The influence of professional wrestling on the music industry has seldom been examined. Consider, for starters, the rock bands whose members prance menacingly around stages in masks and clownish apparel—from Kiss and Insane Clown Posse to the Residents and GWAR. How is that much different from what has gone on for decades in the squared circle? Fiona McQuarrie, a longtime wrestling fan, dug deep into the sport’s history to unearth three fine instances when wrestling met rock & roll. Who won? You be the referee…
Professional wrestling is as much entertainment as it is sport. Successful wrestlers aren’t just athletic; they also have tons of personality and charisma, can convincingly play a character, and can command the attention of an arena full of fans. Those kinds of performance skills are also very useful for musicians. Given that crossover, and the entrepreneurial nature of the wrestling business, it’s not too much of a surprise that many professional wrestlers have tried their hand at being recording artists. But to be polite, the results often prove the adage of “don’t quit your day job”.
“All I got from “Pencil Neck Geek” was a cheap little check and a lot of publicity,” – Freddie Blassie
Some wrestlers were musicians before they were wrestlers. Hulk Hogan was a semi-professional bass player before starting his career in the squared circle, and manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart was a member of the Gentrys, who had a 1965 hit with “Keep On Dancin’”. Others, such as Chris Jericho, start as wrestlers and then become musicians; Jericho, currently in All Elite Wrestling, has a side gig as the lead singer of metal band Fozzy. It would take a very long time to list all of the records that professional wrestlers have made, but for your enjoyment, or horror, here are three of the most notable.
Brian Maxine – Ribbon of Stainless Steel (1975 LP)
If you came across this album in a record store, your eye might be caught not only by the scenic stock photo on the cover – a freight train travelling through the Canadian Rockies – but also by the list of featured artists: Sandy Denny, Linda Peters, Jerry Donahue, Trevor Lucas, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, and Dave Swarbrick.
“Isn’t that…Fairport Convention?” you might think – and you would be correct. Ribbon of Stainless Steel was actually Maxine’s second collaboration with members of the band; Pegg and Swarbrick also played on Maxine’s first album, King of the Ring, in 1972.
Maxine, who came from a wrestling family – his brother Alfred wrestled under the name “Dr. Death” – was one of the biggest stars of British wrestling in the 1970s. He started his athletic career as a boxer but switched to professional wrestling in the early 1960s. In the late ‘60s, as “Goldbelt Maxine”, he was a regular on the wrestling segment of the Saturday afternoon TV show World of Sport; one observer characterized his flamboyant style as “looking like the fifth member of Slade”. Maxine won multiple titles on the show, at one point holding both the British middleweight and welterweight titles, and also became a star attraction at live wrestling shows throughout the UK.
Brian Maxine pummeling an opponent on TV:
Maxine was also a country music fan, and developed his own skills as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter. It’s unclear how he met the members of Fairport – some sources indicate that they became drinking buddies in a London pub where the band was playing warm-up gigs for its annual Cropredy festival.
King of the Ring looks like a novelty album, with its cover showing Maxine in wrestling gear and a robe and crown, posing next to an acoustic guitar. But its tracks show that he had sophisticated and wide-ranging musical tastes, with covers of songs by Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall, and John Sebastian.
Ribbon of Stainless Steel, which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, apparently had much greater involvement by the members of Fairport, with Swarbrick and Lucas contributing one number (“Pleasure and Pain”, which Fairport recorded on 1973’s Nine). Maxine also included two songs of his own on the album. His talents seem to have impressed Fairport enough that they invited Maxine to perform with them at the 1982 Cropredy event. A video of that concert shows Maxine more than holding his own, in between swigs of beer, on a raucous rendition of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road”.
Fairport Convention and Brian Maxine – Six Days on the Road
Maxine released one more album, I’m Your Man, in 1977, and performed in professional wrestling events as late as 2006. He still occasionally appears at wrestling fan conventions in the UK.
“Classy” Freddie Blassie became a star in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in the 1960s and 1970s with his foul-mouthed tirades against his opponents, and his physical aggression in the ring. Unlike other wrestlers, Blassie was unafraid to actually bite, kick or punch his opponents. However, that combative style took its toll on his body, and by the mid-1970s he was transitioning into playing the character of a manager of other wrestlers. As a self-described “loudmouth”, that role suited him fine.
Musician and wrestling fan Johnny Legend thought that Blassie’s rants would make a great record. He knew that Blassie could perform outside the wrestling ring, having seen him put Dick Van Dyke in an airplane spin on a 1962 episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show.
But, Legend said in Blassie’s autobiography, “wrestlers and promoters were afraid that if they got involved with too many outside things, it would leave the business open to scrutiny. And they didn’t want their secrets getting out.”
It took until 1975 for Legend to persuade Blassie to go into a recording studio. Blassie himself admitted, “I couldn’t keep a beat and never even sang in the shower. These guys had already recorded the music by the time I got into the studio. They handed me the lyrics and just told me to talk through the songs.”
