Category Archives: INDIE MUSIC NEWS

Inside the Podcast That's Giving Pop Songwriters Their Due

By most metrics, the songwriter Ross Golan is riding high right now: Tracks he co-wrote became Top 10 hits for Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and Flo Rida last year. But Golan is concerned about the future of his profession, which shapes the music that’s heard by hundreds of million listeners every week.

“We’ve just demolished the middle class of songwriters,” he says. “I had a song on Michael Bublé’s record; that album sold 100,000 copies in that first week, which is a lot. But 100,000 copies brings $9,100 [for songwriters]. Split that between three writers, and you’ve made $3,000-ish. That’s not nothing, but you have to get the second biggest album in the fucking world to get that. Albums are going away, so how do we come up with some sort of income stream for the people who don’t write [Flo Rida’s] ‘My House,’ [Grande’s] ‘Dangerous Woman’ and [Gomez’s] ‘Same Old Love’?”

As part of his effort to help protect the songwriting 99 percent, Golan recently started a podcast called And the Writer Is …, where he sits down with some of the biggest names in the business – Bonnie McKee (eight Number One’s, mostly with Katy Perry), Stargate (10 Number Ones with Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Beyoncé) and more – and talks to them for more than an hour. The conversations are frequently fascinating (try the interviews with McKee and Savan Kotecha, who has co-written hits for Grande, Usher, the Weeknd and many others, to start), as writers discuss the crippling anxiety they feel about matching their past hits, the sexism that pervades the recording industry and how writing hits that help put emerging acts on the map will help a career more than penning a new Rihanna single.

“If people hear stories about these writers,” Golan reasons, “listeners will be more amenable to, ‘Oh, I’ll pay an extra cent per song.'” He spoke with Rolling Stone about his goals with And the Writer Is …; below are excerpts from the conversation.

What was the origin of this project?
I have a book that everybody signs when I work with them, sort of like a yearbook. Maybe it’s ’cause I wasn’t cool in high school that I thought this was a good idea. Everyone has signed it that I’ve worked with in the last 10 years – from Enrique Iglesias to Bon Jovi to Pink to [the] Chainsmokers to Harry Styles to Meghan Trainor. And on the writing side, it has Lamont Dozier and Max Martin and Stargate and Benny Blanco and all the big country guys.

These sessions are super vulnerable, and no matter how big of a writer you are, you still have to walk in and be essentially emotionally naked. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a really intimate conversation with a stranger for nine hours. If people could record that part of the session, they would fall in love with these humans [songwriters]. It’s good for their stories to get out. I think that’s how we move the needle a little bit so people start to empathize with the writers.

Do you feel that songwriters aren’t getting the recognition they deserve?
I think there’s only a small percentage of writers who, when a song is famous, get offended that they don’t get their due credit. It’s not about fame. The advocacy part of it is the fact that I don’t think people realize and recognize how little money is being paid to the people that are creating the music they’re enjoying.

The industry is big on screwing the artist and the songwriter. I’m not against record labels, but in history they essentially invested in the recordings of music and they have exploited those recordings and they don’t necessarily compensate the creators. There is not a real distribution of wealth at all with the creators. For the most part, labels are getting a lot of money and not even really redistributing it among the artists.

You look at the top songs right now on radio – of the top 20 songs, Marian Hill is the only one that doesn’t have a professional writer or producer attached to it. If there’s no money for the development of songwriting, it’s going to be a weird future in music.

“The industry is big on screwing the artist and the songwriter.” 

If there was one cent per play or some form of that, the whole publishing industry, the songwriting industry, would be massively successful. Like, [making] money we’ve never seen before. Before, you were willing to put 25 cents in a jukebox, or spend $20 to listen to one song on a CD. But people aren’t willing to spend one cent to listen to a song? My guess is people might not mind it. We’re not asking for something crazy. Maybe people are willing to do that more if they understand who writes the songs.

One of the things we’re talking about is trying to get healthcare for songwriters. If my family gets sick 10 years ago, I’m fucked. I view it as fighting for the writers that I’ve signed that are 23 years old and fantastic. They’re signed to major publishers, but their career is: They better write hits. There is no album track. I sold probably 10 million songs last year between “Dangerous Woman,” “Same Old Love” and “My House.” I had multiple songs on Meghan Trainor’s album and multiple songs on Lukas Graham’s. In 2001, because someone would buy “7 Years,” those songs would be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars each. Not anymore.

Were you an avid podcast listener before starting this project?
I like talk radio. I like Terry Gross. I know Marc Maron. I listen to TED talks, I listen to Dan Carlin’s history stuff, I listen to Serial. I like when you can just listen and feel like a fly on the wall. There’s something to that medium that’s exciting. I can’t think of another way to do that kind of extensive interview.

In the podcast, you suggest that Nashville is much better at celebrating its writers than L.A.?
The first time I met Keith Urban, he came up to me and said, “I just want to thank you for letting me record ‘Shame.'” I guarantee if I walk up to Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj or some of these people who have cut my records but I don’t really know them, their security would knock me out. I’d be like, “Wait, but I wrote –”

If a writer’s never been to Music Row, you’re missing out. Just drive up and down and be like, “Wow, that’s how writers are appreciated.” On the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, BMG isn’t putting a giant picture of [Ed Sheeran’s] “Shape of You” with Steve Mac [who co-wrote and co-produced the single]. That’s what it would be like.

In L.A., it’s the record exec. Underneath is the big producer. Then the great artist. Underneath the great artist is maybe the songwriters. I know a guy where they had a Number One party for the artist, and the head of the label got up and thanked the artist, and the artist got up and thanked the radio guys, and nobody thanked the writers or the producer. They’re somehow oblivious to it.

“People just don’t want to believe that a singer couldn’t write his own music.”

