The No Escape Story
With all the necessary contracts and paperwork officially signed sealed and delivered we were finally ready to start recording our very first professional long playing record album for Shrapnel Records……or so we thought. In 1983 we were all still in our early to mid 20’s and very naive about a lot of things, especially about how the music business worked. Before Mike Varney contacted me we had never heard of Shrapnel Records and Mike Varney was just that dude who had that spotlight article page in the back of Guitar Magazine every month.
When we learned that he had helped a lot of bands record there albums and some he was even able to place with major record labels, we became very excited and thought this was going to be our springboard into the big time for sure. This was just a stepping stone for us and we would soon leave Mike Varney and Shrapnel records far behind us. All we had to do was get that first album out there so everyone in the world could finally see how great we were and the giant doors to the kingdom of success would swing open wide, usher us in and shower us with riches, fame and all the things that go with it.
For a short time we were like little kids on Christmas Eve, lying awake in bed at night fantasizing about how great it was going to be to famous rock stars. Finally after all the years of hard work, learning how to play our instruments, finding the right band members who were good enough and serious enough to go the distance, working our way out of the drunken back yard beer bashes and house parties and into the local night club circuit. Yep, it was all about to pay off in spades now!
Around this time Kirk had left Exodus for Metallica and when we first heard the Kill em All recording and herd James’s vocals we thought, they will never get a major deal with a singer like that. He sounded more punk to me than a real metal singer. Remember, this is before Metallica took off and before they ruled the world, we
really thought we had a much better chance of major sucess because of our great high pitched melodic singer and our catchy metal songs. I really thought that our song,” The Other Side” would be the big smash breakthrough hit for us. To me it was right up there with Dio’s hit song, Rainbow in the Dark which was all over main stream rock radio at that time. Well, like I said, we were very naive at that time and kind of had our heads in the clouds a little bit I guess you could say, and we still had a lot to learn…..about a lot of things.
The first jolt of reality came when Mike announced that he had booked our studio dates next month for Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati and we had to begin
working with his co producer/engineer Steve Fontano right away so they could hear the rest of the six or eight songs to see if they thought they might need a little more work or something.
We got our deal based on the strength of the 3 songs on the original Paradox demo. I had to assure Mike that we had at least another six or eight song of similar quality and style ready to record. He took my word for it.
The truth was we did not have another six or eight songs ready to record, far from it. I think I had the chord progressions for Terror and fragments of riffs and arrangements for maybe two or three more songs but that was all. I don’t think I even showed them to the band yet. I knew Manzo was working on some lyrics but I had no idea what he had either.
I remember we had to make up song titles on the spot to be included in the publishing agreements. I know it sounds crazy but we now had to write the rest of the albums songs from the titles we so hastily came up with.
At that time felt like I had to blow a little smoke up Mike’s ass about having all the songs ready to record because I was not going to tell him we were not ready and risk blowing the deal or have him put us on the back burner till next year or something. It seemed like every other band in the bay area was getting signed and there records were coming out. We did not want to miss the boat or get left behind.
Somehow we were able to postpone our first pre production meeting with Steve Fontano for a couple of weeks. We desperately needed time to put the rest of the songs together and rehearse them to be ready to be recorded. We were totally under the gun now and we knew we had to work hard and get it together fast.
We quickly put Invader together based on a drum intro our drummer Dave Schmidt had been working on, I wrote Night of Pain one night in about thirty minutes and Manzo tweaked the lyrics a little more to his liking.
Bill Peterson and Manzo had most of Look to the Sky worked out and we were working out the riffs and arrangements for Live for the Night.
I had the riffs and basic arrangements for the songs that at the time were called The Dragon Song and 1301. The Dragon Song became Beware the Darkness and 1301 became Fear No Evil.
By the time we had our first pre production session with Steve Fontano we pretty much had it all together. Steve seemed to like all the songs we came up with and had some good advice to share with us on several of the songs. The material was so new to us it really helped to have a qualified producer go over it with us and point out things we had not considered.
(Around this time Mike talked us out of using Search for the King on the record for some reason, to this day I still don’t remember why. It now is included as a bonus demo track on our re releases.)
Steve would suggest things like, we should double up the chorus here and move the solo section there, or change a word here or there. I think it was on his suggestion we changed The Dragon Song into Beware the Darkness and 1301 into Fear No Evil. He might have helped Manzo tweak the lyrics a little on those too as well, I don’t remember now.
