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Van Ordinaire (Part 1)

Article from In Tune, December 1984

Transport for Bands - Rick Biddulph expounds

Sick of humping your gear on and off buses? Tired of scrounging your brother's estate car? Rick Biddulph, veteran tour campaigner, begins a look at vans and running them.

Travelling - love it or hate it, a musician probably spends a larger portion of his lifespan in mobile limbo than he does actually performing. Whether you're seeing the world flash by from the time-honoured confines of a van ordinaire, or swanning about in Concord and a fleet of limos, it's obviously preferable to view extensive travelling as a bit of fun and adventure - the circus hitting town - and to enjoy the deranged state of alternative reality that can strike within a day or two on the road. Better, anyway, than sitting there grumbling and throwing artistic wobblers every 500 miles!

In the music biz of the '80s, perhaps the romance of the wandering troubadour is irrelevant to the band that plays about at home, does a few local club gigs, gets the record deal and the hit single and instantly finds itself playing Hammersmith. In that sort of case there'll be an artic. out the back and a crew of hardened professionals dealing with the technicalities; all part of a machinery - and probably an audience - that the band's not ready for. And it shows. If it's live playing you're aiming at, there will always be a lot to be said for 'paying the dues' - building your experience and confidence through all the crummy gigs and disasters on the way, to step more easily into the spotlights of the Big One when it comes.

A major factor in this process will mean you and your equipment covering more mileage than most people would dream of in a lifetime - and thus the need for the most efficient, comfortable, affordable and safe means of transport you can get.

For an early primer into the subject of groups on the road, I can recommend George Melly's book, Owning Up, which describes life gigging with Mick Mulligan's Jazz band in the '50s through to the advent of Rock'n'Roll and the dreaded pop 'package tours'. The characters involved, the lunatic sagas and the quality of the gigs have hardly changed to this day; but the practicalities and logistics have altered dramatically outside the Jazz area. Throughout the '50s acoustic instruments were the order of the day - each man could throw his horn or, at worst, his drumkit or, at very worst, his double bass into the back of the Commer, climb in, and off they went. Even when Rock 'n' Roll arrived, mikes and a rudimentary P.A. would still come courtesy of the cinema or club, and, with 20-minute slots for each band, there was no lime anyway for anything fancy.

The '60s brought a turning point with the advent of the 100-watt stack, the split Hammond organ, double drum kits and group-owned P.A.s - 100 watts of WEM columns to give the singer a chance against the mountain ranges growing behind him. This revolution in scale also brought into frantic action a hitherto discreet form of human: the roadie. His function was to get you and this shopful of gear to the gig, carry it (and sometimes you as well!) in, set it all up and generally nurse you through the whole procedure. And even without the luxury of this mythic creature, a larger and heavier form of transport and a new level of organisation had become necessary. The long-wheelbase Ford Transit might have been developed for this very purpose - a bulkhead fitted in front of the wheel-arches enclosed sufficient space for most groups' gear, safely separating it from the human compartment with its rows of aircraft seats purloined from a Gatwick sale, and secondary windows if someone was handy with a tin-opener. In this familiar womb has many a band set off to fame or obscurity.

Still, however, the equipment grew and multiplied. Time to upgrade the transport again, this time to Luton box Transits or, if necessary, three-tonners, with the roadies in the cab and the band travelling separately in a car or minibus.

Enter now the tour manager - another new invention, though closely related to the original '50s road manager, whose duties were more concerned with collecting the money (what money? - hardbitten Ed.), booking the hotels and generally Taking Care of Business than with the simple matter of instruments and equipment.

The tour manager's job takes on gargantuan proportions in the next stage of evolution - arranging transport and accommodation for maybe 30 people across and between continents, shipping tons of equipment through the perils of air cargo, liaising with promoters and security men at vast arenas, holding thousands of £s-worth of float to keep the machinery moving, and making sure the drummer's remembered his passport.

Meanwhile the road crew - now travelling in the luxury Volvo tour bus, complete with bunks, video and microwave oven - have become highly-trained technicians with S.A.S. commendations for endurance. They spend their time rigging and maintaining towers of cabinets and lighting gantries and their writhing spaghetti of cable, and large, fragile studio-quality mixing and monitor desks together with all their outboard gadgetry. Their lot is made easier, at this level of operation, by total use of heavy-duty wheeled flight cases, which can roll off the 40-ft. trailer direct to the stage at major venues.

With all the technical innovations of the past decade, from the microchip to improved glue for speaker cones (enabling greater power handling from each unit), gear is, thankfully, shrinking. It's conceivable once more to scale down the whole operation, carrying a comprehensive setup (including the band) in one vehicle again - just as long as it hasn't set its collective heart on a full lighting rig and The Works from the start of its career!