Most of these labels don’t buy us plaques [to commemorate sales milestones]. [Ariana Grande’s] “Dangerous Woman” is a song I wrote at home. It’s the name of her tour, it’s the name of her merchandise, it’s the name of her album, it’s the name of her lead single. I don’t have a plaque. Maybe they’ll get me one; I like them. But there’s just not an acknowledgement. Even Max [Martin; who has written 22 Hot 100 Number One hits] doesn’t get the credit he deserves. And he’s the guy. I don’t think people recognize that we’re all witnessing this unprecedented talent.

Actors are professional liars. Nobody’s mad at Meryl Streep for not writing her script. Somehow singers are truth tellers. People just don’t want to believe that a singer couldn’t write his own music.

In the episode with Bonnie McKee, you guys talk a little bit about sexism in the writing world. Are you going to attempt to highlight the work of more female writers?
One of the sad things is that there aren’t as many female writers as there should be. Simon Wilcox is in four weeks. She wrote “Jealous” for Nick Jonas. Hers might be my favorite story I’ve ever recorded.

I don’t know if you heard the Justin Tranter one, but that was mostly about misogyny. His idea was that there should always be a minority writer or a woman in every session. There’s truth to that. There’s an idea that if you put together an urban music session you get all urban writers, and if you get a pop session you get all pop writers. That’s just gonna homogenize everything. One of the best parts of music these days is that you actually have things like the Selena Gomez and Thomas Rhett duet that’s coming out. I’d love to have more diversity.

Are you trying to bring writers from country or R&B or genres outside of pop onto the podcast?
We just did Luke Laird [a top Nashville writer] last week, that’ll be coming out. We’re going to do one a week, so we’re going to get to everybody. It’s just a matter of time. 

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Watch Father John Misty's New Video With Macaulay Culkin as Kurt Cobain

Father John Misty‘s “Total Entertainment Forever” video is a maniacal LSD adventure starring Macaulay Culkin as a Christ-like Kurt Cobain trapped inside a VR game played by George Washington.

The clip opens with America’s first president (played by “Spinning on Air” radio host David Garland) popping Viagra and strapping on a VR headset for his deranged pleasure. From a player menu, he selects “Kurt Cobain’ed” – rather than “Biblo Clinton” or “Juan Arbuckle” – and uses a massive, Nintendo-styled controller to navigate the eye-popping world of his creation.

First, the Nirvana frontman is tied to a pole and whipped by Ronald McDonald. Then, after selecting the “Cross-Bearing” option from the game menu, Washington is transported to an equally disturbing scene, where Cobain is crucified next to Jon Arbuckle from Garfield and a saxophone-playing Bill Clinton. (Father John Misty himself, Josh Tillman, appears as a McDonald cohort with hook hands, and a papier-mâché version of the burger joint’s mascot erupts from his stomach, Alien-style.)

The collective behind the wild video, Four Gods and a Baby, includes Culkin, Adam Green, Thomas Bayne and Toby Goodshank.

“Total Entertainment Forever” is the fourth single from Father John Misty’s recently released third LP, Pure Comedy, following the title track, “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” and “Ballad of the Dying Man.”

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Bruce Springsteen Photographer Preps Book of Unreleased Images

This November, Wall of Sound Editions will publish Bruce Springsteen: Further up the Road, a collection of four decades of Springsteen photographs shot by Frank Stefanko. Many of the images are previously unreleased.

Stefanko has a longstanding working relationship with Springsteen: he’s the man behind the covers for Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. He also took cover photo for Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. Further up the Road will include a number of images from two unpublished shoots with Springsteen, one that took place in 2004 and another from this year. 

Wall of Sound plans to print 1,978 copies of Further up the Road. The first 350 of these will be available as a deluxe edition for $630, while the remainder will make up a collector’s edition for $380. Pre-order starts May 8nd. Stefanko will sign every copy and Springsteen penned the book’s introduction.

In Born to Run, Springsteen praised Stefanko’s work. “Frank’s photographs were stark,” he wrote. “His talent was he managed to strip away your celebrity, your artifice, and get to the raw you. His photos had a purity and a street poetry to them. They were lovely and true, but they weren’t slick … We had other cover options but they didn’t have the hungriness of Frank’s pictures.”

Eric Meola, another photographer fortunate enough to photograph Springsteen for the Born to Run album, also applauded Stefanko in a statement. “I love the ‘in-your-face’ immediacy of these images; their stark innocence and how they appear to be photographs that don’t try to be something they are not,” Meola wrote. “As Bruce entered the vernacular of American music and its psyche, Frank found his world. And in this book, he shares it with us.”

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Prince's 'Deliverance' Label Heads Talk EP Creation, Messy Aftermath

For Prince fans who’ve been desperately waiting to hear unreleased music from his storied vault, that moment suddenly seemed to arrive last week. Out of nowhere, Rogue Music Alliance (RMA), a Vancouver-based independent label that has specialized in Christian music, announced it would release a six-song EP, Deliverance, on April 21st.

Recorded between 2006 and 2008, the tracks — the title song, a four-song suite called “Man Opera” and an extended version of one of those songs, “I Am” — are said to have been co-written and co-produced by Prince and Ian Boxill, a recording engineer who was working with Prince during that period. 

After Prince’s death, Boxill (who is currently dealing with a death in the family and was unavailable for comment) finished up the tracks with additional production and instrumentation. According to an RMA attorney, Boxill approached the Prince camp — Paisley Park Enterprises and Comerica Bank, the special administrator for the estate  — about releasing the music. But financial terms could not be agreed upon and the estate “has been aware that Ian intended to commercialize this work either with or without them,” says the attorney.

