A&R Legend Tom Zutaut Risked His Job to Sign Guns N' Roses, L.A.'s Most Dangerous Band
Former Geffen Records executive Tom Zutaut at his home in Virginia
Courtesy Tom Zutaut
He looks more like a mountain man than a record executive. With a Led Zeppelin T-shirt and blondish white hair, he gives me a stone-cold stare, followed by an awkward pause. “I don’t do very many interviews,” he finally says. “In fact, 100 journalists from all over the world have reached out and I’ve declined them all, barring a writer from France.”
Inside his 250-year-old historic home, surrounded by paintings of the founding fathers, Tom Zutaut, the former Geffen Records executive who signed Guns N' Roses to a record deal in 1986, is holding an LP as if it were the Constitution. “I’ve held back doing this for 30 years. Saved it for a special moment.”
He gingerly removes the plastic wrap off a first pressing of GNR’s debut, Appetite for Destruction, released 30 years ago this week. The skull and crossbones decal falls onto his Persian rug. When he plays the virgin LP through a hi-fi stereo and four booming speakers, Slash’s blade-like opening riff slices through the thickness off the room.
Now retired to the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Zutaut has agreed to do an exclusive interview to discuss the best-selling debut album of all time, his greatest accomplishment as an A&R mastermind who reshaped rock & roll in the ‘80s.
TOM ZUTAUT: These first pressing stampers were made entirely at Sterling Sound with George Marino. And this was the only one you could get, initially, with the DMM [direct metal mastering] stamped on the inner grooves with the banned “robot rape” artwork.
L.A. WEEKLY: How did the Robert Williams artwork land on the original cover?
Axl showed me a card with the Williams painting and said, “You realize … this is the future,” then he pointed to the woman: “This is the victim; this is the media, and above them is the monster that the media creates.” He predicted, in 1986, that we were going to live in a world of “fake news,” where we’d feed on tragedy. It depicted human nature and the ugly need we have for an appetite for destruction. Axl told me that CNN was going to change the world by feeding that appetite. He saw the future in that painting, and because GNR had 100% creative control in their contract, the label had to use the artwork.
Was there an alternate cover available simultaneously at record stores?
No, they didn’t get that one initially. We knew after the initial runs of the DMM, which I think we had about 30,000 copies of, that we were going to change the cover so they could order the skull and crossbones after the first run of orders were filled.
Thirty years later and you’re listening to this record for the first time in years. How does it sound?
This was the last great hard-rock record made entirely by hand. No computer assistance or automated faders. It’s a piece of imperfect art that will stand the test of time because it was made manually on a console. It captured lightning in a bottle.
How involved were you, beyond A&R duties at Geffen, in the actual creation of the record?
GNR were always on the verge of implosion, so I had to be very hands-on. A lot of it had to do with drugs the band abused, and I was naive to that at the time. But I remember inviting the band to my house in Hollywood to listen to a bunch of records, like UFO and Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings, and pick and choose what we liked, or didn’t like. The one thing we found consensus on was that UFO’s Strangers in the Night was the best live record ever made. It took us about a year and a half before we went into the studio from that point.
What took so long?
They were writing, and I kept telling them that they needed that one song that would define them and take them to the top. They kept asking me what that was, and I said I’d know it when I heard it. I couldn’t help them write it, but as an A&R person, you always have a lot of say on the first album.
Which song ended up being the one?
"Sweet Child O’ Mine.” I knew right away that it was the missing song before booking them studio time. And it worked because it wasn’t a traditional, formulaic power-ballad. It was seven minutes long and nobody saw it as a single, but I knew it was going to be No. 1 on Billboard.
We had “November Rain” and “Don’t Cry” before we even recorded Appetite, but I didn’t feel like those were songs you would put on a debut. They needed to start with an honest punk statement. Those ballads were overly complex and could alienate their audience outside of L.A. with the image of Axl behind a grand piano. Axl understand that better than anyone. He wanted GNR to start off punk, to counter hair metal.
In terms of track order, why is “Sweet Child O’ Mine” buried on side two?
Most people in radio don’t listen to side two of a record. They don’t even get beyond the first five songs. I intentionally buried the hit and put the credibility tracks first, like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Night Train” and “It’s So Easy,” which had the punk ethic down.
Why was “It’s So Easy” released as the first single?
Well that was specifically a U.K. strategy. It was written by Duff, with help from the now-deceased West Arkeen, who had the strongest punk ethos in the band. So based on the pre-Appetite Marquee Club shows, it made more sense to start with “It’s So Easy” in the U.K. to get a buzz going.
What’s your personal favorite track off the record?
