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After being fired from MCA records in 1977 for championing a then unknown artist, Johnny Cougar, I was hired by the infamous Charlie Minor as head of Album Promotion at ABC Records. His one request is that I don’t push for any artist that the label chooses to drop, as I did for Cougar at MCA.
It didn’t turn out that way. And Johnny Cougar became John Mellencamp, one of the biggest artists in rock history.
I Think I’m Having a “Breakdown”
A few days later, I reached into my office closet to get my jacket when a record album fell to the floor. As I picked it up, I noticed the cover was devoid of any artwork. I slid out the record and saw the inside jacket was also blank. There wasn’t any information on the label. Nothing about the band – other than a scribbled hand-written date of the release, marked right on the disc. It had been released eight months prior, in 1976.
In the high-stakes record business and album promotion, months were like centuries. This record, still in its plain sleeve, was apparently not a priority at ABC. Someone likely thought it contained mediocre music by an unknown artist. It was probably headed for the trash but got thrown in the closet instead.
Curiosity was killing me, and being the consumed music nut that I am, I had to find out what was embedded in the grooves of this mysterious disc. Something happened in that split second that I never expected and that would change my life forever.
Why was this particular record left in the closet for me to find? Who knows? But curiosity being what it is, I put the record on the turntable. I let the needle drop, cranked the sound system up loud and began listening to the opening beats. A familiar chill ran up my spine as the bass, drums, and guitar ramped up, and the lead singer belted out the first verse.
Whoa, that’s damn good rock ‘n’ roll, I thought. I didn’t know the name, but I had just heard, “Rockin’ Around With You”. The second track came on. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was a song called “Breakdown”. At this point, I recognized the familiar goosebumps as they tingled all over my arms when I heard something special. I knew that what I was listening to was tremendous, transforming and the future of rock ‘n’ roll. It was a sign and I had to acknowledge that gnawing feeling in my gut. By the time I listened to that second song, I immediately knew that this could be a hit record, but I didn’t even know the name of the band. I was mesmerized.
I stared at the blank vinyl as it spun round and round on the turntable. When the next song started, my legs were bouncing with the rhythm, my feet joining in, tapping out the beats and I was tingling all over my body. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Every song I heard had the same effect.
When the second side finished, I had to hear it again, this time with my headphones on. I locked my office door and had my assistant hold my calls so that nothing would disturb me. I cranked up the volume control to the max.
I couldn’t believe it sounded even better on the second listening. Blazing rock guitar and killer vocals in my stereo headphones were blasting through my brain. The lead guitar was flying in my left ear and the vocals were in my right ear and somewhere in the middle were the beat of the drums and the harmonies. I could tell immediately that this was an impeccably-produced record.
The harmonies were stunning, and the lead singer blew my mind. The lead guitar player convinced me that he was as good as anyone I’d heard. The piano/organ player was phenomenal, the bass player held the groove, and the drummer was a powerful backup. It didn’t sound like any music that was being made at the time.
Every track moved me. Every song on the LP was mind-blowingly good. It was straight-on, killer rock ‘n’ roll. Every song was imaginative and unique. I had no idea who the vocalist was or the name of the band that was backing him. I just knew I was captivated. In that instant, I wanted to be a DJ again, just so I could play Side One and Side Two back to back, letting that sound fly over the airwaves.
When the LP ended a second time, I knew I had just heard something life-changing and extraordinary. Who are these guys? It reminded me of 1964, when I was just fifteen years old, living in Memphis and hearing The Rolling Stones for the first time on the radio. I ran to the record store to buy their album, but the store had never heard of them. My advice to the clerk was that they should order some copies, and soon, because that band was going to be big. Insights of a future promo man.
It took me a few minutes to pull myself out of my hypnotic trance. I vaulted out of my chair and headed straight to Charlie’s office. The possibilities energized me; my mind was racing. I had to talk Charlie immediately.
Charlie, talking on the phone like usual, waved his hand and mouthed that he would be with me in a moment. As I waited outside his office, practically frothing at the mouth, I watched Charlie’s assistant sweating as she jumped up and down to the bulletin board as Charlie was racking up the radio station adds. Once again, Charlie was on a roll. He was working the phones like a man possessed.
Charlie finally laid the phones down and motioned for me to come inside. I clasped the unknown record album, and I asked him, “Who the hell are these guys?” Charlie put the album on his turntable, and ten seconds later he knew the answer. I couldn’t believe it when he told me that this band was not a priority. Charlie told me it was Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ self-titled first album, and that the record had been out for eight months and nothing much had happened with it. It received some airplay, mostly in Boston and San Francisco, but it had only sold about 12,000 copies, so ABC was considering dropping the band from the label. Charlie told me that the label had spent way too much money to justify keeping them on and it was a dead project. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t believe what he was saying.
This debut album had some great songs on it, like “American Girl”, “Breakdown”, and “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll”, among others. “Breakdown” was the one that I thought could be a real hit.
I blurted out to Charlie, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is one of the greatest records I’ve heard in my life.” He stopped me mid-sentence. He firmly reminded me of the promise I had made to not go out on the limb for a band in which the company had lost faith; to never do the “Johnny Cougar thing” again. Yet, here I was, uncontrollably, doing it again, wanting to promote a band that I believed in. But Charlie said the album was cold and nothing much was happening. It was time to dump them.
Charlie pulled out the actual album cover and started laughing as he looked at the guy with the stringy blonde hair wearing a black leather jacket, and bullets around his neck. Obviously, like Charlie, a lot of radio stations were judging the album by the cover and gave it scant airplay. I didn’t care what the cover looked like; it what was what I heard inside that counted.
Charlie said the feeling at the radio stations was that this band was “just a punk rock band without a future.” The record debuted around the beginning of the punk era in 1976, and at that time, most radio stations were simply not playing punk. Radio stations were playing it safe with bands like the Eagles, Foreigner, Jackson Browne and everybody’s sweetheart, Linda Ronstadt. Punk artists like the Sex Pistols, Ramones and Blondie hadn’t made it to the mainstream FM stations yet. But this record I had in my hand, a punk rock band? No. This band was miscategorized, and it didn’t sit right with me. I wasn’t buying it.
With no new rock projects in sight at ABC for me to work on, I begged Charlie to give me a crack at it and let me try to get it played at radio stations. From my viewpoint, he had nothing to lose, but Charlie scoffed at that notion. I was dead serious that I had just discovered something that had just been overlooked by most everybody. When he shook his head ‘no’, I fell to my knees and pleaded with him, “Don’t drop this band without giving me a chance. Just give me six weeks. If nothing happens, I swear I will stop.”
Charlie looked at me like I was crazy. He let me know that ABC had already spent a lot of money promoting this band, but if I wanted six weeks to perform a miracle, then I could give it a shot. He laughed again and told me that if I could get this un-bankable, lost effort, just-another-punk-band called “Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers” played, he would “kiss my ass” on the Sunset Strip. “Hell, I’ll even throw you a party at my house in Malibu, with Dom Perignon, and BBQ flown in from your favorite restaurant in Memphis!”, Charlie boasted. I smugly accepted the challenge, but the offers he gave me flew right over my head. They meant nothing. I didn’t care about any of that. Getting a band on the charts – now that was my high!
I had zero budget! I couldn’t buy any ads in the trade magazines, no radio station time buy…nothing, nada, zilch. But I was consumed, and on a mission to break this band’s career, and I knew this mind-blowing rock ‘n’ roll was worth the effort. I was soon to discover that there were quite a few problems ahead that I hadn’t anticipated.