Yet almost immediately after the announcement of its release, Prince’s camp sued Boxill and was granted a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the EP. In legal filings, Paisley Park and Comerica claimed the recordings were “Prince’s sole and exclusive property” and that Boxill said “he would not use any recordings or property in any way whatsoever” and “would return any such recordings or property to Prince immediately upon request.” Although initially put up on sale on services like Amazon Music and iTunes, pre-orders for Deliverance immediately disappeared from those services. At present time, only the title song is only available at a website,, set up by RMA.

In this exclusive interview, RMA co-founders David Staley and Gabriel Wilson talk about the project and its aftermath.

So how did these tracks wind up with Rogue Music Alliance, especially since Prince had previous contracts with Universal and Warner Brothers?
Wilson: We met Ian through a mutual friend in May of last year, after Prince passed away. Ian is a legend and has a long history with working with Prince. He wasn’t interested in releasing any music or anything. It was more just to talk and get to know him. He showed us a couple of tracks as we got to know him. He showed us “Deliverance” and I remember crying at the table when we were talking, because the track was so moving and this was only a few weeks after Prince had passed.

“We certainly expected this would cause a stir and … there would be some controversy.” 

There came a point at which [Prince] was interested in releasing the tracks. He’d considered going the major label route or some other avenues. But he reached out to us at RMA and we were blown away to have the opportunity to be trusted with a project of this magnitude on a small indie. Ian said that the things we said about the industry reminded him of the things Prince would say about the industry and the way we viewed equity for artists and artists’ rights — that the things artists shouldn’t have to give up in order to take their music to market mirrored very closely a lot of things Prince would tell him.

Given that Prince had a spiritual side, did you have any contact with him before this?
Staley: No. We never had any contact with Prince at all.

What was your understanding about the ownership issues of these recordings?
Staley: A lot of the ownership issues I’m not sure we can really address at this point because of the matters at hand.

Wilson: Ian was always very clear that they were co-authors of this work and that’s really where the ball got rolling on that front. Ian had co-written and co-produced these songs with Prince.

Given the complications with Prince’s previous arrangements with major labels, how concerned were you about entering into these legal waters?
Wilson: We certainly expected this would cause a stir and we figured it was likely there would be some controversy. The potential for there being a controversy and buzz around this wasn’t something that scared us off. Obviously we didn’t have a crystal ball and couldn’t have foreseen exactly what happened. But yeah, we were aware there was a possibility of some controversy.

Staley: We always knew that if Ian as a co-collaborator, co-composer, co-writer, and co-producer had worked on this stuff — and Prince as an independent artist was independent at that time — Ian had all the permission under copyright law and as the copyright holder to release this work. We were always very confident in that and that was why, despite the potential controversy, we were confident to release it.

From what I’ve seen of the original contract between Prince and Boxill, only Boxill signed it, correct?
Staley: If you’ve seen the contract, you’re free to make your own interpretation of it. But we can’t speak to that specifically at this time.

When did the release of the EP began taking shape?
Wilson: In late summer of last year. When Ian approached us about wanting to put this music out, what he communicated to us was two-fold. One: at that time there was a lot of swirl in the press about would the family end up getting hit with a massive tax burden around this release, so his intent from the beginning was for this to be a financial blessing, once the heirs are eventually named by the estate. Also, he just really felt that these songs, “Deliverance” in particular, were really timely to everything going on in the world, from the election to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement to terrorist attacks. He thought “Deliverance” the song could be a great memento to Prince’s life and hopefully bring a lot of hope and peace and comfort to people with everything that’s going on in the world. He hoped Prince’s voice could accomplish some of that.

He wanted this to help pay the family’s bills?
Staley: That’s correct. From the get-go it had always been the majority of both publishing and master recording revenue going to the estate. One of Ian’s largest motivations was wanting this to be a blessing to the family once the bank that represents the estate eventually decided who the heirs were. His hopes were that it really would be a financial blessing to them, alleviating the potential tax burden and just providing a blessing to help preserve Prince’s legacy.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll reach a position where everyone is happy and this release can see the light of day.”

What additional work did Boxill do on the recordings?
Wilson: Once Ian decided he wanted to move forward with us in conjunction with him, we started the ball rolling on putting the final polish [on] and finishing the work. There was a considerable amount of collaboration he did while Prince was alive, and then he went forward with finishing the work they’d started. On “Deliverance,” there’s a gospel choir you hear in the track currently but that wasn’t cut while Prince was alive. Ian wrote the new melody lines and did the backing vocals with singers and documented it with a couple of session singers and shot it to Prince, and Prince basically gave the sign-off on it. They had always intended to finish that work and notes were made, but obviously that didn’t happen.

Did Boxill play you any of his other Prince material in his possession?
Staley: He played us a couple things. I can’t really comment to the specifics, but he showed us some of the other things. What I can say is that I agree, from whatever my opinion is worth, that these works feel like ones that should be released. Some of the other ones he played us definitely felt a lot rougher and not ready.

How did he know Prince wanted these particular tracks out?
Staley: I couldn’t really speak to that as far as his motivation, but I will say that one of the most compelling reasons we wanted to work with Ian was because of his close relationship with Prince. Here was a guy that was his engineer for about five or six years and he was such close friends with Prince that he would go door to door witnessing with Prince even though Ian wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness himself. He would go to temple with Prince.

They had such a close relationship that when you speak to Ian, he speaks still so deeply attached to his friendship with Prince that for us at RMA we trusted him because of the integrity he had. We knew it wasn’t a money grab. If he wanted a “money grab” out of this, he would have released as much material as he could. Instead, he was quite protective and held everything very close to the chest and would always say, “I need to make sure the track is right. Prince wouldn’t want this to come out if the track’s not right.” He would just toil for hours to make sure the track was right.

Wilson: The fact that Ian was willing to withhold the majority of the stuff that he has, and only release a small amount of it, showed us he was very concerned that Prince was honored in the midst of this work and not dishonored by it and that the family was blessed by it.

