Management Lessons from Alice Cooper
What we learn from the movie "Hired Gun"
(Note: I’m a week late on this one, sorry. I just found way more things to say about this movie than the other ones.)
The “hired gun” is the person who makes someone else sound great, probably the artist you paid to see, and you’ll never know their name. Previously I wrote about Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and The Wrecking Crew; those were also hired guns, but they stayed in the studio and played for whatever bands needed a recording. That was in the 60s and early 70s.
That era died when popular bands got good enough to write and play their own music, and it was not respectable to have someone else do it for you. Still, there were singers like Ozzy Osborne, Alice Cooper, and Trent Reznor who had to put together their own bands. Often those bands were partly composed of hired guns who were paid a flat salary until they became full band members (if that ever happened). That’s who this movie is about. It’s from a period after those three movies I mentioned.
If you’re a software engineer and you’ve been lucky in your career, you might have gotten used to engineering-driven cultures. Engineers are often treated very, very well by the management: paid well, given lots of perks, etc. etc. You read about these musician hired guns and think, “Poor guys. That’s not me, fortunately.”
I don’t know if ChatGPT or its successors will reduce engineers to the status of Hollywood writers, but this should give you pause. If you think your average Product Manager wouldn’t treat you like this if they got the chance, you’re deluding yourself.
Writers on the picket lines in Hollywood this summer say streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are increasingly hiring writers like workers on an assembly line. They work separately from each other online in so-called mini rooms, writing scripts before a production begins and then getting dismissed from the process.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the management lessons we can learn from Art Blakey. For 30 years, he kept the Jazz Messengers together and launched a generation of jazz stars, and I analyzed his leadership techniques and how they apply to software project management. What I didn’t expect in re-watching Hired Gun was to discover another master of leadership, and he’s not someone you’d expect: he’s Alice Cooper
This doesn’t mean I like his music, I hasten to add. I’ve never been to any of his shows and don’t own any of his albums.
When you go to see a big star, often their drummer, bass player, guitar player, etc. are hired guns. The star needed a band to go out on tour, so he’d hire these guys. Does that sound glamorous? Let’s hear from a few:
He got a call from Trent Reznor
to go out on tour with Nine Inch Nails. He got paid $400 a month. He thought he was now a part of the band, but when he asked Trent when the record was coming out, Trent said, “It’s almost done. I’m mastering it now.”
In other words, he thought he was going to be on the record, but he found out he was just a hired gun for the tour. He had a heart-to-heart with Reznor, who said, “Get off your butt and go write a record.” Their manager later called him and said, “We know you want some more money. There’s this pizza place that’s looking for a delivery boy.”
He ignored that helpful advice and took Reznor’s. He wrote a song, “Hey Man, Nice Shot” and started a band “Filter.” He hired musicians to go on tour with him. You’re probably hoping this story is about how he learned from his bad experience with Nine Inch Nails, and vowed to be a kinder, gentler boss with his employees! Better treatment! More participation! Better money!
No, he took Trent Reznor as a role model, and did the exact same thing to his band. Phil Buckman, the Filter bassist, says, “Of every band we toured with, we were the lowest paid band members.”
Did he feel any remorse? Apparently not:
I like taking the money home. I like just keeping it all at home. You know what I mean? Like I'm not... I don't give a shit. Like, it's a bus, stay on the bus. You don't need a fucking hotel room.
Nice guy, this Richard Patrick.
He got the chance to play acoustic guitar for Mandy Moore, who was often compared to other teen pop singers, like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. This was not exactly the obvious gig for a heavy metal guitar player, but it got him into the business.
The teenager dream is, “I’m gonna be in a band, and we’re gonna be rich.” That’s what Hook calls “the A-dream” :
The A dream I kinda call it... The A dream for me was to be in a band with four, five guys writing original music and everyone loved it, and everyone wanted to buy a ticket to the concert. That's the A dream. So, the B dream to me was, like,"Well, nobody... All the bands that I'm putting together nobody gives a shit about. So, I'll just look after myself," and go rent myself to somebody, because I know that I can deliver.
Later he was hired by Alice Cooper, who attended the Mandy Moore show mostly because that’s what he does: he looks for talent.
He played the guitar solo on Peg for Steely Dan after they’d struggled and struggled to get what they wanted. He says,“Everybody wanted to play on a Steely Dan record. That was as good as it gets.”
He knew he was the seventh guy they’d tried, and he figured they were probably going to try an eighth, ninth, and tenth after him. But no, his solo was the one they used. He only found that out months later when he heard the song on the radio.
