Legendary Blue Oyster Cult soundman George Geranios worked exclusively for the band between 1973-1984 and if there's one gig that still pisses him off to this day, it's BOC's now infamous appearance at the Monsters of Rock Festival at Castle Donington on August 22nd 1981.
As he says: "Remember, on the huge shows, it is all on the soundperson. Without the system, the band sounds like someone clanking around in your neighbor's basement, dim and incoherent. You must bring order from chaos. For that you need great tools. When the sound is a failure, all the blame frequently goes to the mixer. After a show like that the failure is palpable, no matter who or what was really responsible".
For over 20 years, BOC fans have argued over what went wrong that day but at last some light has now been thrown on this mystery with George kindly offering us his perspective on that dark day's events...
In 1981 the Castle Donington music fest featured the bands More, Blackfoot, Slade, Blue Oyster Cult, Whitesnake and AC/DC.
The weeks leading up to this appearance had been stressful for the Oysters. Serious internal problems had developed between Albert Bouchard and other band members. They ostensibly revolved around Albert's choice of traveling mate, a young lady who was not his current wife. Band wives in the party were incensed. Tensions were high. Albert and his paramour traveled separately and he was late for two shows. He was summarily fired just before the band was to play the main event on this English run: the massive Donington show.
Up to 60,000 are expected to attend. Rick Downey (the lighting designer) had stepped in earlier in the week when Albert was late. He was now tapped to do the show rather than have the band suffer a humiliating cancellation. Given the subsequent events, perhaps a cancellation would have been better. At the time, however, we thought we had found a clever solution for the sudden departure of the band's drummer on the eve of this hugely important English festival.
Bands would come to Donington Park a day before the actual concert. The first day was for sound and equipment checks. Various wrinkles were ironed, stage space was allocated, and input lists were checked and implemented. Ideally all the bands were given a chance to play a song or two through the sound system. Settings for monitors and front-of-house could be logged for recall the next day so that the band techs were not starting "cold."
The sound contractor for this festival was Malcolm Hill. Hill Audio was a well-known native company based in Hollingbourne, U.K. In the great Tradition of the Times the company was named after, owned and run by Malcolm Hill. Malcolm and his employees designed and purpose-built a great deal of the equipment in his own shop. Speaker cabinets, power amplifiers and mixing consoles were all custom made and proprietary.
We arrived the day before for our sound check and set up the gear. I ambled out to the mix position and begin to set input levels. I remember trying to reset Joe Bouchard's bass direct level at the console. For some reason I did not have enough range on the channel's input attenuator. I was surprised when I was informed that the console had only a limited range of adjustment and a call had to be made back to the stage to set another level control there. This, I felt, was a less than ideal system but a lot of Hill's gear was like this. The speakers themselves were a custom one-box design with several new elements. This show was to be the debut of this new design. A wall of these untried boxes flanked each side of the stage.
I remember that despite my unfamiliarity with the console the sound check went OK. The system, though not thrilling, was adequate. There certainly was enough of it up there to make a big noise. However, those who play Donington as support soon learn not to count their decibels before they hatch.
The day arrives. We in the Cult Camp were in a state. It was Rick Downey's first huge show. The audience was quite large, something like 60K. It was, of course, a miserable day of overcast skies and intermittent rain. There was schism regarding our use of the motorcycle gag. AC/DC said we couldn't do the motorcycle thing because they are doing the motorcycle thing. The situation (I learned later) got heated. There were bad vibes in the air.
I, however, must perform my hour or so of work so I trudged dutifully to the front of house position. I don't really remember exactly when I went out. It may have been during Blackfoot's set. I know I was there for the entirety of Slade's set.
At some point it was evident that something was wrong with the system. Things did not sound good. Things did not sound right. It was not simply 'operator error.' In the old days the only real qualification for getting work as a live sound mixer was having the job. Power was (and still is) put in the hands of fools. "Hey, my brother-in-law once owned a stereo. He can be our sound guy!" This was not that. This mix was OK, the system itself sounded wrong.
I remember distinctly, I was standing in back of the mix riser and a fellow emerged from the vast mass of soggy humanity. He was quite upset. He got my attention and said:
"Is Blue Oyster Cult going to sound this bad?"
I said: "I hope not."
Optimism, however, was fleeting.
Toward the end of Slade's set the sound simply disappeared. Noddy, the lead singer, realized something had gone wrong. I remember that he launched into something obviously quite familiar to the assembled horde and, surprisingly, got most of the audience singing along! Perhaps it was their BIG HIT. I think it was their last song.
It was now the Cult's turn. There was much consternation during the set change. No one seemed to know exactly what the problem with the system was, but we all knew there was a problem. We started the set and there was very little volume available. The sound check settings produced an anemic squeak from the huge mass of boxes flanking the stage.
At some point during the set I looked up to see Malcolm Hill himself crawling around the stage right stack at a great height, ears into boxes. I was told not to try to turn the system up, but the band is inaudible. I try anyway and as I push the main faders up, the system volume decreases even more! Things are upside down, and I would be upside down if I tried that again, so said my minders at the front of house.
