Nice but Nasty End!
ZZ Top in the 1970's - before the glitter!
I was the primary connection with ZZ-Top when I got the contract with them for Sundance Lighting, it was also the end of my relationship with Sundance too. I'll get into that story somewhere on these pages. An old friend of mine was the sound engineer for ZZ-Top as well as providing the actual sound system for their tours.
The first couple of years were reasonable uneventful as far and issues were concerned. I was actually enjoying touring with them. They had their own Lighting designer/director so I was to be there as Stage Manager, their road manager was not a bad guy although the band was always very distant to me especially compared to other bands I had worked for over the years.
Then ZZ-Top went through a bad legal hassle with there record company and didn't tour for a couple of years. When they did decide to tour again this is what happened...
The last peace of work was for ZZ Top, it was my last tour with them (thankless bastards). We got the to rehearsal, which was Shreveport, Louisiana arena. This was their come-back tour in 1980 or was it '79... doesn't really matter. It was after about a 4 year legal battle with their record company which kept them from touring during that time. I got asked to design and build a wall of mirrors about 40ft wide and 20ft high. with such a tall order I asked "how many shows per week are we expected to do?" 2 three at the most. Great so I set down to design the wall and other special effects for the tour. After a while I went back to management and said I would require a full day for set-up and build only for this tour, if not I would have to drop certain items and re-design the wall. They agreed so I went ahead with the build.
Anyway back to Shreveport and full production rehearsals, we got all out equipment there and setup as expected with a few minor glitches which were not unexpected, but we prevailed. We anxiously awaited fiber optic floor which arrived from a different source. ZZ Top's management had ordered it separately them selves. It was broken up into manageable fixed section of 10ft x 6ft which had these old multiline army plugs between each section, joining all the fibers together. This was a great idea as it made up a sub-stage to lay on top of the usually port staging the promoter and facility would provide. It gave us a nice even wooden floor to work with each day. All-be-it a highly polished floor!
The only trouble with the floor was that ZZ Tops management, who contracted the job, did not specify that a controller be provided! The builder also refused to build one as he said there was not enough time. He would give us the specs for the fiber combinations but that was it. The sound engineer, and old friend of mine who introduced me to my then wife, and myself go the task to build a control box dumped on us as we were the only ones with any electronics backgrounds. We sat down and between us designed a control box with numerous relays and a slew of toggle switches as a front panel. With the toggle switches in a particular sequence and the master switch thrown it would then produce a few effects. We affectionately called it the "Disco" floor. We even flew one of the panels behind Frank on wires, the drummer, as an added effect and would fly it in and out during the show.
We sat up day and night for the next few days soldering and testing this damned thing. We were not able to get all the different effects that ZZ's management asked for but we did the best we could with the limited resources and time available to us. They buggers were never happy.
What we did get working was:
- 1 Large Stars & Strips flag waving in the wind
- Several small Stars & Strips waving in the wind
- Fireworks exploding in air
And they were damned luck to that much working for them. How does my walls of mirrors come into play you ask? Well the people sitting in the expensive floor seats could not see the floor the band was standing on which meant they could not see the fiber optic tricks. The mirror flew in and was angled appropriately so they could see it in the mirror. We also did lots of other old tricks like bound spotlights off the mirrors for a revers spot light, not done at that time because of cost.
They wanted a huge entrance to this show so I designed and built a huge surround curtain that went round three sides of the stage and was about 30ft high. Before the show started the curtain would be closed, just like a regular theater main curtain closing across the front of the stage. With about 5 minutes to go we would start filling this huge space wit smoke from multiple dry ice machines around the stage. Then on cue the house light went out... we would wait another 60 seconds or so, to build the excitement, then we not only would open the curtain but start raising it up in the air till it was completely above and behind the band some 28ft in the air. It was one hell of an opening to the show.
