History of Roadrunner Records - Part 1
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
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“There’s two things that people should never look into - and that is, what goes into the workings of record companies; and what goes into the making of sausages. You don’t wanna know” - Peter Steele
Roadrunner Records is known to us metalheads as the flagship label for many many many trailblazing metal bands, including Mercyful Fate, Annihilator, Obituary, Type O Negative, Suffocation, Sepultura, Slipknot, Devildriver, Machine Head, Dream Theatre, Trivium, and Nickelback - to name but a few.
If you identify as a fan of metal music, and you haven’t come across Roadrunner Records, congratulations on your isolationist island micronation. May the fruits of the sea forever stimulate your loin, and the bones of your enemies forever nourish your lush and fertile scratch of land. This is to say that Roadrunner has been a ubiquitous name in metal since the 1980’s.
For the past 40 years, no less than 265 bands have at some point featured on the Roadrunner roster. The journey from those first signings up to today has been marred with successes and controversies, which culminated in a mass cull of staff and in turn, signed artists in April 2012. As of right now in 2020 - only 20 artists bear the Roadrunner label.
And 3 of them are fronted by Corey Taylor, that’s 15%.
Some issues I want to lay out before I start;
I’m stepping on Banger TV and Martin Popoff’s toes here, I get that - and I understand that I will soon be completely stomped on with better content soon enough
Sources are al olnline, I’ve spoken to nobody about this - just strung together what i can find.
For the reasons stated above, this is very much v0.1 of this story.
Hopefully someone in the actual know will come out and tell me how fucking wrong I am about everything, and I can come back and edit it into v0.2 and so on.
To tell this story in as much detail as is possible through secondary sources, we have to take a trip back in time, to 1980’s Netherlands.
Netherlands Record Industry Crisis of the 80’s
The record industry was facing its first major crisis since it’s rise through the 1950’s and 60’s. As described by Koos de Vreeze, director in the Netherlands of CBS Records:
“The first quarter of 1983 saw another strong decline in sales. In recent years we have thought time and again that the low point had been reached. Invariably, a revival was expected for the following year. But unlike an improvement, we were faced with an accelerating decline.
That is why I now dare to speak of a disastrous development. If there is no improvement in the coming period, there will be no more room for a number of record companies. There will be even greater pressure to strive for new partnerships. Especially in the Netherlands, because in our small area we have too many record companies and distributors ”.
As is most industry bubbles - this was attributable to the emerging technologies of the time, in this case the increased ownership of stereo cassette recorders, the increased exposure to broadcasts in public places (such as cars, shops, even hotel lifts), and generally the more varied ways people spent their recreational time.
de Vreeze also reasoned that the initial strength of the music market was the strong population growth.
According to De Vreeze, this had now come to an end. “That is the result of the pill. As a result, the target group of twelve to twenty year olds is decreasing drastically. In our future projections, we assume that our target group will be reduced by four to five million consumers for Europe. While the twelve to twenty year olds have always been our largest target group ”. So think of that next time you break out a condom, you could be ringing Arcade Fire’s death knell (/s).
From an article at the time written by Constant Meijers;
“The first signs that the market was saturated came after the record industry achieved the largest sales in its history with the gigantic sales peak of Christmas 1977. This is due to the overwhelming success of John Travolta with the film 'Saturday Night Fever'. Despite these signs, it took a number of years before the industry realized that the decline was of a lasting nature,”
To illustrate the perceived ‘calm before the storm’, Netherlands label PolyGram's US market share had grown from 5% to 20%. This can also be attributed to multi-million selling albums and 45s by the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, the Village People, Andy Gibb, Kool & the Gang, and rock band Kiss. For a short while in the late 1970s, it was the world's largest record company.
The combination of the inflated saturated market, in addition to the decline in a returning consumer base, was predicted to lead to the “bubble” bursting. Additionally, the new record cycle of the time put more strain on record companies finances, as the need to advertise products, film music videos and in some cases - support a worldwide press cycle became standardised.
