Like any great explorer, I had to find out what was embedded in the grooves of this mysterious disc. Why did I pick up this particular record? I didn’t know. But for some strange, unknown reason, something made me do it.
Lunch could wait. I put the record on the turntable, slipped on my headphones and listened to the opening beats. A chill ran up my spine as the bass ramped up and the lead singer belted out the first verse.
As the first track played, I said to myself, “That’s some pretty damn good rock and roll.” The next track came on. Oh my God! Goose bumps tingled all over my arms and the hair stood on end. I felt that old familiar gnawing in my gut. This could be a major hit! Track three played, and now I was really hooked. Well, hooked wasn’t exactly the right word. I was MESMERIZED. I stared at the vinyl as it spun round and round on the turntable. The next song started, and now my legs were shaking, and the chill bumps tingled all over my body. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! EVERY song I heard had the same effect.
At this point, I was in a trance. After the second side finished, I decided that I HAD to listen again. IMMEDIATELY!
So I wouldn’t be bothered, I told my assistant to hold my calls. I closed my door so I can give it a second listen. I wanted to make sure my ears weren’t deceiving me. I cranked up the volume to the max. Believe it or not, it sounded even better on the second listening. The blazing rock guitars and killer vocals in my headphones were flying left to right, and right to left. It was impeccably produced. The harmonies were beautiful, the lead guitar player was something like I hadn’t heard in years. Simply put, the lead singer blew my mind!
As I continued to listen, I found myself mentally and physically moved to action by the music I heard. Every song on the LP was fantastic! The lyrics and integrated rhythms were incredibly complex and varied. At the same time, it was straight on killer rock and roll. There were no repeating chords in any of the songs. Every song was original and unique. I had no idea who the vocalist was, or the name of the band that was backing him. I just knew this album was absolutely awesome and I was captivated.
The LP ended. I stared at it. I knew I had just heard something life-changing and extraordinary! Who were these guys?? It was pretty much like when I was fifteen years old in Memphis and heard The Rolling Stones for the first time. I ran to the record store to buy their album, but the store had never heard of them. My response to the clerk back then was, “Well, you better order some copies because they’re going to be big.”
That’s how I felt about the album I just heard. Exactly the same!
It took me a few minutes to pull myself out of my hypnotic trance. I leapt out of my chair and up on my feet. Excited with all the possibilities, I slipped the album back into its paper sleeve and hurried to Charlie’s office.
I had to wait outside Charlie’s office, because he was working the phones like a man possessed. Charlie held out his hand and mouthed, “Just a minute.” His bell outside his door was ringing endlessly as the radio “adds” rolled in.
Finally, Charlie laid the phones down and motioned for me to come inside. “What’s up, Jon?”
I held up the record album. “Who are these guys?”
Charlie examined the record, studied the handwritten inscription on the back of the dust jacket and smiled. “I know these guys. Hold on.” He went to his shelf and pulled down a copy that had a proper cover. The lead singer was razor-thin, had long blond hair and was dressed in black leather and wearing bullets around his neck. Some might have thought he was a punk rocker from his appearance. It didn’t matter to me. I thought he was great.
“These guys aren’t going anywhere,” said Charlie. “Their career has been dead for eight months and we don’t really want to waste any more money on them again. End of story.”
My mouth dropped open. My heart fell to the floor. I was stunned.
“But, Charlie,” I said. “I’ve got a feeling about this group—,”
Charlie frowned and shook his head. With his brows furrowed, he looked at the album, then back at me. “Jon, this is another Johnny Cougar. DON’T get interested.”
“Buddy, I told you, it’s a record that’s been out for 8 months. We tried to work a single on it and we just couldn’t get it played.”
“Did anybody play it?” I asked.
“Well, a few stations played it, most notably KSAN in San Francisco and WBCN Boston. But it’s only sold about 12,000 copies and never made the charts. We’ll probably drop this band because we’ve already spent a lot of money on them and literally NOTHING has happened.” Charlie motioned to the album. “Jon, look at the cover of the album. Radio programmers have told us it’s just another punk rock band with no future.”
I was speechless. I could not believe it. I had just heard a record that zinged me into outer orbit and Charlie was telling me they were going to drop the band from the label.
I silently prayed that I was not going to experience another Johnny Cougar episode. I knew that if I pursued this, I’d have a fight on my hands. But I believed in this guy. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were going to be major stars.
My voice choked up. “Charlie, you can’t drop this band until you let me take a shot at getting it played. You called on me when I worked in radio and you know I have a great ear for rock music and this is by far some of the BEST ROCK MUSIC I’ve EVER heard in my life.”
