A&R Legend John Kalodner Talks Aerosmith and Why Rock Won't Reach the Masses Again

Legendary A&R man John Kalodner, center, and a few friends.EXPAND
Legendary A&R man John Kalodner, center, and a few friends.
Courtesy John Kalodner

A Whitesnake medallion is the only memento John Kalodner kept from his remarkable A&R career.  He keeps it in front of the desk and computer in his airy Hollywood Hills home, commemorating Whitesnake’s self-titled 1987 album, which featured the band’s epic pop-metal hits “Here I Go Again” and “Still of the Night.” It sold more than 8 million copies. Kalodner did A&R for it, which means he helped develop the band's sound and vision, as he also did for the post-rehab Aerosmith LPs that sold a bazillion copies during the 1980s and '90s. At one time or another, Kalodner also played a major role in the careers of AC/DC, Phil Collins, Cher, Bon Jovi, Peter Gabriel and even Jimmy Page. 

During his own 30-plus year career in the music business, which began in Atlantic Records' publicity department in 1974, Kalodner was awarded a literal pile of platinum and gold records. But he parted ways with those awards. “You know, I have memories of all of them, I have pictures of all of them, and they might do good for somebody so I found a collector in Arizona, and he was willing to pay me, like, six figures,” Kalodner says. He donated funds raised from selling his memorabilia to the City of Hope cancer and research center, he says.

So why hang on to the Whitesnake bling?

“I have no idea,” he says in his distinctive nasal, slightly professorial voice.

Kalodner's wide-ranging A&R work with artists included selecting songs, producers, video directors and auxiliary musicians, as well as supervising song arrangements, mixing, mastering, album art, marketing, merchandising and touring decisions. 

Along with his long hair, beard and circular glasses, his music industry wizardry gave him a guru-like aura, and earned him the signature album liner-notes credit "John Kalodner: John Kalodner," first bestowed on Foreigner's 1978 hit LP, Double Vision. "Mick Jones and Lou Gramm couldn’t figure out what title I would have," Kalodner says, referring to the "Hot Blooded" band's guitarist and singer, respectively. "Because I wasn’t the producer, wasn’t their manager. I wasn’t a co-songwriter. So because it was Double Vision, [they]  just came up with 'John Kalodner: John Kalodner,' as that I did what I am. Like with my personality, music knowledge and my straightforwardness and my love of their music. So that’s how it started. It’s a very gratifying thing always to see." 

Ten years after his 2006 retirement, I called Kalodner on a recent afternoon to talk about his legendary career and the state of rock. Excerpts are below. 

If a music historian asked for one album you worked on, to put in a time capsule as the best example of what John Kalodner did for bands, what album would you pick to go in there?
Aerosmith, Get a Grip.

Because, first of all, I made them rerecord the whole record completely. Second of all, I made them write with all these different people. They were very resistant. The record is an interesting eclectic record with, like, five hit singles, very rare in music, and Bruce Fairbairn produced it. And I got Brendan O'Brien to mix it, who became a giant producer. So for all those reasons, and, of course, it sold like 20 million copies worldwide.

Steven Tyler and John Kalodner
Steven Tyler and John Kalodner
Courtesy John Kalodner

You mentioned having Aerosmith rerecord the Get a Grip songs. There’s a great Steven Tyler quote regarding you and his songs, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you had him kill his babies, or something like that. 

Oh, yeah. He told many magazines that after that record was released and sold all these copies, because I threw out three or four or five of his crappy songs. For a genius performer, songwriter and singer to have such crappy songs, I just threw them out. I think they later used them on some record they put out in the last few years, or whatever. In any case, he would tell writers that the songs are his children, and so I kill his children. It’s a great quote. Only when you know him can you really appreciate it.

Since you retired, do you listen to music differently now, with “fan ears” instead of “A&R ears?"

Well, first of all, I always listen to music with fan ears because I was a giant fan of American, what they would call, corporate rock music. But now I only listen to music on my iPhone when I’m on the treadmill or work out. I don’t listen to music otherwise at all, and when I hear music on The Today Show or other news shows, like when I saw a clip of Madonna on the American Music Awards performing the Prince thing, I thought to myself, “Just how horrifying is that? It’s unbelievably horrifying that she started flat and she sang the entire medley flat or song flat.” I guess when I see new things, I look at it as an A&R person. When I listen to music that’s already been recorded, I listen to it as a fan, a music lover. When I hear a song on the radio, just randomly because I don’t listen to music radio, I hear this Justin Bieber song. It’s a great song. It’s an incredible vocal. Where the hell are the instruments? Are songs today supposed to sound like demos that I made of songs before I recorded them? I mean, it sounds like a demo. The instruments, they’re cheesy, cheap-sounding instruments, and there’s not many of them, so it sounds like a demo submitted to him. I don’t understand.

