Sound Management

For Jack Calmes, rock ’n’roll is business as usual - about $5 million worth.

Tonight in Des Moines, or Madison Square Garden, or Sydney, there’ll be a rock concert. The kids have been saving money for weeks to pay for tickets, working at the Burger King or cutting lawns or babysitting. The coliseum where the athletes play has been changed into an amplifier emporium faster than you can set up your own stereo, and tucked away in it here and there are sound mixing control boards with too many switches to understand. Half an hour before concert time, the smoke from both kinds of cigarettes has begun to climb among several tons of recently suspended lighting. Then it’s show time, and the musicians preen in sequined jumpsuits, playing their new hit almost exactly as it’s played on the radio 16 times a day. Spotlights and lasers shear the smoke in 500 strokes. An aircraft searchlight prowls over the crowd, and when the light is in the right position, you might see that the guy behind the mixing board is wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Showco, Inc.”

Just off Regal Row lie four blockish buildings; their plaques read Showco, too. Inside, a maze of hallways is pocked with small offices, where engineers hover over drafting tables and electronics manuals strain the shelving. Secretaries are buzzing on typewriters or telephones. The mass of paper on the president’s desk is well arranged, as are the modern paintings on the walls of his spacious office.

But some things set Showco apart from most Dallas businesses. In the hallways, foyers, and conference room, where you’d expect severe portraits of corporate founders, are photos of an open-shirted Mick Jagger, scenes from concert spectacles, various gold and platinum records. And if your hair is short, it seems shorter after you meet a few of Showco’s people, including Jack Calmes, the president.

Calmes, Jack Maxson, and Rusty Brutsche are partners and working managers of Showco; all are in their middle thirties. Calmes is as cool in manner as a major corporation board member, but his appearance would indicate otherwise. Maxson, a soft-spoken, blond-haired man, reminds one of a careful artist, and Brutsche is an engineer. His words are forceful; his statements are clear and direct. Those who know the three men regard them as proficient entrepreneurs. Their company, employing about 150 people with sales of about 5 million dollars this year, is not big business. What is remarkable about Showco is that nothing quite like it was imagined 12 years ago, when rock and roll was a rallying cry for the young and when revolution was in the air.

Rock and roll’s link to African and American Negro music was part of its appeal to disaffected young whites. But Bill Haley and the Comets came across as a radical alternative to Frank Sinatra only in live performance. The Comets sounded benign on records, but film clips of an early Haley concert show the audience destroying tables and chairs in a frenzy. And Elvis’ driving love songs could not have been fully appreciated until one had seen him gyrate his hips in a way which, even today, is remarkably suggestive. Chuck Berry’s duck walk, splits, and slithering guitar-neck work were infamous well before Ed Sullivan let us see Beatle boots and haircuts.

In 1963, Jack Calmes was beginning his senior year at SMU, majoring in business finance and accounting. He liked this new music. For several years, he had even been playing guitar and singing in his own rock and roll band, the Jades, at fraternity bashes and socialite parties. But none of the new talents in rock and roll were coming to Dallas. It’s not that anyone had anything against Dallas in particular; organized, comprehensive tours were just a rarity at the time. The big name groups were glued to their havens on the coasts. Calmes and a friend, Angus Wynne III, decided to do some unsticking: The occasion would be Texas/OU weekend.

“Jack had Chuck Berry’s phone number,” Wynne told me. “We called him up, fixed a price, and signed a contract. We put flyers and handbills all over the campuses, and we hired guys to go out with us at night and paper cars in school and apartment lots.

“We rented the biggest place in town at the time, Market Hall, but we really weren’t prepared for this enormous cave. We rented every Voice of the Theatre speaker we could find. It was an acoustical disaster, but people didn’t know what concert sound was then; it hadn’t been developed. The echo was horrendous. You could hear every sound two or three times.