At one point during this farce I got on the talkback mike between songs and told the band to simply leave the stage. Maybe they could come back out when things were sorted. If they continued without acknowledging the problem then our Donington appearance would be shot. They do not do this and our Donington appearance is shot. The Band finishes with a flourish and....... there is nothing. No response from the audience. Sixty thousand metal fans stand sullen and silent. It is, as they say, an oil painting out there.
As interesting as the actual performance was, some of the later developments were fascinating. Jake Berry, AC/DC's production manager took on the role of damage control for the band and Malcolm Hill and apparently told the assembled press that I blew up the system.
As you can see from this account, the system was already in deep trouble well before B.O.C.'s set. Let us consider the essence of the definition of "blow up." It is to destroy and hence render inoperable. By most accounts the system was fully operational by AC/DC's set. It was rendered inoperable by a basic power distribution problem, a mobile recording truck had apparently been hooked up improperly and the main system had "dropped a leg." In laypersons terms, the system was running on inadequate and unbalanced power.
This fact did not alter Berry's spin, as senseless at it was on closer inspection. Year's later, when he was with Whitesnake and I was with Anthrax, he bent my then girlfriend's ear at a show in the U.S., describing me as a bad guy, a representative of Satan, and who knows what else. Tell the same lie often enough and it becomes the truth.
The Band survived this debacle to move on to other debacles in other large venues: dare I say Pasadena Rose Bowl with Journey or shows in Germany with Whitesnake (where our own sound company "sandbagged" us). These "festivals" always bring out the knife sharpeners. I believe the band bled for a long time in the U.K. due to this. But in the end it isn't useful to discuss who was at "fault." It was a big, complicated show and something went wrong. There was an error and, unfortunately the audience didn't get all the show they paid for.
There is an interesting addendum to all this. I did a second Donington in 1987, the infamous "all-American" festival. The headliner was Bon Jovi. I was there with Anthrax. Metallica played also. The sound companies were Rocksound (from Germany) and Malcolm Hill. Hill had a huge (and very good sounding) system flanking the main Rocksound speakers.
I remember reading a telling article in Kerrang! the day before the show. The essence of the piece was an extremely perceptive winge about the Donington show sound. The author had attended many a show there and wondered why, given the virtual mountain of speakers, all the opening acts sounded weak and puny whilst the headliner sounded massive. What if you didn't give a toss about the headliner? Your favorite(s) sounded lame! Shouldn't every band sound good? You paid your hard earned pounds to see and hear all the bands. The author had heard this at all the Donington Park shows and was quite fed-up.
Though I feel the situation in 1981 was certainly not deliberate sabotage on the part of either AC/DC or the Malcolm Hill company, the show in 1986 was quite another story. As usual, we arrived the day before and did a good sound check. The same system engineer was there from Malcolm Hill, we reminisced about the '81 show and I remarked how good the current iteration of the Hill system sounded. The vibe was pleasant, everything sounded fine.
The next day, of course, everything was different. I had high hopes for a fine show, but as we began I noticed that the system sounded much quieter than the day before and the dynamics were limited. Nothing sounded quite right. At one point I became quite disgusted and took a little walk to my left, the center of the mixing platform, and took a look at the system drive racks. Yes, there it was, a DBX 165 Stereo Limiter, and, by golly, it was kicking back about 12db on every peak. And it was attached to my mix!
I turned to the Rocksound system tech (the sound man for the Scorpions, by the way) and asked, "What the hell is this?" I got a reply burned into my brain even these many years later: "You know how it is!" (Imagine a German-tinged accent and a condescending smile).
Just in case you are thinking, ahh, the Malcolm Hill people were engineering a payback for '81; not at all. Malcolm's system tech was quite embarrassed and upset. Remember, his system is attached to the Rocksound array. If it sounds like ass, his system will sound like ass. And ass it was, through every act until Bon Jovi. Then it was all it could be ("You know how it is!").
After Metallica's less than audible set, Peter Mensch (Metallica's manager with Cliff Burnstein) came up to Big Mick (Metallica's super-fine soundman) and me and he was livid. He knew that his band had been badly treated, but alas, there was nothing he could do. So it goes in the wonderful world of big-time sound.
Attitudes like this limit audience enjoyment and essentially rob the audience of what is rightfully theirs: a full and effective show. It's also a pussy move. It implies the headliner does not have the confidence to carry the show without kneecapping the competition.
Does this always happen? No, but it happens often enough to be a real problem for touring professionals. It is an unfortunate part of the politics of the music business. These decisions are almost always band decisions implemented by management with the complicity of the sound company.
Are there bands that make it a policy of not doing this? I can name at least one: Iron Maiden and their soundman Doug Hall. For years they challenged any band to blow them off the stage and would provide them all the watts they needed to try. As a matter of fact, the 1988 Donington featured Iron Maiden and Doug assembled a huge sound system. Doug gave everybody everything and our Big Mick attested to this. He was once again in attendance (in what capacity I don't recall). I saw him later at another festival and he gave the sound system his highest accolade: "Raging." The 100,000 plus music fans got their money's worth that day.