When “Pencil Neck Geek” was released as a single, Legend’s sister took a copy to Blassie fan and radio host Dr. Demento. The good Doctor played the song on his radio show and it became a hit with his listeners. Rhino Records in Los Angeles, which at the time was both a record store and a record label, agreed to stock the record in its shop, and it became such a fast seller that Rhino’s owners licensed it for distribution on the label.
Freddie Blassie – “Pencil Neck Geek”
But despite its underground success, “Pencil Neck Geek” failed to become a mainstream hit. According to Legend, because so much of what Demento played on his show was not available commercially, Demento’s fans taped the show and traded tapes of the music, rather than buying the records. Legend called several major labels, hoping to build on the limited success that “Pencil Neck Geek” had achieved, but was told that they were looking for artists with long-term potential: a category that “Blassie didn’t fit into”.
Those rejections didn’t faze Blassie, because he had absolutely no interest in a career as a recording artist. “All I got from “Pencil Neck Geek” was a cheap little check and a lot of publicity,” he said. He recorded several other tracks which were later released on the 1983 album I Bite The Songs, but that was it for his musical career. Blassie passed away in 2003, but thanks to President Donald Trump’s insults directed at Congressman Adam Schiff, “pencil neck” lives on in popular culture.
World Wrestling Federation Superstars – WrestleMania: The Album (1993 LP)
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the former World Wrestling Federation, has been blamed for a lot of bad things, like glorifying violence and sexism. But something else it can be blamed for is helping to unleash Simon Cowell on the world. WrestleMania: The Album was an early success in the career of the future Mr. Nasty of American Idol, X Factor, and other TV talent shows.
As recounted in Tom Bower’s biography Sweet Revenge, Cowell started in the music business as an A&R man who became notorious for not wanting to go to clubs or shows. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a series of jobs at record companies and management agencies, as he was regularly fired by executives fed up with his lack of productivity and his apparent inability to spot a hit. Among the acts he rejected was Take That, who went on to be the UK’s most successful boy band.
“Something else it can be blamed for is helping to unleash Simon Cowell on the world”
However, Cowell was clever enough to figure out that there was a market for records by well-known personalities who weren’t musicians – that people might buy a record by a favourite performer the same way that they would buy other fan merchandise, like T-shirts or toys. Cowell’s modus operandi was to watch TV and think “How can I turn this into a record?” This approach resulted in him producing several novelty hit singles in the UK by “artists” such as TV puppet Roland Rat.
One day, according to Bower, Cowell saw a TV news item about an upcoming WWF show selling two-thirds of the seats in Wembley Arena show in less than an hour. Cowell contacted WWF chairman Vince McMahon and arranged a meeting with him at WWF headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. Cowell’s employers, Arista Records, were appalled at the idea of an album of music by professional wrestlers, but Cowell retorted, “As long as one of the wrestlers can sing, we can do the rest.”
Cowell traveled to Stamford with producer Pete Waterman, who had become a friend through working on projects such as the Roland Rat record. Greeted at WWF headquarters by “seriously heavy characters exuding menace”, Waterman was shocked when Cowell announced to McMahon and his associates that Waterman would tell them all about the planned album. Waterman managed to explain Cowell’s idea convincingly enough that McMahon gave his immediate approval.
In listening to WrestleMania: The Album, it rapidly becomes apparent that Cowell was optimistic about at least one of the wrestlers being able to sing. None of them could sing. But Waterman was able to craft musical numbers which reflected each wrestler’s persona, and the wrestlers spoke or shouted the lyrics in a style similar to an in-ring promo. So, for example, ladies’ man Bret Hart lamented lost love in “Never Been A Right Time to Say Goodbye” and the menacing Undertaker told his story of being “The Man In Black” (note: not Johnny Cash).
Bret Hart – Never Been A Right Time to Say Goodbye
What’s also interesting about this album is that Waterman collaborated on it with Mike Stock. Waterman, Stock, and Pete Aitken had previously written and produced numerous hits by acts such as Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Bananarama and Rick Astley. Aitken left the partnership in 1991, but if you listen to WrestleMania: The Album for the backing tracks rather than the vocals, there are some wonderful examples of the deliciously frothy electronic pop sound that made Stock, Aitken and Waterman huge in the 1980s.
WrestleMania: The Album tanked in the United States, but it hit #14 in the UK album charts and sold more than a million copies. The single, “Slam Jam”, went to #4. That same year, Cowell also put together a collaboration between Hulk Hogan and the “comedy punk” band Green Jelly, on a cover of Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang”. While Glitter proclaimed himself “really flattered” by the record, it mostly demonstrated that, like his fellow wrestling stars, Hogan bellowed better than he sang. While Jimmy Hart has claimed that the single “was number one for five weeks over there”, the single actually went to #25 in the UK.
Hulk Hogan and Green Jelly –”I’m the Leader of the Gang”
After WrestleMania: The Album, WWE has, perhaps wisely, moved away from trying to make non-singing wrestlers into musicians, and concentrated on producing albums of the professionally-made music that accompanies wrestlers on their way to the ring. And Simon Cowell has kept on being Simon Cowell.