Walter O'Brien - The Metal Music Man

Backstage Auctions’ consignor Walter O’Brien opens up about managing the careers of some of the biggest acts in heavy metal history.

By Peter Lindblad

Walter O'Brien
All the stars aligned for Walter O’Brien and Concrete Management during one amazing two-week period in 1989, even though the music-industry veteran almost didn’t answer when opportunity knocked. Signing a little ol’ band from Texas called Pantera, this fearsome tornado of sh*t-kicking, brutally intense groove metal and canyon-deep, guttural vocals that would destroy everything in its path, came first, and soon after, White Zombie was brought aboard.

Concrete was fast on its way to becoming heavy metal kingmakers. And it all started with an impromptu trip to Texas that O’Brien had been dreading, one that friends like Derek Shulman, formerly of the U.K. progressive-rock favorites Gentle Giant and later a music industry big shot at PolyGram Records and other labels, urged him to take.

At the time, O’Brien was representing Metal Church and trying to extricate the band from Elektra Records, who wasn’t doing much for Metal Church but refused to let them out of their contract. After much legal wrangling, Concrete managed to free Metal Church, so O’Brien went shopping for another label. He didn’t find much interest in the ill-fated metal band, but Shulman, who was running the Atco label, had another act he was high on.

“I went to him and I said I need a deal for Metal Church,” said O’Brien, “and he thought about it for a couple of weeks, and he said, ‘You know what? I just don’t want to take on anything that’s already been through the ringer a couple of times. But I’ve got this new band called Pantera that I’m signing and I’d love you to be their manager.’ And I went, ‘Oh God. You mean that glam band from Dallas?’”

True, Pantera did start out as glam-metal dandies, and they had the shiny stage clothes and teased hair to prove it. But when singer Phil Anselmo joined Pantera, a sea change occurred. Ditching the glam look, Pantera also transformed their sound into a swirling vortex of thick, aggressive, adrenaline-fueled riffs, driving bass and pummeling drums, made all the more evil by the trademark Anselmo growl. O’Brien wasn’t aware of just how much Pantera had changed.

Steer Horns Given to Walter from Pantera
Only Texas boys would think of this and yes they wanted
him to put it on the hood of his car. He didn't, but it
is featured in the auction
“[Derek] said, ‘Talk to Mark Ross, the A&R guy here,’ and tried to talk me into it,” remembered O’Brien. “And I said, ‘You know what? I’ve seen their pictures, I’ve heard their records and [they’re] just, well they're just not interesting. And they’d always send me their stuff, and I just wasn’t interested. Mark said, ‘Oh no, they’re different now. You’ve got to see them live.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to go all the way to Texas just to [do this]. So he tried to get me to do it for about two weeks, and I just didn’t want to do it. Finally, about 5 o’clock one afternoon, he calls me up. He goes, ‘It’s your last chance. I’m leaving for Dallas now. I’m going to the airport. I’ll send a limo to go get you.’ I literally looked at my watch and I went, ‘Well, I could be there in an hour. Oh hell, I’ve got nothing else to do tonight.’”

So O’Brien went, but only on the condition that Ross had to provide that limo and a hotel room. “And he was all excited,” said O’Brien. “I said, ‘I’m not going to like them, but for you I’ll come. And, of course, I went there and they were the most unbelievable live band I’d ever seen.”

Soon thereafter, Michael Alago, the man who signed Metallica to Elektra, knocked on O’Brien’s door with another proposition. “He was at Geffen, and he felt bad for what Elektra had done to [Metal Church], and he said, ‘I just signed this great new New York band at Geffen called White Zombie. Why don’t you manage them?’” recalled O’Brien.

