When Jon and Marsha Zazula started selling vinyl imports and picture discs at a New Jersey flea market in 1981, they had no aspirations of founding a record label. The then-recently married couple’s goal was modest: Make a profit on $180 worth of inventory, which was all they had. But one day, a customer brought by a demo cassette of Metallica’s No Life ’Til Leather and insisted Jon play it on the spot. Jon obliged, and his plans became much loftier: Get Metallica signed.
After he was turned down by every label he approached, Jon decided to start his own; in 1982, he and Marsha co-founded Megaforce Records, which became the imprint for a handful of now-iconic heavy metal acts. “Once I started working with music, I knew all the answers,” says Jon. “It was like a jigsaw puzzle, and I kept finding the right pieces.” Though the couple — now married nearly 40 years — stepped away from the label 18 years ago, Jon is revisiting Megaforce’s history in a new autobiography, Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As Lived by Jon Zazula.
Before starting a metal label, Jon grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s loving opera and classical music, and later the Grateful Dead and jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Once he heard Metallica, though, his focus — both personally and professionally — became the burgeoning metal underground. He offered to manage the band, and sent it $1,500 to open for Venom and Twisted Sister on a string of East Coast dates. In 1984, Metallica left Megaforce for Elektra. “That could have been it,” remembers Jon. Instead, he grew the label’s roster and the following year signed distribution deals with Atlantic and Island Records, spanning five and six years, respectively.
By the late ’80s, Megaforce had signed thrash acts like Testament, Overkill, S.O.D., Vio-Lence and Anthrax, the lattermost of which the Zazulas became especially close with. “Marsha and I almost got divorced over using keyboards on the band’s [1985 song] ‘Armed and Dangerous,’ ” recalls Jon. “We fought for five hours!” Jon signed broader hard rock acts, too, like King’s X, Mind Funk and original KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley. Before retiring in 2001, he even tried to launch a classical imprint. “What was I thinking?” he wonders now.
Megaforce’s string of mid-’80s thrash metal hits surpassed the Zazulas’ expectations — and in 1995, the label spun off a full-service sister company, MRI, that helped pioneer a business model giving artists more control in how they were managed and had their music distributed. Megaforce and MRI artists continue to be successful today: Anthrax has landed three albums in the top five of Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart, with its 2016 release, For All Kings, reaching No. 1.
The Zazulas left Megaforce in 2001, selling their stake in the label to its former radio director, Missi Callazzo. “It only made sense that Missi would be the one with the keys to the kingdom,” says Jon. By 2009, MRI had acquired acclaimed blues/jazz label Palmetto Records; more recently, the company has distributed releases by Björk, The Black Crowes, Living Colour and Third Eye Blind. “My vision for the future [of Megaforce and MRI] is the same as it has always been,” says Callazzo. “Work with the best artists — regardless of the genre.”