What were your original release plans?
Wilson: Our release plan was very specific to be a pseudo Beyoncé-style out-of-nowhere publicity bomb. Our original plan was to do that the night before. But as you may have seen, on Tuesday [April 18th], someone who had access to our Soundcloud link leaked one of the songs to Reddit, so we decided on Tuesday afternoon to just pull the trigger and go live with the single and the pre-order.

What was your reaction to the legal blowback?
Staley: While we expected this to definitely cause a stir, we certainly were surprised by the specific legal pushback that came out after this release. We expected there to be some controversy and people to be talking about it but the specific action was a surprise to us.

Paisley Park Enterprises and Comerica Bank filed a temporary restraining order. Where do things stand now?Staley: Nothing has changed in a legal position. There’s a partial [enjoining] of the other songs of the EP but not “Deliverance” as the title track. At the moment we can’t speak to the specifics of what’s going on behind the scenes legally, but those conversations are still evolving. Our legal team is in touch with their legal team and they’re endeavoring to work things out and see what kind of arrangement we can come to. The estate is contesting the rights and because of that, there is a lot of reticence from the digital stores like Apple, Google and Amazon to sell it because of the controversy. “Deliverance” is on the radio. Last week we heard from our radio promoter that 56-plus stations are giving it active airtime.

Did you have any direct contact by Prince’s family members during this process?
Staley: No, we did not. I’m not sure if Ian did.

What is your next step?
Staley: We’re hopeful that we’ll reach a position where everyone is happy and this release can see the light of day. That obviously would be our desired outcome. And to be a blessing to the family financially when the estate eventually decided who the heirs are.

Wilson: We currently have a significant number of CDs on hold and obviously we’d love for those to see the light of day. We also have a considerable amount of a limited-edition vinyl we’re holding on to and we’re hoping that will get the opportunity to see the light of day as well.

How much more material does Boxill have?
Staley: Ian had access to a lot more material that he and Prince had worked on together. But he felt that this small selection was specifically something Prince would have wanted out. He just did not want in any way to put just a mass compilation or a longer album of all the songs he had — things he didn’t feel like Prince would have wanted, things he felt were incomplete or couldn’t be completed in the way that Prince wanted. That’s why we put together a small sampling of things he really felt Prince would have stood behind and that honored his legacy. 

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See Iggy Pop, Metallica's Lars Ulrich Talk Lou Reed

When Metallica staged a three-night residency in Mexico City last month, they invited along a formidable opening artist: Iggy Pop. The singer did sets of Stooges songs and his solo material at each of the gigs, and joined the metal group for a ragged rendition of “TV Eye.” But sometime during the stint, Pop sat down with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich for an in-depth chat that covered working with their mutual friend, Lou Reed, as well as playing on the same bill together, the record label they used to share (Elektra) and the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, among other topics. The full interview is available at, but the section on working with Reed is premiering here.

Among anecdotes about gigging with Reed and seeing the Velvet Underground, Pop explains how he first met the singer-songwriter. “I met him through Main Man, who were the managers of David Bowie,” he says. “They were about to sign me to a management deal, and they were working with Lou as producers. And they convinced Lou that, ‘We’ve got this new artist … we don’t really like his music. He needs some good songs!’ So the idea was Lou was gonna sell me some songs, you know? But if a Lou song is any good, Lou is gonna do it, right? That’s how I met him, we were sitting in a room and he was playing me songs, and we got drunk on his acoustic guitar.”

Similarly, Ulrich explained how performing together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert led Metallica and Lou Reed to create the critically maligned Lulu. The drummer shared that Reed was very hurt by the reception the record got. “We’re pretty thick-skinned,” Ulrich said. “We’ve been through ups and downs for years, and if we like something we’d done and we enjoy the experience, that’s what matters to us. But I think he was really saddened by the response to [Lulu] and I felt … it was weird. The roles changed at the end where I became almost more maternal to him, and had to like sort of comfort him through this very difficult month when the record came out and it just got fucking slammed.”

Elsewhere in the video, Pop shares his opinion of Lulu (“[Lou] was trying to be a trueartist”) and opines on why it got a stale reception, and both artists discuss how Reed didn’t let people know that he was as sick as he was around the time of his death.

Metallica are currently ramping up to a North American summer tour in support of last year’s Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, during which they’ll be playing stadiums. “I’m just excited about the fact that that’s still possible to go out and play stadiums 36 years into a career and that people give a shit,” Ulrich told Rolling Stone in February. “It’s going to be awesome.”

Pop, who recently turned 70, is currently excited about the prospect of singing jazz. He sang three tracks on Loneliness Road, a new album from keyboardist Jamie Saft, featuring bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte. “Since I was a little kid I’ve always been very fond of quieter, maybe more introspective sort of music – everything from Floyd Cramer to Debussy to Sinatra’s September of My Years – that song cycle was on constant rotation in our little trailer when I was going to high school,” Pop recently told Rolling Stone of his interest in the project. “I’d just been out rocking hard in different ways all year, so it was a pleasure to listen to [Saft’s] music.”

Listen to Metallica’s Lars Ulrich discuss the band’s controversial battle with Napster.

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Watch James Arthur Perform Somber 'Say You Won't Let Go' on 'Fallon'

James Arthur belted his hit ballad “Say You Won’t Let Go” on Tuesday’s Tonight Show. The British singer-songwriter slowed down the tempo from the studio version and stripped back the arrangement to a somber acoustic guitar and piano.

Arthur showcased the full spectrum of his vocal talents, opening in a subdued croon and building to a climactic, soulful roar.

“Say You Won’t Let Go” was an international smash in 2016, reaching Number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the charts in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Ireland. The song appears on Arthur’s second album, last year’s Back From the Edge.

Arthur broke out in 2012 after winning the ninth season of British singing competition The X Factor, leading to a string of hit singles, including “Impossible” and “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You.”