It was suggested by PolyGram records co-director Rob Stuyt that “As far as the future is concerned, our right to exist depends on the possession of performing rights. If you don't have them, in fact, if we don't get them today, we'd better start cleaning up a family grave, because that's what we'll all end up in ”.
Stuyt is referring to the long drawn-out battle between the record industry and the government. This concerned the recognition of the industry as the holder of rights in productions produced under its responsibility. What we need to remember is that this was all at a time where the European Economic Community (the prequel to the EU) was a major battlefield when determining the legality of commercial arrangements- all countries needed to be on the same page. A few things had been arranged with regard to these rights in the [Treaty of Rome (which formed the European Economic Community)], but the Dutch government had still not proceeded to ratify these conventions, journalist Meijers noted.
So the consensus across the Dutch record industry was that record companies would slowly morph into publishing houses, dealing primarily with the copyrights of recorded works.
Cees Wessels, avid opera fan, had other ideas. Instead of bean counting and trying to predict market movements and consumer trends, Cees opted to find a path to recovery through emerging music trends themselves. As such, RoadRoadrunner was born in 1980. [I’ve tried finding the Dutch version of Companies House, and can’t find any original documentation - therefore I’ve no idea what date Roadrunner was registered as a company]. Given it’s 2020 so therefore the 40th anniversary, I’d have loved to have known this.
"There are far too many accountants and financial experts to the government and too few people who are working on music and also have some knowledge about how you can turn musical passion into economic returns".
At the time Cees had experience under his belt as the head of both Phonogram Holland (child company of Polygram) and RCA Holland, and according to Gloria Cavalera - he was the A&R dude for Black Sabbath. This sort of stacks up because in 1971, the UK labels of Philips, Fontana, Mercury & Vertigo were joined up into a new company called Phonogram Ltd, which is likely where Cees came in.
Trying to put myself in Cees’ shoes for a minute, in the late 70’s he’s being faced with an oversaturated industry and the likely slow death of record labels due to the factors mentioned above. While we’re soon to learn Cees’ role in the wider onset of metal culture through the 80’s, it’s interesting to reflect that this all seemed to start because Cees simply saw the writing on the wall, and opted to cut himself away in favour of downsizing supply to meet downsized demand, and focus on the ‘product’ himself. It could also be that he’d just been in the game long enough at this point to understand the cyclical nature of trends in music, and knew he only needed to avoid boxing himself, and the music in.
There’s not a lot that’s known about the early days of Cees, but I found a few fun anecdotes from his days at Phonogram
A Phonogram campaign with Dutch band “Q65” caused a sensation. In a recent book about the Hague group (by Pim Scheelings, 2009) guitarist Joop Roelofs said: “To increase our brand awareness and promote the single 'The life I live', the record company decided in 1966 that we, as long-haired scum, had to sail a dinghy from London to Scheveningen. We cursed Phonogram and label manager Cees Wessels, who came up with this great stunt. After a while the pier of Scheveningen came into view. It seemed like no one was there. Nice mess, we thought, no dog showed up. But the closer we got to the pier, the more people we saw. It looked black! About ten thousand! They came because Radio Veronica had broadcast every hour: 'This afternoon Q65 lands in Scheveningen'. We have given a press conference. Then performing in front of ten thousand people. 'The life I live' became a huge hit because of all that hoopla. It shot straight to the top 5!”
So this is in relation to the group Cuby and the Blizzards. In 1969 - the album Appleknockers Flophouse was set to be released. Cees Wessels and Anton Witkamp (label manager and copywriter at Phonogram/Polygram) came up with a publicity stunt. They invited a number of farmers from the area of Wezup at Willem Perkaan’s bar (‘Vat Op Klomp’n’) for a cover photo session with the band. There was free food and drinks for all, and when the farmers were reasonably drunk, Cees Wessels brought in a stripper, who did her strip act on the bar, a sensation in those days. The farmers loved it. But when they sobered up the next day and discovered that the whole thing was photographed and filmed, they panicked. The mayor of Zweelo took up arms "to protect his citizens from a scandal". So, the pictures were not allowed to be used. Thus, the album cover contains only the, very cheerful, band. The film, made by the VARA, has never been broadcast, despite frantic efforts to retrieve it.
