Douglas on tour with Status Quo, by Alain le Garsmeur, courtesy of Tana Douglas
Why roadies built the industry with the first female roadie, Tana Douglas
Globally acknowledged as the first female roadie, Tana Douglas left Australia in 1976 after having already worked directly for AC/DC for over a year and toured with some of the biggest names in music history. From Santana to Neil Diamond, she would go on to work with the likes of The Who, Status Quo, Ozzie Osbourne, Iggy Pop, Pearl Jam, RHCP, INXS, Tool and many more. Author of the successful memoir
, Tana is now writing her second book – which is still top secret! Loud Here contributor Eleonora Andrighetto talks with Tana to retrace the highlights of a unique career, discuss femininity in the industry, and go behind the scenes of the roadies’ world.
Would you call yourself a collector? Have you kept any keepsakes of your roadie days?
“Not really, I rarely hang on to stuff. The only thing I have left is a couple of platinum albums and some wall art photography. After years of touring, I found that I had amassed so much stuff, such as tour merch and clothes, that a few years ago I went through a purging phase and gave everything away. At that time, I was living in Venice Beach, Los Angeles and eBay was just starting up. Everyone around me was like, sell this stuff on eBay, you’ll make a fortune! But I didn’t want to do that. So I decided to give it to all the homeless people of Venice instead, on the condition that they wore those clothes and didn’t sell them. And that’s how it went! All of sudden you could see homeless people wearing Pink Floyd jackets and Elton John, Status Quo or Police tour jackets all over Venice. It was the funniest thing!
Sometimes I wish that I’d held on to more though, especially photographs. I used to keep all the photos I had in my garage, but it was broken into and they all got stolen. This is one of the reasons why it was hard getting photos for the book (
), in particular photos of me. We relied on photographers who had worked on the same tours as me to get images, because we didn’t have any. Also, I hate having my photo taken!” Loud
Tana Douglas’ INXS platinum disc. Courtesy of Tana Douglas
What does the word ‘roadie’ mean today, and how has the role changed since you started in the 1970s?
“The word roadie now has a bit of a bad rep. People want to be engineers, production managers, tour managers – they want to have a title. But in the beginning, there were no titles at all, so the word ‘roadie’ was an overall word that not only covered people who looked after the equipment for the band, but actually did all of the jobs! We drove, we set up the equipment and carried it, we worked during the show, we made sure that the band were taken care of, we looked after the dressing rooms… we were security, everything! Whatever needed doing, we did, and because of that we didn’t get a lot of sleep, or showers… or meals. (Tana laughs)
Because of this, we looked rough and gnarly, and others would think that we weren’t necessarily intelligent, but it was such a miscasting of people, because roadies back then are the ones that this industry has been built on. They’re the ones that came up with all the original concepts of how things on stage could be changed, developed, enhanced. We were in a constant state of creation and evolution, especially in the late 1970s. I worked as a roadie between 1974 and 2005, and those decades were where the mammoth changes happened!
It was thrilling to be a part of that and see it evolve. I saw rock n roll shows going from something that you didn’t want to let your daughters go to, because it was considered dangerous, to hearing people say “My God, did you see the light show at that concert? Let’s take the kids, it’s fabulous!” It was a whole evolution. And with that evolution, came a billion dollar industry…”
Roadies looked rough and gnarly, and others would think that we weren’t necessarily intelligent, but it was such a miscasting of people, because roadies back then are the ones that this industry has been built on.
In the course of your career, you specialised in lighting: how did that happen, and are there some shows that you are particularly proud of lighting-wise?
“There was a lot of stuff to look after on tour (the band, the stage, the monitor, the lights…) and I frequently changed career paths because I was curious about all of that. I started off doing backline, then I did front of house sound and then I did lighting, which for me was the one that stuck. I did that for a couple of decades. I think that preference for lighting stems back to my love of art: there was a real tie in with the colour, the movement and the theatricality of it. So, even though it was the hardest job and it was the longest hours, I thought that the benefits from it were the greatest.
I was really proud of the work we did with the English band Status Quo, for whom we built the entire lighting and sound system from scratch. It was in 1978 and the designer George Harvey, who worked for Status Quo at the time, was so used to me working with him that one day he got a napkin from the pub we were sitting in, and he just drew little circles in rows and said, “Here’s the lighting rig Tana, go design it. You know what they like (the band), you know what I like, just go design it”. That was a special moment to me, because I was trusted to take over and do that, even though I was just a 19-year-old girl.
Another memorable show was Johnny Hallyday at the Zenith, in Paris. That was the biggest lighting rig that was ever put together at the time and I ran it for seven months, six shows a week. It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest rig, but it was a notch in my belt because it had never been done before. Those are the moments that mean more to me, the moments where I’m involved in something that hasn’t happened before, and I get to be there, right front and centre, and doing it. That’s where I get my extra energy and zest from.”
Do you have any other memorable ‘firsts’ in your career?
