggie Bell, put together a new line-up, but he eventually provided Grant and the party-loving Led Zeppelin tour manager, Richard Cole, with the logistical, level-headed back-up they needed.
“We had a lot of people on the road, including a few undesirables,” he said of the 1975, 1977 and 1979 tours he supervised, which included several ill-fated concerts in the US, as well as the triumphs at London’s Earls Court in 1975 and the group’s two appearances in front of 200,000 at the Knebworth Festival in 1979. U2 would later dress up as the four members of Led Zeppelin to amuse Sheehan on his birthday – but they proved easier to handle than John Bonham, the belligerent, binge-drinking Zep drummer, and Jimmy Page, the groupie-chasing guitarist.
For a while in the early 1980s, Sheehan stepped back from the touring madness and took a position in the European department of Arista Records, where he worked with Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Patti Smith, though Barry Manilow was the major US act who paid the bills.
In 1982, he was recommended to U2 manager Paul McGuinness by Robbie McGrath, the tour manager for Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats. “I was looking for the perfect tour manager,” said McGuinness. “We’d had a couple of duds. It was before the band was successful, but we were touring constantly. I hired Dennis on the spot.”
Sheehan proved an instant asset to the group, who were building up to the release of their third album, War, in February 1983 – and who, via the Red Rocks Amphitheatre and their epochal appearance at Live Aid in 1985, would go on to set new standards of excellence and break record and concert-ticket sales over the next three decades. “With many bands, you get to a peak, and that’s it,” he said. “With U2 they are still climbing that mountain.”
Straight, honest and loyal to a fault, Sheehan was ideally suited to the demands of the job, and kept complex, hi-tech operations such as Zoo TV in 1992 and 1993, the PopMart folie de grandeur in 1997 and 1998 and the 360° Tour – with its giant “claw” staging – between 2009 and 2011, moving around the world. He continued in his role after McGuinness retired and oversaw the launch of U2’s current Innocence + Experience world tour.
Watching Sheehan work at close quarters first in Brussels in 2005 and then in Barcelona in 2009, I was amazed at how cool and collected he remained under pressure. “I think people knew that I had a sense of responsibility, and always got the job done, regardless,” he said.
Dennis Sheehan, tour manager: born Wolverhampton 5 November 1946; married (marriage dissolved, two sons, two daughters); died Los Angeles 27 May 2015.
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