Note: If you play guitar, did you ever try to learn this solo? Jay teaches you how to play it here.
He was a studio musician who knew this was a gig that wasn’t going to last. He would watch the producers behind the studio glass and think, “I’m positive I can do what they’re doing.” He produced three albums, all of which stiffed. Then he realized that producing is not about putting together great musicians; it’s about finding great songs and recording them well. After the Love is Gone followed, which, as he says, propelled him to the 80’s: Alice Cooper, Chicago, Chaka Khan, and many others.
Billy Joel’s Band
After the other movies I’ve written about that focused on studio musicians in the 60’s and early 70’s (Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Muscle Shoals, The Wrecking Crew), it’s a shock to hear that George Martin, the Beatles producer, came to hear Billy Joel and said, “You’re great, I want to produce you, but I want to use studio musicians.” Amazingly, Billy turned down George Martin, the greatest producer of all time! He said, “No, I gotta use my own band.” Amazing. His drummer, Liberty DeVitto,
Billy was so loyal to the band that he turned down George Martin.
[Billy] I just went off on my own and said, "Look, I'm going to use my own guys. I don't care, politically, what the ramifications are. I gotta use my own band."
[Liberty] And, we went in with Phil to do The Stranger.
Liberty played drums for Billy Joel, right from the beginning. He played with Billy for thirty years, whereas even three years is a long time for a hired gun.
The three of them, Liberty, Russell Javors, and Doug Stegmeyer all felt like they were part of Billy’s family.
[Billy] I traveled around with guys in my band. It's like a New York street gang. But we kind of keep each other down to Earth. We're always putting each other down, and smacking each other around. And we keep ourselves in line like that.
[Russell Javors] We took a band attitude. We took a family attitude to what we did.
Billy had a famous lawsuit with a manager who was stealing his money. Frank Weber was his brother-in-law, but he still stole. After all that was cleared up, he got new management and a new attitude towards his employees. Liberty tells the story:
The thing he said to me was "I want everything back. You're not gonna get that payment anymore on the records. You're not gonna get a percentage of the gross." And then he got this accounting firm that was watching out for his money. And they decided that, "Well, your name's on the marquee. Why are you paying these guys so much money? You can get anybody you want."
[Russell Javors] On The Bridge album, I could kind of feel that, it was coming to an end. There was an undercurrent there that I kinda, in the back of my mind, you know...I could see the writing on the wall.
[Liberty] I never felt it. I thought we were gonna go on and, you know, continue to go on. But we were in Australia and Billy said to me, "What if I go in the studio with just you and all new players?" And I was like, "Man, what are you gonna do with the other guys?" You know, he goes, "How am I gonna get any new players?" He just... cut them loose. Now I've got three children and I'm married, and I'm like, "What am I gonna say? Well, I quit. I'm out." We weren't making that much money that I'm a millionaire, you know.
[Russell] The way it would work is that we would do a tour or whatever, and then you wait around and you get the call. And you go in. There's a new batch of songs and you go bang em' out. So, you know, we were kind of in that holding pattern. And one day I'm driving around and I hear on the radio that Billy's got a new band and a new album. I said, "What?" I called up Doug, "You're not gonna believe this." And that's how I found out. Nobody ever said a word to me after all those years.
[Liberty] I knew it was going to be announced on MTV that Billy Joel was going in with just me and a whole new bunch of players. The guys didn't know yet. And I told Billy, I said, "You gotta call these guys and tell them what's going on.” And he was like, "I don't have to do shit. I'm Billy Joel."
Doug and Russell never got any notice that they weren’t part of the family anymore. Doug took it very hard. Liberty says,
And Doug had a very, very difficult time with that.
[Russell] Doug tried and tried and tried to move on, but... His life just kept taking steps backwards instead of steps forward.
[Liberty] Then I went out to do a gig and then I came home, and my wife then was crying on the couch, and something had happened in the afternoon. I said, "Come on, you're still crying over what happened this afternoon?"She goes, "No, Doug Stegmeyer killed himself."
Now we come to a famous article Ron Rosenbaum wrote in Slate Magazine, probably the most exquisite takedown of any artist ever written. It’s worth quoting a few passages, but do read the whole thing:
It is a kind of mystery: Why does his music make my skin crawl in a way that other bad music doesn’t? Why is it that so many of us feel it is possible to say Billy Joel is—well—just bad, a blight upon pop music, a plague upon the airwaves more contagious than West Nile virus, a dire threat to the peacefulness of any given elevator ride, not rock ’n’ roll but schlock ‘n’ roll?
