One of the original “hair metal” bands, mentored by Rob Halford and managed by Don Arden (Small Faces, Black Sabbath, ELO), finally gets its day in the sun…thanks to the Swedes
Chris ‘Godzilla’ Doliber is the bassist for Madam X, a metal band from Detroit. You are forgiven if you’re not familiar with either, but his story is worthy of a Behind the Music episode, minus the Ferraris and the acclaim. For now.
Founded by sisters Roxy and Maxine Petrucci (drums and guitar, respectively) with Doliber, the band landed on Bret Kaiser as vocalist and began gigging around the Detroit area in the early 1980’s. Locally known for their exciting live shows and outrageous stage outfits, Madam X mixed a few original songs in with hard rock and metal covers.
In May 1982, members of Ozzy Osbourne’s crew happened to catch Madam X’s set at Ann Arbor’s Second Chance. Impressed, they gave them the name of East Coast booking agent, Mike Pirro, telling Doliber that Madam X needed to head to New York City to make it. In short order, the band reached out to Pirro, set up shop in Danbury, Connecticut and played gigs up and down the coast, including one night at the Great Gildersleeves on New York’s Bowery. Still unsigned, the band hit the road with Pirro lining up club dates across the country. By June 1983, an extended residency at Rockers, in Phoenix, led to a chance meeting with an unexpected ally and a master class on heavy metal life on the road.
Fresh off his band’s triumphant headlining performance at the 1983 US Festival in California, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford was living in Phoenix at the time and happened into Rockers one night. Taken by Madam X’s stage presence, Halford showed up again the next night, only this time he’s dressed as ROB HALFORD. Certainly not wasting the opportunity, the band invited the Judas Priest front man on stage and he and vocalist Bret Kaiser shared vocals as the band ripped through a Priest-heavy set. Madam X spent the next several days under the tutelage of the metal god, getting a weeklong crash course in the do’s and dont’s of being in a metal band on the road. Doliber recalls getting Halford to record several radio tags for the band, one afternoon, preparing for the day that Madam X would hit the airwaves.
Any 1980s metal band story must travel through Los Angeles and Madam X’s path was no different.
In a tale that any working band can appreciate, the first gig Madam X showed up to play, the club owner had no idea who they were; the band was not booked at the club. The exact same thing happened the next night. Irritated with their booking agent, the group took it upon themselves to find their own L.A. gigs. Doliber quickly got the band booked for the next Sunday and Thursday nights. Madam X was in dire need of shows; they hit town with $1,800 and had unwittingly booked rooms at a pricey hotel out in Costa Mesa; their funds were quickly dwindling
Their next two gigs, in fact, changed the course of the band forever – and once again, members of Ozzy Osbourne’s camp turned the tide for Madam X.
When the band took the stage at the (now) legendary Madame Wong’s West on Wilshire Boulevard, a sparse Sunday night crowd of approximately 30 people greeted them. As is often the case in stories when bands are discovered, it’s not how many people are in the crowd, it’s ‘who’. Doliber remembers walking out on stage and immediately spotting Blackie Lawless, Chris Holmes and Randy Piper from the seminal L.A. band W.A.S.P.
As evidenced by the chain of events over the next week, Madam X owned the stage. (Years later, Doliber ran into guitarist Gilby Clarke who asked him if he knew who he was and, laughingly, Chris responded, ‘You’re GIlby Clarke and you’re in Guns ‘n Roses.’ Clarke then had his laugh when he replied that he’d been the soundman at Madame Wong’s West when Madam X played there, telling Doliber that his band ‘fucking killed it’ that night.) Lucy Forbes, who Doliber remembered as a rock ‘n roll socialite, fell in love with the band and demanded all four group members go with her to the Troubadour without changing into their street clothes. The Troubadour, in West Hollywood, was already world-famous and Forbes assured the band this was THE place to go to be seen – and it was also the site of Madam X’s next gig.
What happened when the band arrived is straight out of, well, Hollywood. Hair high and asses out, Madam X entered The Troubadour and everyone in the legendary club just stared at them. Bob Street, an A&R guy with Jet Records (Ozzy Osbourne’s label at the time), stopped the band to inquire who they were and to get their promo pack, and the next day the head of Jet Records reached out the Madam X’s agent, informing him that his entire office were to be placed on the guest list for their show on Thursday.
The boss in question was Jet Records’ notorious owner, Don Arden. For the uninitiated, here are some of Arden’s career ‘highlights’:
- When managing The Small Faces (“Itchycoo Park”) in 1966, he burst into a rival manager’s office (Robert Stigwood) and, depending on what story you’d like to believe, hung Stigwood over the 2nd floor balcony by his ankles and threatened to kill him for suggesting to the Small Faces a change in manager. This predates Suge Knight by nearly 30 years.
- Made his fortune managing Black Sabbath and Electric Light Orchestra, then signed Ozzy to Jet after Black Sabbath kicked him out of the band.
