When Randy Jackson visited the Observer the other day, it wasn’t just the founder-singer-songwriter-guitarist for the pop-metal band Zebra who walked in, it was as if 1983 itself showed up.
Zebra never had a hit record and the closest they came to a “moment” was with their first album, which got into the 50s on the Hot 100. But in some ways, you could make a strong case that Zebra was one of the five most important bands in the direction my life took. Here’s why.
In 1983, when their record was starting to pop, Zebra did a tour with Loverboy. Somehow five of those songs, including their very best song, “Tell Me What You Want,” winded up on a television show called Rock n Roll Tonight – live performances filmed in LA with live audiences brought in specifically for the show. My closest friend, John Packel, who played drums in my high school cover band Rox, somehow had a videotape of that performance. We watched that thing til it was literally demagnified. John mused that he would be willing to trade his boyish good looks for the ability to drum like Guy Gelso and I watched in awe as Felix Hanemann played a descending scale on his bass while playing an ascending scale on that weird foot-pedal synthesizer bands used in the 80s. It taught us as much as The Beatles or The Who about how to stand, how to look, how to rock.
Despite my attempts to get Randy Jackson to dish on the bad decisions and evil record company executives who derailed his promising career, his utter comfort with where he is in the rock pantheon was evident in his every answer. I asked Jackson how it feels to be a guy whose big moment was really in the early 80s to meet occasional guys like me who are nearing 50 years old, but who still regard Zebra as this important influence on their life.
“Well, I mean I really feel like I’m blessed to have that, you know, the longevity of the music and the fact that people still appreciate it, you know, especially at this time. It’s been 30-something years since that first record came out. Believe me, I don’t take it lightly and that’s the reason that we’re still able to play these days, you know. The fans are still coming out and you know it means a lot to me. It means the music touched them on some level like you were talking about McCartney with the Beatles. That’s the way they touched me. That was the first band I ever saw was the Beatles when I was 9 years old, so I can relate you know. Through this whole process I’ve kind of found that the music that most people gravitate towards or stick to is the music that they were listening to in their teenage years, you know, and early 20s, although they are going to appreciate lots of music later on in life, but that’s like the foundation for I think a lot of people and it has more to do with the age than anything else. But I’m just glad I could be part of something that stuck that long.”
That goes to the band’s origin myth. Zebra was formed in New Orleans as a kick-ass cover band. The ambitious trio would tackle Led Zeppelin and other technically challenging groups. They moved to Long Island for a better shot at stardom and started sneaking in their own songs and clubgoers would say “I didn’t recognize that one Zeppelin song you played called ‘Who’s Behind the Door?'” referring to one of the original Randy Jackson songs on the first Zebra album that became a near hit.
(As it happens, I just took my kids on a cruise to Haiti and the band that Royal Caribbean ingeniously booked was Led Zepagain, who were so much better at the lookalike soundalike thing than any band has a right to be. If you need proof, I yelled for “Out On the Tiles” at Wednesday’s show, and on Friday, they covered it perfectly, along with “No Quarter,” “Kashmir,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and other super-hard Zeppelin gems. When I got the chance to meet the band at the ship’s buffet the Robert Plant guy told me how much he’d loved Zebra.)
Randy Jackson told the Observer, “When we came up there were a lot of clubs that would say, you know, don’t do any originals, we just want covers. So we would just go ahead and play the originals, but we just wouldn’t announce them. It was a good way to see how the songs were going over, and that’s a good indicator of whether a song is working or not.”
I told Jackson how strongly I identified with that because I was sitting there with my friend John and our bands would cover the Zebra song “As I Said Before,” which was way beyond our musicianship, filled with these super-fast arpeggios and at least two complex bridges.
Jackson said, “That’s how you learn. And you try to incorporate it into your music. I think The Beatles are a great example of that. You know you look at The Beatles, their early catalogue and what they covered. I mean their musical knowledge was just incredible and that’s why I think they were able to write all those songs in such a short period of time. They just had the ammo. When we started out a lot of bands said, “Oh we don’t do covers.” I said, “Well you should, because every great band, the biggest bands that ever existed all did covers and it’s important. It’s how you learn.”
Zebra showed up in Long Island at the exact moment that The Ramones and Debbie Harry and Television were making CBGB and Max’s Kansas City the coolest places on earth. I wondered if Zebra and its contemporaries Twisted Sister and Rat Race Choir felt some of that East Village breeze blowing by.
“They were getting a lot more national press by being in Manhattan with all the new wave stuff, but there was such a great rock scene going on all over New Jersey and Long Island. We came into the City several times and played and we were finding out that these bands weren’t making the kind of money we were making outside. Now nobody had a record deal at that time and we had already brought a demo to Atlantic, but they rejected it and said, ‘Oh this is great if you would have been out 10 years ago. This is 1978, and they listened to it and they passed on it. It had “Who’s Behind the Door” and all the songs that you heard on the first record basically as the demo. They said it was dated, so we were really making great money. My wife and I bought a house down in Louisiana. I said, “Well this will be fine. We’ll just do it like this you know, be a club band. And then the next thing you know they are calling back and we get signed.”