You know, I’ve never told anyone this, but my personal favorite is “Think About You,” and I fought to have that one to be the second track on side two. I also pushed to have the acoustic guitars mixed at the center, really loud, jangling in the foreground. To me, that was their greatest post punk-rock Rolling Stones moment. I grew up a Stones fan in the world of Beatles versus Stones.
Before recording Appetite, you predicted to David Geffen that the record would sell at least 10 million copies. How did you have the balls to make that kind of prediction?
I believed they were going to be the biggest band in the world after hearing them play just two songs at the Troubadour. Just listen to it on the record. Slash was this 19-year-old kid who could give Jimmy Page a run for his money. Slash at 19 was better than Page at the same age.
This was rock & roll. Not metal, not hard rock. Which is the key to the origins of this record: This is a rock & roll record by a band that I predicted would be bigger than Led Zeppelin, which is what I told David Geffen and put my ass on the line and requested a $75,000 advance to sign GNR in 72 hours.
Did Geffen ever listen to GNR before signing them?
No, he never heard the band until the record was released in July ’87, and even then, I don’t think he listened to a track until it went gold. David Geffen trusted me, which is why I worked for him after I left Elektra where I had helped sign Mötley Crüe. David let me do my thing and I didn’t have to argue with a bunch of accountants to get shit done.
Did you ever talk to Geffen about Appetite after it became a hit in 1988?
After it hit around 10 million in sales, he called me and told me: “I thought you were out of your mind when you said they’d be the biggest rock band in the world … but you were right.”
Why do you think MTV initially declined to play the video for “Welcome to the Jungle”?
Because half their cable outlets were run by a right-wing conservative, John Malone, who told MTV’s founder Bob Pittman that if he played dangerous junkie bands he’d knock MTV off his cable networks.
Why did they end their blockade of “Welcome to the Jungle” in the fall of ‘87?
The album was seen as a failure by the label. GNR had sold 200,000 units within nine months of release, which many bands could have done in those days. Geffen CEO Ed Rosenblatt called me into his office and said the record was dead. That it was time move on to the next one. So I went over his head to David Geffen, who called MTV CEO Tom Freston and pulled a favor to get the video on MTV, at 4 a.m. in New York.
What happened then?
A lot. The next day, I had multiple phone calls from my office. I called my assistant and she said that Rosenblatt and Geffen were looking for me. I got in around 4 in the afternoon, and the head of promotion told me the video had lit up MTV’s switchboards. He was yelling hysterically and said MTV finally added the video into rotation after just one play of “Welcome to the Jungle.”
I can’t believe how sharp Axl’s voice sounds on the intro to the “Jungle.” It literally rips through your ears listening to it right now. Tell me what you felt the first time you heard him sing.
He’s the only guy since Jim Morrison with that kind of animal magnetism and snake-like movements, like two birds in a mating dance. Writer Danny Sugerman would compare him to Jim all the time; he schooled me on Morrison, since I’d never seen him, and Axl was that. Had the rest of the band sucked, I would have signed just Axl. Very few people on the planet have that range and power when they sing. It’s a mythological thing that nobody in rock has possessed since. Read Danny Sugarmen’s out-of-print book on GNR, Axl and mythology.
What’s your relationship like with Axl today?
We haven’t talked in years. But I love him like a brother and I hope he can forgive and look beyond whatever our differences were. I’ve only done my best to help him and the band. I loved Chinese Democracy. I worked on it for a year with him, and it is a brilliant record, but I believe it was ultimately more of an Axl solo record.
Was Axl the bandleader during the recording of Appetite? Some people would say it was Izzy Stradlin.
Well, think about it like this: While the rest of the band was living in a squalor at the Hell House, Axl had a room with a padlock on it that was pristine. He stayed away from the chaos and was sober as a church mouse and overthought everything. But that dichotomy worked because Axl would hear the work, sing through it, and make the changes. Everything had his final say on it. But initially, Izzy had a lot of the ideas. He was the primary creator of the Appetite sound, Slash’s monster guitar riffs were the icing, Duff’s complex bass parts were played like a lead guitarist, but every word and arrangement had Axl’s fingerprints all over it because he was the band’s quality control.
The first thing that hits me listening to this is Adler’s drumming. He sounds like a fucked-up jazz drummer because he never plays the same thing twice, the same way — the imperfections are part of the sound.