Though he was too wrapped up in trying to break Pantera to take over White Zombie himself, O’Brien, who recognized the band’s potential, passed them off to a man who worked for him named Andy Gould.
“He had a bunch of bands that were just going nowhere fast like Princess Pang and … two or three others, and I went, ‘Andy, listen. Geffen really wants us to manage this band, White Zombie, and the record is unbelievable, but I just don’t have time,’” explained O’Brien. “And he listened to it, and he says, ‘This is a great record. Sure I’ll do it. And that was how we picked up Pantera and White Zombie in a couple of weeks or so. It changed everything.”

And in the end, O’Brien got the last laugh after everybody, it seemed, thought he’d lost his mind in signing the two bands.

“Funny thing, everybody we knew in the business thought we were nuts,” he said. “Everybody uniformly thought these two bands are going nowhere. And they turned out to be the biggest bands we worked with ever.”

One of the biggest consignors in Backstage Auctions’ upcoming “Rock Gods ‘N Metal Monsters Auction,” scheduled for Oct. 31-Nov. 7, with a special preview slated for Sunday, Oct. 24, O’Brien has long history in heavy metal and hard rock. In his 30-plus years in the music business, O’Brien did it all, from promotion and publicity to marketing and artist management. Working at the grass-roots level and exhausting all avenues of promotion, O’Brien helped propel acts such as Anthrax, Ministry and Winger, in addition to Pantera and White Zombie, to the top of the heap.

As one might expect, O’Brien has accumulated a vast collection of music memorabilia over the years, and he’s put most of it in Backstage Auctions’ hands to sell. Cleaning house wasn’t so easy for him, though his reasons for doing it are understandable.

“When I closed the company down, I turned 50,” said O’Brien. “I retired. I figured 32 years was enough in the business. And Pantera had broken up, and then I went back to finish my journalism degree, which is what I do for a living now. And of course what happened was about three days before my final exam, Dimebag [Darrell of Pantera] got murdered. And that was a whole other … for me that was it. I always in the back of my head said, someday, Phil will get better [he’d been fighting a drug problem] and they’ll bury the hatchet. Wouldn’t it be great to go out and see those guys play live again? And of course now that’ll never happen. And I’ve just been carrying all this stuff around and collecting it since I was a kid. You just get to a point where it’s just too much. I’m moving to a different house, and I just couldn’t pack it up one more time. So it was time to downsize and go a little Zen.”

O’Brien’s loss could be your gain. A previous auction sold all of O’Brien’s Beatles items and material he’d gathered while working with Peter Gabriel and Genesis. Talking about what he consigned for the metal auction, O’Brien said, “Of course there’s a lot of Pantera stuff – special items and things the band gave me, or things the promoters gave. There’s a jacket that’s a beautiful leather jacket that was custom made. There are maybe 16 of them in the world – a beautiful embroidered leather jacket from a tour, that kind of stuff. There’s laminates and tour passes, just backstage stuff.”

Fully Signed by Pantera Members - Dimebag Designed Guitar
This super rare and unique rock relic is featured in the auction.
The highlight, according to O’Brien, is something he is very fond of – a Washburn Dimeslime guitar, autographed by all four members of Pantera, with a Dimebag Darrell crybaby and a special Dimebag guitar strap and picks. “I think it was [from] '98, the peak of everybody being happy,” said O’Brien. “They autographed it with a big, thick Sharpie, so it still looks great and of course it’s been protected ever since.”
Parting with it is tough, but it had to be done. “I just got to the point where I thought, I’ve had the pleasure of owning it for a long time,” said O’Brien. “Somebody out there would love to have it.”

There is more … lots more, including a Cheap Trick tour program signed by Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen. “Cheap Trick is one of my all-time favorite bands, and I got to meet them in Japan with Pantera,” said O’Brien. “I kind of feel bad giving that one up, but again, once I decided to do this, I just went, ‘I can’t pick and choose.’”

White Zombie RIAA Astro-Creep 2x Platinum
featured in auction along with other RIAA Awards
But that’s exactly what collectors will be doing in this auction, which includes loads of vinyl from O’Brien’s collection, including test pressings, and more autographed items, plus many Pantera and White Zombie gold and platinum records from around the world – all trophies of a highly successful career that began way back in the early 1970s.