Arden’s daughter, Sharon, became involved with Ozzy, and eventually married him and took over managing his career, including his defection to Epic Records. Arden responded to this by allowing his guard dogs to attack a pregnant Sharon, which led directly to Osbourne losing the child.
The entire Jet Records team showed up at The Troubadour gig – and Arden was sold on Madam X. He demanded to see the band immediately after the show, informing them that Madam X was his greatest find in the last five years and that their troubles were over. Arden wanted Madam X on the Jet label. The years of living every rock ‘n roll cliché about being on the road were going to end – the band was ready to go in the studio and cut their first album. It was not lost on the band that if they’d played the gigs they were originally supposed to play that their big break would not have happened.
Then Arden told them that he wanted Madam X to immediately get back on the road, with Bob Street as their road manager, and that he will call them when he was ready. Two non-gigs and two small shows later, the band’s caravan arrived at the Arizona border with $30. Doliber had no choice but to have the club owner of their next destination wire an advance, just so the Arizona fuel surcharge could be paid at the border. Though Madam X was signed, the band was flat broke.
Arden eventually beckoned the band back to Los Angeles to record – but not to record their album. Jet Records was given a crack at providing the soundtrack to a 1984 movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Patrick Swayze, Grandview USA. Arden wanted to give Madame X an immediate boost. They recorded by day, stayed and partied at night at the L.A. Continental Hyatt (the infamous Riot House from the Led Zeppelin stories, immortalized in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous). But CBS (Jet Records’ distributor) ultimately decided to go in a different direction with the soundtrack; the band never heard the music again.
The trailer to Grandview U.S.A.
Madam X finally got a crack at recording their debut, but Arden informed the group he wanted more songs; their road-tested songs did not scream ‘hit’ to the impresario. Thirty days of feverish writing produced five more songs that passed the Arden test. The band entered the fabled Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles with rock veteran Rick Derringer behind the boards. In December 1984, Madam X’s album We Reserve the Right hit the record bins (The album barely missed the compact disc explosion of 1985 and was never properly released on CD.) and Madam X was now ready to hit the road.
The title track to the album We Reserve the Right:
Spending the first half of 1985 opening for Lita Ford and Twisted Sister on separate tours, the band’s first video ‘High in High School’ was in rotation on MTV and the band has no reason to think that it was all about to come to a complete stop.
The band’s first video:
“When we signed with Jet, we had access to Don [Arden] at any time,” Doliber recalled. “Once those two tours were over, we went home and waited. Suddenly Don was too busy to take calls, was always busy. He wouldn’t authorize the release of our second video. We weren’t worried… at first. Brett wanted to go see his family. He had a band with his brother, and that was cool, we weren’t doing anything. Then Roxy got asked to play with Vixen and again, no problem, she can go play with them until we go back out on the road.”
While this was going on, Don Arden was exhausting all his resources to keep himself and his son, David, out of jail. Accusing a Jet Records accountant of embezzling $100,000, instead of contacting the law, father and son were, in turn, accused of blackmailing and imprisoning the accountant. At the end of a sensational trial in Britain, David Arden served one year in an English prison for his role; father Don was able to convince a jury that the Jet accountant fabricated his entire story. But the strain of the two trials on Arden’s finances was significant. He sold the entire ELO back catalog to CBS and the U.S. branch of Jet Records was forced to fold. (Doliber, by his own estimate, claimed the Madam X album sold 750,000 copies worldwide. He ran into Rick Derringer sometime after the album was made and saw Derringer’s residual sheet from the publishing company. It showed that sales of 60,000, but the U.S, U.K. and Japan were not on the list. In classic record label story fashion, Madam X never received any money due to the advances Jet Records provided the band.)
Just like that, Madam X was without a record label. And now the band was also a duo.
In the days before the internet, it took a bit of detective work to find a label-less rock band without a fixed address.
Doliber was in a Phoenix club when he received a package from a Toronto club owner. It contained a demo by a vocalist who had caught Madam X out on tour and knew the band needed a new lead singer (a vocalist, John Ward, joined the band after Kaiser’s departure, but after briefly recording with the band, he left). Upon receiving the cassette, Doliber went outside to listen to it in his car. After listening to it, Doliber and Maxine were headed back to Michigan to grab their new lead singer.
Sebastian Bach was all of 17 years old when Madam X first tried, unsuccessfully, to get him into the United States. Denied entry, Doliber was all for swimming across the Detroit River, but was quickly talked out of it. The three simply found another border to cross and quickly got to work on revitalizing the band. “He had all the talent in the world, even then,” says Doliber.
Talent, youth and the road do not always provide the best working environment as the Madam X bassist and their new lead singer soon found out. Bach had his own agenda and Doliber, now on the road for the better part of six years, tried to get his front man to take the work more seriously, to no avail. Doliber eventually felt he had no choice but to fire the now 18-year-old Bach.
“It just wasn’t working for anyone,” remembers Doliber.
