Swords, Tequila, and Sammy Hagar

After leaving Montrose and two historically ass-kicking albums behind him, Sammy Hagar went solo. Sammy’s early solo career was managed by Ed Leffler, who had previously handled the soft rockers like The Carpenters and The Osmonds, so Hagar’s style took an abrupt turn away from hard rock and toward a more FM radio-oriented sound. But Hagar’s three middle-of-the-road solo albums had failed commercially, and by 1979 it was time to take the Red Rocker back to his hard rocking roots. Ed Leffler was smart enough to make sure Hagar secured young, hungry and hard-rocking bands to open his shows and assure ticket sales. New York City’s Riot was one of those bands.

Riot had opened for Sammy on the Texas dates of his 1979 US tour. Texas, specifically San Antonio, was a Riot stronghold, and Leffler was aware that Riot was selling most of the tickets. When it came time for Hagar to take his harder-edged act to the UK later that year, Leffler learned that the NWOBHM was erupting there, and that Riot was featured on some of the most important radio playlists at the epicenter of the current heavy metal explosion. Riot was just the thing Hagar needed to establish some cred with UK rock audiences and, again, to sell some tickets. It seemed like Riot was once again in the right place at the right time.

Riot had recorded and released 2 self-financed records by 1979, ‘Rock City’ and ‘Narita’, although the latter had not been released in the US. Leffler brokered a record deal for the band with Capitol records, a deal that included the provision that the band do the UK tour with Hagar. No problem, thought Mark Reale. We’re signed to Capitol records, we’re touring the UK where we’re red-hot; we’ve made it!

Not so fast, Mr. Reale. The young guitarist quickly learned that his band had to ‘buy-on’ to the Hagar tour, meaning they had to use a significant portion of their meager recording advance to pay for the privilege of participating in the tour that they were now contractually obligated to take part in. And whom did they have to pay that money to? Why, who else but Sammy Hagar’s manager, Ed Leffler.

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After the UK tour, Reale contacted Capitol A&R to talk about the promotion of their first release through the label, ‘Narita’. As it turns out, their were no plans. ‘Narita’, a record that had already been recorded, and had been paid for by others, and cost Capitol almost nothing to release; Capitol followed that up by spending nothing to promote it. By this point, Reale and the band had figured out that the Capitol deal was only about ensuring the Hagar tour’s success; that Riot were nothing more than part of Sammy Hagar’s promotional budget, and that the band were probably going to be dropped at any minute. One has to wonder about the nature of Leffler’s relationship with Capitol records…

Reale used the remaining advance money from the Capitol deal to hire every independent radio promotions rep in the country to get Narita airplay. Radio charts from the era show that the plan was successful; Riot was looking like Capitol Records’ hot new up-and-comer on Billboard’s ‘Radio and Records’ chart. Reale hoped to show Capitol that they had a viable property, and that the label would not drop them but instead finance a new record.

The gambit worked… kinda. Capitol picked up the option for a new record; dropping a band that had had such success on US rock radio and on the road overseas just wouldn’t look right. The record company gave the band half the mandated advance to begin recording another record, and promised the other half upon approval of the completed album. Reale and the rest of Riot got to work making the best album possible to seal the deal with Capitol and convince them that sticking with Riot would be in their best interest. That record was ‘Fire Down Under’.

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Riot had delivered a stone cold American metal classic. But still, even when presented with this masterpiece of radio-friendly hard rock, Capitol’s plan continued to unfold… The label refused to accept the record on the grounds that it was ‘not commercially acceptable’. The label never paid the band the second half of the recording advance, and would not drop them because now they owed Capitol for the first half… and an unreleased album would garner no sales to pay the label back the moneys advanced. Capitol’s machinations had progressed beyond simply not spending anything to promote Riot; now they had worked it out that Riot actually owed them money.

Riot were trapped in record company hell. Still under contract with a major label, unable to sign with another label until the debt they owed was paid; unable to pay the debt without releasing the album they had recorded, which the label had shelved. All of this to ensure Sammy Hagar had a successful UK tour. As far as the Leffler/Capitol alliance was concerned, Riot had served their purpose, and now needed to disappear.

Then some cool stuff happened. Fans picked the offices of Capitol records. Thousands of fans signed a petition for the label to release Riot from contractual limbo (among those who signed: Ronnie Montrose). Kids spray-painted cars owned by Capitol Records executives. UK music journalists wrote about Riot’s plight in the big music papers. Smarting from all of the bad publicity, Capitol relented and let Riot go. Tom Zatout and Cliff Bernstein convinced their bosses at Elektra Records to sign the band and pick up the record, and the rest is history. FDU cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and firmly established Riot on US rock radio and on the international Heavy Metal scene.

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Karma took a while to catch up with Ed Leffler. Due to his relationship with Sammy, Leffler went on to become manager of Van Halen, and presided over the band’s business during their most successful period (four consecutive No 1 Hagar-era albums). But: while on tour with VH, Leffler was badly beaten by an unknown assailant in a hotel elevator in Dallas in 1986, putting him in the hospital for weeks. Ed Leffler died at the young age of 57 of thyroid cancer in 1993.

Riot started shedding members during the year after the release of ‘Fire Down Under’, and would never again release an album at such a high level of excellence. Because for FDU, Reale and his band set out to make an album that couldn’t be ignored, and they succeeded, on several levels. Calling this record ‘commercially unacceptable’ is a joke of cosmic proportions. Quite simply, FDU is a landmark in the history of American metal, and belongs right up there beside the Hagar-fronted Montrose debut…

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2 thoughts on “Swords, Tequila, and Sammy Hagar

  1. This is a well written piece! Totally enjoyed this Riot was shafted at the start! Too bad Fire Down Under,Restless Breed and Born In America are all worthwhile spins ..Today!
    Well researched and a great read! As a matter of fact I’m gonna reread this one right now!

  2. Another great article for those of us with a taste for the vintage hard stuff.
    The way Riot were exploited by Leffler, Hagar & Capitol was utterly criminal.
    I recently downloaded the audiobook of Hagar’s autobiography & came away from that with the impression that the guy was a selfish, self serving, ruthless, amoral, egocentric scumbag, driven entirely by greed, and this article just reinforced that impression.
    You can point the finger at Leffler, and i’m sure he was indeed a nasty piece of work, but Hagar’s auto-bio makes it pretty clear that he was well & truly in control of his own career with Leffler there to expediate & enforce at his masters behest.
    Hagar’s solo career in Europe never recovered from the press coverage of his underhanded treatment of Riot on that tour. In fact, i don’t think Hagar’s toured on this side of the pond since that jaunt in ’82.
    I don’t suppose he cares one jot though. He’s richer than god & coasts by year after year touring the Americas on the strength of his (admittedly formidable) back catalogue.
    Sometimes there’s just no justice to be found.
    I’m off to give ‘Fire Down Under’ a nostalgic listen, all bow before the altar of the kings!

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