Concerning the means of transport, you have the choice of owning or hiring. Either way, the main problem will be cost. The average musician's income - never anything to write home about, even when you can afford the stamp - has shrunk in proportion to the rising costs of getting the show on the road: the price of vans, petrol, repairs, insurance, ferry fares etc. If you or your management can afford something to suit your needs. Ford vans and trucks lead the field in this country. The Transit, in all its options, is the continuing favourite, well depicted in its current ad. campaign as reliable enough for the emergency services. They've been around long enough to be available second or twentieth hand, and if you get a good one it will chug on regardless back over zero on the milometer. The back axle may make its characteristic complaining whine for years before admitting defeat, though body rust can be its downfall if left unchecked. The newer models, particularly, have the speed and handling of a car - but never forget you're carrying weight; one day you'll need to stop quickly!

A close second in the 18-35cwt range is the Bedford CA series, marginally lower powered but perhaps with the edge of fuel economy. Up a price notch, there are the VW L.T. vans, Dodges, and a handsome Fiat. These 'walk-through' vans are far from square inside but can swallow a surprising amount of gear if sensibly and evenly loaded. Flight cases, at this level of operation, are best left at home though, when if s handy to have the odd amp top to wedge in and brace the load.

Luton box vans fill the next size category, but are deceptively easy to overload. Observe in particular the weight restriction in the Luton itself, over the cab - the light aluminium frame isn't meant to take all your amps just because they fit nicely there. The suspension on newer models has greatly improved weight handling, but I don't recommend them for tours involving mountains - I've tried the Alps in a Luton loaded to capacity, and it promises some unnerving moments! Add a light breeze from the front and you think you've stopped; add a light breeze from the side, and you wish you had! But it's a wonderful workhorse all the same - from which we proceed to the Rollers of the gigging world; the big Mercedes and Fiats.

These beasts are wonderful to drive and travel in, with coach-height panoramic views over mere mortal motorists below. But, as well as being expensive to run (servicing rates and parts are astronomical), you're into a different area of weight specification, of operators' licences, plating, the truck MOT. The same applies to box 3-tonners, now regraded at 4 tons, the largest vehicle you can drive without an H.G.V. licence. The favourite for years in this category has been the Ford D Series, now revamped as the Cargo. A lighter-purpose Ford, the A Series, aimed at the same market as the Mercs in walk-through and box versions, never quite won the confidence to make an impression in the rigours of group usage; though the Gas Board run fleets of them. Having been stranded by them on the M1 and M4, in my book, a lemon.

Most of the vehicles mentioned are available in petrol and diesel versions (some in gas, too). Diesels deliver a higher m.p.g. rate at a slight speed disadvantage, and have an indomitable reliability - but due to the mark-up in the price of fuel, and the need for a different rule-book in understanding the species. I'm personally happier with petrol where vans are concerned.

If you can't afford any of these anyway, and it won't all fit into the bass players Estate, you need to hire. This is still costly but has obvious advantages: the vehicle will usually be fairly new and hopefully trouble-free, you'll have no servicing or parking costs when not working, you'll normally be covered for RAC or AA rescue (well worth being a member for your own vehicle, for that once or twice a year they'll get you home in an emergency), and sometimes for a freephone tyre replacement service - one truck tyre could swallow most of your gig fee. In the event of a total breakdown, any hire company worth its salt will organise fast delivery of a new vehicle.

Whether or not your local company will rent to a band, however, is a matter of luck, depending entirely on their individual insurance arrangements. These often exclude members of any entertainment professions, and a more detailed look at this and other injustices - and how to deal with them - will follow next month, in Part 2. On the other hand some companies have virtually made their name in the group field, such as Edwin Shirley's, Smiths, Hirus, and Chart Vantage. Others, such as Budget and Ryder, have no objection when approached, yet one of the largest - Swan National - have to refuse due to the restrictions of their cover.

Those who do oblige know that their vehicles are usually in safer and more experienced hands than, say, those of the weekend D.I.Y. removals punter who heads for the nearest low bridge the moment he leaves the depot (the hirer is always responsible for damage to the box). Most require drivers to be 25 or over, and want to see each licence involved - preferably fairly clean, and certainly not with a drink-driving conviction. And they'll also want a sizeable deposit, for which they'll usually accept a cheque which they then hand back to you on the safe return of the vehicle. Herein lies the major disadvantage of hiring: to save an extra day's expense this ritual happens at about nine in the morning... not much fun when you only got back from Grantham at 5.30!

In the next instalment, my typewriter will steam through such issues as the aforementioned insurance problem, and the delights and dangers of Continental touring (starring the ATA Carnet). Until then, for further reference please run continuously your video of the Comic Strip's legendary Bad News Tour escapade.

It's all true!

Series - "Van Ordinaire"

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Making It

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Publisher: In Tune - Moving Music Ltd.

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In Tune - Dec 1984

Donated by: Gordon Reid




Van Ordinaire

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Feature by Rick Biddulph

Previous article in this issue:

> Making It

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> News - Recording & P.A.

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