Tour bus specialist Beat the Street is making moves in the United States, debuting its new double-decker, 16-sleeper coach in January 2020
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Gordon Masson talks to the recipient of the 2022 Gaffer Award and one of the go-to production managers in the international touring business
By Gordon Masson on 24 Feb 2022
Having grown up in Shankhill near the port of Dún Laoire on the outskirts of Dublin, life could have been very different for Phay Mac Mahon, had it not been for his big brother, Mick, and a local punk band with ambitions to see the world.
“Mick was a DJ in the 70s, and he’d built up a lighting system and stuff for his mobile disco,” recalls Phay. “Although I was really young, I started helping him set up and everything, until he decided he wanted to wind things down a bit.”
Professional equipment was a scarce commodity in Ireland at the time, so it wasn’t long before Phay was approached by club promoter Smiley Bolger who was running the Much More Music gigs in Dublin.
“It was on a Tuesday night, and it turned out Boomtown Rats were regulars. One night, Bob Geldof and I were chatting, and he asked if there was any chance of them using the lights and the van to take them around the country. And that’s literally how it started.
“The lights were very basic, just Par 36s on homemade boards. And because I didn’t have a switcher, I used to literally plug the lights in and out in time with the music. In fact, when I turned 60, halfway through the party, the music went down and Geldof and all the [Boomtown] Rats marched into the party. And they presented me this golden plugboard, which they’d hastily made in their hotel because that’s how they remembered me originally.”
“One night, Bob Geldof and I were chatting, and he asked if there was any chance of them using the lights and the van”
Without each other, The Boomtown Rats and Phay may never have left the Emerald Isle. When they met, Phay was an apprentice toolmaker, but as The Rats began to build momentum, they tried to persuade Phay – with the van and lights – to take a risk and move to England with them.
“He was a kid working in a no-hope job in a lightbulb factory,” says frontman Geldof. “Phay drove us round in his brother’s mobile disco van and started doing the lights for us – plugging and unplugging each lamp from a standard domestic extension cable. When he wasn’t blinding us, he was shorting the house and amps.
“I told him he should come with us on our mad bid to get out of Ireland. He said he didn’t know if he was allowed and I’d have to ask his mum. So, over a tea-time pork chop, peas and mash, Mrs Mac Mahon said she wasn’t sure: the job was steady and he could easily be a foreman by the time he was 32 –in 13 or 14 years’ time. I assured her he could still do that.
“‘Give it a year,’ I said. ‘We either do it or we’re all coming back to Dún Laoire.’ Phay had one condition; that if we did make it, besides the lights, he’d be allowed to drive ‘wunna dem big troox dey have.’ So off we went. He got to drive the truck, us, and everything else. We never went back to Dún Lao-ire.”
Thus started a lifelong relationship and Phay switched his apprenticeship from toolmaking to everything involved with taking artists on the road – with The Rats’ frugal nature and Phay’s clapped-out vehicle very much at the centre of things.
“Richard Branson and Simon Draper offered Geldof a cheque for nearly a million pounds, and he turned it down”
“Geldof did all the dealing on everything,” explains Phay. “One day, before a gig, he told me that Richard Branson and Simon Draper were coming to see the band, ‘So let’s get this set up quick so we can go out and pick them up in the van.’ I pointed out that surely when it’s a record company, you should be sending a limo or something. And Geldof looked at me like I had two heads – he was always cheap,” he laughs.
“At the time, I was stockcar racing and having fun with old cars. So we had a bench seat from an old Zephyr that I’d thrown in the back of the van, and of course it would slide around on the floor, and the band would all moan and groan: I’d hit the brakes and it would slide forward, their knees up in their mouths. So… Richard Branson and Simon Draper found themselves squashed up against the sidewall of the van when I had to do a sharp turn, and there’s Geldof just staring at me, about to kill me.
“But that night, they saw the show and offered Geldof a cheque for nearly a million pounds, and he turned it down because he thought the band could do better. We thought he was mad, but he got a deal with Ensign and we did better.”
Part of that deal involved a house in Chessington, Surrey, where bass player John Giblin already lived in the garden flat while Allan Holdsworth was in the attic. “The house had a huge rehearsal room, a tiny sitting-room and a tiny kitchen, so it was a little community, and it was hilarious, to say the least,” says Phay.
“I ended up doing two Queen tours and a Rolling Stones tour on the steel team”
“When the Rats weren’t touring, I’d go off and do my own thing. My brother Shay taught me to drive trucks properly and I finally got my HGV license. This allowed me to legally drive trucks for Edwin Shirley, and I ended up doing two Queen tours and a Rolling Stones tour on the steel team.”