From 1973 to 1975, O’Brien worked in radio promotion and publicity for Jem Records, Inc. He then moved on to ATV/Pye Records before becoming label manager at Passport Records. In March 1978, O’Brien helped run the artist management company Hit and Run Music, aka Run It Music, where he worked with Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Rod Argent. After a short stint as label manager at Hannibal Records, O’Brien founded Relativity/Important Records as a domestic label for a music importer.

While with Relativity/Important, O’Brien greased the wheels to get The Cure’s classic single “Let’s Go to Bed” released while the gloomy, darkly pop Romantics were between labels. He also founded Combat Records and helped get Megaforce Records – the label that served as the first home of Anthrax and Metallica – up and running. But bigger and better things were soon to come, and they arrived via Concrete Marketing and Concrete Management.

It all started with a long-shot by the name of Grim Reaper, an ominous U.K. progressive-metal that needed representation in the U.S. O’Brien figured he was the man for the job. “I founded Relativity Records and Combat Records,” said O’Brien, whose familiarity with import records led him to Grim Reaper, “and I was trying to sign Grim Reaper for America. Their then-manager in England wouldn’t sign with me because he wanted to hold out for a major label. We laughed because what major label was going to pick up Grim Reaper in 1984? RCA came out of the corner and said, ‘We do.’ But [the woman who expressed interest] was a friend of mine and she said, ‘I’m going to sign them, but I know you wanted them first. They need a manager. Well, I know. We’ll sign them and hire you to be their tour manager, and after about a week or two on the road, they’ll probably beg you to be their manager and you’ll have a management company.’ And I went, ‘Deal (laughs).’”

A special project, Grim Reaper didn’t come ready made for stardom. Instead of rock god looks, they had complex musicianship and Grim Reaper, though melodic, could sometimes be a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, listen. Knowing MTV wasn’t in the cards for Grim Reaper, O’Brien didn’t have pie-in-the-sky dreams for the group. So he had to think outside the box to do what he could for them.

“We knew we weren’t going to get radio play,” said O’Brien. “So we did every possible grassroots thing we could think of, because I had a past in independent record companies. So I knew how to promote at a grassroots level, and that involves doing everything you can – every show you can get your hands on, every in-store appearance in any store that’ll have you, every interview on a radio station you can get, all the signed posters, the signed record jackets … just everything.”

Walter's Grim Reaper Passes featured
in auction.
It worked. At a time when bands were lucky if they could sell 50,000 copies of their debut album, the first Grim Reaper release O’Brien pushed sold 250,000. “Everybody asked, ‘How did you do that?’” said O’Brien. “At first we started saying, well, we did this, we did that. And then after about three months of realizing we were going to be broke soon – we had just started the company about three months ago – we said, ‘No. How did we do that? Pay us and we’ll show you.’ And that’s how Concrete Marketing got started.”

One man who shouldn’t be forgotten in all this is Bob Chiappardi, O’Brien’s partner in Concrete Marketing and Concrete Management. When he and O’Brien first met, Chiappardi wasn’t exactly on the fast track to upper management at Arista Records.

“I had already been in the music business for like 16 or 17 years, and I was hanging out with a friend of mine who did publicity at Arista Records, and Bob was some kid working in the mailroom in Arista’s publicity department,” recalled O’Brien. “I would sit down and wait for my friend to leave work, and we’d end up sitting around talking. And I liked him, and he liked me, and he just kept pressuring me to start a management company together. In my head I was saying, to be totally honest – not that he doesn’t know already – ‘I don’t want to do that,’ because I knew that I had almost 20 years of experience on this guy.”

But Chiappardi was persistent. All the while, O’Brien was in the process of leaving Relativity/Important Records and doing computer training work. “I was training and installing electronic mail systems, if you can believe it, in 1983 and 1984 for the music industry, the international departments,” said O’Brien.

