She’s with the band:
We chat with the world’s first female roadie.
Not all rock ’n’ roll tales are about screaming fans, gold records and smashed-up guitars. Some of them are about the people who make sure the guitars remain un-smashed, the lighting rigs don’t fall apart, the amps stay standing, no one gets electrocuted too badly, and beautiful noise gets made and heard and experienced and enjoyed. We call them roadies, and even today, around 90 per cent of them are dudes. Female roadies never used to exist at all, until one day in 1973 when they did.
Tana Douglas was a 16-year-old at a popular Sydney gig spot called Whisky a Go Go when she first contemplated a sound desk: what made it work, how it interacted with the guys on stage, what could stuff it up. “It’s my curiosity. I always want to learn more about something,” she explains. “I played guitar, I played drums, but I had no aspiration to be a musician. I never thought, ‘Oh, I'm going to be in a band.’ What did appeal to me was the technical side of it, and the production side. That’s kind of how my brain’s wired… It was like, ‘Oh, what does that do?’”
By her mid-teens, Tana had already escaped a grim family situation, lived in a rainforest, gotten in trouble with the cops, and aided and abetted a French performance artist walking a tightrope across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The way Tana tells it, it’s almost like she was constantly testing stuff. What happens if I run away from home? What happens if I get talking to these music people? What happens if I pick up some gear and help load it into a van? “What happens is the next 30 years of your life are going to be a blur, that’s what happens,” she laughs.
Tana’s first shot at roadie life came by accident, helping get a stage bumped out so her friend could catch a lift with the equipment van. Then she moved to Melbourne to do backline for a band called Fox – looking after all their amps, instruments, mic stands and cables, and all the rest of the stuff that goes into putting on a show. We tend to think of roadies toting equipment around, but there’s more to it than that.
“The original term was ‘roadie’, and that was pretty much just lugging stuff,” Tana says. “Usually the roadie got the gig because he had a van, or his dad had a van, or they had some way of transporting the equipment to the next show so the band didn’t have to deal with it. That’s kind of how it started in the ’60s.”
But by the 1970s, things were starting to evolve. A roadie could be “the person who looked after the band and carried their bags for them, the person who drove the truck, or the person who set up the drums and the guitars in the backline”. It could also be the people on sound and lighting. There was a stigma attached – Tana remembers decades of being labelled as a “stinky, smelly roadie”. But it had also become a solid profession: “You could say, ‘I do this. This is what I do full-time, 100 per cent of the time. I don’t need a day job.’” When the Fox job looked like it was coming to an end, someone mentioned a new band moving to Melbourne that was in need of a roadie. Their management had organised a house for the musos and road crew to live in, and they were looking to smash through a tonne of gigs. At 17, Tana was up for the challenge, so she went to meet the music makers: a couple of brothers and three other guys, who’d just cut a record. The band was called AC/DC. As it turned out, they weren’t half bad at this rock ’n’ roll stuff.
Tana was happy to have a roof over her head that wasn’t her mum’s. “I never had a good relationship with her, so the sooner I could get out of there, the better,” she says. “And the Young brothers [Malcolm and Angus], they’re so family-orientated, it was never awkward. I think they really liked the fact I was a girl, because they were missing their sisters.”
Tana says working with a band often feels like being part of a family, especially when you’re out on the road, spending all that time together, relying on everyone else for work, and support, and whatever variety of good times you want to indulge in. AC/DC were working hard – sometimes playing four gigs a night – and for Tana it was a string of firsts. First time working a festival, first time supporting a band on telly, first punch-on with another band. (Yes, really.) And though she didn’t know it at the time, she was also busy being the world’s first female roadie. A fact that came with its own share of hassles.
“Being a female, it was like, ‘What is that? What is she doing? Why is she there?’ A typical example was when we played Sunbury Festival. Security wouldn’t let me backstage. I’m going, ‘No, no, I’m with the band, AC/DC.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you’d best go find the band then.’ I said, ‘Not like that. I’m here to set up the equipment.’ And this big security guy crossed his arms and pushed his chest out and said, ‘I’ll tell you one more time, little lady, and then I’m going to remove you from here.’” As it turned out, another roadie saw what was going on and vouched for her, so she managed to get on stage. “But he wouldn’t take my word for it, because I was just a female.”
To get by, Tana says she dressed, worked and swore like the boys. Dealing with hecklers could be “intimidating”, and there was an assumption that any woman backstage must be a groupie. But she loved this world, and took pride in doing the best job she could for her bands. “I didn’t want to stand out as a girl,” she says. “I wanted to stand out as a crew person.”
Tana started to specialise in lighting with AC/DC, and went on to work for different touring companies in Europe and America. She hit the road with musicians like Status Quo, Iggy Pop,
The Who, Ozzy Osbourne, Elton John and INXS. Backstage, of course, were adventures and heartbreaks and a life being lived in a way most people couldn’t understand. Up front, though, a revolution was going on. The music industry was evolving, and so was the lighting. When Tana started, they used theatre lights hidden in black fabric. Then the lights were made of aluminium. Then an arms race broke out among bands to get bigger, brighter, more epic.
“There were the trusses – we started lighting through these structures of beams, so you see all these huge things, and the audience would go nuts!” she remembers. “Then we started moving trusses around, up and down, during the show. We had people up in them doing solo spots and things like that, so the lighting became a living part of the show.” One record Tana still holds is running the biggest lighting rig ever: 6000 components for French pop star Johnny Hallyday. That’s a lot of sparkle.
When the 1990s came around, Tana was in Los Angeles (where she still lives) and moving into tour logistics. Productions had gotten big: six to 10 semi-trailers worth of equipment went into every show and had to be moved across the world, in planes, ships and trucks, through customs checks and borders and snowstorms and breakdowns. Tana had clients playing Lollapalooza each year, and each time she’d see a few more girls backstage doing production work – a few more roadie sisters to add to the family.
These days, Tana spends her time mentoring young women entering the music industry, and doing consulting work for new bands and festivals. As a pioneering female roadie, things were sometimes tough. But it was all in the service of rock. “I love the music,” she says, “or I wouldn’t put myself through it.”
Read more of Tana’s story and tour bus adventures in her memoir,
LOUD: A life in rock ’n’ roll by the world’s first female roadie, out
February 11, 2021 through ABC Books.