When you’re on the treadmill, what do you listen to?

I’m like a stupid millennial. I listen to songs, I don’t listen to albums. I’ll listen to “Back in Black” running into Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil” running into Green Day running into Carly Simon's “The Right Thing to Do." So it's very eclectic. A lot of new country-rock music, which sounds like the rock from the 1980s.

What do you think are rock’s best chances to reach the masses again? Or do you think it’s going to be relegated to this niche kind of thing, like jazz?

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It’s going to be a niche area. Just like everything in society in media and many other things, because the millennials don’t have a clue. So it’s going to be confined to people who love music or are in their 30s or 40s or 50s or 60s. So it’s not going to be the height of popular rock music from the Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet until the Pearl Jam, Soundgarden era. But everybody loves all those records. Everybody from 18 to 50. Everybody went to the shows — I was there for hundreds of them. Everybody bought those records — I have 10 Diamond Awards, that’s 10 million albums [sold] and I have 10 of them — so you don’t sell that many records with artists when a lot of demographics don’t buy them. You have to have it across the board.

Do you think if a reunited Guns N’ Roses put out a new album of original material now, it would go platinum?

No. No. Because it’s very hard to tell superstars that their songs aren’t good enough, which is the main problem with most of these records, and there are only pussified people in the music business who will not tell ... you know, either they’re afraid for their salaries, their reputations, being disliked by the artists, there are many reasons why they won’t tell the artist the truth. It’s a very hard thing to do. And I would never win any popular artists from all the artists that I made famous, believe me.

Was there any major artist that you worked with who was actually good about taking that kind of A&R input?

Jon Bon Jovi  was the only one. And Steven Tyler, in his own funny way.

When you would have those conversations with artists, did you ease into it? Or did you just go, “The songs just aren’t there”?

No, first of all, I would be involved with their music, so I would try to discuss their music with them. And I would talk about the music, be involved with them and then bring up, “You want to be this big. You want to sell out concerts. The music that’s going to go on the radio is your advertisement for your concerts and I know that’s 90 percent of your income. So if you don’t want to make a good advertisement for the radio, then you’re not going to sell out shows.” I would kind of put it in practical terms. Sometimes I would put it in more artistic terms, you know, the song "Janie’s Got a Gun" would have important social implications if Tyler would fix some of the lyrics, which he did. It would be on a case-by-case thing. But I was never afraid to speak my mind because their manager can get fired, their agent can get fired, but I worked for the record company. I couldn’t get fired. They could just complain about me. Eventually, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry got me fired from working with Aerosmith at Columbia Records. Right after they recorded “Jaded.” That was such a great song. And I thought it was really poorly recorded digitally and I complained about the sound of the record and I didn’t want them to record digitally. And Tyler and Perry were really pissed off. They got me tossed off after that. And they never had another hit again.

Do you have any plans to write a book? You have a life in music and a perspective I think people would be interested in.

I think if I wrote a book I’d have to leave the country, because all the real stories of the artists that I’ve worked with or known and helped with, they would be incredibly offended by the real truth of how a lot of the stuff got made. And how many other people helped. It just doesn’t go over big. And you always have to have two sources to confirm things, and it would be way too stressful for me. Also I don’t want to be one of those gossipy douche bags that talks out of school after the fact. So the answer is no.

Any current artists you didn’t get a chance to work with you would have liked to?

I really would like to work with Taylor Swift. I think she’s incredibly talented. I really would like to do a record with Keith Urban and Martina McBride, two incredible talents. 

Many MTV-era rock fans remember you wearing a wedding dress in Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” music video. 

It was Rick Rubin’s idea. It wasn’t my idea. So Rick Rubin was at the “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” shoot. Now I had made this terrible record [Done With Mirrors] with Aerosmith with Ted Templeman, who was a legendary producer, but he and the band were just high, and I really didn’t understand it because I really hadn’t had this overall problem before. And the songs were not that good. And the performances were not that good. Nothing was that good. So in between this Rick Rubin had this genius idea to do “Walk This Way” with Run-D.M.C. and it was very good for Aerosmith. Tim Collins in the interim, six months later, cleaned the band up. We went into the studio with Bruce Fairbairn. They were all clean. Everybody was playing great. The album was great, Permanent Vacation. So Rick Rubin and [Steven] Tyler came up with this idea, and I don’t know how they came up with it, but they convinced [director] Marty Callner that in the wedding scene in the ["Dude (Looks Like a Lady)"] video that I should be in a wedding dress and play the bride. And when Marty asked me, I said, “Yeah, I’ll wear the dress. Just make sure it’s the right size.” I think I wear a 12 or a 14. In any case, the dress shows up and I’m wearing a wedding dress in “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”

Do you still have that dress?

No, it was a costume rental. 

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