This summer, Arthur will join OneRepublic and Fitz and the Tantrums on a massive North American tour that launches July 7th in Kansas City, Missouri. 

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Hear Ike Reilly's Scathing Travel-Ban Blues 'Bolt Cutter'

Chicago rocker Ike Reilly sings the travel-ban blues in a scathing new anti-Trump song, “Bolt Cutter,” that will see release via Tom Morello’s Firebrand Records on April 28th.

Over a steady-chugging acoustic-guitar vamp, light drums and a harmonica wail, Reilly tells the story of a man waiting to pick up his wife and daughter at the airport when they’re suddenly detained due to President Donald Trump’s disastrous first travel ban. To bust his family out, the man calls up his local radio DJ who arrives at the airport with a pair of bolt cutters.

“The DJ cut my baby and her mama’s chains,” Reilly sings. “And said, ‘Welcome ladies to the U.S.A./The car was at the curb and I threw him the keys/We went to Gene and Georgetti’s with the refugees.”

Reilly debuted “Bolt Cutter” – which didn’t have a title at the time – during a radio appearance in Chicago celebrating longtime WXRT DJ Lin Brehmer that happened to coincide with Trump’s first travel ban. Reilly then sent the song to Morello, who dug the track and asked what it was called. When Reilly offered Morello the chance to name it, he came up with “Bolt Cutter.”

“‘Bolt Cutter’ is about breaking somebody free,” Reilly tells Rolling Stone. “It’s about not taking any shit and taking back what has been taken or stolen from you … your voice, your rights, your family, your dreams.”

Reilly released his most recent album, Born On Fire, via Rock Ridge and Firebrand in 2015.

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Studio 54: 10 Wild Stories From Club's Debauched Heyday

For 33 months, Studio 54 was the American bacchanal, an unprecedented mix of glamorous sophistication and primal hedonism. The brainchild of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the club opened in a onetime CBS soundstage on April 26th, 1977, and immediately became the epicenter of nightlife in New York City – and the world. The sex, drugs and disco on offer at Studio 54 served as the perfect release for a generation raised under the pressures of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Though the club was ultimately destroyed by vice and greed, its short reign defined the flashy exuberance of the late Seventies, before the scourge of AIDS ended the party forever.

In the four decades since Studio 54 first opened its doors, tales of what went on behind the velvet rope have become modern myths. What’s more, they’re almost all true. Read on for 10 of the craziest stories from the club’s legendary heyday.

1. Donald and Ivana Trump attended the opening – while a Quaalude-fueled orgy occurred outside in the street.
Among the first to appear outside the doors of Studio 54 on opening night was Donald Trump, accompanied by his new wife, Ivana. The couple had been enjoying dinner a short time earlier with socialite Nikki Haskell and her date at the iconic Upper East Side eatery Elaine’s. “I said, ‘C’mon! There’s this new club opening tonight. Why don’t we go?'” Haskell remembered in Anthony Haden-Guest’s book The Last Party. “So we got to Studio 54 and there was nobody there. We were like the first. We knocked on the door. Donald hadn’t built Trump tower. Nobody knew him in those days.” Their knocks went unanswered. “About fifteen minutes later we were just getting ready to leave, and they opened one of the doors. They didn’t even know we were waiting out there.”

The atmosphere was hardly better inside, as the couples wandered through the empty disco. “They were still adjusting the lights and fixing the music,” says Haskell. Workers had been laying down black flooring less than an hour before, and when the bulbs behind the bar suddenly stopped working, gofers were frantically dispatched to the nearest bodega to purchase armloads of votive candles. DJ Richie Kaczor dropped the needle on the first record of the night, “Devil’s Gun” by C.J. and Company, but the party was initially dead. “About a half an hour later there were 50 or 60 people in there. We kept saying, ‘Gee, I wonder where everybody is?'”

The flow of revelers grew from a trickle to a torrent after 11 o’clock, and soon thousands swarmed the building. Traffic on 54th Street was brought to a standstill as both celebrities and humble ravers struggled to approach. Frank Sinatra was stranded in his limousine, unable to get near. Cher, Margaux Hemingway and a young Brooke Shields made it inside, but Warren Beatty, Kate Jackson and Henry Winkler did not.

With nowhere else to go, the party spilled onto the street. One clubgoer waited outside with a group of friends, including a doctor packing a jumbo bottle of Quaaludes. “The doctor started handing them out,” he told Haden-Guest. “About 30 people standing around us took them, and then everybody started having this mad sexual orgy. All the men had their dicks out … the women were showing their tits … everybody was feeling everybody else … the crowd was moving in waves … all of a sudden you would find yourself next to someone you didn’t know.”

Meanwhile, the future president was up to less scandalous shenanigans inside. “No one remembered him being there the first night. He was a non-entity. He was never on the dance floor,” Studio 54 busboy Richie Notar recalled in a 2017 BBC radio documentary. Nonetheless, Trump became something of a regular at the venue. “I’d go there a lot with dates and with friends, and with lots of people,” he told The Washington Post in 2016. According to Haskell, the non-drinking, non-dancing mogul had business reasons for making the scene. “He understood it was an opportunity to be grabbed. He was not there for the drug-fueled disco deliria. He was there to be seen with the famous people, to network, to cut the deal; whilst everyone else cut the coke.”

2. Birthday girl Bianca Jagger rode a white horse across the dance floor.
Opening night at Studio 54 was an unqualified success, but the days that followed were comparatively slower. The club’s fortunes were reversed when Steve Rubell received a call from fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, a.k.a. Halston.”It was 10:30 in the morning and the phone rang,” club associate Renny Reynolds told Haden-Guest. “It was Halston. Well, this was big-time. Steve at that point wasn’t known by anybody. [He] wanted to have a birthday party that Monday for Bianca Jagger.” Like many venues, the club closed Mondays for a “dark night,” but Rubell made an exception. “When Steve got off the phone we flipped into action to make it happen. I called everybody I knew in New York to come and blow up masses of white balloons … and I went to the Claremont Stables to arrange for a horse.”