Around the same time, the Madam X bassist and guitarist received an invitation to rock ‘n roll photographer Mark Weiss’ wedding. Feeling bad for the recently fired Bach, Doliber reached out to Weiss (whose album cover credits include Twisted Sister Stay Hungry and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet) and asked if he could bring his drummer and former lead vocalist to the wedding, provided the bassist cover their meals at the reception. Weiss allowed the +2 and all four drove together to New Jersey. Naturally, at a wedding reception for a famous rock photographer, a jam session broke out.
The oft-told story highlights are as follows: Bach got up on stage with the assembled all-star reception band and killed it. Attending the reception was John Bongiovi Sr. who told his son’s childhood neighbor, Dave Sabo, that he found a singer Sabo really ought to check out. (Or he was introduced to the band by Dave Feld. Or Sebastian was introduced to the band by Mark Weiss himself. These stories are all on Wikipedia; they must be true). Tapes were exchanged and Bach joined an unsigned band from Toms River, N.J. called Skid Row. Bongiovi’s son, Jon Bon Jovi, used his influence to get Skid Row signed to Atlantic Records.
Chris Doliber could wake up any morning in early 1989 and see his former drummer, Roxy Petrucci of Vixen, all over MTV. The band scored two Top 40 radio hits and secured plenty of video rotation with the singles ‘Edge of a Broken Heart’ and ‘Cryin’’.
He wouldn’t have to wait very long after a Vixen video to see a Skid Row clip. Sebastian’s new band’s debut album sold over 5 million copies, powered by the three singles ‘Youth Gone Wild’, ‘I’ll Remember You’ and ’18 and Life’. Skid Row opened for Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and played at the Moscow Peace Festival that year and Sebastian Bach, two years removed from being fired from Madam X, was on top of the music world.
Call it hair metal, glam metal or metal; it ruled the airwaves in America in 1989 and Madam X were nowhere to be found. Chris Doliber eventually went on vacation to his family’s property in northern Michigan. He saw a closed bar for sale and sent word to his road crew to bring all his gear to him.
During a tour stop at Pine Knob, Michigan’s largest outdoor concert venue, Sebastian Bach told the sold-out crowd that Chris Doliber of Madam X could kiss his ass. And that was that.
The Sweden Rock Festival began in 1992 as a modest one-day, nine-band gathering. By 2007, the festival had expanded to four days and to date has featured some of the world’s greatest metal and hard rock bands: Guns ‘n Roses, Motorhead, Saxon, Accept, Testament, Iron Maiden, Rush, Def Leppard, Judas Priest and Aerosmith have all played to metal-crazy Swedes over the years. While America went through its grunge, nu-metal and garage-revival phases, Sweden stayed true to the metal.
Doliber wasn’t giving any thought to metal or Sweden Rock Festival in 2014. He owned a sound company, setting up P.A. systems for local Detroit clubs and concert venues. An avid gearhead, Doliber had spent his days on the road with Madam X buying equipment and one day turned his hobby into his career. He eventually married and had a son – so when he received a text from vocalist Brett Kaiser about getting the band back together for one gig in Sweden, he wasn’t initially sure what to do. Then he discovered the payday. Also, ‘High in High School’ was by then a metal classic in Sweden and the Sweden Rock promoters wanted the original band in their 2014 lineup.
Upon touching down in Sweden, “Godzilla” was recognized by a fan at the car rental place. Doliber knew the band always had a following in Sweden, even if Jet Records chose to ‘ignore’ the fact. The members of Madam X, not having played together in 30 years, had very little to say to each other. This was not a joking and reminiscing reunion; it was purely business.
Doliber recalled wondering if fans would turn out to see the band. Scheduled to appear after midnight following a full day’s concert lineup and subsequent fan revelry, he thought attendance would be sparse.
Don’t ever underestimate the Sweden Rock Fest fan.
Ten thousand fans turned out for Madam X’s reunion show. A band that had become a footnote in the history of American metal, more known in the states for who was in the band as opposed to what the band recorded, had the fans right in their hands. More than a reunion, the concert was vindication for Doliber and the rest of the group. All the years of touring, playing clubs, being broke and chasing stardom, the true fans never left. Right before the band launched into ‘Come One, Come All’, the lead singer told the audience this is the high point of his career.
What could have been just a one-off pay day has turned into Madam X becoming a functioning band again. As metal fans (and music fans in general) have become increasingly nostalgic for 1980s bands, Madam X has been welcomed on the festival and cruise circuit. They have played multiple Monsters of Rock cruises and returned to the 2018 edition of Sweden Rock Fest. Incredibly, the band has also landed a record deal with EMP Label Group (run by Megadeth’s Dave Ellefson) and released their first album in 33 years, Monstrocity, this past October. The label sold every copy of the first pressing in one day.
Doliber, for his part, has taken this all in stride. He long ago gave up on the dreams of being a rock star, but he believes he’s handling this ‘new found’ fame well, if not philosophically.
“You can’t have fruit without the seed. It doesn’t matter how long ago you planted the seed…If (moving back to Michigan) was my finish, I could always accept it, but if you can complete your project, then you complete your project.”