“As it turned out, there were a lot of people who came to that first show. I think 4500 showed up, and we were literally overrun. We had set up little tables that people were supposed to walk through, but a couple of times they came through in tides. We had virtually no security. They came to dance, get drunk, and basically have a good time. I think the best way to describe them would be to say that they were a comically belligerent bunch.”

The show was a financial as well as a popular success, and the two kids decided to keep a good thing going. Over the next five years, they had nine more Market Hall smashes, and in 1968 hired 10 name bands to play one of the college shows. In 1964, Calmes and Wynne incorporated under the name of Showco. In its first year, Showco booked the Beach Boys for Dallas, and in 1965, both the Doors and Bob Dylan. It was Dylan’s first concert west of the Mississippi, and Calmes and Wynne are still proud of having arranged his visit. In 1966 Janis Joplin came as the featured singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Showco was off and running, although Calmes was still playing rock and roll with a local group, Society.

During this period, the Beatles demonstrated the longstanding rule of rock and roll: Its vitality depended on live, energetic performances – performances which could draw the audience into the spirit of the music’s rebellion. After the Beatles’ 1966 tour, which transformed Shea Stadium into a mob scene and put Beatles records atop the charts, recording firms began to require their musicians to set out on the road.

At the time, one would have expected rock and roll bands to rebel against such a corporate ultimatum. It wasn’t fun to wake up to a desk clerk, eat motel breakfasts, and read Gideon’s. But more importantly, relations between rock punks and record companies had always been strained. For musicians, association with the companies was a matter of unpleasant necessity. The recording firms were the only ones who could cut and distribute records.

It was remarkable that rock bands hit the concert circuit with minimal prodding and financial support. It marked a significant change in the apparent values of rock and roll musicians, a change which would ultimately alter the entire rebellious folk character of rock performance. The bands wanted big money.

Back in Dallas, Jack Calmes and Angus Wynne were committed to the performance of live rock in Dallas. And like the young promoters of Woodstock, they were thinking big.

Two weeks after Woodstock in 1969, the Texas Pop Festival featured a lengthy string of the most popular rock groups in the country; the promoter was Showco. Wynne had gone to Woodstock and learned from its mistakes. In the end, the arrangements in Dallas were so carefully prepared that the festival, although a three-day outdoor affair, went off without a hitch. All necessary food and medical services were adequately provided for, Bill Hanley’s massive sound system was brought in from Woodstock to ensure that all could hear, and the fences held up. Unlike Woodstock, where hundreds of thousands of people poured in free and the promoters took a financial bath, the Texas Pop Festival seemed relatively businesslike, and it was widely assumed to have been a financial success. It was not. Calmes and Wynne had done well for kids in their twenties, but they were not wealthy, and they could not absorb the $ 100,000 deficit run up in the course of the festival. Frustrated and discouraged, the pair split up and Showco was just a name for the rest of 1969. Wynne went off thinking about a real-estate license, and Calmes found a new way to stay involved with music.

In the early days of touring, bands relied on two factors to keep the show on the road: roadies, and a built-in concert-hall PA system. The roadies, usually close friends or relatives of band members, were charged with transferring the bands’ personal amplification equipment from city to city, and with the equipment’s set-up, maintenance and performance. Sound would also be wired through the PA systems of whatever hall they happened to be playing in. Except in unusual circumstances, this combination was adequate to enable the audience to hear a performance.

But the house PA systems did not reproduce sound nearly as well as a home stereo system. If the bands were to coax the audience into both repeated attendance and record purchases, they had to get better amplification equipment than house PAs.

Calmes understood this quite clearly. “The musicians were getting tired of bad sound. Their own systems would be just shutting off every performance; they didn’t like to give the crowd a bad show. As a musician myself, I understood their frustration.” In short, the roadies, “those wire-twisting hippies” as they were called by one of Calmes’ later associates, were becoming obsolete.