“In your life?”
“In my LIFE!” I nodded emphatically.
He looked back down at the album.
At this point, I started to beg, “Please, give me six weeks to see what I can do.”
Charlie leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. He contemplated for a few seconds. In Charlie “time,” that was the equivalent to a week. I could tell he was reluctant.
But to Charlie’s credit, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “O.K., buddy, I’ll give you six weeks. But, Jon, I am way over budget on this project, so we can’t spend a dime to promote this record. That means no ads in the trades, no budget, no ANYTHING!”
For a brief second I thought that maybe I had painted myself into a corner. But, I had confidence in my ears and I believed my gut and my chill bumps when I heard something that incredible.
I had six weeks. The clock was ticking. I scurried back to my office and started making calls to some of my rock radio buddies. I asked each and every one of them if they had ever heard of this band. Every time, I got the same answer. No.
Sadly, only a very few people knew this band. How was this possible? I was mystified as to why, so I checked the ABC release schedule for the last year. This record was released along with 32 other albums at the same time. It was one of 32? You gotta be kidding! For the most part, it had obviously been buried and overlooked.
At this point, I knew my work was cut out for me. I needed help and I needed it fast. Suddenly, it came out of nowhere.
In what would be a twist of fate, one of my closest friends, Charlie Kendall, had just moved to Los Angeles as Program Director for KWST-FM, a new rock station in Los Angeles. KWST was going against the Mighty Met, KMET-FM. It was not going to be an easy task, as KMET had a strong hold on the FM dial for rock music. Every rocker listened to KMET—the station picked their own music; their deejays had great personalities and were funnier than hell.
Charlie Kendall and I went way back. “How about if I come over and see your new Sunset Strip apartment?” I asked him when I called.
“Sure, how about seven o’clock tonight?”
“I’ll be there!” I couldn’t wait to see my longtime friend! Naturally, I was going to bring along a copy of my new favorite band.
As I drove through Laurel Canyon to Charlie’s apartment, a million thoughts raced through my mind. I respected Charlie and if he liked this record, I’d be encouraged that my musical instincts were not deceiving me. If he didn’t like it, I knew I would have to rethink the whole project including my gut instincts.
Charlie had worked at some major rock stations in the U.S, including WMMS Cleveland, WBCN Boston, and WMMR Philadelphia. All world-class rock and roll stations! He had a great ear for new rock music and that’s exactly what I was bringing him that night. At least that’s what I thought.
When I arrived at Charlie’s place, it was first things first. Charlie lit up a joint and we went outside to cop a buzz. From Charlie’s apartment you could see and feel the excitement of Hollywood on the Strip. Music blared everywhere and cars cruised in long lines to gaze at the gigantic billboards that adorned the famous street.
“Charlie, I want to play something for you that’s incredible.”
“Oh, yeah?” He inhaled deeply and slowly.
“Yeah. It’s a sound you’ve never heard before.”
Charlie exhaled, sending swirls of smoke in the air.
“I love you, Jon, but I’ve heard this statement a thousand times before,” he said in his best radio announcer’s voice.
“Look.” I showed him the album cover.
Like so many other radio programmers, he said, “Nope, I’ve never heard of this band.”
“Look, Charlie, the best way to listen to this band is with the headphones.”
Charlie agreed, and sat down cross-legged on the floor. He put on his expensive Sennheiser Headphones and leaned back. I was sure he agreed to the headphones so he wouldn’t have to listen to me jabber anymore about this unknown band.
I couldn’t tell what Charlie was thinking as he listened. His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving. That was a bad sign.
Side one ended and Charlie took off his headphones. For a moment, he just stared at me. “This record is a total piece of crap!”
My heart sank. I had to surrender and realize that maybe I was the one who was wrong.
“Who the fuck are these guys?” he finally asked.
I stumbled for an answer and before I could speak, he added, “I was just kidding you, Jon.”
I looked at him hopefully.
“This record is friggin’ great! How come I never heard of these guys? Before you answer that, I’m going to listen to side two. Holy crap, this is fucking great rock!”
I sighed. This was a huge relief for me, for damn sure.
Finally! Somebody in a position to help me could hear what I heard, and that somebody was the famous Charlie Kendall, Program Director of the new rock station in town, KWST-FM, Los Angeles.
After side two, I could tell Charlie felt what I did. That it was AWESOME!!
“What are they like live in concert?” Charlie asked.
He was right about that question and I didn’t know either, but I would find out soon.
“Charlie, I’m not sure, but coincidentally, they’re opening for the band Blondie Saturday night at the Whiskey A Go-Go on Sunset Strip. Wanna check them out?”
