An oral history, as told to Bud Scoppa

Flash back to early 1973, as the rock gods are about to bring together a pair of mensches, one of whom happens to bear that very surname, who will thereafter be joined at the hip as they conduct a mind-blowingly colorful, eventful and wildly prosperous career in management, flying by the seats of their Levi’s on a roller-coaster ride through rock history. As they tell it, Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch’s story is equal parts Zelig and This Is Spinal Tap, as they stumble upon one great band after another, while nimbly reinventing themselves whenever the winds of change threaten to blow them off the rails into irrelevance. Think of what follows as Q Prime’s Book of Genesis.


Cliff Burnstein: My scholarship was running out for graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania; I was studying demography, which is population studies. I didn’t want to finish my thesis and didn’t know what to do, so I thought, what about the music business? I cleverly sent out resumes to like 28 different companies; I got rejection letters from three or four of them and no response from the rest, except for an invitation to interview at Mercury Records in Chicago. I shot into Chicago, did the interview and got hired. It wasn’t even clear to me until shortly after that the president of the company, Irwin Steinberg, the guy who hired me, is from Highland Park, Ill., which is also my hometown, and one of his sons was going to University of Pennsylvania, so I knew him a little bit. I believe that somebody in the personnel department put those things together, and that’s probably how I got hired.

Walrus was a tip sheet for FM radio that came out every two weeks, and George Meyer, the guy who ran it, had a list of reporters who would give him their hottest records and adds. Because I was doing album promotion, I made it my job to call every station I could on that list, and one of the them was WBRS, the Brandeis University station, and the program director was listed as Peter Mensch. I made a cold call to Peter, and when he called me back, we started a conversation about the records we liked and the records I was working—Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Thin Lizzy, 10cc, Greenslade, the New York Dolls or whatever the fuck it was. Then the conversation wandered to “What else do you like?” Eventually, Peter said, “The next time you’re in Boston, why don’t you come hang out at the station? I have a shift on Friday nights.” A few months later, there was one of those college radio conferences in Boston, and I figured it was great excuse to go to Boston, go up to Brandeis in Waltham and hang out while he’s doing his radio show. I got there at 6:30, before Peter’s 7-11 shift, and he told me to pull out some records I wanted to hear. So I go through the vinyl racks, and it’s like, “Oh here’s Spooky Tooth, The Move, Procol Harum,” and Peter’s going, “I love these records!” That’s when we found out we have similar tastes. That’s the bottom line of our relationship.


Cliff: We kept in touch, and a year later, Peter told me he was gonna get his master’s at the University of Chicago.

Peter Mensch: Because I couldn’t get a job in the music business—no one would hire me. You know the story.

Cliff: David Krebs, who was co-managing the New York Dolls with Marty Thau, would come to Chicago to talk to people about what they were going to do for the Dolls, and me, the young, naive guy at the label, was the only guy who gave a shit. I shouldn’t say I was the only guy, but I was the most enthusiastic, for sure. So Krebs would spend a lot of time in my office because I was very hospitable. I liked David because he could talk your ear off and had all these ideas. It was fun talking to him, and that’s how I got to know David Krebs.

Around that time, the first Rush album got submitted to Mercury. The way it was portrayed to us, we had to decide by the end of business that day because it was an import. The album was being imported by Moon Records in Canada, and it was blowing up in Cleveland—that’s what they said. When they gave me the record in the morning, I called WMMS, who confirmed that in fact the record was hot. The record comes in, I put it on and it’s like, wow this is fuckin’ great—I love this. By the end of the day, I’d talked Irwin Steinberg into signing Rush. That was in June of ’74, and lo and behold, Rush started becoming somewhat successful in those early days. So I had something I could actually claim, even though I didn’t have an A&R credit on the record.


Cliff: You know how cheap they were at Mercury in those days. My incentive system was, I got $50 if an album hit the Billboard Top 200, and if it hit the Top 10, I got another $100. Believe me, if I had an album that was bubbling under at #205, like Sensational Alex Harvey Band, I was all over those chart guys just to fucking get it into the Top 200 for even one week so I could make an extra $50. So Peter’s now in Chicago, I’m continuing to do my promo, then punk and new wave are taking off. It’s all about CBGB’s now, and I’m getting all these independent records in, I’m going over to Wax Trax! and buying all these indie singles, and all the magazines I read are celebrating these records. So I talked Mercury into letting me have a little punk label, which we called Blank. Peter was finishing up his master’s degree, and I said, “I need you in New York because that’s where the fucking action is.” Peter goes back to New York and starts working out of the office on 57th St. as the general manager of Blank Records.