And at the Texas Pop Festival, which put Showco under, Calmes learned a lot about sound amplification. “When I saw how much money Bill Hanley got for doing the sound at the Texas Pop Festival and at Woodstock, it set me thinking. Hanley didn’t get burned at either festival, although the rest of us did. And Hanley was just about the only guy in the country with access to enough equipment needed for the big shows. What’s more, although Hanley’s sound was superb for the day, it would still go off three or four times a concert. He’d be sitting there soldering the lines together half an hour before the concert. It was a joke. He was completely disorganized. And it wasn’t that he couldn’t teach somebody to help him run the system; he just wouldn’t! So I knew it could be done better. And if it could be done better, we’d have all the business we could possibly want.”

For Calmes, the possible rebirth of Showco as a concert production company was a business risk, pure and simple.

Calmes’ gamble appeared riskier in 1970 than today. In effect, he was betting that the stars singing about drug trips and revolution were really rich businessmen, and therefore secretly desired to be treated that way. “Right from the start,” Calmes said, “the basic philosophy was simple. Give the customers what they want. They’re rich and they’re temperamental, but I knew we could do it.” He was sure he could become bigger than anyone else, and he was right: Nobody else was even trying. None of the “wire-twisting hippies” who made up the small road companies would have imagined assuming more than a facade of business-like organization. And no self-respecting businessman would have been caught dead dealing with a “counter-culture” spokesman. In retrospect, it looks like a textbook business gamble.

Calmes had no technical mastery, and he needed some people to rely on. Rusty Brutsche was the bass player in the band he was playing in. On occasion Brutsche and Calmes had rented their band’s sound system – and Brutsche’s mechanical wizardry to get it all working – to local groups. Brutsche listened to what he later called “Calmes’ crazy ideas.” He was just crazy enough himself to quit his job at Texas Instruments and join Calmes. Jack Maxson, a first-rate recording engineer and sound mixer, “had just gotten screwed in the jingle business”; he joined in too. In early 1970, the three entrepreneurs retrieved Showco’s name from the shelf and entered into partnership.

The partners’ first major job was a local show for Leslie West and Mountain. Max-son and Brutsche haven’t forgotten that night. Brutsche tells the story.

“We went to JBL, the speaker company, and said, ’We want to do this rock and roll show. Design us your ultimate sound system.’ I’ll never forget it. They came up with this system that they said would cover any 3000-seat hall, so Maxson and I bought it. So we set it up and tuned it up and Leslie West got there and we thought, boy, this is really it. We’ve done it. And on top of our system, Leslie drove in with about a semi full of guitar amplifiers. The entire stage from wall to wall was Sunn amplifiers, and of course, then there were our own up front.

“So Leslie hit the first note. And guess what. You couldn’t hear a goddamn thing. Leslie snarled down at us (we were in the orchestra pit mixing this show) and he kicked the microphone right off the stage on top of us.

“That was the end of JBL’s do-all sound system. It really drove home that we were embarking into an area that nobody knew anything about.”

Undaunted, Maxson and Brutsche went back to JBL and began working on a system that could generate enough sound to please the bands.

But Calmes wasn’t really bothered by the Leslie West fiasco. He realized that generating enough power was not in itself an insurmountable problem. Jack Maxson, the sound man, could find some combination of speakers that would do the trick.

Calmes realized that the problem wasn’t in getting speakers, but in handling all that power once they got it. When the roadies added more power for a bigger hall, they patched it in. When a speaker blew out, they had to patch it in again. Each alteration was a painstaking process which required a soldering gun and sophisticated understanding of the equipment.

In Maxon’s garage, which served as Showco’s workshop, Calmes told Brutsche what he wanted: a system which could be easily moved and serviced, a system which could be set up by stagehands. In short, what Calmes wanted was a system – in a business where none had existed before.