On May 2nd, Jagger celebrated in grand style. “[Halston] only had about 150 people. The best people, from Baryshnikov to Jacqueline Bisset,” Schrager recalled in a 1996 Vanity Fair profile. One of the bartenders donned a diaper and popped out of a cake, but the highlight of the evening occurred around midnight, when a white steed was led out from behind a stage curtain by a nude couple slathered in shimmering paint and sparkles. The birthday girl took the place of honor astride the horse, which trotted across the dance floor while cameras greedily snapped.

The stunt was one of the most effective in the history of publicity, as photos of Jagger on horseback instantly appeared in papers across the globe. “It just snowballed from there,” doorman Marc Benecke recalled in a 1998 E! documentary. “Studio opened on a Tuesday. The next couple of nights weren’t as busy. But that picture started the ball rolling. It was that soon.”

The photos also gave birth to the enduring myth that Jagger actually rode into the club on the horse. The animal-loving activist tried to correct the misconception in a 2015 letter to the Financial Times. “As an environmentalist and an animal rights defender I find the insinuation that I would ride a horse into a nightclub offensive.”

3. The highly selective doormen were frequent targets of abuse, and sometimes gunshots.
“The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor,” club regular Andy Warhol once observed, and Steve Rubell ruled the velvet ropes with an iron fist. To achieve the perfect blend of guests for his nightly party, he often stood on a stepstool outside, selecting members of the crowd for admittance with a subjectivity that bordered on heartless. “It’s like mixing a salad,” he explained, “or casting a play.” Doorman Marc Benecke, then a 19-year-old student at Hunter College, served as Rubell’s deputy. “We had the kid who worked at McDonalds next to some movie star or some superstar model,” he said in the E! documentary. “Whether they were dressed in a festive way or they were interesting, high energy, danced well, or socialites, celebrities, models, you had to bring something to the table.”

The door code played upon the fundamental human quirk of desperately wanting what one can’t have. Those who were turned away often returned night after night, changing their outfits, hairstyles and company. Some tried to grease palms with thousands of dollars. Actress Jaid Barrymore, mother of Drew, bore witness to the ceaseless parade of lurid attire. “People were waiting in lines with the most fantastic costumes on, each one trying to outdo the other one so that they could be pointed to and get in.” One Halloween, two women, perhaps recalling the famous Bianca Jagger photos, took out a $500 loan to rent a horse, which they rode nude to the velvet ropes as twin Lady Godivas. The horse was granted entry. The women were not.

To many, Rubell and his army of doormen and bouncers appeared to be, in a word, dicks – but it was never personal. “Steve had certain criteria,” an insider later told Vanity Fair. “He used to joke, ‘If I wasn’t the owner, I wouldn’t be allowed in.'” Even so, would-be patrons often took rejection badly. Club employees were tasked with stripping nearby garbage cans of bottles and cans, lest these potential projectiles land in the hands of disgruntled guests. Benecke often needed an escort back to his apartment. “At times it got really hairy outside,” he told Haden-Guest. “Once, a regular customer had too many people, or some problem. I walked him back to his limo. And all of a sudden the guy starts choking me.”

That was a minor inconvenience compared to the trials of security chief Chuck Garelick, who tells Haden-Guest that a man once tried to literally crash the VIP entrance in his Oldsmobile. “A car whizzed by. Somebody yelled out, ‘Hey! Asshole!’ I looked and there was a rifle pointed at me. And I kind of let that slide because he didn’t shoot.” Another morning, someone did pull the trigger. “We walked out through the entrance where the garbage goes out. It was closer and we were dead. The next thing we knew, these guys were out of a car across the street. They’d been waiting and they just started shooting. Above our heads. Chips of brick flew down. We dived onto the ground. I personally tried to get very friendly with the underside of a car.”

4. Disco legends Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were denied entry, inspiring one of their biggest hits.

Although their songs were must-plays on the dance floor, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic found themselves unable to clear Benecke’s ultra-strict door policy on New Year’s Eve 1977. “We were invited to meet with Grace Jones at Studio 54,” Rodgers told Sound on Sound in 2005. “She wanted to interview us about recording her next album. At that time, our music was fairly popular – ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ was a big hit – but Grace Jones didn’t leave our name at the door and the doorman wouldn’t let us in.” They waited around until the early morning hours. “We stood there as long as we could take it, until our feet were just finally way too cold. We were really totally dejected. We felt horrible.”

The men sulked back to Rodgers’ apartment just a few blocks away. “We grabbed a couple of bottles of champagne from the corner liquor store and then went back to my place, plugged in our instruments and started jamming.” Aching from the rejection, Rodgers and Edwards poured their anger into the music. “We were just yelling obscenities: Fuck Studio 54 … Fuck ’em … Fuck off … Fuck those scumbags … fuck them! And we were laughing,” Rodgers described to Haden-Guest. “We were entertaining the hell out of ourselves. We had a blast. And finally it hit Bernard. He said, ‘Hey Nile, what you’re playing sounds really good.'”

Within half an hour they composed a song called “Fuck Off.” After some lyrical tweaking they arrived at a slightly more Top 40–friendly title. “First, we changed it from ‘fuck off’ to ‘freak off,’ and that was pretty hideous. … Then, all of a sudden it just hit me. One second the light bulb went on and I sang ‘Aaaaahh, freak out!'” Released as “Le Freak” that September, the song would become Chic’s first Number One and biggest hit. Perhaps understandably, Rodgers now considers Benecke a friend.