Peter: And sole employee. I go to CBGB’s, and by this time, by ’77, it had been picked pretty clean—anybody who was anybody had already been signed.

Cliff: We had one tour, the Blank Tour, with our two bands, Pere Ubu and Suicide Commandos. Peter comes to me after he’s been in there for a few months, and we haven’t signed anything new, and tells me he’s met with David Krebs about going out as a tour accountant for Aerosmith. He says, “What should I do? I know nothing about touring and nothing about accounting.” My answer to that was, “Perfect! You’re the perfect guy for the job, then.”


Peter: “Cliff had recommended me to Krebs, and I think Cliff was also worried about having to fire me, because it was clear that the good people at Mercury Records who had funded this label didn’t have an instant smash like with The Sex Pistols or The Clash with Pere Ubu or the Suicide Commandos, and the end of days was going to come for Blank Records. So Cliff pawned me off on Krebs in April of ’78, and I went to work for Aerosmith on the Draw the Line Tour. I showed up someplace in the Carolinas, where I was introduced to Steven Tyler, and he thought it was hysterical that he had a mensch as his tour accountant. So there I was on tour, and our opening act was AC/DC, an act that David had wanted to manage years before but had failed miserably. They showed up around early July in Texas with Aerosmith, and I spent a great amount of time hanging out with them because the guys from Aerosmith weren’t fun to hang out with in ’78. It was the end of Aerosmith 1—the original band was fragmenting, badly, to the point where they started replacing members; that was the death of Aerosmith until the Geffen era. AC/DC was on the tour all summer long, and they were thrilled that anyone was paying attention to them, because they weren’t selling many records; apparently, they were bigger in England. When the Aerosmith tour ended around March ’79, I went into the Leber-Krebs office, because that was part of the deal I had made with David. I didn’t just want to be a roadie because I was not the world’s best tour accountant by any means. But it was a constructive experience. They were a big band even then, and they were doing big-band business. I was meeting all the legends of rock, like Bill Graham.


Cliff: Peter’s in the New York office of Leber-Krebs, and I’ve totally switched from promotion to A&R. I was friendly with the guys in Triumph, another Canadian power trio. They were on RCA, and they invited me down to the show at the Aragon, so I went to the show and I went backstage afterwards. There was one really old guy in the room, and I asked the bass player, “Who is that guy? Is he one of the bandmembers’ grandfathers?” They told me he was the sales guy from RCA, so I went up, introduced myself and said, “You’ve got one of my favorite bands on your roster—the Scorpions; they had put out six or five albums on RCA. He said, “Who are they?” I realized then that RCA probably wasn’t doing a very good job on the Scorpions. Mercury was part of PolyGram, at one of these international meetings, and I told my Scorpions story to our guy from Germany, and he told me they were off RCA and they were with EMI for the rest of the world and they had this new album called Lovedrive, which Capitol had passed on in America. Better yet, Michael Schenker, who’d started the Scorpions before going to UFO, was back with the band; it was early ’79.

I got the album and flew to Germany for one night and saw this amazing show with Michael Schenker. As it turned out, that show in Bremen was the only time Michael Schenker was on stage with the Scorpions. I got introduced to them, and I said I wanted to sign them to Mercury in the States and put out Lovedrive, which I thought was an exceptional album. That led to me talking to their lawyer and Mercury signing them for North America. I’m not going to say who the lawyer was, but the lawyer told me they had no management over here.

Peter: Part of the deal was the act they admired the most in America was Ted Nugent, and they had to have his manager. They also had to be booked by DMA, an agency out of Detroit that booked Ted Nugent. And Nugent was repped by Leber-Krebs at the time.

Cliff: I tell the lawyer I’ve got a great young guy who could manage the Scorpions, and he works out of the Leber-Krebs office. So the lawyer takes a meeting with Peter.

To be continued...