I do remember when we were laying down the basic tracks for Beware the Darkness, Mike Varney who had been observing our progress from the studio control room, came busting into the room we were tracking in pounding out a beat on his chest and stomach. Try the kick and snare like this, he said. At first we kind of resented him busting in like that telling us how to play our song, but after we tried his idea out and kind of got used to it a little bit we started to really like it, so that’s how we laid it down. So the main beat you here on the verses of Beware the Darkness was a last minute contribution from Mike Varney.
Steve Fontano was directly responsible for helping Manzo try out different harmony parts and smoothing out some of the rough edges on the vocal phrasing. Steve was also very good about dubbing guitar solos. When we go into the studio I like to have a basic idea going for my solos but I like to improvise most of them. They just come out more alive and spontaneous that way I think. I will even leave a little slop in there if I feel the right emotions and fire are present.
Steve would give me 3 tracks to blow solos on. He would just let me rip out the best solo I could on each of the three tracks. Each solo would be different so we would go back and listen to them and either choose the best one, or punch the best bits together from the two or sometimes even all three! It was really a lot of fun; it is still my favorite part of the recording process to this day!
After the recording was all done and mixed down we had to focus on getting the cover art and packaging together
for the release. Mike Varney showed us a bunch of album covers he had access to for free or cheap. Mostly they were lousy photographs or really bad cheesy artwork. We didn’t like any of them so Mike gave us a budget of $ 500.00 and said go out find your own cover, just have it ready in two weeks along with a suitable new band photo for the back cover.
We gave the job of cover art to our long time artist friend Alvin Petty who whipped up the cover art and a new HEXX logo for us in a matter of a few days.
All we needed now was a new band photo for the back cover. My uncle Rodger Burt volunteered as photographer and one day we headed out to the Richmond Standard Oil refinery not far from where we lived. We thought it would look cool with all the pipes and smoke and stuff in the background.
This was our first album and our picture was going to right on the back of it, it had to be great. This was late 1983 or early 1984 and we wanted to look like a successful band that sells a lot of records. This was right before it was cool and acceptable to just ware jeans and t shirts on record covers. We were professional entertainers now so we
figure we better look the part. So without any real coaching in this area (except our moms and girlfriends help with our make up) we proceeded to adorn ourselves with the appropriate Heavy Metal looking accoutrements that were the style at the time. Looking at that picture now I really wish we would have settled for just the black clothes and leather jackets and left off all the straps, wrist bands, hand cuffs, bullet belts and such. The giant bullet belt Dave Schmidt is warring turned out looking like a grass skirt from Hawaii or something! It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but later became a source of ridicule and embarrassment for us. Now, 30 years later it is a great source of whimsy and nostalgia!
After No Escape was finally released it was readily available in the United States but it was only available in Europe as an expensive import album. Mike had sent our record along with all his other releases from that time, out to lots of magazines and fanzines for review and for whatever free press we could get via interviews. I don’t think there was a budget for print ads.
What reviews we got were all positive and mostly from Europe. Unfortunately for us, our record was very expensive to purchase there and we could not afford to get there to perform. In the states we had no tour support either so we did as
many local gigs as we could to support our release.
After several months Mike invited us over to his house to do an accounting of our sales. We had no idea what to expect, was he going to hand us all big fat royalty checks? We really did not know how these things worked. When we got there he showed us all these boxes of records that had been returned from record stores around the United States. Mike had many bands with records released that year and the year before so I naturally thought wow, all those poor bands that records did not sell and got returned, how sad. Oh well, sucks to be them I guess! So…..where are our royalty checks Mike?
Mike looked at us kind of funny and said, royalty checks? What royalty checks? There’s no royalty check, these are all returned HEXX records! We could not believe it. We just stood there looking at all those boxes of returned records. He started showing us invoices from his distributors showing us records ordered, records sold and records returned. We were dumbfounded. We started opening boxes up to see if our records were really in there. We only opened up a couple of boxes but they were full of HEXX records alright. We asked him, what are you going to do with all these records now? He asked us if we wanted to buy them for 5 or 6 bucks apiece.
We were broke, we barley had enough gasoline to get to his house and back much less buy all our returned records back. We drove home that night feeling so crushed, disappointed, confused and destroyed. While Metallica and every other metal band from our neck of the woods seemed to be enjoying fantastic success, HEXX, in bleak contrast had washed out in complete and utter failure. All our naive boyish hopes and dreams had been crashed on the brutal unforgiving rocky shores of reality……..and it would not be the last time.