So that’s all I have on Cees’s run up to the disco era - big gap as to what he was doing in the 70’s, except someones word that he did A&R for Black Sabbath. However I did spot him on Discogs having produced a single by the Young Sisters called “Do the Latin Hustle” for Phonogram in 1975. Interesting bit here is that it was made in the USA, and co-produced by Nigel Grainge - who would go on to found Ensign Records the following year and jumpstart the careers of The Boomtown Rats and Sinead O’Connor.
1980-1983 - The First Run
As was mentioned in the intro, Roadrunner is synonymous with heavy metal - but before we get to that, I’d be remiss if I didn’t launch into a tirade of odd shit they put out in order to get the label off the ground.
As put by Chris Dick from Decibel Magazine;
“In its earliest stages, the Netherlands based outfit functioned more like a licensing and distribution mechanism than a proper label. To get it off the ground, Roadrunner pulled music from British and North American markets for music connoisseurs in Europe. Roadrunner’s first releases weren’t heavy metal or hard rock. They were from American singer-songwriter Jim Croce.”
This is largely true, however the first (of many) Jim Croce records was actually the eighth record Roadrunner had put out at that time, if we’re assuming that Roadrunner’s catalogue numbers indicate chronology. Also, Jim himself had been dead for 8 years at the time of his debut Roadrunner release. But it serves well to illustrate the point - at its inception Roadrunner effectively acted as the go-between for the High Fidelity record store clerks of Europe and less ubiquitous music releases of the rest of the world.
Perhaps to the audience of this podcast, the more prominent first Roadrunner album releases are more note-worthy, which was the Belgian distribution of the first Dead Kennedy’s album - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, as well as the Benelux distribution for Canada’s very own Anvil, and their debut Hot ‘N’ Heavy. (Benelux is the term for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg).
Max Fijen [big cheese label rep in Holland, worked for Dureco, who I believe only put out Dutch music which was important post-war, I guess] noted the following about the early days:
“Roadrunner was also active in the production of light erotic video tapes. When I got the district of Rotterdam, with its harbor and ships, it resulted in interesting sales ”
I’ve looked - and can’t find anything on this. As such I’m looking for a porn connoisseur to help with this. Apply within.
The first actual original release by the label was a single by Liaisons Dangereuses - Los Niños Del Parque, and I’ll be absolutely sure to post a link to the track itself in the episode description, because this one is an absolute banger. Remember that this label will be linked with Megadeth in a few short decades. Whilst we’re bringing it up - check out the early iterations of the RoadRunner logo in 1981.
Reference - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_sAH2QGotE
More examples of interesting iterations of the Roadrunner logo in the early days.
So, continuing with the trend of doing the heavy lifting for the international music industry by distributing across Europe - Roadrunner had 21 releases under their belt in 1981. In 1982, this increased to 34.
This is where a substantial knowledge gap comes in (for me), I’m not sure if Cees was doubling up at this time, and working for Polygram/Phonogram still. It doesn’t seem likely that he would have been allowed to run his own label on the sly while working for one of the record industry powerhouses of the time. I could be fucking wrong though.
As it entered 1983, the Roadrunner brand started to lean further and further towards rock and heavy metal. In fact - the second Roadrunner release in 1983 was a metal compilation album licensed from early New Wave of British Heavy Metal vehicle, Neat Records called “Metal Battle”. The album featured tracks from acts such as Raven, Anvil, Venom, Jaguar and Witchfynde.
It seems at this point that, while Roadrunner is hitting the ground running on the licensing and distribution front being the meat and potatoes of their business, they’re totally focusing on more emerging niche genres, rather than taking whatever they can get and throwing it out wherever it wasn’t already sold. In my opinion of course. I wasn’t fucking there.
Before we go into the bigger milestones of that year - of the 61 releases in 1983, 41 have been classed as either Rock, Punk, or Heavy Metal on discogs.com. That’s a remarkable increase from 1982, which comprised 34 records, 18 of which were classed as the same. At this time, it’s clear Roadrunner still had a stake in other genres, primarily New Wave, Electronica and Experimental - however all that was about to change.
