How I got to meet my idols.
Me: “Hi, I’m Rich Isaacs. I’m on the Atlantic Records guest list.”
Winterland box office attendant: “I don’t see your name here.”
It was March 24, 1974, and Genesis was going to play their first show ever in the San Francisco Bay Area, in support of their album Selling England by the Pound. At the time, I was the music director for the San Francisco State University radio station, KRTG.
(More than) a little back-story: I began my college career at the University of California, Berkeley, thinking I would major in the physical sciences. I quickly found out that people there were serious about it, and I wasn’t. A friend from high school was majoring in broadcasting at San Jose State University, and he suggested we take a course together in radio station operations at the local junior college in the summer following our freshman year. I really enjoyed it, and decided then and there to change my academic direction. Goodbye chemistry, physics, and calculus – hello sociology, philosophy, psychology, and a slot on KALX (90.7 FM), the UC Berkeley radio station. My plan was to transfer to SF State as a junior to major in what they called Broadcast Communication Arts.
The department had a great reputation, but their radio station was not in the same league as KALX. KRTG wasn’t even an on-air unit – it was a closed-circuit affair to two of the three dorms on campus! When I got there, the music director was Dennis Netto, who would go on to Bay Area fame as “Dennis Erectus” on San Jose rock station KOME. Dennis was outrageous in a good way, and may well have been the first “shock jock,” pre-dating Howard Stern by a good ten years. I took over as music director after Dennis graduated that year.
Because KRTG was “small potatoes,” we didn’t automatically get a lot of product support from the record companies. In those days, every major label had an office in San Francisco. One of my duties was to visit each of them at least once a month to beg for promo copies of the new releases. If I was lucky, I could get a few extras for myself. On one of my early visits to the Atlantic records office, the label rep, Tony Harrington, said he would put me on the guest list for Dr. John, who was to perform at The Boarding House. The night of the show, I strode proudly to the ticket taker and told him my name and that I should be on the Atlantic guest list. My name wasn’t there! Not knowing what to do, I told him my story, and luckily he let me in.
Fast-forward to March, 1974. I had purchased Genesis tickets for a friend and myself as soon as the show had been announced. A week before the concert, I was in the Atlantic office again, talking with a new rep, Paul Pieretti, and he asked if I wanted to be on the guest list. Of course, that meant I had to sell my tickets, but it was no problem. The day of the show, we went to Winterland and I had the box office exchange that began this tale. Because of the Dr. John incident, I was undaunted, confident that I would be able to get in. I immediately asked, “Who’s here from Atlantic?”
It happened to be Tony Harrington, the guy who had said he put me on the Dr. John list! I was told to go to the backstage entrance and ask for him. When he came out, I explained the situation. He said he couldn’t let me backstage, but he opened up his jacket, revealed a wad of Ticketron tickets, and peeled off two for me. I thanked him and asked if there might be a possibility of doing an interview for the station. He said yes, and told me to be at the Holiday Inn downtown the next morning. Standing behind me was a guy I didn’t know. When I turned around, he said, “You’re Rich Isaacs, aren’t you? I’m a friend of your brother, Jon, and I work for Bill Graham. Would you like to get backstage?” Oh boy! Talk about serendipity.
The concert was great, although sparsely attended. The next morning I headed to the hotel, cassette recorder and Genesis albums in hand. First up was an hour with Tony Banks and Phil Collins. This was my first-ever interview. I figured that interviews were probably a colossal drag for the artists, so I tried to come up with something that would at least show that I knew my stuff. (Remember, this was way before we had the incredible access to information made possible by the internet.) I had brought along an album called Ark 2, by Phil Collins’s first band, Flaming Youth. (At the time, I thought the title was Flaming Youth and the group was Ark 2, leading to a tiny bit of embarrassment.)
I turned on my tape recorder, showed Phil the picture of him on the back cover, and said, “Okay, the first question that I have is, ‘Is this the same Phil Collins?’” He laughed and said, “Yes, it is – I’m glad you asked that question. Yes, it is, good God, so it is. You got hold of this here?” I explained that I also worked in a record store, and it was in our 69¢ bin, which meant it was old and forgotten. Tony Banks joked, “Well, you’d better get rid of it, then.” Phil, still looking at the cover, said, “A blast from the past – I have that T-shirt with me in the very drawer, in fact.” The interview went well. Both of them were quite gracious with their time, Banks being more serious and cerebral, with Collins more of a “regular bloke.” At the end of the hour, I had them autograph my copy of Selling England, and went to another room to spend 45 minutes with Peter Gabriel.
Banks had mentioned that Gabriel had a bit of a reputation as a difficult interview, largely because he was low-key, chose his words carefully, and there were a lot of “ums” and “ers.” It was an accurate assessment. Although he was not as easy-going as the other two, he was nonetheless fascinating. He also autographed my LP. When I got home, I transferred the recording to reel-to-reel tape so that I could edit it for broadcast. Razor blades and splicing tape, baby! Those were the days.
(Speaking of razor blades – one of my fantasies at the time was to be the recording engineer for Genesis. Had I pursued that dream, working my way up the studio chain by sweeping floors, assisting with sessions, etc., I might have reached that goal in 1980 or 1981 for the recording of Abacab. That album contains a particularly obnoxious song entitled “Who Dunnit?” If I had been required to record that and replay it over and over in mixdowns, I would have taken said razor blades and slit my wrists. Have a listen, if you dare.)
The next year, the band was touring in support of their magnum opus, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. They had become more popular, and, as a result, I couldn’t get an exclusive interview. Atlantic set up a sort of “Meet the College Press” affair in a hotel meeting room, with 15 or 20 representatives of college papers and radio stations. Gabriel and Banks were sitting at the front of the room, and we took turns asking questions. Most of the others directed their inquiries to Gabriel, since he was the front man. My previous experience had shown me that Banks was a better source of information, and, as I mentioned, I wanted to be different and avoid the trite lines of questioning offered by some of the other interviewers. I asked Banks how it was that Brian Eno came to contribute to the recording, since they had never previously used other musicians. He said that Genesis and Eno were working on albums in the same studio, and he ran into Eno in the loo. They talked and agreed that Eno would apply some of his unique sound processing to parts of The Lamb. That led to more questions being asked of Banks by the others.
After the interview, I gave Banks a copy of the self-titled album by the Italian progressive rock band Banco (see Issue 115). I thought he would appreciate the keyboard playing on it. I wish I could say I heard back from him, but no.
The second part of this saga will deal with the interviews on the two subsequent tours, and the hoops I had to jump through to make them happen.