Recently I found myself watching a fascinating documentary about a rock band from the 80s. One particular chapter of the story amazed me. It was the story of how close they came to total failure. In many ways, it reminded me of a story discussed in a previous post about the 90s alternative-rock band Blind Melon.
During the 80s LA was gripped by the atrocious hair metal scene. A famed A&R man named Tom Zutaut was driving through the city one day when he noticed a flyer stuck to a lamppost. It grabbed his attention as he thought it was the coolest flyer he’d ever seen. He pulled over, tore it down and vowed to attend the gig.
Due to some last minute changes he actually missed their set, but managed to find out when the next show was.
A month later, as he surveyed the crowd at the next gig, Zutaut noted numerous rival A&R guys in attendance. Word had got out that he was attending the show. Due to having already signed several successful bands, they were keen to see his reaction. He quickly concluded that he was watching the world’s next biggest band. He had to sign them. But, in order to put his rivals off the scent, he left after only a few songs. As he did so he dismissed the band as terrible and too loud.
He later contacted them and signed them to Geffen Records.
It took almost two years for them to finally put their debut album together. Unfortunately, it failed to live up to expectations. Due to their reputation as dangerous, rabble-rousers most radio stations refused to play them. MTV categorically refused to ever play anything by them. With little exposure, sales floundered.
After a year the album had only sold a disappointing 200,000 copies. These were mainly sold through gigging. The band were doing warm up duties for Alice Cooper and Motley Crue. In each new town they played they’d sell a few hundred records the next day.
After a disappointing year representatives from the Geffen Records informed Zutaut of some bad news. They were pulling the plug on the release. They felt it wasn’t going anywhere. Zutaut was astounded. In disbelief he told them “This album has only sold 200,000 copies. It’s going to sell millions.” But it was no use. The decision had been made.
In desperation Zutaut spoke to David Geffen and explained the predicament. “What can I do?” asked Geffen. Zutaut asked him to phone his friends at MTV and get them to change their mind. “Look, we’ve just made this really great video. Just get them to play it,” he pleaded.
A little while later Geffen called back. It wasn’t great news. MTV had reluctantly agreed to play the video, but there were two conditions. Firstly, they would play it in the middle of the night (around 4am New York time and 1am LA time). Secondly, they would only ever play it the once. That was it. The best they were willing to do.
Zutaut was left with the unenviable task of breaking the disastrous news to the band. Regardless, they took it in their stride and decided to throw a party in honour of the showing.
Due to the party, Zutaut didn’t awake until mid-afternoon. By that point his answering machine was jammed with messages. He phoned the office to find out what the commotion was about. He then rushed in to work and spoke to Geffen’s head of promotion – who was almost spitting with excitement.
The band had completely crashed MTV’s switchboards. Immediately after the showing tens of thousands of kids had begun phoning up and demanding that they play it again. The phone lines couldn’t handle the masses of traffic and “blew up”. MTV had never known anything like it; the lines remained jammed all throughout the next day. MTV eventually accepted the obvious truth and reluctantly agreed to playlist the song. It became an instant hit.
The album immediately skyrocketed up the charts. It went from selling 200,000 in a year to selling 100,000 every week. Their next single did even better. It reached number one in the mainstream charts. They were now being played on pop stations.
As Zutaut predicated, after having heard only a few songs, they soon became the biggest band in the world. In total, the album went on to sell over 30 million copies. The song was called Welcome to the Jungle. The album was called Appetite for Destruction, and the band was called Guns and Roses. And the original flyer that caught Zutaut’s attention and sparked it all was drawn by the band’s lead guitarist: Slash.