Who the F**K is That Guy?
I first met Michael Alago when I was in New York last year filming my movie “Iron Mind” with John Joseph. Michael is a former rock & roll A&R Executive whose life story is the subject of the Netflix documentary “Who The Fuck Is That Guy?”.
He grew up in New York City during the 1970s and 80s, surrounded by artists like the Sex Pistols, Keith Haring, and the Cro-Mags. His obsession with music lead to a 25-year career in the industry, during which time he managed artists like Metallica, Cindi Lauper and Nina Simone.
He partied hard in the 80s and 90s with the likes of Andy Warhol and David Bowie. Devastatingly, he contracted AIDS and watched many of his friends and peers die, but he survived and is now sober and healthy.
Michael has such a great energy with a warm soul and he really understands people. I hope you enjoy my conversation with him as much as I did!
Michael’s Young Life
As a young teenager, Michael listened to a lot of punk rock. He began taking biyearly trips to London as soon as he graduated from high school to go to famous clubs such as the 100 Club and the Marque Club.
His mother was always very supportive of his passion for music. Michael never had a “plan B,” he knew he wanted to be in the music business. Music to Michael is the most beautiful form of storytelling. He fell in love with the power of music and its ability to take you on a journey.
In 1980, when he was 19 and in New York Michael came across a wanted sign on a door for Video Club. He applied and was accepted. This was his first real job in the music industry. The Video Club soon became the Ritz, a rock club in Manhattan.
New York Club Scene
Everynight was an opportunity to see a show in New York City in the 80s. From Madison Square to the Cat Club you could bounce around the city until daybreak seeing show after show. Michael lived in the East Village which he described as, “a rough vibe.” However there was also a vibrant art scene in the Village.
Galleries popped up all over the area in order to nurture the boom of talent in the neighborhood the likes of which include the prolific street artist, Keith Haring.
The Music Business
The A&R Department stands for Artist and Repertoire and is the most important department at a record company. The A&R department is in charge of finding, recruiting, and signing acts that hopefully successfully sell records.
For 25 years, Michael worked at the major record label Elektra under chairman Bob Krasnow who tasked him with finding artists that would sell and had the potential to become known around the world. Michael always stood up for the artists that he believed in.
Michael’s first big talent sign was the band Metallica. At the time, the metal underground was “the talk of the town,” so Michael new something big was coming. Later, his boss Bob Krasnow discovered Tracy Chapman and assigned Michael the task of being her A&R guy.
Michael had a very hands on approach with his talent. When Cindy Lauper reached out to him about making a blues record, Michael took her to Memphis to soak up the blues culture that permeated the city. This allowed her to make the most authentic record possible and the record ended up being a Grammy nomination.
Even all these years later, the major talents that Michael worked with still have nothing but good things to say about him. He prides himself on always telling the artists the truth, no matter how hard that may have been.
Finding Talent: Metallica
Remember, Michael was doing all this work in the music business way before the dawn of the Internet. Michael and his two assistants would get copies of every major music publication and travel all over the country scouting new talent.
Every single night of the week either New York City or Los Angeles there was a new club to go to and a new act to see.
There was a small label called Megaforce Records run in New Jersey founded by Jon Zazula and his wife Marsha which had put out a few Independent Records. They called Michael and asked him to listen to a few records which needed more major distribution and one of them was Kill Em All by Metallica.
He knew right away they would be huge and began his quest to try to sign them. The heavy metal scene was blowing up at the time, but Metallica was the best of the best. Eventually, over a meeting filled with beer and chinese food, Metallica agreed to leave their contract with the smaller Megaforce Records and sign with Elektra.
Metallica changed; not only the landscape of rock and roll, but also what other record companies were looking for. It allowed other A&R people to become more adventurous in their signings.
From 1984-89 Metallica became the talk of the town. They were selling out all over the country. They opened up the Ozzy Tour which was huge for gaining global recognition. However, tragedy truck Metallica when a bus accident killed bassist Cliff Burton. Bands all over the world mourned the loss of Cliff.
After time passed and Metallica was ready to start making music again, Michael helped them find a new bass player, Jason Newsted, who has played with the band for 15 years.
Over the many years that followed, Metallica grew as a band. They continued to experiment and expand themselves musically. Even after Michael left Elektra he continued to stay the biggest fans of Metallica and attends their concerts every time they are in town.
Michael has that effect on people. He has such an amazing spirit and you can immediately tell how deeply he cares about not just about music, but also about people.
I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did.