There’s a funny story to the band’s resuscitation in Atlantic’s eyes—all the sweeter because the label was home to their heroes, Led Zeppelin—and it hearkens back to a time when local radio was programmed by local music fans, not dial tested by computers and drained of all humanity. Jackson tells a version of the group’s signing that has Jason Flom, who started at Atlantic as a field merchandiser when he was 18 years old and eventually became the Chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, walking into Long Island’s homegrown rock station WBAB to hang up posters and being told he should check out this great local band.
It’s a good story, but it’s not how Flom remembers it. And his version’s even better.
Jason Flom owns what might be the most successful pair of ears in the entire record industry. The New Yorker noted his “specialty [in] delivering monsters,” referring to his nurturing of, among many others, Lorde, Kid Rock, Katy Perry, Matchbox 20, Jewel, Hootie & the Blowfish (Flom credits the Observer’s own Tim Sommer for that discovery), Collective Soul, Vanessa Williams and Sugar Ray. Zebra became his very first signing. He remembers the “hanging up posters” story differently and told the Observer … well, let’s let Jason Flom tell the story. It’s long and detailed but it’s worth it.
“The way it went down is that I was a trainee field merchandiser at the time, so I was hanging posters in record stores, and I wanted to figure out how to get a job doing A&R. There was a trade magazine back then called Album Network. And Album Network was basically the Bible of rock radio, so on the cover they would show you the four hottest new releases, then the four records that were the biggest climbers on the charts this week; on the back, they had the playlist printed of all 190 rock stations in the country, and each playlist had you know, whatever, how many records they were playing in rotation – 30, 40 records in a tiny place, and then the name of the station, the program director’s name and the phone number.
“So my idea was that I would study these lists hoping to find a band that was being played that wasn’t already signed, and if I did then I would call the station and try to get the program director, the music director on the phone, which of course was no easy task because they didn’t know who I was, and I was in fact nobody. And then half the time, I would call about whatever band, right, The Pie-Eaters, or whatever the fuck, and they would say, ‘Oh no, they’re already signed to RCA,’ and I would be like, ‘Oh, well sorry I wasted your time.’
“So, WBAB was playing a band called The Lines. I called up and I got Bob Buchman on the phone, who was the program director and he deserves a shout out in your article. I’ve never spoken to him before—I was 19 years old and I had never spoken to anybody before—so I said, ‘Bob, what’s with this band The Lines?’ And he said, ‘It’s nothing to be concerned with. I’m playing it as a favor to somebody and you really don’t need to waste your time on that.’ So I was like, ‘Well, if you were me who would you sign?’ Which was a ridiculous thing to say because I couldn’t sign anybody. I could barely sign my name at that point in time, but, you go nowhere in life by not asking, so I asked. And he says, ‘Let me tell you about Zebra.’ So I go, ‘What’s Zebra?’ And he says, ‘It’s’ the #1 most requested band at the radio station.’ I said, ‘Oh you mean like most requested local band? I get it, that’s cute.’ And he goes, ‘“Let me tell you something. We keep track of every quarter how many requests we get for each band. 6.8% of all the requests at the station were for Zebra.’ And then 5 something was the next one, which the next three were Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Ozzy; I don’t remember in what order, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is it. This is my big break. How do I get a hold of these guys?’ He says, ‘Hold on, I’ll get them on the other phone. So he called Randy who was in New Orleans, and from what I understood they had basically given up on the idea of getting a record deal. They were going nowhere fast. They had been doing this for nine years. They had been passed on by everybody, and had sort of resigned themselves to this fate.
“So the next day I get a FedEx package, which was the first one I had ever gotten. It was like an exciting thing, and it had an album in it, but I had nowhere to listen to an album because all I had was a desk and a phone. I went to one of the A&R guy’s offices, and I said, ‘You’re about to hear the next big thing.’ He goes, ‘Really! What is it?’ I go, ‘Zebra.’ He goes, ‘Wow. Did you listen to it? What’s it like?’ I go, ‘No, I haven’t even listened to it yet, I’m just telling you this is the next big thing.’ And he’s looking at me funny and then he listens to it, and he tells me five different reasons why it’s no good and it’s not going to work. I was devastated, because I thought this was my big break and I was too excited to even be able to listen to it myself with any objectivity.
“So I went back to my desk to call Randy and tell him that the guy had said it was no good, because I thought that this guy must know what he’s doing because he’s got an office and you know he’s like an A&R guy. It’s ridiculous. So I said to the secretary sitting in front of me named Mary Conroy, ‘Mary, this makes no sense.’ I’m halfway through dialing Randy and was like, ‘The guy is selling out every club. He’s the #1 most requested on the station and I’m calling to tell him that his stuff is no good.’ She goes, ‘No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.’ So I called Randy and I said, ‘Randy, listen, the guy said no good for this reason, that reason, the other reason, but I’m going to give it to [Atlantic Records President] Doug Morris and see what he says.’ Now, I didn’t even know Doug Morris except I knew he was somebody that I should avoid when I was high, walking around with all my staple guns and double-sided tape and things like that. But I figured what the hell, I’ll take my shot.