So as we leave 1980-1983 behind, I want to bullet point the bigger questions I had;
Who’s along for the ride here? Is Cees doing all this on his tod? I’m guessing since he’s already had time in senior positions at Polygram, he’s got an elaborate network of contacts that helped spur Roadrunner along those first few years - but I’ve no idea who was ‘in house’. I mean that literally, there’s the registered office in Amsterdam. Although I’ll concede that it could just be Cessel’s gaff.
Was he managing to two-time PolyGram at this point, I’m assuming he was working with them up to this point…
1983 - Mercyful Fate
Throughout the 1980’s, spates of incidents involving ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’ spread across the globes. Typically such events would be reports or allegations of physical or sexual abuse in the context of occult or satanic rituals. As is often fondly remembered, heavy metal was thrust into the role of the antagonist for the “Satanic Panic”.
It was at this time that Roadrunner would use the Satanic Panic as a foothold for it’s first direct signing, Danish band, Mercyful Fate.
To paint the picture of where Mercyful Fate sat in regards the media of that time, I give you guitarist Hank Shermann;
“at our live shows we had these upside down crosses and these nuns that exploded on the stage. But to me, it was basically entertainment. And to our advantage, there weren’t too many bands that dealt with that stuff; we had a lot of attention going on because we were Satanic preachers and all that (laughs), and King was always in interviews with Christian people on radio and on TV, so that brought a lot of attention. But the knowing thing was that that kinda overshadowed the music. And the rest of the band, of course, was into the music and not too much into the image and the lyrics side. So we were kind of a little pissed, ‘Hey, what about the music?’ But all in all, it certainly helped us a lot. And King says, even today, this is entertainment. I mean, you might as well go in to see a scary movie. But personally, he’s into the occult, whatever that is.”
So the satanism and occult aesthetics in Mercyful’s Fate’s music and live shows were clearly central to their controversy, but presumably their appeal. I like that the band itself just weren’t focused on the occult aspect, they just effectively wanted to rock out. It reminds me of a Buzz Aldrin interview I once heard, and when he spoke about the moon landing, he didn’t give a fuck about the actual moon or being in space - he spoked about the whole experience as if he was just engineering under weird circumstances. In this regard, this is where I think Mercyful Fate has an ‘angle’. The occult stuff on it’s own is a gimmick, but because the songs absolutely kick tits, it makes the sum of its parts more compelling. This is what I think Cees was looking for in an act.
So where we’re at in Roadrunner making a name for itself - Cees’ already finely tuned experience in the record industry being played in an adversarial media environment, in my opinion, helped him identify investment opportunities in bands. Or to be more obvious, he was after bands that your Mum and Dad didn’t want you listening to, before your Mum and Dad knew they existed.
As well as seeking out the more ‘extreme’ acts available at the time, Cees appeared to adopt a more intimate management style with his acts, quite far removed from the oversaturated ‘helicopter management’ style that accompanied the Disco bubble throughout the five years prior.
Here’s King Diamond recounting the run-up to the ink making its way to the dotted line;
“The day before we were to play Aardschok, maybe the first one, I was at the Roadrunner offices, and Cees was trying to go over the contract with me. He very patiently explained as much as he could to me. I had so many questions about everything. From that day on and for many years, Cees was always extremely open and willing to give me his wisdom. I am eternally grateful to Cees for all this. He taught me all about the business. We agreed to sign the whole thing the next day in the backstage at Aardschok. That’s when we officially signed the deal.”
Yeah that is just one anecdote but you’ll hear this kind of thing about Cees a lot, he really seems to give a fuck about his bands. In a similar fashion, Roadrunner seemed to favour the band’s recording preferences, in contrast to Mercyful Fate’s first label, Rave-On Records;
“...on the first mini-LP, we had two days to record and mix. And we had just as many backing vocals and harmony guitars planned as you hear on the Melissa album. But we were told, ‘No, no, there’s no time. Do it now. You can have one backing vocal. On some of it, it was hard. It was like, ‘Aw man, all this stuff we planned out for nothin .’ And then we finally signed with Roadrunner and got 12 days in the studio to do the Melissa album, and we could suddenly start experimenting with these harmonies and stuff. And then it starts developing.”