He gave them a disco punk quality with dance swing. I used to call Steven’s sound “disco boy puppy dog.” And that’s the key to Appetite. With any other L.A. metal or stadium rock drummer, Appetite would never have sounded as rock & roll or as raw as it did. You know it’s funny, because Steven couldn’t even keep time very well. And there was no software in ’86 to fix that. But Steven was the foundation of the band, and the producer, Mike Clink, knew how to get the best performances out of him. And that’s the greatest secret to Appetite for Destruction: The record doesn’t sound out of time only because the band plays to Steve Adler’s best performances. It sounds tight as fuck because the band follows his imperfections.
Was it hard to find a producer to record Appetite?
I didn’t want the band to be “GMO-ed.” A lot of people wanted to overproduce the band, or just didn’t get it. Nikki Sixx thought the band was crap. We never considered someone like Mutt Lange because his stuff was too slick. We only seriously considered about five guys. One of them was Max Norman, who worked with Ozzy, who wasn’t interested because GNR wasn’t metal enough. We also listened to Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog,” so we invited Manny Charlton to Sound City, but his personality wasn’t a good fit. He was too nice. But his sessions were bootlegged and they’re out there somewhere.
So how did Mike Clink, an engineer who had never produced a record before, become the producer of Appetite?
I chose him. It took some selling on my part, but it goes back to UFO’s Strangers in the Night, and Mike worked on that record. So I knew he could capture their live sound and run the room. He was the consummate recording engineer and understood how to capture a band on tape, which meant getting a great performance out of them.
What was your role in the studio?
I had to keep them focused, make sure what was recorded had that electricity to it, but also make sure they were able to be in studio when they needed to be in the studio. I mean, Izzy was on smack. Duff was drinking too much. Axl was in his own head, defining that fine line between genius and insanity. So part of the secret was making sure to capture them when genius struck.
I did something pretty unprecedented as well, and requested Geffen give me a private purchase order book so that I could book studio time whenever, even at 3 in the morning, and if Mike was awake, he’d show up. If not, one of the engineers would fill in. GNR could be very time-consuming.
How did Appetite’s unique recording process set it apart from, say, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In?
Those were formulaic hair band records made by factories. They were made for radio, that’s it. Appetite was nothing like that. This wasn’t a hair metal record. It was subversive. Mötley Crüe had some timeless records later on, but other than that, even those records sound dated. Appetite engineering, from the drum track up, with Mike Clink behind the console, just captured the rawness of the ‘70s while the mixing engineers Michael Barbiero — who was more traditional, like Clink — and Steve Thompson were the perfect unit because Thompson was anything goes in the studio, which added a level of chaos to the final mixing process. Man, Thompson wanted to blow up the world and Barbiero wanted to help Clink keep it going. Which is ironic since it was Barbiero who had to mic up Axl and Adriana Smith during the fucking part on the bridge of “Rocket Queen.”
Is there any raw audio of Axl and Adriana’s famous sex scene?
There was about an hour of them fucking on tape. But after it was spliced into the best parts, the stuff Axl liked, we burned the rest of the tape, per the request of Axl. Or so GNR folklore has it. But some of it may have survived!
In hindsight, is there anything about Appetite that you’d change?
I wish we had put “Reckless Life” on it. But that was an argument I lost. I think it might have had to do with the fact that Chris Weber co-wrote it, and it would have led to a publishing issue. But that song belonged on the record.
Do you think the rawness of Appetite began the slow process of cleaning hair metal from the American music industry?
If anything, it inspired bands like Mötley Crüe to make better records. “Wild Side” and “Dr. Feelgood” came out after Nikki Sixx saw GNR and declined to produce them. So if anything, GNR raised the game, unlike Nirvana and Alice in Chains and many other shoegaze bands, who killed rock & roll in the stadiums. But GNR inspired it. Aerosmith had a renaissance after GNR opened for them and hair metal got better because of Appetite.
How does Appetite stack up against music today?
There aren’t any more rock stars. It’s about celebrity, not art. Music as an art form is mostly lost, and it’s been replaced by a giant hit-making machine where Bruno Mars, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, who don’t write their own songs, are now the new “rock stars” in the same vein as the TMZ-fueled non-musicians like the Kardashians.
If you dig deep enough, in the voluminous amount of obscure music on the net, you can find some great music being crafted by true musical artists. But there is no shelf space for it like there is craft-brewed beers at Ralph’s or Kroger. Every now and then something good will accidentally find a crack in the star-making machinery. But the big music companies A&R through mainstream media. The smaller labels feed a niche on low budgets. Much of the best music resides on a server somewhere hidden or lost from the world.
Appetite for Destruction was one of the last times, if not the last time, rock & roll was real, with a budget for exposure. It was the last time major-label rock record-making was funded as an art form. That’s why teenagers today are rediscovering GNR. That is why it doesn’t just stack up against today’s music … it crushes it.
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