And I think I’ve done it! I think I’ve identified the qualities in B.J.’s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.
He thinks people can’t stand him because he dresses wrong or doesn’t look right.
Billy Joel, they can’t stand you because of your music; because of your stupid, smug attitude; because of the way you ripped off your betters to produce music that rarely reaches the level even of mediocrity. You could dress completely au courant and people would still loathe your lame lyrics.
It’s not that they dislike anything exterior about you. They dislike you because of who you really are inside. They dislike you for being you. At a certain point, consistent, aggressive badness justifies profound hostility. They hate you just the way you are.
Ow. That’s gotta leave a mark. What would you think if someone wrote that about you? Well, if you’re Billy Joel, you probably thought, “Yeah, but I’m rich and you’re not, so fuck you.”
Later on, Liberty got divorced and lost everything. He let on to Billy that he could use a little help. This was a big mistake. You do not ask Billy Joel for money.
So, I went to Billy and I said, "You know, if any scraps fall on the floor maybe you could sweep them my way." And he just looked at me and said, "I can't do that. I wished you'd never asked me that. I can't do that."
[Billy] Irrelative of my success is complicating things because everybody wants more money, more money, more, more...
Liberty was let go from the band. Not fired; just not invited to things anymore.
Disclosure: I still like For the Longest Time and Uptown Girl. And even Just the Way You Are is a straightforward love song and it doesn’t have any of that better-than-you attitude mentioned in the article.
OK, I led this article off by calling him a master of leadership. You’re thinking, “Alice Cooper??? Are you nuts? That guy who bit the head off a live chicken on stage?” (He didn’t, by the way.)
Alice Cooper has been in the business of hiring musicians for decades. If he hires you, everyone knows you must be the best. Bob Ezrin, a producer of his, says:
Alice has always had a fantastic band. And even when I wasn't working with him, he had... Davey Johnstone who's with Elton John, Kip Winger who's just a fantastic musician, and Eric Singer, lots of great drummers... and yeah, he's always attracted the best of the best of the sidemen.
Always surround yourself with A-list players. I mean, everybody in my band's an A-list player. It's that... I just don't have time for B-list guys.
When it comes to the stage show I let them have their movement. When I back up, they move forward. When you're playing the lead you are now Alice Cooper. So you take over.
Nita Strauss, who played guitar in his band, says:
Guitar players are show offs. Anybody that says they're not is lying. We all want to show off all the time and if we could just stand in the middle and just do tricks the whole time we would. At least I would. So, you know, and you learn as a guitar player till you show some restraint on stage and let the singer do their thing, and especially as a hired musician. I've shown an unbelievable amount of restraint sometimes. Alice let you be yourself. If you were flashy, and wanted to be flamboyant, a real performer, he didn't care.
Now compare that quote about “restraint” to what Art Blakey’s former trumpet player, Valery Ponomarev, said about taking a solo: you get your chance, but it’s not all about you, and you’re still a part of the show even if you’re not soloing:
Anyway, do not turn your back to the audience. That’s it. Do not turn your back to your band mates either, do not stand in front of a soloist. Oh, please! Don’t do that. Remain on the stage, though. Find yourself a comfortable spot and remain there. The music still goes on. Concentrate on that. Listen to what the others are playing. You cannot look indifferent. You are a part of it, even if you are not playing at the moment.
Nita talks about her “audition” to be in Alice Cooper (which was all by video):
It was a big learning experience for me because when I was making those first videos for the first round of audition videos, I pulled out every stop, and used every trick in the book, you know, I was playing over the neck playing sweeps, tapping, all this kind of stuff. The harsh critique that I got was, 'have you ever heard an Alice Cooper song? Do you know what these songs sound like?'
And I realized it wasn't a technique audition. They wanted to see if I could play Alice Cooper songs the way that Alice Cooper fans wanted to hear them. So it was a cool learning experience.
Like Blakey did with his musicians, he taught her that she was there to serve the song and the artist; not just to show off her technique.
Later she left and did a solo album. Alice sang one song on it.
Jason Hook, who was playing in the band, had a chance to join a “start-up” (Five Finger Death Punch), which would have meant a gigantic cut in his salary, but he still wanted to do it. He says:
I had arranged to speak with Alice. And he was so cool, he was just, like, "You know, I always encourage my guys to swing the bat, man, go out there, take your best shot."
I originally thought about holding Ozzy Osborne up as another example of good management, but I don’t know as much about him. Given that he and Sharon have been on TV so much and I haven’t seen any of it, I’m going to hold off on that for now.