But then along came Grim Reaper, and all the drama that can play on tour. Out on the road, one of the crew for the band overdosed on heroin. “I fired him,” said O’Brien. “He didn’t overdose and die. But that’s when we found out what he was doing, and I said, ‘I don’t work with junkies.’”

A painful personal experience earlier in life had taught him that it was impossible to trust drug addicts, but his crew of three people was now down to two. “And then Bob jumped and said, ‘I’ll come out on the road with you for a week,’” said O’Brien. “I’ll cover until you get somebody out here. I got somebody out there, and then all of a sudden, the band asked me to manage them. And Bob said, ‘Well, who’s going to be in New York handling meetings and the record label and all that while you’re out on the road?’ And I said, ‘Okay, you know what? Let’s start a management company.’”

Concrete the beginning. 
Innovative, creative and known for beating the bushes to promote their clients any way they could, Concrete built a sterling reputation in the business. Early on, they picked up Cities, a New York City band Chiappardi knew that included past and future Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero.

Steadily, Concrete built its client roster, with O’Brien taking on Metal Church at the behest of Alago, who was working for Elektra, the label that had planned to put out Metal Church’s second record around this time. Interestingly, Concrete also took on Winger, helping shepherd them to the top with their million-plus selling self-titled debut.

“We worked on all the preparation for Winger’s debut record,” said O’Brien. “What we used to say at the time was we took ‘em from nothing to like two million.”

Winger’s partnership with Concrete only lasted through the band’s first record, but that didn’t stop Concrete from steaming ahead. Going strong for years, Concrete really took off when Pantera and White Zombie came along. By the late ‘80s, Concrete was a well-oiled marketing and management machine. Word of mouth had gotten around, and in good time, some of the biggest bands in hard rock and heavy metal came knocking on Concrete’s door.

“Yeah, it was just ridiculous,” said O’Brien. “First, we did all the marketing, and the marketing company went through the roof. Then we started Foundations Forum, the big heavy-metal convention down in L.A. We drew 2,000-4,000 people for a week in a big hotel. We had like Judas Priest and Ozzy [Osbourne] playing in the hotel ballroom, people buying vendor stands at a heavy-metal convention for $2,000 a week. And we just sat there and looked at each other and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

It wasn’t just O’Brien who thought the idea of a heavy-metal convention was strange. “The funniest thing was, one day I was having lunch with an old friend of mine out in L.A. the weekend of the Foundations Forum. I think it was like the second or third one,” recalled O’Brien. “It was Don Bernstine, who had actually just become the head of acquisitions for Hard Rock Café for about six years, and unfortunately about two years ago, he passed away … so I’m going to lunch with Don Bernstine out in L.A., and he said, ‘Hey, would you mind? I just found out that Robin Quivers and Howard Stern are in L.A. this week. They’re going to bring the show into L.A. for a week live,’ because they’d just gotten picked up. At the time, they were just starting to get syndicated. And he said, ‘I was going to have lunch with Robin Quivers, but today is the only day she can do it. Would you mind if she joined us?’ And I said, ‘As long as she doesn’t mind me joining you, I don’t care. I’ve never met her. I’ll meet her.’

“So we sit down. It’s me, Don and Robin Quivers, and she’s very nice and very sweet, and she says, ‘Before we start, you know how we always think that L.A. is this weird, out-of-this-world, crazy place where anything can happen …’ and she doesn’t really know who I am, right? She says, ‘Can you believe in this town, right now as we speak, there’s a convention about nothing but heavy metal?’ And Bernstein cracked up and pointed to me and said, ‘That’s his company. That’s why he’s here.’ And she said, ‘You’re kidding me. Tell me all about it.’ And in fact, she talked about it on the air with Howard Stern that day, which probably didn’t hurt us any. But she was like flabbergasted, and I said, ‘Nobody’s as surprised as me.’ And it went for seven or eight years or something like that.”