He also learned more about lighting, working with Pete Clarke’s Supermick Lights. “I did tours with Pete and all sorts of one-offs, as well as the Roundhouse every Sunday.”
As his skills repertoire grew, Phay realised that work elsewhere meant moving out of The Rats’ Chessington home. “It was 1980, and Simon Austin from LSD called to say this young band from Sheffield were looking for a lighting designer for a theatre tour. So I met Def Leppard’s manager, Peter Mensch, and he offered me the job.
“Jake Berry was the production manager, and we got along great, but it came to the situation where he had to go back to AC/DC, who Mensch also managed, meaning he couldn’t do Leppard’s first tour in the States. Mensch also needed a lighting director that he couldn’t afford.
“Jake pitched the idea that I could do both. It was kinda true – with The Rats I did everything because we didn’t have a PM. Robbie McGrath was the tour manager and sound guy, and I was the sort of production manager/LD. But the real first time that I put the hat on properly was for Leppard in the States.”
“I went out on the Joshua Tree Tour as the lighting crew chief; Jackson Browne as lighting crew chief; The Communards as LD”
It wasn’t his first trip stateside, but it was a different ballgame. “With The Rats, we played clubs and things. We did a show at Frederick’s of Hollywood, which is a lingerie shop, as a promotional stunt. Geldof always wanted to do stuff that was different.
“But Leppard was much bigger as they were supporting Ted Nugent. John Conk was the production manager on that, and I learned a lot from him.”
Indeed, picking up tips from others became the norm. “Support tours were the way people broke in the States,” Phay tells IQ. “Queen toured with Mott the Hoople and they broke; and then Thin Lizzy toured with Queen and they broke… After the 1980 tour, Leppard were back out in 81 with Ozzy and the Blizzard of Oz.
“It was a great way for everyone to learn – artists and crew – because you saw the bigger tours and figured it out,” he says, naming the likes of Jake Berry, Charlie Hernandez and Bill Leabody among his mentors.
In between outings with Leppard, Phay worked as LD for The Pretenders. “I was back and forth with lighting. But once I hit 83, production became more prominent because it started to get very serious.” After Leppard, he took on the production/LD gig for Adam Ant for a few years.
“And then it was Paul Young after that but still back and forward into lighting and stuff – I went out on the Joshua Tree Tour as the lighting crew chief in Europe; Jackson Browne as lighting crew chief; The Communards as LD.” But the arrival of children brought a rude awakening.
“Two days after [Eoin] was born, I was off on a Paul Young tour to the States, Japan, all over the place”
“Our eldest boy, Eoin, was born in 1987, but two days after he was born I was off on a Paul Young tour to the States, Japan, all over the place. Then I went straight to U2’s Joshua Tree, and from that to Hysteria with Def Leppard. So I was gone the entire year – I had to get my wife, Ann, to bring Eoin out so that I could see him. And then Hysteria kept going for so long. It was nearly a two-year tour.
“At home, we had the phone on the wall in the kitchen. So when I got home on a break from Leppard, Ann said to our son, ‘Eoin, where’s your dad?’ And he pointed at the phone. My heart sank and I realised I needed to put the brakes on.”
Out of Phay’s
Committing time to home life again brought out the entrepreneur in Phay. “Along with a friend, we came up with an idea of a mobile stage in Ireland – combining my toolmaking past with all the stuff I’d learned on the road. We developed this truck and I got Terry Lee from LSD and Chris Cronin involved in its design.”
The result was ingenious: a 45-foot trailer with a 75 kV generator built on the front end; a backroom with amplifiers, dimmer racks, etc; and an opening of 35 feet in the middle so that the sides would fold down to give a stage of 24 feet in depth.
“LSD were building their own truss at the time, so we used that for the roof and hinged two sides on the truss so that it literally folded out using hydraulics,” Phay explains. “Two crew could basically set up in an hour. It had its own sound-system, lights built into the roof. Turn on the generator and there it was: a gig in a box that we’d take to car parks and football fields and stuff like that.”
“I found the break [from touring] was good because it was refreshing”
The concept caught the eye of Guinness who bought it for use around festivals. “I was able to drive it, and through my toolmaking, I knew the hydraulics and how it all worked, so I did that for a few years. But I kept going back on the road doing bits and pieces – bits of lighting, corporate stuff, and a Formula One project in 2000 with Orange Arrows that took us around the world for about three years.”