“Well, on a personal level, that one time I had to wear a three-piece suit to do the lights for Elton John and Queen Elisabeth II. Because it was a strictly formal event at Windsor Castle – a private show for the royal family and their guests – as a female, I was supposed to be wearing a ball gown during the show, but it would have been impossible to do my job! So I had to put my foot down and say: “The guys are wearing three-piece suits. Why can’t I just wear a three-piece suit too?” It wasn’t straightforward, but in the end we got special permission from the palace for me to wear trousers, and that was quite extraordinary, because females were not allowed to wear trousers in front of the Queen!”
Being the first female roadie in an industry that was very much male-dominated must not have been easy. Was anybody uncomfortable with you being the person in charge because you were a woman?
“Well, yes, but not just that. By then I was 18 years old but of course I wouldn’t tell anyone I was that young. Everyone presumed I was way older because I had travelled from Australia and I was working, so it didn’t occur to them that I was as young as I was. But yes, when I was given tasks to do to control a situation, on one hand it was a great sign of respect and trust because I was the only girl out there doing it, but on the other hand it was met with resistance quite frequently.
A lot of people still don’t like being told what to do by a female, even today, so I found ways of delivering advice that were less offensive to male ears. You have to be smart and find a way in, so that you can actually communicate on the same level and not being seen as a threat. But that’s life anyway! You need to appreciate the person that you’re giving direction to whether it’s male or female. I just found that I had to be a little more sensitive, because there was resistance.”
To be a roadie you had to be comfortable not bathing for a few days, not sleeping for a few days, listening to guys tell dirty jokes all day… It was a man’s environment!
Why did so little women choose to be roadies, back in the day?
“Because it’s incredibly hard work! Originally there was no accommodation for anything – no bathrooms, no hotels. There was zero consideration for male needs either, but women have particular needs that just weren’t even on the radar. What I found though, was that, as I got accepted, the behaviour toned down as a sign of respect, which was really nice. That’s how you know that you’re making an indent, when people are actually considering your presence.”
Tana Douglas climbing up a lighting rig in a blurry yet rare image, courtesy of Tana Douglas
When was the first time you met another girl in a crew?
“It was 1982. I met Debbie through a friend of mine who worked in lighting. The production company I was working for had sent him out on the Neil Young tour and he talked to me about this friend of his, Debbie Vincent, who was a lighting person too. I was surprised to hear that, and I took her out with me on the Elton John tour to teach her and get to know her. I figured I could help her and protect her a little bit as she was quite young at the time and she was just starting out. It was fun to finally have someone out there that I could talk to and share a room with and Debbie and I remained friends even though she’s no longer with us.”
Tana Douglas at work on stage photo by Alain le Garsmeur. Courtesy of Tana Douglas
You’ve spent decades side-by-side with some of the greatest artists of all times. Is there someone you have ‘family-like’ memories of?
“Definitely Malcolm and Angus from AC/DC. In the early days of our careers we lived together in the same house and this formed a bond that you can’t break, especially because we were all just kids. I was 16, Angus was 18 and Malcolm was 20. Everyone else was older, except for Mark Evans when he came, so the three of us banded up a bit, we told each other stories, we would hang out playing music and chatting, we ‘d argue about who was making dinner… When I think about those times there’s always fond memories of them as
people, not as rock stars. And that, to me, is what’s important.
Status Quo were just great bunch of guys too, and another person like that, to me, was Jon Lord from Deep Purple and Whitesnake. John was an amazing person, an incredibly intelligent man. He and I used to do the Sunday Times crossword together, it was our little thing. Carlos Santana was always very sweet with me, and he’d always come over and chat. I remember Iggy Pop and his band: everyone was great, they were the same level as the crew and everyone did everything together. There were artists like The Police or Elton John with whom I never really socialised much… You build different relationships with different artists, and that’s what makes it interesting, as you never know who you are going to click with.”
Tana Douglas (center) in front of the AC/DC bus. Photo by Trudy Worme, courtesy of Tana Douglas
What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone young wanting to become a roadie today?
“First: Respect. You have to respect the people around you, because they are the people who are going to teach you and mould your future. Never think that you know more than somebody else: there’s always someone else out there who knows way more than you do, and you should definitely listen to them.
Second: Frame of mind. Someone will be much more willing to teach you if you have the right attitude. Take advice, ask questions, and be respectful of people. It is hard living in the tight, confined situations that we find ourselves in. A tour bus looks big from the outside, but from the inside it’s not. Imagine living with 12 people every day of your life for a whole year: you’ve got to be considerate of people and you’ve got to be respectful. Does it stop you from having fun? Does it stop you from breaking out every now and then and having a mental breakdown if you need to? No, but it’s pretty much what it comes down to. It’s about fitting in, and it’s not just the department you work in. The person that you’re snubbing today may be the only one that can help you somewhere down the line.”
Learn more: Tana’s Tips
The number of women choosing music production careers today is growing, even though they remain a minority in the workforce. Tana Douglas suggests to all those interested in this field to check out the following organisations, that are set up specifically with the female production person in mind:
Find out more about Tana Douglas’ work on
www.tanadouglas.com and on Tana’s Instagram and Facebook profiles
Purchase Loud, by Tana Douglas