Michael Alago Shares Story of Signing Metallica to Elektra: ‘We Just Did Our Jobs’
"They were relentless on stage and forced the crowd to pay attention. It was truly special."
In the Spring '23 issue of CREEM, Michael Alago opened up about what it was like being a young A&R executive for Elektra Records and convincing everyone around him that the label had to sign Metallica. From sharing memories of the first time he saw Metallica at L'Amour in Brooklyn in 1983—"Phil Caivano from Monster Magnet and I went and freaked out!"—to describing the moment he told Jon Zazula at Megaforce Records that he wanted to sign Metallica—"That conversation went down the tubes real fast"—the article sheds new light on a 40-year-old story.
"Despite their nickname of 'Alcoholica,' these guys were focused," Alago said in conversation with CREEM's Howie Abrams. "James Hetfield was the ringleader and he knew how to connect with an audience, and they gave all that energy back to him."
After seeing Metallica at The Stone in San Francisco not long after the L'Amour gig, Alago managed to find the band and give Lars Ulrich his business card. A few months later, Ulrich called Alago and told him that Metallica were coming back to New York City for a special Megaforce show at Roseland Ballroom, playing alongside Raven and Anthrax.
That show took place one week after Metallica released Ride the Lightning and it was dubbed, by Marsha Zazula, as A Midsummer's Night Scream.
"A lot of great things came out of that evening at Roseland," Alago recalled. "I was a little drunk in that sold-out crowd. Metallica blew the fucking roof off the place ... Many of those young people had never heard anything like that, except maybe for the demo tape that was going around and Kill 'Em All ... The show was extraordinary, I was in heaven."
Once again, Alago found his way to meet the band after the show and as he remembered, "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 said, 'Guys, this is Michael Alago from Elektra Records.'"
At that time, the Metallica guys were in their early-20s and Alago wasn't much older. Somehow, he convinced the band to come to the Elektra offices the next day, Aug. 5, 1984. "I ordered beer and Chinese food," he said. "I remember Cliff Burton, of all people, asking a lot of questions, including how they could get off of Megaforce and onto Elektra."
From that moment on, Alago brought Elektra president Bob Krasnow and their head of business affairs, Gary Casson, into the fold and convinced them that the label had to do whatever it took to sign Metallica. "Nobody was happy in the beginning, but money talks and Megaforce walked away financially satisfied," Alago said. "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."
It wasn't exactly smooth sailing even after that, though Alago was determined to stay out of the way of Metallica. He told a story about getting everyone at Elektra to listen to Ride the Lightning because they needed to know how to market it now that the band was on their label.
As he recalled, the radio team thought the songs were too long and Alago 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 haven to seen this band, you have to go see them life." That became mandatory ... 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.
And Alago was able to do just that as Elektra sent Metallica out to tour all over America.
"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."
You can read Alago's full story in the Spring '23 issue of CREEM; get more details on the magazine at this location and check out Alago's memoir, I Am Michael Alago: Breathing Music. Signing Metallica. Beating Death., here.