Once More Into The Phray
With three young children now at home, when they all reached school age, Phay thought about returning to touring. “I found the break [from touring] was good because it was refreshing.” He observes, “I see people getting easily wound-up, but it takes a lot more to wind me up, and I think when you have a break, you’re not as burned, so you can deal with things better.
“I did some local work for Peter Aiken in Ireland, then I started back on the road full time as site co for George Michael, PM for Meat Loaf, 30 STM, Shakira, Seal and many more and the rest is history.”
Citing a calm attitude as crucial to becoming a top production manager, Phay also highlights the camaraderie of the PM fraternity. “We all cover for each other,” he states. “I’ve covered for Bill Leabody many times on things; I’ve covered for Springo (Mark Spring); I’ve gone out as a site coordinator for both of them. It’s all experience. We’re all friends, we talk all the time, and we all muck in when needed.
“If you come up against something, you ask around if anyone else has come across it. I’ll call Bill; he’ll tell me to speak to Jake, or that Charlie did that, or Opie (Dale Skjerseth) has done it, so we all chat, and we all help each other out.”
And that communication has never been required more than in the past two years.
“I started back on the road full time as site co for George Michael, PM for Meat Loaf, 30 STM, Shakira, Seal and many more”
Live-ing La Vida Loca
Recounting his pandemic experience, Phay tells IQ, “I got on board with Ricky Martin at the end of 2019, and we did a bit of TV stuff and then straight into a month of rehearsals in Puerto Rico, where he’s from. It was a really smooth job to start with – Ricky is one of those rare artists that you could set your watch by: he’s meticulous.
“When he says he’ll be in at two and he wants to be out at seven, he’ll come in at two o’clock sharp and he’ll be gone at seven on the dot. It means you can schedule everything perfectly and give slots in the day for everyone else – lighting, programming, dancers, everything, so it’s very professional.”
That first tour was cut short, but not before they had played three arena shows in Puerto Rico, Colombia’s massive Barranquilla Carnival, and dates in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, before travelling to Mexico where a number of shows were scheduled.
“We were hearing at the time that this corona thing was building and building, but because we were in South America, unless you watched CNN, nobody was paying attention to it. Little did we know, a week and a half after we landed in Mexico, we’d be gone. Tour over. It was four o’clock in the afternoon on 14 March 2020, and we were setting up for a sold-out show in Monterrey when I got the phone call.”
The crew managed to load out, and Phay quickly arranged passage for production back to the States. “When I got to Mexico City, I bumped into Roland Greil, the LD who was out with Guns N’ Roses at the time. And he told me I’d just missed Opie, who had flown out. We were all gathering in Mexico City Airport, flying out all over the world. We were two of the last ones standing – Ricky Martin and Guns N’ Roses.”
“I was rehired in May last year, just to start putting the next tour together – Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias”
While the industry was initially speculating about how many weeks of business they needed to reschedule, the reality, of course, was horrendous.
The downtime allowed Phay to spend some much-needed rest at home and in the industry’s most infamous pub, The Dog House, which was his garage until a few years ago and now serves, on occasion, as a fundraising hostelry for local cancer charity Purple House.
“Every production that passes through Ireland seems to want to visit The Dog House – maybe because I have Guinness on tap,” he says. And he recalls a time when AC/DC’S crew did just that, supplemented by egg and onion sandwiches supplied by his wife and daughter.
“When I saw Opie in the production office at the show the next day, he wasn’t happy. Apparently, the stage rolled an hour late because the stagehands refused to be in the same place as the crew because of the gases coming out of them.”
Rather than sitting around waiting for the phone to ring during the pandemic, Phay got behind the wheel of a truck again. “Ardmore Film Factory is nearby, so I ended up driving around for the Matt Damon movie The Last Duel, before doing the same for Irish Film Location Facilities. Some people thought I was mad, but it saved me a fortune because it meant that Ann didn’t divorce me.” And it’s just as well he kept busy, as weeks and then months rolled by.
“I was rehired in May last year, just to start putting the next tour together – Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias. We loaded in on 14 September 2021 – exactly 18 months to the day from loadout to the next load in,” says Phay.
“We were one of the first full indoor arena shows, so we had to be very, very careful”
With Covid still raging, Phay and Iglesias’s PM, Andrés Restrepo, faced the challenge of developing a strategy to keep the crew and touring party safe. “It was quite difficult because you had two artists and two managements,” notes Phay.
“But both artists agreed that everybody had to be vaccinated to be on the tour. There was only one guy, who had worked with Ricky for quite some time, who said he was not getting vaccinated. And he stood firm on it. We didn’t have any arguments about it, I just had to go off and find someone else.”
