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Interview: Jon Zazula of Megaforce Records

Heavy Tales details the stories of how Jonny Z worked miracles by managing and releasing albums by Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Mercyful Fate, Raven, Overkill, Exciter, Stormtroopers of Death, Method of Destruction, Ace Frehley, King’s X, Ministry, Mindfunk, Nudeswirl, Warren Haynes, Disco Biscuits and others, and how one night in 1984, he jokingly created Rap Metal before anyone else conceived the idea.
Photo: Jon Zazula Facebook

Jon Zazula was a renegade youth who went from living on the New York City streets, to later working on Wall Street, and then moving unexpectedly towards the music business. In the winter of 1982, while working in a flea market, he received an unexpected demo tape from underground, unsigned band Metallica. Eager and determined to have the music heard by the entire world, Jonny Z and Marsha founded Megaforce Records in 1983, and soon after released Metallica’s debut album, Kill ‘Em All. Through this release Megaforce had cemented its position as the de-facto music label in America for Heavy Metal – but that’s just the start.

Jonny’s book Heavy Tales (out October 31st) details the stories of how Jonny Z worked miracles by managing and releasing albums by Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Mercyful Fate, Raven, Overkill, Exciter, Stormtroopers of Death, Method of Destruction, Ace Frehley, King’s X, Ministry, Mindfunk, Nudeswirl, Warren Haynes, Disco Biscuits and others, and how one night in 1984, he jokingly created Rap Metal before anyone else conceived the idea. We caught up with Johnny to talk about some career highlights and the upcoming book.

H2Z: When did you start working on ideas for your book?

JZ: In June 2018 I decided to officially retire from the business, and within 3 or 4 days I was already going crazy. My mind is always moving, moving, moving, but my body was sitting around so I knew I had to get busy. I always wanted to write a book, and I thought this was the right time, but I had a big problem with my memory. So a guy named Harold Claros-Maldonado called me up, because he wanted to do a Metallica interview with me. I was so fed up with just doing Metallica interviews I told him to forget about it. But I asked him if I could see a sample of his writing, because he told me he is a research specialist for the army. I looked at his research and I was very impressed. He told me he was getting out of the army so I asked him if he would like to write a book with me. When he said he would do it, and research my life and put a time line down for me and help me put my stories and tales down with the timeline, I said that I would do it. Thats the story of how the book came to be. It took us 15 months to write it.

H2Z: I have been lucky enough to read some samples from the book, and especially the stuff from the 80s puts you right there, which for a lot of us was a really great time, would you agree?

JZ: The 80’s were magical weren’t they. I loved the scene in the 80’s

H2Z: We know about your connection to Metallica, and you helped with some of their first east coast shows. I saw a flyer promoting one, and one of the bands was Steel Fortune, featuring Dave Sabo from Skid Row. Was Skid Row ever on your radar as far as looking to sign?

JZ: Snake lived in the same neighbourhood as me in New Jersey, and I have known Dave since he was a little pup, even before playing guitar for Steel Fortune. He used to come to my record store Rock ‘N Roll Heaven all the time and sometimes he would watch my daughter for me while I would get a bite to eat or make calls and run errands. I have known Snake a very long time and I consider him a really good friend. Skid Row wasnt really on my radar as I was into heavier music Andrew, Skid Row wasnt my kind of music, but they did very well for themselves anyway.

H2Z: I saw a photo the other day and you have gold and platinum awards behind you. What was your first one, and what is the most important one.

JZ: The first was probably Kill ‘Em All or Ride The Lightning. To think of it, it may have been Master Of Puppets first then Kill ‘Em All and Ride The Lightning right after. Then Anthrax of course kept going gold after gold after gold, once they put out Among The Living and Persistence Of Time and Antisocial. Those were all gold albums, but I have awards for Ministry, Red Hot Chili Peppers, all kinds of bands. They are all important. I have to tell you, I have moved homes many times. I am kind of funny like that. I don’t like to stay in one home for more than five years, seven years tops, so I sold a lot of my collectables and collection. What is left now, which is probably 30 gold and platinum, they are for the kids when I go. They are very special to me. There is one though, believe it or not, that was given to me by Arista Records for teaching them how to market The Grateful Dead for the Touch Of Grey album. That was very nice to be able to bring the Grateful Dead to gold (laughs).

H2Z: Scott Ian was here for some spoken word shows last year and he tells the story about going drinking with Lemmy and you having to baby sit him after. What do you remember from that?

