From The Clash and Queen to energising the UAE’s concert scene – Lee Charteris has certainly gathered no moss and has seen the art of live performances from all angles
Touring with bands for a living, unlimited backstage passes and rubbing elbows with musical icons – that is the ultimate rock and roll dream that music lovers would trade their nine-to-five jobs for in a heartbeat.
For Lee Charteris, current vice-president of operations for the Abu Dhabi-based live events company FLASH Entertainment, that fantasy became a reality – and it’s a career he’s been dreaming of since falling in love with music as a young boy.
“I used to stay up late and watch The Old Grey Whistle Test, a British television music show that plays non-chart music and features live performances of artists with bare walls as the only background,” the Birmingham native recalls.“I was 12 maybe. I knew then that I wanted to be in music.”
Lee’s early love of melodies inspired him to pick up the bass guitar. Despite being part of a local band for a short time, he soon realised that he might not cut it as a musician.
With his rock star ambitions out the window, he hatched a less glamorous – albeit more practical – plan, try and befriend some musicians and then hang out with them.
Plan B was put into motion when his parents drove a 15-year-old Lee to see John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett – the British folk duo known for their single Really Free – in Cheltenham in 1977.
“I met the band and crew and didn’t come home for a week. That sounds a bit Almost Famous but that’s pretty much what happened!” he laughs.
The following year, Lee love of music took him to New York working as a roadie for John Otway’s tour when punk exploded onto the mainstream scene. Like most youngsters at the time, he was captivated by the anarchic attitude embodied by bands like the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys.
While in the US in the Eighties, Lee met a man who was involved with the seminal punk band The Clash and scored a spot with the crew in London. Lee worked for the band during their 16 Tons tour, which coincided with the release of the group’s critically acclaimed album, London Calling.
“I don’t suppose I thought about the legacy that The Clash would leave when it was all going on; we were kids,” Lee recalls. although he did recognise the band’s “immensely powerful” energy.
“Soon after that I became a roadie for Queen. We were on the road for a year and a half. After that I could almost write my own ticket.”
Each of Lee’s roadie stints with these iconic artists helped shape his perception of what live entertainment should be. Of course the late, great Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and his flair for theatrics made a lasting impression on Lee – as Freddie did on the rest of the world.
“He was a great guy and fabulous entertainer,” Lee says of the flamboyant singer-songwriter. “I learned early on in my career about creating a spectacle, the magic of a show. They were truly great showmen and pioneered the massive production lights and sound that are commonplace today.”
Quick as a flash
While working for Queen may seem like a career highlight, Lee continued to work his way up the production ladder and in 1997 established his own company directing, managing and promoting shows for big names like Pet Shop Boys, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Fatboy Slim.
It was while producing a concert for Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveShow world tour at Emirates Palace in 2007 that Lee decided to indefinitely stay in the UAE.
“I met FLASH CEO John Lickrish, although we knew each other from the dance music scene in North America as he represented a lot of the big DJs at the time. He asked
me to work here, and that’s when it all started.”
Since joining the company, Lee has been involved in bringing an influx of top international acts to the capital including Beyonce, Aerosmith, Metallica, Eric Clapton, Sting, Black Sabbath, Robbie Williams, Blur and Paul McCartney.
Lee’s job is to oversee the operational and technical details of the shows beginning from the planning stages to the actual performances, and that includes security measures to ensure safety of the artists and fans.
“There is a huge infrastructure around the business of producing shows,” Lee explains. “I think FLASH has played a massive part in building that infrastructure in the UAE.
“There are literally hundreds of folks involved in our events – and yes, lots of mentoring and hand-holding has taken place along the way.
“The music business is pretty small; it’s run by a few people, and word of mouth is very important. When the artist gets back home we want them to say to their agent, manager and musician friends, ‘I went to Abu Dhabi, it was fantastic and I want to go back.’”
While Lee notes the Rolling Stones’ 2014 visit as one of his favourites, he also admits that Coldplay’s 2009 concert didn’t go according to plan, but says it was still one of the best the team has produced.
“The band performed in the pouring rain and it made for one of the best live atmospheres. Nobody wanted to leave even though everyone was drenched; some were putting plastic bags on their heads and still singing along – it was incredible!”
Having been so intricately involved with some of the biggest stars in modern music history, you’d think Lee would be slowing down.
Not for a minute.
“Adele, U2, of course,” he says beginning to rattle off the wish list of stars he’d love to see perform in the UAE, “but as a promoter it’s always about the next big thing.”
For Lee, part of the job’s excitement is the unpredictability that comes with every performance. You roll with the punches, as they say.
“On a regular basis, 98 percent goes right and two percent goes wrong. You’ve got to focus on what goes right. I am glad to be part of a team that brings joy to people. After nearly 40 years in the job I’m still looking and learning about events. I love seeing the start of any show – I still get a tingle.”
From ridiculous demands to wild backstage parties, Lee debunks some of the popular myths surrounding live concerts…
Dressing room demands
“The silly things on riders, yes, sometimes you get them. One example is a request for a gold calculator. Why would you need a gold calculator? But those things existed more so before than they do now. Yeah you get them but it’s not what everybody expects. They make for good stories, though.”
“For most artists it’s about getting in a zone and quite often it’s about physical or mental preparation. Some would want to go for a run – we build running tracks and trampolines, if that’s what they want – or do yoga. It depends on the artists. But they all have a method so that when they go on stage, they’re ready to be an entertainer.”
Post-concert revelry (or lack of it!)
“Most of the acts that we booked are on the plane after the show. The majority of international flights in Abu Dhabi leave at 2am. So they come off the stage at 11pm, take a shower and are ready to check out of the hotel.
“Some even checked out before they came to the venue, or while they’re performing somebody’s checking them out and loading their stuff in the car.”