While the vast majority of tours remained postponed, a few brave pioneers were hitting the road, meaning normal communication between production chiefs intensified.
“We were talking to lots of people who had started going out in amphitheatres and stuff – Green Day were out doing stadiums – but they were all outdoor-type venues. We were one of the first full indoor arena shows, so we had to be very, very careful.”
Knowing that every state had its own Covid protocols and cities within each state would have different rules, Phay quickly learned that every venue also had its own protocols. “My suggestion was that we just create our own protocols and implement them from the barrier back,” he reveals. “We realised that if we lost one of the two artists to Covid, we’d be in big trouble. But if we lost anyone else, we could somehow get around it.”
The Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin tour locked down everything from the stage to the backdoor
As a result, the Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin tour locked down everything from the stage to the backdoor and relied on the venues to take care of front-of-house. “They’re running venues for a reason: they know what they’re doing. My thing was, we keep our own house in order, rather than worrying about anywhere else.”
He continues, “Everybody got onboard very well, and we put a Covid officer in place. Most arenas have security at the backdoor anyway, so straight out of the security station we set up the Covid station to temperature-check people. We also had scanners on the buses, so people would scan that in the morning, fill out a form about what they’d been doing, how they felt, etc. We’d register everything on computer, they’d be given a wristband for the day, and that was that.
“But once we hit certain areas, like in Florida where nobody was wearing masks or anything, we realised that a lot of the stagehands weren’t vaccinated. So we had to put serious Covid testing in place there. If they had a vax card, they’d come in, get a quick check, and be given a wristband. If they didn’t, they had to wait for their test result before getting a wristband.
“It was sensible but expensive. Getting stagehands in some situations was tough. But we were following Harry Styles, so we’d talk to Ski, his production manager, to see how they’d handled things in certain cities. And they had an even tougher world where they would not let anybody in that wasn’t vaccinated, so they were having to fly in crew, stagehands, from different areas with
vax cards rather than testing.”
Phay’s strict strategy worked well. “We had one guy who caught the virus, ironically on the very first day at the MGM in Vegas: Alfredo, the video guy. He was not feeling well, and when he tested positive, we literally put him in quarantine in the hotel for ten days. And then he came back. It was a rude awakening for us. But it made people take it seriously, as everybody toed the line and that was it. We never had another case.”
“We got Dead & Co’s protocol, and different protocols from different people, so we could look it over and figure out ours”
Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
Once again, communication with peers proved vital. “We chatted a lot with Ski on the Harry Styles tour. We got Dead & Co’s protocol, and different protocols from different people, so we could look it over and figure out what ours should be,” says Phay.
Renowned for his sense of humour, the situation also allowed Phay to pull some spectacular practical jokes. “We’d gathered for a beer – Andrés, the stage managers, Gino Cardelli and Ethan Merfy, and myself – ahead of speaking to Ski to get tips on how we would approach Atlanta, where the stagehands and riggers didn’t have to be vaccinated.
“Anyway, Andrés was telling me that Ski had sent him pictures of his home after he’d renovated it. And he shows me a photo of his laundry room, so, of course, I used it as my background for the Zoom call.
“So there’s was a bunch of Live Nation people on the call – Ski sitting on a couch on his day off. I come on and he goes, ‘Hey, man, how are you? Blah, blah, blah.’ And then he realises. ‘Are you in my fucking house?’ And I’m sort of rooting around and all they can see is the washers and dryers. And next thing, ‘click’ on comes Andrés, sitting in the living room with Ski’s wife pictured behind him. So the call took about 15 minutes to get going because we caused complete chaos.”
“Paul Young was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with… Spandau Ballet were a great bunch of lads”
The Road Ahead
Speaking from home in Bray, Ireland, Phay tells IQ he’s heading back out to Los Angeles in mid-February to resume touring with Ricky Martin – this time for his own headline tour. And although restrictions are being relaxed, he confirms that he will be imposing the same Covid protocols for this outing.
“We’re going to keep everything the same,” he states. “A lot of people feel it will become like the common cold or the flu, but we’re not there yet, so we’re going to keep everything in place for the time being.”
In a career that dates back to the 70s, there are hundreds of highlights that Phay can call on. But one in particular springs to mind. “Live Aid,” he says. “Andrew Zweck ran that one, but we were all part of it. I just remember at noon when Status Quo kicked in, literally I just got goosebumps. And then there was Geldof flailing around like a flippin’ lunatic.”
And he got to share that day with some of his favourite artists, too. “Paul Young was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with… Spandau Ballet were a great bunch of lads. It’s an awful shame they broke up – one of the nicest tours I’ve ever done was with them. They were a lot of fun.”