5. One gatecrasher died trying to sneak in through an air vent.
While some front-door rejects got vengeful, truly tenacious clubgoers tried to find alternate access points to crash the party. “We would have this situation where people would climb down from the building next door in full mountain-climbing gear with ropes tied around their shoulders,” Studio 54 associate Baird Jones explained to Haden-Guest. “They were trying to get into the courtyard. … They would tangle in the barbed wire and fall to the cement pavement which was 10 feet below. I remember where this guy had really screwed himself up and they got a stretcher.” Although he had broken his neck and left wrist, he took pleasure in the fact that he had actually made it inside. “You could see him, trying to scope out the inside of the club. Trying to see it. Desperately!”

One man was less lucky. “This guy got stuck in the vent trying to get in,” Jones confirmed. “It smelled like a cat had died.” His body was discovered in black-tie attire.

6. The dance floor was transformed into a farm for Dolly Parton, complete with livestock, corrals and bales of hay.
While Studio 54 traded in nightly excess, the elaborate themed parties held on special occasions allowed Rubell, Schrager and their team to bring VIP guests’ most vivid fantasies to life. Costing tens of thousands of dollars, these one-night-only productions put the neighboring Broadway shows to shame, only to vanish by the time the club opened the next day.

Even a brief sampling of these parties is enough to scramble the senses. Karl Lagerfeld held a candlelit 18th-century party with the staff in court dress and powdered wigs. Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday featured a performance by the Rockettes, which the star viewed while perched on a float of gardenias. She was later presented with a life-size portrait of herself made of cake. For Valentine’s Day, Studio 54 was transformed into a garden with flowerbeds, picket fencing and a group of harpists. Giancarlo Giammetti threw a circus-themed birthday party for his business partner, fashion designer Valentino. “Ian put it together in three days. We had a circus ring with sand, and mermaids on trapezes,” he told Vanity Fair. “Fellini gave us costumes from his film The Clowns. Valentino was the ringmaster, and Marina Schiano came as a palm reader with a parrot on her shoulder.”

One of the most memorable soirees was held in honor of Dolly Parton. When she visited the city for concert dates in May 1978, Rubell created a rural farm setting to help the country singer feel more at home. “Steve went all out for that,” Michael Musto remembered in the E! documentary. “They had haystacks and horses and donkeys and mules running through the club.” Renny Reynolds procured most of the animals from a farm he was renting in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “We had big wine barrels we filled with corn. I had a farm wagon we brought in and piled with hay. We had chickens in a pen,” he says in The Last Party.

Unfortunately, the guest of honor was less than amused. “Dolly came and was completely freaked out at the number of people there. She had not had a Studio 54 experience. She was real nervous about this whole deal and went up to the balcony and sat up there for a while. She was not a comfortable lady there.”

7. The Fifties-themed premiere party for Grease could have gone up in flames.

The July 1978 bash celebrating the release of Grease gave Dolly Parton’s pastoral party a run for its money when Rubell and Co. recreated the movie’s retro set. “You walked in and the hallway was nothing but lockers, high school lockers on both sides,” marveled the film’s producer, Allan Carr, in 1998. “And then you went into the main part of the club and he had all these old convertible cars of the Fifties.”

Reynolds, who had tracked down livestock with ease, had a more difficult time finding vintage cars for hire. “I called various places and it was impossible,” he told Haden-Guest. “Nobody wanted to rent a car to Studio 54. So I found this little auto museum down somewhere in New Jersey. They agreed to bring these cars up.” Six big-finned classics were parked on the dance floor, but minutes before opening the fire marshal cited a major hazard: The cars hadn’t been drained of gasoline. Each vehicle had to be taken onto the street, where its tank was emptied, and then pushed back inside by hand.

The party went off without a hitch, save for a minor incident. “There was a 1950 Chevy convertible that got a bit trashed because people climbed in and burned the seats,” says Reynolds. “So we ended up having to pay for new seats. But the party was wild.”

8. VIPs looking for extreme debauchery were steered to sex cubicles in the basement, or “the rubber room” in the balcony.
Once you found yourself inside the hallowed grounds of Studio 54, the next place you wanted to go was the fabled basement; a cavernous, dingy, decidedly unglamorous space decorated with damaged banquets, pillars of rolled carpet and set pieces from past parties. It was down here that the privileged few were invited to indulge in their wildest desires. “Celebrities headed for the basement. Getting high low-down,” Grace Jones wrote in her 2016 memoir. “Not even those who got inside the club could all make it into the basement. You’d stumble into half-hidden rooms filled with a few people who seemed to be sweating because of something they had just done, or were about to do.” Security men brandishing walkie-talkies discreetly patrolled the area, removing any uninvited gawkers. The secluded corners furnished with mattresses quickly became a popular feature.

Less exclusive was the balcony area, upholstered in rubber because it was deemed easy to clean. Exactly what needed to be cleaned is best left to the imagination. “Up high in the seats above the stalls, you could disappear into the shadows and get up to whatever,” writes Jones. “Up above the balcony, there was the rubber room, with thick rubber walls that could be easily wiped down after all the powdery activity that went on. There was even something above the rubber room, beyond secretive, up where the gods of the club could engage in their chosen vice high up above the relentless dancers. It was a place of secrets and secretions, the in-crowd and inhalations, sucking and snorting.”

9. Steve Rubell gave Andy Warhol a trashcan filled with cash for his birthday.
Studio 54’s fast and loose accounting would ultimately contribute to its downfall. In 1977 the club made millions yet reportedly paid just a paltry $8,000 in taxes. “Skimming” was standard practice in the cash-flush world of restaurants and nightclubs, but this was an order of magnitude greater than most offenders. Each morning, massive portions of the previous night’s take would be stuffed in garbage bags and hidden above ceiling panels, or smuggled home to Rubell’s apartment and concealed in a hidden compartment. The newly anointed nightclub king got cocky, joking to a radio host that “what the IRS doesn’t know won’t hurt them,” and bragging to New York magazine, “Only the Mafia makes more money.”