Foundations, first heavy metal trade publication to be
featured in the auction.
Foundations Forum was just one piece of the Concrete pie. There was Foundations, the first heavy-metal trade publication, which also featured the Concrete/Soundscan Hard Music chart. The chart was featured in a number of national and worldwide publications, including Metal Hammer and Guitar World.

Perhaps the most ingenious marking tool Concrete came up with was Concrete Corner. Started in 1992, Concrete Corner was a unique retail program for heavy metal and alternative/hard rock promotion and distribution that set up its own section in independent record stores and a few chains. It made use of special point-of-purchase displays, in-store play, pricing strategies and a monthly sampler CD, plus a free magazine titled “Concrete Corner” – all designed to showcase new releases so they didn’t become lost in the crowd, so to speak.

“We were getting paid by people – record labels, managers, whatever – to promote their records in the retail environment,” said O’Brien. “And anything we could do to have those records stand out, we wanted to do. So we came up with this plan to put a whole separate display case in the corner, which also gave Concrete a name to the kids, because the kids didn’t know who Concrete was. But then they got to know us because of the Concrete Corner, so that helped our own credibility in the marketplace, but it also gave us another product to sell to stay in business because a lot of people, especially with independent records … you know, just like in the supermarket business, the little tiny products, and little tiny companies, vendors, whatever you want to call them, can’t get shelf space. Well, in the record store, it was the same thing. We have all the superstars and the Top 100, and the Columbia Records and Capitol Records … we don’t have room for Shrapnel and Metal Blade, and all the other little tiny things. Well, this gave those labels and bands and groups another way to get seen without being buried in the M section or the Q section, or the Metal section of the rack.”

In return, stores got stuff like free records and tickets to concerts. “They were encouraged to give up that placement, which took up a little piece of their real estate,” said O’Brien. “It worked for them too, because those things started to sell. At the beginning at least, when people saw something on the Concrete Corner rack, they said, ‘That’s probably a good record’ – as opposed to the 40 metal records that came out that month that were sitting in the bins. These, they figured, they wouldn’t put it up there if it wasn’t better than most.”

And there was more associated with Concrete Corner, including listening parties and midnight sales for newly released product, the first being a Metallica box set, that were promoted through mailings to Concrete fans. Discounts were offered, raffles were held, free stuff was given away and there were bonus disc giveaways in which a disc of extra tracks was shrink wrapped to a new record from the Concrete stable. The first of these was a compilation disc attached to Korn’s Follow the Leader, which featured tracks from other Korn-approved artists like Kid Rock, Orgy, Limp Bizkit and Powerman 5000. Add to that a program called RetailVision, which offered videos of the latest hits in Alternative, Rap, Hard Rock and Pop.

Walter O'Brien's collection of passes which
will all be featured in the auction.
All of which contributed to Concrete’s rise as a major player in the music world. Eventually, as O’Brien recalled, bands began writing Concrete Marketing into their deals, and these were heavy hitters like Faith No More, Soundgarden and Blind Melon. At one point, said O’Brien, Concrete had 17 acts, including Winger, Ministry and Anthrax.

O’Brien stayed with Concrete Marketing until 1991, when he and Chiappardi amicably split, which left O’Brien staying with Concrete Management, Inc. The list of acts O’Brien has worked with over the years through Concrete boggles the mind. There’s Limp Bizkit, Aerosmith, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Alice in Chains and Ozzy, among the many others already mentioned in this story.

Now, O’Brien works as a staff writer and photographer for the Courier News newspaper in New Jersey and with the consignments he’s issued to Backstage Auctions, by buying one of his pieces, you can feel a connection to one of the most creative and inventive business people heavy metal has ever seen.

The Rock Gods 'n Metal Monsters Auction
October 31 - November 7th
Registration is Now Open: VIP ACCESS (There is no registration fee)

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