When it comes to particular cities or venues he looks forward to visiting, New York, of course, tops the list. “Everybody says ‘Madison Square Garden, oh my God, it’s a nightmare.’ And yeah, it’s a pain but as a venue it’s fantastic – they really have it down.
“It ended up me and Pete [Granger] in the truck, Barrie [Marshall] in the middle, driving over the Alps”
“Chicago’s another great one. A lot of it’s down to the local union or building management. And there are some great buildings around the place: Manchester Arena has always been a great spot, you know, The O2 in London is great. They’re managed well, they’re really good venues. And, of course, a lot of it is down to the promoter.”
Asked about his favourite promoter, the reply is instant. “Barrie Marshall. Who else could it be?” And he recalls one story that he says sums Marshall up. “The Commodores were out on tour and the drum tech got ill,” he says. “When I was with The Rats, I’d set their drumkits and every damn thing. So I got a call from Tag (David Hall) who ran Concert Sound, asking if I was free for the next two weeks.
“So I found myself in Germany with The Commodores, and as their promoter, Barrie was with us. One night, the truck broke down in Mannheim. Barrie found another truck, but they didn’t have a driver. Pete Granger and I were the back-line guys, but we both had artic licences so we volunteered, and because it was nearly two o’clock in the morning and we had a gig in Montreux the next day, there wasn’t another option. So it ended up me and Pete in the truck, Barrie in the middle, driving over the Alps. And he was an absolute gentleman. What other promoter would have got into a truck with the crew? He’s one of a kind.”
Trucking comes up a lot in Phay’s history. Frank McGuinness of McGuinness Forwarding tells IQ, “We were in Stockholm, with a triple drive to go to Brussels, but just before load-out, one of the tour drivers became seriously ill, and because of our delayed departure, we were going to fall short of the venue. We discussed the issue with Phay, who in his calm, assertive manner said, ‘Okay, just get the truck away, and I’ll figure out what happens at the other end.’
“At the venue, the next morning, as the truck reversed to the loading door, the driver was heard to say, ‘Come on lazy fuckers, let’s get this truck tipped!’ Phay had met the truck halfway and had become the tour driver overnight. Nothing ever phases him, and he’s always willing to muck in. His door is always open, and he always looks after his crew.”
“Nothing ever phases [Phay], and he’s always willing to muck in”
Production guru Jake Berry also tells a transport story. “We were on a Def Leppard tour and had finished playing St Austell in Cornwall and had to overnight to the Lyceum in London. In the middle of nowhere, the throttle cable broke, so Phay and I rigged the cable so it worked by hand. Picture this: one person driving and changing gears and the other on the throttle cable: the co-
ordination was amazing! The motorway was not so bad but driving though London… Well, put it this way, it’s something I will never forget.”
And long-time friend and stage manager Robbie McGrath recalls, “The first time I saw Phay step up to the plate and save the day was on an early Boomtown Rats tour, when half the crew ended up in jail after a wild night’s entertainment in Dublin.
“One guy missing on parade the next morning was the truck driver. We had a 40-footer at the time, and I had no idea how we were going to get the bloody thing from Dublin to Belfast, until Phay perked up and with all the confidence in the world said, ‘I’ll drive it.’
When I arrived in Belfast with the band later that day, the truck was perfectly parked and all the gear unloaded and in the venue. ‘You know, Phay, I never knew you had a HGV licence,’ I said. He hit back: ‘I don’t even have a dog licence… The first time I drove an articulated truck was yesterday at the TV studios when I spun it around the car park.’
“His attitude to work hasn’t really changed because if there’s a job that needs doing, it’s definitely going to get done. He never cuts corners or takes shortcuts and always maintains a happy demeanour,” adds McGrath.
“[Phay’s] attitude to work hasn’t really changed because if there’s a job that needs doing, it’s definitely going to get done”
Indeed, leaving his own Mac Mahon-shape on the business, one of Phay’s proudest achievements is seeing his children, Eoin, Ros and Pearl, forging their own successful careers in the production business.
“I’ve worked with all three and tried to whip them into shape,” he tells IQ. “As Ros said, the worst thing you can do is work with your father because you’re a target – he’s always watching you, and you get it way worse than anybody else. And it’s true. I nearly killed all three of them.
“Anyway, they’re all going out with Ed Sheeran this year; all on the video side,” he reveals. “Eoin is the video crew chief, so he’s also in charge of Ros and Pearl. I feel like I’m missing out, so I’ll probably call Chris Marsh to see if he needs a double driver, so I can get the whole family on it…”
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