Legendary Manager Doc McGhee Keynotes The Hell Out of Production Live!’s ‘Fire, Pyro & Blood, Oh My!’ Session

Ray Waddell and Doc McGhee

Ray Waddell and Doc McGhee

To hear legendary and wildly entertaining manager Doc McGhee tell tales of the live industry’s pre-consolidation heyday is to hear incredible stories of rock ‘n’ roll’s swashbuckling glory days filled with hijinks, hilarity and bombast that seemed to reflect his louder-than-hell acts, which have included KISS, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Skid Row and Guns N’ Roses among others. It was, for the industry, a simpler time when concert promoters worldwide numbered perhaps 75 and Doc knew them all, ticket prices were what a beer or surcharge costs now, Vietnam vets set off unpermitted pyrotechnics and hotel destruction was itemized before settling with the front desk.

“We’re in the entertainment business,” McGhee said early on in his lively Production Live! keynote conversation with Ray Waddell, OVG’s president of Media & Conferences, entitled “Fire, Pyro & Blood, Oh My!” “My whole thing has always been, whatever you charge, you give them double the amount of a show. And then you do the right things. And if your band is the best fucking band out there, then everyone will come and see them; and if they’re not, people will go see the best band. So you just have to go and do the best show and entertain those people and make them want to come back.”

McGhee credited his success not to his taste in music per se, but to his ability to spot an artist’s connection with fans. He used a film analogy comparing the Oscar-winning “The Piano,” which he said “nobody saw because it was boring,” to “The Avengers,” which everyone saw. “I’m not a music snob,” he continued. “I don’t pick songs. I don’t know much about music. I look for connections with an artist. When I signed Mötely Crüe in 1982 here at Santa Monica Civic Center, I went to see them. I couldn’t even understand what the fuck they were playing, they were so bad; but I saw 3,000 kids that went fucking out of their minds and bought every piece of merchandise and tore the posters down. I went, ‘I get it, but this isn’t for me.” I don’t get in the hot tub with the wife and put on Shout at the Devil, but I represent something that is important to these kids.”

While big, loud and bombastic production with pyro, strobes and ear-splitting volume were part and parcel of many of McGhee’s acts, not everything always went according to plan. “The idea is if you don’t fail, then you’re not trying,” he said, “so we tried all kinds of shit. With Ozzy we had a catapult that would throw 150 pounds of liver and blood into the audience. Ozzy would explode and throw the blood, but it never dissipated, so it was like a fucking cannonball cast down upon the fans. And we go, ‘Well, that’s not cool.’ We ended up putting Ronnie, a midget, and hung him by the neck and swung him out over the audience. We had to call an audible … ”

Ray Waddell and Doc McGhee

As “Spinal Tap” as it all sounded, there was good reason for McGhee with his artists to try and find compelling production elements to enhance their shows. “There’s a lot of stuff that you try,” he said. “The idea is that you’re out there trying to do production that’s important for people to have fun at a show. … If you do the right production and it’s entertaining, people will come and see you, that’s why we do this.”

McGhee didn’t only manage rock acts. In fact, he worked with a number of non-rock acts including Isaac Hayes, Melanie, Mink DeVille, Bernie Worrell, Phyllis Hyman and a certain legendary Godfather of Soul. “I loved James Brown, I grew up on James Brown, I loved R&B music,” McGhee said. “He was a very interesting, hard-working guy, I never understood what he said, ever, but he worked. He played the Fontainebleau and different theaters … he was a very interesting guy.” McGhee soon realized he couldn’t make any money doing R&B, which was why he went to rock ‘n’ roll.

Reuniting KISS after 17 years apart may have been one of McGhee’s greatest career accomplishments. This involved Paul Stanley, Studio 54, Steve Ferrone and a commitment to put back on their makeup. McGee attributed KISS’ success to Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, whom he called the most “unlikely rock stars that you could have, figuring out that they couldn’t be in a band and wear jeans and T-shirts like everybody else because they didn’t look like rock stars.”

KISS today are still an international juggernaut performing across the globe, doing KISS cruises, and selling merchandise – from KISS-branded condoms to caskets – in ways no other band ever has. In describing their merch strategy, which McGhee is always asked about, he explained the process: “It’s pretty scientific. We find shit people buy and we put KISS on it.”

McGhee spoke of having to move 100 KISS shows for two years, with the tour just now getting to South America, Australia and Europe. “It’s amazing how KISS has turned into Cracker Barrel,” McGhee said, reflecting on next year marking 50 years of KISS and comparing the brand’s longevity to “four generations of people who come to fucking KISS, they all come together and eat.”

Despite the modern touring industry’s corporate efficiency and massive profits, the wizened manager spoke fondly of the independent regional promoters who once ran the business and whom he compared to family members. “There were probably 75 promoters around the world that we lived with that were our partners from Australia to England to all the little towns, 40 different promoters in United States before consolidation.”  Some of the hallowed promoters he name-checked who helped establish this industry included: Don Fox, Bill Graham, Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson, Ron Delsener, Ozzy Hoppe, Mr. Udo, Michael Gudinsky, Rod MacSween, John Jackson, Randy McElrath and Barry Fey.

Pearls of “wisdom” poured fourth from the manager throughout the session, including nuggets like, “Whenever you think you know what you’re doing — duck — you’ll get your ass handed to you.”

When asked if he’s looking at TikTok for bands he said, “I found QTR or quality time remaining, so if it doesn’t fit with quality time remaining, not doing it.” When asked what makes a good tour and production manager, McGhee said, “Have you ever seen ‘A Quiet Place?’ The movie where you can’t speak?’ ‘That’s it, because when you fucking speak, evil shit will kill you, so just keep your mouth shut and do your fucking job. If they can do that it seems to work out much better.”

Though much of the session was light-hearted, when asked if he had fun over the course of his career, McGhee spoke sincerely: “I haven’t had a bad day since my mother dropped me off in kindergarten. I’ve lived a very charmed life. I didn’t know what management was and probably still don’t. I’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of success – an awful lot of fun, for sure.”