Mercyful Fate’s debut ‘Melissa’ came out the day before Halloween in 1983 to critical acclaim. Mercyful Fate would of course go on to influence the first wave of black metal, and the Bay Area thrash movement. It seems they also continued to be controversial into 1985 - it was that year that the band made it onto the Parents Music Resource Center ‘Filthy 15’ - a list of songs found to be the most objectionable at the time. Mercyful Fate made the list at #11 with “Into the Coven”. Aide note about the recording of Melissa - they also recorded a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ for the album, which was left on the cutting room floor - and regrettably I can’t seem to track it down.
For me, 1983 is the pivotal year Cees took Roadrunner on it’s first steps away from purely distributing obscure music to the obscure masses in Europe, and towards carving its own defamatory insults onto the side of the toilet cubicle at your local high school.
Early 80’s Metal Record Industry
We all know that by this point, metal had been around in some form or another for about 13 or so years. But from what I can see, the biggest heavy acts of the 70’s weren’t being pushed by metal labels, they were tacked onto far bigger conglomerates.
See below the list of bigger metal names of the 70’s, their labels, and a short list of their label-mates;
By comparison, in the short years following Melissa, Mercyful Fate would be calling US thrashers Carnivore and Whiplash, Swedish outfit Silver Mountain, and NWOBHM bands Avenger and Spartan Warrior - their label-mates. As we’ll learn soon enough, this roster will expand dramatically.
Additionally, during this time Roadrunner hadn’t given up it’s licensing and distribution arm, so continued to oversee early releases from Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Venom, Raven and Witchfynde releases in Europe.
So was RoadRunner breaking new ground by trending towards signing exclusively metal acts? Fuck no.
Around the same time, other such metal branded labels were popping up;
Metal Blade and Megaforce Records were both born of the early 80’s tape trading scene
RCA Records had a half-hearted stab at the metal market through forming subsidiary ‘Active Records’ in 1980.
Combat Records were treading similar paths by signing Megadeth in 1984 - also they nicked their logo from the Clash’s “Combat Rock” - cheeky sods
Earache was founded in the UK In 1985, and was found to be the home for emerging extreme acts and genres such as grindcore and death metal.
Doctor Dream Records was established on the West Coast in California in 1982
Extasy Records and ‘Free-Will’ flew the metal flag in Japan in 1986
Fringe Product (or Fringe Records) were the first to have obscenity charges laid against them in Canada on the basis of their distribution of two albums by hardcore punk band ‘Dayglo Abortions’ in 1988
Intense Records handled Christian Metal from 1986
Leathur Records were Motley Crue’s own label in the first half of the 80’s
Mausoleum Records were considered by Billboard as “one of Europe’s premier hard rock labels” which was founded in Belgium in 1982.
Music For Nations formed in the UK in 1983, spawning subsidiary Under One Flag in 1986.
Neat Records was founded in the UK in 1979 in Wallsend, near Newcastle, and is responsible for kickstarting a large chunk of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement.
New Renaissance was founded in 1984 by Hellion vocalist Ann Boleyn
Noise Records were the outlet for European thrash metal bands when founded in 1983.
I’m not forgetting Nuclear Blast and Peaceville, but they were 1987, some time after this weird germination period.
SPV have since become one of the largest independent record labels worldwide since their founding in 1984
So let’s cherry pick some of the above, and look at the number of label releases in that time, by those labels, and compare to Roadrunner (and I’m not being picky, these involve reissues and licensed distributions - ie anything that’s making the business money);
As demonstrated through this tedious exercise - Roadrunner were hardly breaking new ground when it comes to branding themselves the “metal” label, but it can’t be denied that they, while still a small independent outfit by 1985, were substantially outpacing their contemporaries by a considerable margin in terms of release schedules.
Of course I can’t properly qualify this as an advantage or triumph over the competition, as Roadrunner may well have been putting out 3 records a week and selling zero, but the fact that they’re still around today indicates that that’s not the case. It would be good to find some real data on this, though.
