One look at Michael Alago in the 1980s and chances are you might not take him for the executive type. Brimming withenthusiasm and energy, the uncannily youthful-looking Alago would become a major-label A&R executive at age 24 and was responsible for signing one of the biggest rock acts of all time: Metallica. Alago would go on to work with some of the most iconic names in music, including Nina Simone, John Lydon, Cyndi Lauper, and the Misfits. But like they always say, you never for-get your first. And now, in his own words, the story of how Michael Alago signed Metallica to Elektra Records.
The very first time I saw Metallica was at L’Amourin Brooklyn. It was 1983 and I lived seven blocks from the club, where I grew up with my mom and my sister. Phil Caivano from Monster Magnet and I went and we freaked out! They were simply phenomenal. The band took all their influences—punk rock, the new wave of British heavy metal, traditional heavy metal, hard rock—and sped it all up to have this fucking concoction that nobody else had at the time. Plus, they were relentless on stage and forced the crowd to pay attention. It was truly special.
I started doing A&R at Elektra Records around the beginning of 1983, and my day-to-day was pretty simple: pulling out all the cassettes that were in boxes from unsigned artists; meeting with publishers, lawyers, managers, and sometimes the artists themselves, who were all looking for a major-label deal. At some point in time, I became colleagues and then friends with Jonny Zazula from Megaforce Records. As fantastic as that label was then—they made those first couple of Metallica records, plus Anthrax, Overkill—they didn’t really have the funds to take those bands to the next step. Jon eventually sent me a box of record sand said, “Michael, you know what? I really need to get Raven signed to Elektra, they’re going to be huge.” I said, “Jon, I’m going to give you $5,000 and you’re going to give me five of the best Raven songs possible.” But in all of that, in that Megaforce box, was Metallica’s Kill ’Em All—and nothing sounded likethat in that box. I remembered my experience at L’Amour and thought, “These guys are fuckin’ the greatest thing ever!”
I had some business to do on the West Coast, and I saw thatMetallica were playing at the Stone in San Francisco. So I went to see them, but this time I had a different hat on. I’m not just a fan anymore, I am an A&R executive. Despite their nickname of “Alcoholica,” these guys were focused. James Hetfield was a ringleader and he knew how to connect with an audience, and they gave all that energy back to him. When it was over, I didn’t hang around the Stone too long, but I gave Lars Ulrich my business card and said, “I work for Elektra. You guys are incredible, and I’d love to speak to you.”
Fast-forward, it’s the beginning of ’84 when Lars calls me and asks, “Are you still interested in us?” I was like, “Man, I’m more interested in you than ever.” At some point I had a phone call with Jonny Z, and I said to him, “I just have to tell you, as great as these Raven demos are, I want to sign Metallica.” That conversation went down the tubes real fast. It was not a good talk, and he was pretty furious with me. Something else Lars had told me was that they were going to be in New York in August at Roseland playing a Megaforce night, of all things, on a triple bill with Anthrax and Raven.
A lot of great things came out of that evening at Roseland. I was a little drunk in that sold-out crowd. Metallica blew the fucking roof off the place, as they tended to do because they’d blow the roof off wherever the fuck they were playing. Many of those young people had never heard anything like that, except for maybe the demo tape that was going around and Kill ’Em All. Raven were really good. Anthrax were really good too, but every single person who was there really was waiting for Metallica to go on stage, and they didn’t disappoint.
The show was extraordinary, I was in heaven. I was much drunker by the end of the evening, and I somehow made my way back to their dressing room. They were all toweling off, and I was screaming and carrying on, hugging everybody. James was looking at me, and Lars was like, “Who the fuck is that guy? Who is that person?” But Lars was cordial. He’s always been cordial to me, even though we hardly knew each other except for the brief meeting before in San Francisco. He said, “Guys, this is Michael Alago from Elektra Records.” Now, keep in mind, they’re around 21 years old, and I’m 23 years old. I’ve never, ever looked like a record executive. I think I had on a Plasmatics T-shirt, jeans, my leather jacket, and they’re looking at me in disbelief that I worked for a corporation.
The next day, I had them in the Elektra conference room. I ordered beer and Chinese food. I remember Cliff Burton, of all people, asking a lot of questions, including how they could get off of Megaforce and onto Elektra. They kind of knew a bit of the history of the label, so I gave them cassettes and vinyl of the Doors, MC5, the Stooges. Cliff wanted to know, “Do you have any Simon and Garfunkel?” I said, “No, I have to go over to Columbia for that, but if you really want Simon and Garfunkel, I’ll get you Simon and Garfunkel.”