JZ: The first time I met Motorhead, was at The St Moritz, which is across from The Marquee. Metallica played their first UK gig there, it was a great, great venue. Someone said “Hey Jonny, Lemmy wants to meet you”. I thought to myself, what an honour so I went to go see Lemmy. I go across there and Phil, Lemmy and Eddie are all laid out in the garbage and the garbage cans all over the floor, with bottles in their hands just making noises and laughing. I saw them laying there and said to myself “I hope this never happens to my bands”. And yes that happened to Scott. They cannot drink. Anthrax werent drinkers, well at least not then. Joey would have two drinks and be falling down, Scott would have 3 drinks he would be falling down. That time I think I pretty much carried Scott to the next destination.

H2Z: Continuing with Anthrax. Hiring Joey Belladonna, was that a management or band decision?

JZ: They really wanted a really great vocalist, and I got a phone call to come up to the studio as they had found somebody. Carl Kennedy who was drummer for RODS discovered him singing in a band called Bible Black doing covers of Deep Purple and Rainbow, and he just had this amazing voice. So I drove 5 hours to the studio, and there is Joey. He knows nothing about metal. Nothing about thrash. Nothing about speed metal. He was a commercial singer. He sang “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry a capella for me, and everyone was blown away. And I offered him the gig. But if you ever speak to Joey, make sure you ask him about Jonny Z teaching him the songs. Especially songs like “Medusa” that I wrote the lyrics for I had to teach him the melody lines. So I would sing it to him in this horrible voice and he would sing it back to me perfectly. He eventually got into and he really delivered the goods on Spreading The Disease.

H2Z: New Jersey is a very blue collar town that loves its Rock and Metal. What were some bands on the scene that you couldn’t believe weren’t bigger?

JZ: I am very sad that T.T. Quick never really happened. I really have to say there were also really a lot of great cover bands in New Jersey, but I feel that anyone who had any talent here got what they deserved wether they got signed or didn’t. The good rose to the top here, very fast. T.T Quick were so good. Dave DiPietro was Zakk Wylde’s guitar teacher. Dave was lead guitar player for T.T Quick. Fucking amazing player and amazing bloke.

H2Z: Moving along to 1985/86 and a certain Spaceman, Ace Frehley appears on your radar. You went through good and bad times with Ace, who was renowned for being crazy, whats a great Ace story you would like to tell?

JZ: I have to be honest with you. When Ace was with me, he was a perfect gentleman and he really kept himself together. I don’t think he wanted to ever be seen in any other light but perfect with me. So I really have no crazy stories, though there is a funny one in the book which I will tell you. When I met with Ace to go over the contract and business things, we met in a very fancy restaurant in Rockefeller Centre in New York City, the waiter comes over to take our order and I order like a steak and soup, and Ed Trunk orders, they come to Ace and Ace goes “Do you have any Tuna?” The waiter replies “Yes Sir, we have very fine Tuna”. Ace replies “No I mean Tuna Fish Salad, just put it between two pieces of bread and give it to me” (Laughs) The waiter looks at Ace and in a very unhappy tone goes “Oh!, You want me to make you a Tuna Fish Salad Sandwich?”, and Ace replies with “That’ll Do” (Laughs) It was just so funny that in this restaurant the last thing you would see somebody eat would be a Tuna Fish Salad Sandwich. You should have seen the quality of the restaurant we sat in, it was so funny. I really loved Paul. That first Frehley’s Comet album was such a good Ace Frehley album. He proved himself. “Into The Night”, what a tremendous song. He showed how talented he was. And we signed the deal over Tuna and never had any hassles with each other, and he is still out there rocking now which says a lot for the man.

H2Z: So to finish up with we are going to do some name associations, I will give you a name and you say a little something about them.

JZ: OK lets go

H2Z: Lars Ulrich

JZ: Good man, brilliant, a visionary, smart

H2Z: Steve “Lips” Kudlow

JZ: I love Lips, he is a dear friend, we go back a long long time, Just saw him! Anvil are great

H2Z: Eddie Trunk

JZ: Good Vice President, Good friend. Talented and smart. I made him wear a suit to the meetings in New York City and he hated me for it (laughs)

H2Z: Scott Ian

JZ: Another brilliant visionary in the business. A good writer. Authentic. No Bullshit. The man means business.

H2Z: Ross The Boss

JZ: He is a character. A really good guitar player. I like the fact he comes out swinging hard every time. I love the fact that he just played with K.K from Judas Priest

H2Z: Chuck Billy

JZ: One of my dearest friends in the world. We travel together. We do things together. I love Testament beyond belief. I am a big fan. Chuck, to me, is the guy I wanna grow up to be

H2Z: Marsha Zazula

JZ: My angel, my partner for 40 years. My business consultant, if I dont know the answer, she knows the answer. My best friend in the world

H2Z: And lastly, Jon Zazula

JZ: Bat Shit Crazy (laughs)

H2Z: Jon thanks so much for your time today, and thank you for helping shape the music of the bands many people love

JZ: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me Andrew. Bye Bye

You can find out more about Jon and Heavy Tales here:

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