Further to this - of 1984’s 114 releases, 107 are labelled as Hard Rock/Metal, and similarly, of 1985’s 142 releases, 135 are considered Hard Rock/Metal. It’s therefore safe to say that at the same time Cees was sending music to the markets at breakneck speed (for the time), he had built a firm enough foundation to reduce the scope of Roadrunner’s output from Rock, Synth and Electronica, and focus primarily on heavy music. I’m curious to see if there’s anything comparable with today’s Digital Age of music - you’d think there’s a label out there with a roster of artists that could feasibly put out a record a day for a year.
Initially I struggled to speculate on what I could attribute to Roadrunner’s frantic release schedule, and what Cees was looking for when signing an artist. As I understand it, Cees is an opera fanatic, and his history with metal (specifically A&R for Sabbath) isn’t 100% verified in my eyes. Then I remembered that while we’re only talking about Roadrunners infancy years, by the release of Melissa we’re at the very least 17 years into Cees’ career in the music industry, that’s only if we assume the earlier Q65 anecdote took place during his first year in the business.
As for his fandom of opera, this didn’t seem to matter. As Brian Slagel of Metal Blade noted in “The Bloody Reign of Slayer”, upon forming a relationship with Cees over possible overseas distribution arrangements in 1983;
“Cees Wessels got Slayer’s music - he liked it,” says Slagel. “In fact, I took Cees to see Slayer when he was in LA. It was a terrible venue, but Cees said, ‘I totally get it’.”
I think the most operative term here is “I get it”. It seems that Cees doesn’t need to have been part of the tape trading scene, or played in a metal band to understand the appeal of certain bands. As mentioned earlier, this seems to be what he found in Mercyful Fate - the intentional antagonism King brought to the stage through occult artifacts and satanist lyrical content was certainly an ‘angle’ that Cees could try to exploit, to everyone’s benefit as it happened.
1984 - Carnivore
I really wanted to find some more substantial information on how New York crossover thrash band Carnivore got signed to Roadrunner, but at time of writing, I could only find the below, tucked inside a 45 minute drunk interview in which singer Peter Steele frequently berates the interviewer for minor social slights;
“When I signed with Carnivore to the label, the deal was in fact, horrible, it was a conflict of interest, because I was young and ignorant and uncircumcised at the time. The record company recommended that we use their lawyer, which we did. So he’s like ‘Everything in here is cool’. Of course it was cool. So my attitude was well I don’t wanna be some fucking rock n roller because that wasn’t my ambition, I was a sanitation worker - so whether I fucking pick up garbage or write it, it’s the same thing, ultimately.”
The rather slurred details around the Carnivore deal and it’s apparent ‘horribleness’ is important, and I’ll get into the nuances of Cees’ dealing in the next chapter of this story.
But I think it’s totally worth mentioning this band in light of the previous comments about Cees finding an ‘angle’ to a band, especially as metal was the musical antagonist to the mainstream playlists of the day (and because Carnivore is the start of Roadrunners’ 20 year relationship with Peter Steele).
Carnivore was the brainchild of Peter, who would come to be the same brainparent to his other brainchild, Type-O-Negative. As a personality, Peter was famously cynical, imposing, and carried a cutting dark sense of humour.
As described by drummer Louis Beato;
“Carnivore was the Howard Stern of music. We were pushing the envelope constantly. It was always about being extreme. We were trying to present this heavy large barbaric vibe and everything surrounded that... We were very influenced by the movie Road Warrior. We were a rogue band of scavengers looking for anything and taking it… But as far as any challenges, we didn’t care. I don’t think the lyrics had the effect they had until Peter first went to Europe with Type O Negative with Carnivore lyrics. He was outlaw #1. Of course there were people here in our city that were offended but at the same time we were building a strong underground following and that’s what we wanted. But we honestly didn’t care if people were offended.”
With song titles such as Male Supremacy, Angry Neurotic Catholics, Race War, Jesus Hitler, and a proudly resonant declaration of Peter’s dining preferences in the opening track to their self titled album - Carnivore seem an appropriate horse for Cees to back, and it would be a gamble that paid off for the two decades to follow.