“Are you kidding me? Absolutely! Jon, if this band is as good in person as the record is,” Charlie said, “I’ll add it to our playlist immediately.”
I tried not to shout. I tried to keep my cool. But on the inside, I was thinking: This rarely happens. Major Market Program Directors just didn’t add an eight month unknown record unless it really kicked their ass!
This was the beginning of an era for me. A successful, bloody era.
FIGHTING AGAINST THE ODDS
AT THE WHISKEY A GO-GO
I could hardly contain my excitement. Back at work on Monday, I darted into a few offices to see if anyone wanted to go to the Whiskey on Saturday night. Everyone said no, except, strangely enough, the new President of ABC Records, Steve Diener. I was dumbfounded. It was rare that presidents of labels went out to see bands, especially those whose projects were presumed dead. I attributed that to the fact he had just taken over ABC Records and wanted to check out the scene.
“Hey, Jon, can you get some radio folks to the show?” Steve asked.
I nodded. “Sure, that won’t be a problem.”
However at this time, I knew it was just Charlie Kendall and myself going to the show. I made a phone call to some radio friends. I started with Sam Bellamy, the Program Director at KMET.
“Sorry, Jon, I’m going out with another label to a different concert,” said Sam.
“What about Jim Ladd?” I asked.
“He’s going with me,” Sam said.
I had no one except Charlie Kendall. I had just one radio guy.
Friday afternoon rolled around. I made a few more calls with no success. I was now desperate to get radio people to the show because I had put my foot in my mouth and told the President I would. It was then that I had what I thought was a brilliant idea—a way to bring more radio people to the show.
“I need for you to pretend to be important radio personalities when I introduce you to the President of ABC Records,” I explained to the friends I knew in the industry. “He’s new, so I don’t think he’ll know the difference.”
They loved the idea, and even made me promise to do the same for them if they ever needed it. However, I knew if the President found out, I was screwed. And probably fired.
The week flew by and all I could do was sit with my headphones draped over my ears and listen to my favorite new rock band over and over again. I was 100% confident that I had stumbled upon something big, and I mean BIG.
By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, all I could think about was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Before it was time to go home, I grabbed a copy of Melody Maker, the British music industry magazine. On page four, there was a rave review for an American band that was trying to make it big in London. I couldn’t believe it! They were raving about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers! And yet, only a few people knew about them in America? What was wrong with everybody in America? I was shocked! It was puzzling, but I was encouraged that someone in London saw their great potential.
Now, all they had to do was wow Charlie Kendall on Saturday night at the Whiskey. They were opening for the hot band, Blondie, fronted by the great lead singer Deborah Harry. The Whiskey was the club where so many great new bands had found success. Bands like The Doors, Alice Cooper, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Van Halen and so many others. Would the same thing happen Saturday night?
I was about to find out, either good or bad.
By 8:00 p.m., the number had “exploded’” to about 30 people, including me and Charlie. Apparently, not many people in LA had heard of this new band either, except for Melody Maker magazine and a lot of British music fans.
Charlie and I decided to sit up close at the very front table. The President, Steve Diener, came in and headed towards us. As planned, a few of my record buddies met us at the table and pretended to be radio personalities from different radio stations.
I fidgeted in my seat. I was absolutely nervous about this plan, because when I started to introduce them, my good friend Scott Shannon from Casablanca Records stood up and announced, “Mr. Deiner, I’m the real Don Steele from KHJ, pleasure to meet you.”
Next, my friend and RCA Promo Man, Phil Rush, introduced himself as the “Legendary B. Mitchell Reed from KMET.” Phil added, “ABC is very fortunate to have a man like Jon Scott on board. He’s a great Promo Man.”
At this point, I was sweating serious bullets, but luckily, Mr. Diener had no clue that these guys were making all of this up, just to make me look like good.
Because they had other obligations, Phil and Scott had to leave and the President of ABC left with them. The only ones left were me and Charlie Kendall and about 20 others.
We ordered shots of tequila and it wasn’t long after the shots arrived that the band came out to play. They were all good looking young guys, all dressed differently in their own cool way. No black leather jacket on the blond lead singer and thank God, no bullets around his neck. Still, they definitely had a coolness factor!
I looked over at Charlie who was probably thinking the same thing I was: Please, please be as good in person as you are on your record.
After the usual tuning up period, the band fired off the first song and Charlie and I looked at each other with wide eyes and open mouths. Holy shit! They are really, really, really frickin’ good! The Voxx Amps they used were the same as the Beatles used. This was no ordinary band. After only one song I understood what the British critics were talking about. This was a GREAT rock and roll band.
