Approximately 18,000 fans will pack the Spectrum tonight to see the British rock band Queen strut its stuff. Most of them will take for granted the regal array of lights, rigging, stage and sound equipment that illumine, frame and otherwise project the quartet’s elaborate aura.
But at a time when only a handful of pop acts can afford to mount major concert tours, the logistics of moving, staging and re-moving these extravaganzas fall to such fire-tried experts as Gerry Stickells, without whom the Queen fans might have nothing to cheer about.
While Stickells is one of those be-hind-the-scenes rock people who’ll probably never make the cover of Rolling Stone, this soft-spoken 38-year-old Englishman is widely recognized as the top tour and production manager in the business.
In addition to shepherding the last few Queen tours —- which have em-ployed everything from a 5,000-pound electric crown to new lightings ystems of truly awesome intensity — Stickells’ company has done the same for acts diverse as Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and Abba. He’s in steady demand, but can now afford the selectivity that comes with a peerless reputation.
“You do this sort of thing for the money as much as anything, but if \it’s a tour that’s going to make life particularly difficult, I’d rather not,” said Stickells by phone the other day from New York City. He’d reached the mid-point of Queen’s 44-city American tour, and he sounded tired but in good humor. The tour was progressing “pretty smoothly,” or at least as smoothly as any operation that runs almost daily on four 44-foot trailers, two buses, private aircraft, and with 22 technicians and enough lighting and sound equipment to suck up “several million watts” of electricity. The ultimate cost of the entire production will probably exceed $1million, and it’s not likely that Queen will do much more than break even financially, although major rock tours than anything else are designed to generate album sales -in this case, for Queen’s latest Elektra disc, “The Game”. With recession forcing virtually everybody’s hands these daysQueen and Stickells had to cut on the sort of lavish show their audiences expect?
“We haven’t cut back in that area at all,” said Stickells. “We’ve just had to spend a little more time packaging and planning it. We’ve just cut corners wherever possible in terms of being on the road.” As Stickells tells it, the current Queen show is ac-tually “very revolutionary, very dif-ferent” in its use of lighting. The staging is dominated by a huge swivel arm which features several racks of lighting on one end, spot-lights and their operators on the other. The device can swing in a half-circle around the stage, and the spotlight operators can illuminate the various members of Queen from as dose as 10 and as far as 50 feet away. “It’s impossible to describe, really, but the effect is unique,” said Stickells.
Stickells described his early self as a “drifter” who landed a job in the late 1960s with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “At that time, no one had any idea how huge Jimi would become,” recalled Stickells, who drove the Hendrix band’s around England for a meager $30 per week. He served as Hendrix’s tour manager until the rock star’s death in the early 70s, then became presi-dent of Hendrix’s Electric Lady Stu-dios in New York, and eventually formed GLS Productions with tour managing partner Chris Lamb.
“I don’t think that the logistical problems are what makes this work hard to do,” reflected Stickells. “After ali, it’s your job to deal with them. The hardest thing is dealing with the personalities involved, but once you become used to artists’ moods, you can usually stay a step ahead. And I don’t spend too much time listening to the music. I’m too wrapped up in the practical matters.”