“So I made a cassette of it and I wrapped it up in a piece of paper and put it on Doug’s secretary’s desk, where there was a huge pile of cassettes that were unlikely any of them were ever going to get listened to. Probably a similar pile exists on a lot of different A&R people’s offices all around the business, so least of all president of Atlantic Records. So I put it on his desk and as fate would have it a couple of days later, he grabbed a few of those cassettes off her desk to listen to on his way home in his car. And again, serendipity, synchronicity, call it what you want, he happened to live in Long Island. So, as he told me the story he was listening to it in his car, the song ‘Who’s Behind the Door,’ he popped it out because he decided he didn’t like it. And that very song was playing on the radio, because he happened to have the station tuned to WBAB, which was the hot station on Long Island in those days. So, as you can imagine, he did a pretty significant double-take, and the guy apparently at the end of the song – it sounds too good to be true, but apparently at the end of the song the DJ says, ‘That’s the most requested song in the history of WBAB, Zebra, Who’s Behind the Door.’
“So then he comes in and tells me this is genius, and I was like, ‘Uh,’ what can you say, man? I don’t know what the fuck to say, like I’m totally taken by surprise. And he says, ‘I want to meet this guy.’ So I flew Randy up from New Orleans, we had a meeting with Doug, and that started the process. Then it actually stalled. At one point, Doug seemed to lose interest and the deal was not done and I couldn’t get it done, and I didn’t know what I was doing anyway, so it was very frustrating. So then I went and convinced Jack Douglas to come see the band. I don’t know if Randy told you that part of the story; it’s hilarious.
“Jack was the hottest producer in the world. He just won the Grammy for John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy,’ right, and he was my favorite producer because the first Aerosmith records were my favorite records. Zebra loved him because of the John Lennon thing and I loved him because of Aerosmith, and he had just won the Grammy. So somehow or other I convinced him to come see the band with me. I picked him up in a rental car. We went up to see Zebra in Long Island and he agreed to produce the record, and that’s when I finally got a message from Doug saying, ‘Let’s close this deal.’ Because I was like insane, like why the hell did he produce an unknown band at that time? But he did. Yeah, that’s how it happened.”
I can’t stand it when a band I love isn’t as big as all the bands I hate. I kept pressing Jackson for an explanation. Listening to my tape of this interview, I am suddenly aware of how irritating my line of questioning must be. But I gotta know. I told Randy Jackson about how Van McClain, the guitar player for Shooting Star, another 80s band I love that didn’t quite make it, has all these stories about how the record company fumbled at the 2 yard line. What went wrong, Randy? How come Zebra didn’t become Rush? But you can’t shake this guy—he loves his life and is grateful to be playing music and playing with his grandchildren.
“Ultimately, I think timing has more to do with it than anything else. I don’t really blame Atlantic. I mean I could say they could have promoted us more. One thing that I was surprised about was when the first record came out, we had sold 75,000 copies in a couple of weeks with no promotion, and so it was the fastest selling debut album in Atlantic Record’s history, and it still is until today, you know. Nobody had heard of anybody in the band. And so I was shocked that right after that they didn’t put any promotion into the thing, and for a couple of months the sales just flatlined. For the second record, I remember when we went out on the road I had cut my hair. We had a kind of a different look for the videos and there were people saying, “Well what happened to your original singer?” I was too clean-cut for that you know. You can always look back and say we should have done this or that. We had a choice of touring with Sammy Hagar on his last US solo tour or going to Europe and touring and we chose to stay with Sammy. And although it was a great tour, we should have gone to Europe at that point. So, if I had to look back and place any blame on anything those might be the events.”
Then there was another near miss. After the disappointing sales of their sophomore record, Zebra made the decision to produce their third record themselves. That’s almost always a mistake but particularly this time. Jackson told me how all questions from the press had suddenly turned to “What do you think about this Bon Jovi kid?” The Jersey phenom had had a pop-metal hit with “Runaway.” According to Jackson, Bruce Fairbairn had contacted Atlantic and said he wanted to produce Zebra’s third record. He knew the band through Loverboy, who Zebra was touring with when they recorded that video that so influenced my own rock life. Fairbairn had steered Loverboy’s self-titled 1980 debut and 1981 sequel up the charts. Jackson told Atlantic that the band had decided to produce Zebra’s third themselves so Fairbairn produced another record instead—Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.”
On Saturday, January 14, Zebra will be playing its debut album in its entirety at—how perfect is this?—Mulcahy’s in Wantagh. John Packel and I will be there, and so will Jason Flom—he told me he’s “100% in!!!”—and so will you if you rule.