Of course like anything else it would have it's days. On one occasion I remember that it got about half way opened on the side way motion and about 10ft off the stage and abruptly stopped. One f fthe complex arrangements of wires, pulleys, and cables had jammed. Opps! Well it was my job to fix it, I sprang up with no time to release and drop the rope ladder or bring the main stage ladder up on stage I just grabbed a hold of the huge bundle of power control cables that ran from the lighting dimmers up to the lighting grid and shimmed up, I ran across the grids trussing, all this was now 30ft off the ground with no safety lines etc. and found the jam in a corner pulley. I pulled out my trusty knife and hanging upside down began to cut the wire line which was under some tension and when it gave way the entire rig shook violently under the relief and the curtain continued to rise to it's end point. I worked my way back down to the stage the same way I got up there and no-one except the crew was any the wiser.
This was not the only time something failed to work during the show but it was the biggest and most noticeable. Unless when you consider one of my crowning screw-ups. One of the many hats I wore on that tour was as projectionist. ZZ Top had made up a short file of the two of them play saxophone to a song. It was meant to be their encore to the show. They would come out and we would fly in a large screen and I would be perched up on a scaffolding tower with a projector that had the film queues up on and the line coming from it with the sound track of them play. This went off without a hitch for several weeks until on one show the scaffolding was within reach of anyone who was on the balcony section behind the stage. I had asked for a security person to be on duty there throughout the show so no-one could reach over and mess with the projector. Needless to say they walked off only a few minutes after the show started and someone actually reached over the edge and somehow managed to unthread the film and steal the entire roll. That or I was set-up as I was a week or so later I was let go unceremoniously after a show. I Was handed my pay and an airline ticket back to L.A. I never knew the real reason or from who but I had my ideas and to this day the office manage at Sundance Lighting and her cronies side kick the warehouse foreman are on my shit list of un trustworthy, lying, cheating, bastards. But more on that story somewhere else. I also felt very let down by ZZ Top and their crew for not stand by me after all the hard work I had put in on their behalf to get there shows 100% each and every night, and no thanks ever for any of the design or construction work I did for them on their sets.
I have to say that after working with ZZ Top for about 4 years and I think it was three major tours the band of Frank, Billy, and Dusty to my knowledge never even know who I was or that I existed until that fateful night when the film went missing/stolen. The crew were good to me, I remember one year when we were on tour during my birthday the Road Manager (sorry I do not remember his name) asked me what I wanted to drink for my birthday, I stupidly blurted out a case of Dom Perignon Champagne. Well to my surprise when ZZ finished their last song, but before the encore, out came the entire crew and a case of Dom Perignon Champagne and we began to celebrate throughout the entire encore and I was told I could take the rest of the night off and just hang out. It was a bus tour to there was nowhere else to go but hang at the arena, wherever that was. Thanks crew wherever you are today, that night will forever be a good night to remember.
Other toys I designed for this tour was the imitation Search Light. I have a six sided wheel build that stood up, or laid down on the floor, and two narrow beam lights were pointed and the top left and top right flats which had mirrors mounted (glued) on them. A small slow step motor was attached to the side that rolled the six sided mirror around and created the effect of search lights. With tow of these at the back of the stage it was one heck of an effect that no one else could or was producing at the time. To make it multi-purpose it could be laid on its side and lowering the lights to the floor too would produce an effect of light sweeping the floor from both sides of the stage. Another of my designs was stolen from the movie business... and air-mortar, used to create "dry" explosions, I had used them in a move I did the special effect for a couple of years earlier and knew one day I would find a use for them. The are common place on almost every rock show and more so on football games. They consist of a large sealed canister that is filled with compressed air, an electric release gate that connects to a tube and a large long nozzle. The nozzle is filled with whatever... confetti, glitter, any soft object you want. In the movies it was debris to simulate and explosion, in our case confetti for the New Years Even show that we did every year at Tarrant County Arena between Dallas and Fort Worth Texas. Of course every show does that now but I was the first to use it. I had even used in a small club date with a really good Funk band that management complained, but secretly loved, as the glitter I used stuck to the carpet, as did your shoes, for months after.