Brutsche understood what Calmes wanted, and he built all those characteristics around the new speakers that Maxson was leasing. His idea was to assemble the cabinets in a uniform, modular way, so that pieces were interchangable. As surprising as it may seem, this simple, effective organization of the apparatus had never been done before.

Although the system had never been tested, Calmes was on the telephone, hustling a vision of dependable, high-powered, road-worthy sound amplification to bands and their managers. The bands had never seen a hustler in sound amplification before. Three Dog Night, planning a major concert tour, contracted Showco almost immediately.

The early Three Dog Night shows were successful in the sense that they went off with unprecedented organizational smoothness. Many described the sound as “muddy and mid-rangy,” implying that it was not as good as the sound offered by many of the conventional road companies. But it didn’t seem to matter all that much. Before Three Dog Night had gotten halfway through their tour, Led Zeppelin signed a contract with Showco for an impending tour. Although Maxson was still out on the road, Brutsche and Calmes leased some more speakers and built another system. Brutsche met the group at the first show, on time and well prepared. To build a system on request, and furthermore, on credit, was unheard of.

Showco grew with amazing speed. In 1971, the partners received a contract to do the sound for the national tours of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and in one fell swoop, doubled their number of systems from three to six. That many systems controlled by one firm gave rise to severe criticism of Showco by the small sound companies.

They argued that because Showco had so many systems, the people who owned and understood the systems best could not travel with every show. The customer, the roadie craftsmen argued, would be shortchanged. The argument was valid, for Showco found that it was one thing to have six good systems, and quite another to find technicians who would run them well. In 1971, Showco had some problems with their personnel on the road, and so discovered the true difficulty of offering a packaged service: maintaining the quality while increasing the number of customers. Therefore, despite the fact that Showco rapidly and continually increased the dollar volume of its business throughout the Seventies, the company rarely has more than five or six shows on the road at any one time, even today.

A second criticism leveled against Showco was that the quality of its sound was not good. The small companies prided themselves on their sensitive appreciation of amplified sound, and their ability to detect subtle differences in tonal quality that would by-pass an amateur. In effect, the small companies were suggesting that Showco was amateurish. And in terms of sound quality, it probably was.

But the fact of the matter was that many bands at the time were more concerned with sound volume than sound quality. Using Brutsche’s modular system, Showco could offer high volumes with comparative ease and extraordinary reliability.

Of course, after a while the high volume “blow out” performance lost its appeal, but by the time some restraint on volume level came into vogue, Showco had covered itself. Rock groups were traditionally forced to contract separate lighting and sound companies for their tours. Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s manager and reportedly one of the more businesslike ones, asked Showco to assume responsibility for both lighting and sound services for the group’s 1973 tour. Calmes readily agreed, recognizing the addition of lighting as a logical extension of Showco’s service. Calmes also recognized that added service to one client could compensate for the fact that few clients could be serviced at one time.

Showco’s people discovered that concert lighting was in about the same shape that concert sound had been when Showco began. The lighting companies were generally disorganized, and the lighting services were unnecessarily labor intensive. With the first application of Showco’s rationale (organize the technology to control performance) to lighting on the 1973 Zeppelin tour, Showco revolutionized the technology, and so, ultimately, the lighting industry. Brutsche explains.

“When we started in lighting, everything was pieces of black pipe and C clamps. Every show, you’d have to put the pieces of pipe in a big round base and C clamp each light on. It took hours. Then the thing would be real wobbly and you’d have to go up to the ceiling and drop a rope to keep it from falling over. That’s where lighting was.

“So we designed this pneumatic tower on the basis of something we saw in New York called an Air Genie. All the lights were already on it and the wires were already hooked up. You pushed a button and the lighting was up. It took you five minutes, you know?”