I hope this little missive informed and enlightened those of you who are interested in these sorts of sordid details. Alas, my many years as a soundman were full of moments like these. But, like, golf, the one great shot keeps you going. The shows where the band and the sound system came together and built a powerful musical experience were some of the finest moments of my working life.
Thank you for reading.
Here, in a nutshell, is the Story of George. I was the usual AV geek in Junior High and High School. AV means audio-visual as in "AV Squad." We were the guys who knew how to thread a 16 mm projector or operate a follow spot at the school play. Even in those days I always gravitated toward the audio side of the equation. The reproduction of sound in all its forms fascinated me.
My dad was a professional musician and we lived on Long Island. He would occasionally take me to recording dates in New York City. Nothing could compare to the thrill of hearing master tracks going to tape in a top recording studio. This was a level of audio not available to anyone in that era. It was loud and incredibly clean. I had loved sound, but now I was really hooked.
I graduated from Hicksville High School (believe it) in 1963 and enrolled at the State University of New York @ Stony Brook. I joined the fledgling radio station (WUSB) as a DJ and tech and was involved in all aspects of college radio during school. There was another aspect of those college years, though. Stony Brook had an amazing variety of live music, up to and including major shows by well known acts of the day. There was a need to have on hand a credible sound system to do these shows, especially in the Gym. I had been doing various sound gigs around campus with our Shure Vocal Masters and our Altec amps so I convinced certain people in the administration we needed more. We ended up with some Altec Voice of the Theater speakers (the kind used in smaller movie theaters of the day) and, eventually, an original Crown DC 300 amp.
The men behind these concert booking were Sandy Pearlman, Richard Meltzer and Howie Klein. Here's a strange moment from the past. I barely knew Sandy. To me he was a shadowy figure who I understood was a major power behind the scenes at school. We were doing some show in the Gym and he buttonholed me and said, "You and I are going far together" or something like that. I did not talk to him again until years later. He called me on the phone at my apartment in Brooklyn and offered me the job as soundman for B.O.C. When I say years later, I mean several years at school followed by graduation, a stint in the U.S. Army, a return to Stony Brook as a hippie hang-out (crashing illegally in the dorms and then at a friend's house), a part-time job at the Instructional Resources Center at Stony Brook and, when none of that panned out, a year stint in New York working for a sound company.
I had forgotten Sandy, but he had not forgotten me. I had just left the sound company and needed a gig. The infamous Screamer Steve and his Dog had just been fired from B.O.C. and a mutual friend knew us both. My friend, Michael, knew me from Weisberg Sound and he knew Sandy from who knows where. He did know that Sandy was looking for a soundman and gave him my number. Imagine my surprise, Sandy Pearlman from Stony Brook on the phone.
This is one of those key moments in your life. It is THE ONE PHONE CALL. Others in this business will concur. If I hadn't taken that call or the offer, nothing in my life today would be the same. The entire course of my life changed that day. For better or worse, I was off on an insane adventure.
The first shows I did with B.O.C. were trial-by-fire. They were large outdoor shows in Florida with Deep Purple. We were way down on the bill and I had never done any sound mixing at that level before. They were big systems for the day and the whole thing was intimidating, but also the shows were quite exciting and fun. The band was new and was generating a lot of buzz. It was clear they had something special.
There are all kinds of wacky stories from that era, but the main thing is that it did not take long for B.O.C. to start headlining smaller shows. I remember doing a run of the Agora chain of clubs in Ohio (Toledo, Cleveland and Columbus). Each and every one of the installed sound systems was broken and I'm proud to say I fixed them all. I was enjoying the responsibility and the power of the live-sound-person. This was 1973 and I had found my calling. It took until 2002 for me to leave the road.
Here's a quick chronology. I worked for B.O.C. exclusively from 1973 till 1984. I did all of the live sound, album rehearsal sound and taping, and 99% of the radio broadcast post-production mixing. I was the co-producer and mixer for the Extra Terrestrial Live recording. Did a lot o' Cult in those years. In 1984 I left to "pursue other opportunities". The other opportunities turned out to be a Herbie Hancock tour followed closely by two years with Dokken. In 1986 I began an association with the band Anthrax that lasted 16 years. During that time I popped back into Cultworld from time to time to do a stint here and there. I did my last B.O.C. show in 1998.
There were some other tours I picked up in between Anthrax and B.O.C. I did tours with Slayer, Testament, S.O.D and Morbid Angel. My swan song was in 2001-2 with a band called American Head Charge. By then I'd been to Japan 19 times with various bands, spent endless months in the U.K. and Europe and been to Australia and New Zealand twice.
I now have a job at the University Of Texas at Austin which requires only the most rudimentary sound skills, but it enables me to stay home all year. I occasionally work for a local sound company and just did a gig at Sun City (a huge retirement community here in Texas). The headline act was the Turtles! They are still funny after all these years. I have now mixed both Tommy James and the Shondells and the Turtles. My life is now complete.