But he could be generous with his cash. For Andy Warhol’s 50th birthday in August 1978, Rubell gave the artist a fresh roll of 5,000 free drink tickets and a silver garbage can filled with $1,000 worth of crisp new dollar bills. According to friends, Warhol said it was the best present he had ever received. In a jovial moment, revelers tipped the bucket over his head, showering him with money. Not amused, Warhol scrambled to collect the singles.

The gift caused some tension a year later, after the IRS raided Rubell’s office and seized his financial records, including a catalogue of gifts dolled out to celebrity friends and clients. When New York published this list of “party favors” in November 1979, Warhol was horrified to discover that his pail had only contained $800. “Andy’s first reaction was, ‘You mean they told me there was a thousand dollars in there and it was only $800? Oh, I knew I should have counted it,” wrote Warhol’s colleague Bob Colacello in his memoir.

10. Rubell and Schrager threw a star-studded farewell party before being sent off to prison.
IRS agents raided Studio 54 on December 14th, 1978, seizing garage bags of cash, financial documents and five ounces of cocaine. Both Rubell and Schrager were arrested and accused of skimming $2.5 million in club earnings. That November they pled guilty to two counts of corporate and personal income-tax evasion. Judge Richard Owen shocked the court by imposing the maximum penalty: three-and-a-half years in prison and $20,000 fines.

The following February, just before they were due to serve their time, Rubell and Schrager threw one last bash, billed as “The End of Modern-Day Gomorrah.” This final blowout was intimate compared to most nights, with just 2,000 of Studio 54’s most faithful, including Richard Gere, Halston, Reggie Jackson, Andy Warhol, Lorna Luft and Sylvester Stallone. Diana Ross serenaded the owners from the DJ booth, and Liza Minnelli sang “New York, New York.” Rubell, donning a Sinatra-like fedora, piped in with a spirited rendition of “My Way,” which played on repeat during the night, as did Gloria Gaynor’s Studio 54 anthem “I Will Survive.” From a mechanical platform high above the dance floor, Rubell addressed his guests with an emotional speech. “Steve was coked out of his mind,” remembered one in attendance, “Bianca was hugging him, and he was saying, ‘I love you people! I don’t know what I’m going to do without Studio!’ And everyone was crying and weeping.”

New York Post columnist Jack Martin found Rubell in the early morning hours. “He was sort of spaced-out,” he told Haden-Guest. “He had accepted it. It was a sad going-away party but we were laughing and trying to have fun. We were with him literally until he took a car to go home and meet the authorities.” The party was over. 

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Stax Records Plots Massive 60th Anniversary Campaign

Stax Records will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a string of releases designed to highlight the label’s history and legendary soul sound and reunite its long-divided catalog. The year-long campaign is a collaboration between Rhino Entertainment and Concord Music Group and launches May 19th with the Stax Classics series.

The Stax Classics series boasts 10 new hits compilations from the label’s biggest artists: Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, Sam and Dave, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & M.G.’s, the Dramatics and Albert King. Each 12-song collection will come with new liner notes and be available digitally and on CD.

Rhino and Concord also plan to reissue numerous classic Stax records on vinyl, including a 50th anniversary pressing of Redding and Thomas’ 1967 collaborative effort King and Queen and Redding’s 1965 solo album, The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads. Other projects include reissues of Melvin Van Peebles’ soundtrack to the classic blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and John Gary Williams, the rare solo debut from the Mad Lads frontman. 

A three-disc Stax 60th box set is also in the works, as is the fourth installment of the Complete Stax Singles series. The new edition will include selections from the Stax catalog as well as offerings from its sister label, Volt, and various subsidiaries Enterprise, Gospel Truth, Hip and Chalice.

Among the biggest projects of the 60th anniversary campaign will be a massive overhaul of Stax’s digital catalog. Rhino and Concord plan to make numerous Stax records available to stream online for the first time, while they’ll also properly remaster a slew of classic albums specifically for digital outlets.

While Stax’s 60th anniversary is itself cause for celebration, Rhino and Concord’s collaborative campaign notably marks the long-awaited reunification of the Stax catalog, which has effectively been split since 1968. That year, Stax severed its ties with Atlantic Records when Warner Bros. purchased the latter. Nevertheless, Atlantic managed to walk away with much of Stax’s pre-May 1968 catalog, which boasted a bevy of hits from Redding, Booker T. and more. 

Stax continued as an independent label, though it would eventually run into financial trouble and declare bankruptcy in 1975. Fantasy Records bought the label two years later. While Fantasy attempted to revive Stax, the project was short-lived and Stax inevitably became a reissue label. As Atlantic continued to re-release projects from its portion of the Stax catalog – often through its subsidiary, Rhino – so did Fantasy, until Concord purchased that label in 2004.

“On the anniversary of Stax Records’ 60th, this Concord/Rhino collaboration signals the beginning of the end of a bittersweet relationship between Stax and Atlantic,” said Stax founder Jim Stewart. “It’s long overdue and a good omen for the unending popularity of the very best of Memphis Soul music.”

Stewart founded the label – originally known as Satellite Records – in 1957 and ran it with his sister Estelle Axton and then Al Bell. The label changed its name to Stax in 1960 and Soulsville, U.S.A. swiftly went from a regional powerhouse to a national force. Much like Motown in Detroit, Stax operated its own studio in Memphis, boasted a roster of A&R reps and songwriters and employed a house band – Booker T. & the M.G.’s – that helped craft and define the label’s signature Southern soul sound. 

Despite its dissolution as a label, Stax remains a powerful force in Memphis music. In 2003, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened at the label’s former location, while the Stax Music Academy and The Soulsville Charter School are housed next door. 

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