It’s not duff notes or panic attacks that really keep roadies and live musicians awake at night. It’s something else, something almost too scary to mention. I’ll see if I can describe it for you . . .
As far as Jonny [Buckland] and I go, we haven’t had too many technical disasters, although anyone who’s done this kind of job for long enough will have at least one nightmare tale to tell. Whether it’s Twickenham with The Rolling Stones or Arlene’s Grocery with Dave and The Shitheads, every guitarist, singer and roadie is at the mercy of hundreds of wires, one of which will – sooner or later, ready or not – decide to snap. And snap one really did in Belgium. Holy shite.
We’d been on the road promoting Rush of Blood for about twelve months and were beginning to feel invincible and slightly insane in equal measure. By the time our party reached the backstage area at the 2003 Rock Werchter festival, millions of records had been sold and every gig was packed while the band and crew were beyond confident and had become used to concerts being either fairly good or just totally unbelievable, as if it was a normal life we were all leading. I wouldn’t say I was smug but I’d certainly started to think I was one of the big boys as I merrily chatted away to R.E.M.’s crew backstage, blithely unaware of what the gods of rock had in store for me and my poor old trusting boss Jonny Buckland.
There’s a theory that life on the road accentuates everything, including the power of old adages. So, a worn-out saying like ‘Pride comes before a fall’ could hold whole new reserves of significance in the context of a concert.
This came frighteningly true when, three songs into the triumphant, still-daylight, nowhere-to-hide show, Jonny’s guitar sound cut out completely halfway through A Rush of Blood to the Head – just silence – in front of 30,000 people. Including R.E.M. And their crew. Who were all standing right behind me.
Fuck. What now?
OK, first off, was it the guitar or the cable? Checked them. No.
Plus, it looked like there was signal getting through the whole effects system. But no noise.
Fuck again, but with added Oh Jesus.
Maybe it was the amplifier itself – checked that too, but no, another dead-end, the amp was fine.
By this time the song was half over and I was thinking I’d sack it and go to the spare rig, which at that time was basically an emergency baby version of our main setup. I suggested this to my rapidly reddening boss who agreed that, yes, it would save time and aggro. We waited until the tune stopped and gave it a go in the gap.
It didn’t work either.
Who’s seen Jaws? That bit near the end where Richard Dreyfuss’s character Hooper is submerged in the shark cage and – aargh, dork – accidentally drops his pointy stick into the deep just as our great white plastic villain begins to bend the bars with its snout? I won’t spoil the ending for anyone left in Christendom who’s still yet to see the film, but there’s a look of horror on the actor’s face which, even without the diving mask, you’d have recognised on mine that day in Belgium too. Put simply, I was fucked.
I went through everything again and checked what I could but the fact is I was utterly bamboozled. And when things are that wrong and you’ve spent three whole songs trying to claw it back, you’re going to be way behind and ill prepared for anything else, least of all joining in on Yellow. It was truly tragic, and in the end being so lost and out in the open caused Jonny’s record-breaking fuse-length to desert him. Wearing the mask of a wronged Welsh dragon, he kicked over the spare amp in a rage, causing it to almost land on an unsuspecting young camera assistant who was hiding behind it. No harm done, but Jonny was immediately upset and very concerned; onlookers said they’d never seen a facial expression change so quickly.
We limped feebly through the last part of the show making some sort of noise, although I don’t really remember how or what. All I recall is a blur of effects pedals and cables, and that hot, tearful, lip- chewing sensation that only accompanies true failure and embarrassment. The band, thank the Lord, just got on with the gig, held things together like proper professionals and ensured that we all got away with it. But me and JB were badly stung forever.
Of course, the next day, we uncased everything backstage, plugged stuff in and couldn’t break the rig if we tried. I’ve since come up with ideas about what happened that seem feasible – duff connections, broken plugs, poltergeists, etc. – but in the end we’ll never really know. An entire duplicate setup was quickly flown in from our American arsenal just in case, although the rest of the tour passed without further incident and – touch wood – it’s never happened again since. But still, we’d learned a valuable chant, which is worth knowing by heart if you’re ever thinking of doing any sort of serious roadie-ing:
Don’t start thinking you’re cool because that’s when things blow up.
And, most importantly of all:
For fuck’s sake, if you can afford it, have three of everything.
+ This is an edited version of an excerpt from Matt McGinn’s Roadie: A LIfe on the Road with Coldplay, ISBN 9781906032654, available from amazon.co.uk, officially priced £14.99.