As the volume levels of concert sound began to level off, and in some cases, decline, the rock bands sought out new ways to make performances entertaining. Sensational lighting provided by Showco and one or two competitors in the lighting field served the bands’ purposes admirably. But sensationalism demands constant novelty. It therefore became necessary for Showco to explore and execute ever more sophisticated ways to create visual spectacle. Lasers were introduced on the Zeppelin tour in 1973, suspended lighting trusses shortly thereafter. Most recently, a completely automated light show was included in the 1979 Bee Gees “tour package.”

But lighting was not the only way that Showco sought to enhance and control the visual character of performance: Large screens were erected on stage which could show close-ups of performers or taped scenes of, for example, the direct approach of a railroad train. A Showco engineer explained the intent of Showco’s in-concert video presentations. “Take Detroit, for example. I think one of the reasons we’ve done so much video work up there is that Detroit crowds are notorious for being kind of rambunctious. And obviously in a large stadium which holds sixty or seventy thousand people, people have even more opportunity to mill about and forget what’s going on on stage. If you have a large screen up there, where they can relate to what’s going on on stage, and enjoy it, and watch it, then it helps that crowd. I think it’s a crowd control thing . . .’cause it’s incredible. I’ve seen the kids in the front row being virtually crushed by the onslaught. It’s incredible what they do.” Record companies were so worried about the possibility of such tragedies that they would occasionally break the traditional rule of financial segregation from the bands’ tours to secure video presentations in especially “rambunctious” cities.

From the beginning, Showco was the Cadillac of a developing industry, servicing the most famous groups with the most money and the most potential to benefit from touring. This was not because the company was biased against small groups; in fact, it welcomed newcomers. But it was the well established groups that sought out Showco’s services, because these groups understood the financial plums of touring in spectacular style.

A kink in the Showco story occurred in 1976, when Showco, as one partner put it, was “without a peer.” It seemed that even the general public had caught onto the concept of a sophisticated, controlled, theatrical concert. So why hadn’t the other firms? Brutsche explained their general feeling that year. “We lost faith in our basic industry. We thought one day we’d look over our shoulder and the concert industry would just have evaporated.”

In part, this was attributable to the fact that Showco as a company had been in virtual isolation for years. “The banking community never could understand us, and they still don’t today,” Maxson said. The only banker who had lent money to Showco before 1976 was a small bank president who made the loan over the objections of his board of directors. “All these people were saying we were not in a legitimate industry,” Calmes said, “and we began to get the feeling that we had to legitimize ourselves .’’ They began to wonder if they really were just a bunch of poorly disguised hippie sound men.

So they diversified – into video concert recording, into concert sound recording, into artist management, into the manufacture of disco equipment, home stereos, and mixing boards; they even designed the Reunion Tower light show. And all at about the same time.

The mistake in terms of conventional business ideology was enormous. While the giant of the market in concert production at the time “without a peer in sight,” they still held only a six percent share of the market. They were relatively cash-short, and they weren’t quite sure what they were getting into. Showco proceeded blindly, and in classic form, tripped. When they managed to pick themselves up in late 1978, they discovered that two companies in sound, lighting, and staging had shown up on the field, spoiling for a bit of gentlemanly technological warfare. Immediately, Showco stopped emphasizing its diversification plans.

The partners feel a little foolish today for having doubted the strength of Calmes’ original insight: Rock and roll became an industry the first day a rock and roll millionaire was made. As Brutsche points out, “Most of the sound companies back then were run by hippies, but the only ones that survived weren’t. Everybody in business today is a businessman.” It took a little patience on Showco’s part, but the hippies, after all, were the ones to evaporate.

The record companies have just scraped through a tough year, and it’s rumored that a lot of the smaller concert production companies may go under, like many of the smaller record companies have. But the Showco partners aren’t worried anymore. As one partner says “It’s a billion dollar industry; record companies like CBS aren’t going to go under. And as long as groups like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney are around, there’ll be people going to Showco concerts.”

In early December 1979, eleven peoplewere trampled to death trying to get into aShowco concert of The Who in Cincinnati.It would appear that Showco knows what it’s talking about.


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