At one point, I left the guys in there with the beer and the Chinese food and asked [label president] Bob Krasnow, who was dressed to the nines, to please come in. Do I really think he understood Metallica and the tidal wave that would follow them? Not really, but I think he understood the excitement of the previous night at Roseland. He basically said to them, “If Michael wants you here, we want you here, and we will work it all out.”
Now, I loved our head of business affairs, Gary Casson, and he loved me. I was always the A&R person allowed to go into his office, shut the door, and just ask for anything, which I appreciated. I knew I had to tell Gary what was going on [with Metallica already being signed to Megaforce] and that, of course, we didn’t want to get sued or anything. We want to get these people out of their deal.
Nobody was happy in the beginning, but money talks and Megaforce walked away financially satisfied. They got their logo, I believe, on the following two recordings, and they were to make money in perpetuity. They were happy, and we were ecstatic. I got Metallica signed to a major label. The rest of the bill from the Roseland show ended up signing to labels as well: Anthrax got signed to Island Records and Raven got signed to Atlantic Records. It’s just extraordinary, those years for metal and how things were changing. Up until then, it had been Iron Maiden and Judas Priest—which we all loved, but things were heading in a different direction.
Metallica are one of those bands that come around once in a lifetime. It was phenomenal, and they were a phenomenon. Their second album, Ride the Lightning, was recorded and had just been released by Megaforce. The energy and excitement had been building, so we immediately wanted to pick up Ride the Lightning so that we had something out there. We started advertising it all over the place, because they’re the talk of the town and the industry, almost like, “How did these people get signed to Elektra?!”
By now everybody at Elektra had their copy of Ride the Lightning. They had to listen to it because there was going to be a marketing meeting. One of the very first things that came up in the marketing meeting was that the radio people believed the songs were too long. I was mortified. My stomach was churning. How am I going to respond to these people? They asked, “Which tracks are you going to edit for radio?”—meaning, make them shorter so that the radio will find it easier to play. I knew that the band had written and recorded what they had so that it would be heard just as-is. I got up my courage and said, “Well, we’re not going to be editing anything. This is a flawless album that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is taking us on a journey.”
If I had even thought of mentioning an edit to Lars, I would have lost all trust and credibility with him and the band, so I couldn’t even consider this. I told everyone, “If you have not seen this band, you have to go see them live.” That became mandatory, because either at that meeting or at the following Wednesday’s meeting, I made Krasnow come in to reinforce that. Krasnow was so great because it was like, “Everybody go see the band or don’t come to work tomorrow!”
Luckily, a number of my colleagues at Elektra were pretty cool—at least, for corporate people—and understood and accepted that we were not editing anything, and that the beauty and the excitement for the band came from everybody seeing them live. There was not going to be a video, and we were not editing a fucking thing. I was not even going to approach their managers, Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, at all about it.
I have to imagine some of the people in that meeting thought I was simply being a pain in the ass and making their jobs harder. But Bob told them, “Whatever Michael says is what we’re doing.” He knew I understood the genre and this band, and he personally witnessed the Roseland excitement. This wasn’t about radio. This wasn’t about any edit, and this wasn’t about making videos. It was about keeping these young people on the road.
The end result was that Metallica were going out on tour. We gave them support for the next year so they could go play every place they wanted to in the United States. Elektra didn’t create that excitement, we just helped. We were a major record company able to catapult it all because of the money that we put into them. We just did our jobs. I felt like I knew what I was talking about because that genre of music was what I loved the most. I listened to a lot of metal bands all the time, and at some point I said to myself, “This is going to be my focus at Elektra.” I was fortunate enough to allow Metallica to do what they wanted to do. Nobody lost their credibility, and thank God we had somebody like Bob Krasnow steering the ship, because you did what he asked, whether you liked it or not.
A&R is the most important part of a record company. If you don’t have great artists and you don’t have great records, you’re done. Bob trusted me and always said, “Alago, you know what? Do what you think is right, because you’re either going to sink or swim.” My arrogance was, “I’m going to fucking swim here.” Through thick and thin in both my personal and professional life, I fucking swam. I had the cojones, as they say in New York, to just say what was on my mind—“This is what is going to happen”—and everyone knew I had Bob’s backing. Once I stated my case in that marketing meeting and brought Bob in, it was going to go the way I said it should. For me, I didn’t even care what anybody else thought. If you want to stop in my office and you want to talk one-on-one about this, cool, but you know where I stand, and I’m sticking to it.