The lead guitar player was one of the best I’d ever heard, and his riffs were absolutely spine-chilling. The keyboard player moved in sync with the rhythm and had a style of his own, the drummer played like Ringo Starr, and the bass player drove the band with an incomparable back beat. These guys were all pros, as if they had done this forever.
But it was the lead singer with the long blonde hair whose great voice and amazing, charismatic presence that slayed me. He clearly was the “stand out.”
The second song rushed in strong and now those goose bumps were all over my body again. The hairs on my arm were standing at full attention.
I glanced at Charlie. I could tell that the same thing was happening to him, and that’s the sign I was looking for.
The third song started and it was so powerful that it completely drowned us.
The next song they did was called Breakdown, one of my favorites on the album.
It’s alright if you love me,
It’s alright if you don’t
I’m not afraid of you runnin’ away honey,
I’ve got this feeling you won’t…
There’s no sense in pretending,
Your eyes give you away
Something inside you is feeling like I do,
We said all there is to say.
Breakdown, go ahead and give it to me,
Breakdown, take me through the night,
Breakdown, go ahead give it to me,
Breakdown, it’s alright,
It’s alright, it’s alright.
Charlie leaned over and whispered what I wanted to hear, “Jon, I’ll start playing Breakdown on Monday morning and I’ll play it every hour on the hour.”
I nodded. I smiled so big my cheeks hurt.
He added, “I think they’re that good.”
This was music to my ears!
The band finished a blazing 40 minute show and I felt like the table had been blown back about 20 feet because the energy was so incredible. We could feel the music coursing in every cell of our bodies.
As a result, the record was now going to be played on the radio by a guy who had been knocked out, just like me. I could not have been happier. I now had no doubt; these guys were just overlooked superstars. But they wouldn’t be for long—not if I had anything to do with it.
Charlie and I threw back a couple more tequila shooters in celebration of what we’d just witnessed. The band was so good that I almost felt like ordering champagne.
Knowing Charlie was going to play the record, I said, “Let’s go upstairs and introduce ourselves to the band. You can tell them you love the record, and the show knocked you out. Then, you can hit them with the big news—you’ll be playing the record starting Monday morning.”
At least, I thought it would be big news for them.
I was eager for this new band to know who I was, and what was about to happen with their record on KWST radio. Backstage security was not a top priority for this new unknown rock and roll band, so we easily located the lead singer.
He was wiping off the sweat from his face with a towel.
“Hi. I’m Jon Scott and I work at ABC Records.” I smiled big. “And this is Charlie.” I was feeling so confident, so proud. I reached out, ready to shake his hand.
“SO WHAT? I hate ABC Records.” He looked around at his band and laughed, “We think ABC stands for A Bunch of…well, you don’t want to know. As far as I’m concerned, everybody there is full of crap.” He ignored my hand.
I had not expected this and I didn’t want it to continue, especially in front of Charlie Kendall who was about to start playing his record.
“No, wait,” I said. “I’m the new Head of Album Promotion at ABC Records.”
The lead singer was still not impressed.
“Um, look, have you ever heard your record on the radio in Los Angeles?” I asked him eagerly.
“Nope.” He shook his head and continued wiping the sweat off his face.
“Well, starting Monday morning, you’ll hear it on KWST-FM, the new rock station in town.” I smiled big again. I was very proud of myself.
“How’re you gonna make that happen, Mr. New ABC promo guy?” he asked, glancing at me sideways.
I blurted out, “Not only are you going to hear your record in Los Angeles, but I’m going to break your career wide open.”
“Bullshit, I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said. He tossed his towel to the ground in disgust.
It was obvious he had lost all faith in ABC Records. Considering that the LP had been released with 32 others and had languished on the shelf for eight months, many empty promises had likely been made. I could understand his loss of faith. But, I was determined to prove him wrong.
For some reason, I again blurted out, “Look, every time you hear your record on the radio, you’ll think of me, because I’ll be responsible for getting it played.” I was eager to get his attention.
He thought I was crazy. I knew down deep I wasn’t.
It wasn’t easy getting to that moment. I had risked everything and my career was on the line.
The lead singer motioned to a couple of roadies to escort Charlie and me out of the dressing room.
“Look, my name is JON SCOTT, and you will NEVER, EVER forget my name.”
Why was I saying all of this? Because I just knew it.
He ignored me again.
Charlie kept his cool and didn’t say anything.
I looked at Charlie and smiled.
Charlie and I drove back to his apartment, and while we smoked another joint, we listened to the record again.
“Jon, we are about to have some fun,” Charlie said.