1984-1987 - Expansion
Other milestones for Roadrunner in this time include the signing of the first female fronted metal band ,”Jade” in 1984 (Lita Ford doesn’t count as she was a solo act).
1985 would also see the birth of King Diamond, rising from the ashes of Mercyful Fate, who broke up citing creative differences after releasing Don’t Break the Oath in 1984. According to the late bassist for the band, Timi Hansen - the initial Mercyful Fate deal with Roadrunner wasn’t great, and King went to negotiate with Cees on the matter. Cees insisted that the only way to broker a better financial arrangement for the band was to change the band’s name - given that Mercyful Fate was effectively dead, King Diamond was born under this new arrangement.
1985 would also see the only American hire of Roadrunner at the time, Holly Lane. Holly was tasked with launching Roadrunner’s U.S. operations. The interesting tidbit about this was that the company was not allowed to operate under the name Roadrunner for some years, due to an IP conflict with the popular Warner Brothers’ cartoon character. To evade any escalation, Roadrunner was known as RoadRacer in the US since December 10, 1984 .
Under Holly’s leadership, the US office for Roadrunner would open in New York City in the autumn of 1986.
In 1986 Holly inked a distribution deal with Important Records Distribution (parent company to the aforementioned Roadrunner rivals Combat Records) and launched three imprints: the heavy metal Roadracer (feat King Diamond), alternative music Emergo (feat The Fleshtones) and hardcore Hawker (feat Token Entry.) Each imprint would see a release that year - RR being King Diamond’s Abigail, which would be Roadrunner’s first Billboard top 200 record, selling 175k units. Emergo would release The Fleshtone’s album “The Fleshtones v Reality”, and Hawker would release Token Entry’s “Jaybird” the following year. All of Holly’s first year releases all charted in the Billboard Top 200.
Abigail in particular was a milestone not only because of the amount of units sold, but because it is claimed to be the first “horror story” concept album;
“You can say Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare, [but] that's not a horror story,” explains King. “Others have done concept albums, The Who and many others, but never a horror story like this. I'm pretty sure it's a first, and... because at that time it was so new, it was automatically going to have a heavy impact.”
So we’re 7 years in and now Roadrunner are now incubating their own talent, who are placing in the Billboard Top 200.
Holly Lane sadly passed away in June 2020, so I thought I would end on a letter of recommendation for her written by retired attorney Jules I Kurtz;
“In 1985 Cees Wessels, my client, opened up Roadrunner Records, Inc. I recommended Holly Lane to Cees. She was interviewed and hired as chief operating officer. During her tenure at Roadrunner Holly was always the first one in the office every morning and the person who turned off all the lights in the evening. From nothing Holly created a well functioning company and laid the base for what today is arguably the leading independent record label in the world operating in the area of heavy metal and hard rock. Holly continued to circulate in the music industries and she continued to build up a repertoire of people she knew in all areas of the music and record business.”
Holly was also directly responsible for launching the career of the George Lucas of metal, who at around this time was working at Shatter Records as a college radio promoter, for paychecks that kept bouncing.
More on that, next time.
RIP Holly Lane
I have so many questions;
What’s the actual story of Carnivore being signed? The reason I’m focusing on Mercyful Fate and Carnivore here is because they're strong, eccentric personalities - and for that time I feel that’s worth remarking that Cees plucked them from the unwashed masses. As you move through time and the more extreme ends of the metal spectrum get represented from the smaller metal labels, those kinds of eccentric personalities are to be more expected.
Where are the stories of all the bands that we haven’t heard of? Like the bunch of NWOBHM ones seemingly nicked from Neat. Maybe “the bands Roadrunner left behind” bonus episode is on the cards.
Was Cees actually Sabbath’s A&R guy?
What was the feeling on the ground when groundbreaking metal acts came from elsewhere? Ie Reign in Blood, Master of Puppets. Did Cees feel outdone or was it business as usual?
The imprints. Is this a way to mitigate any risk of damaging the parent label brand by putting out a shit record, while developing a certain act?
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