To celebrate today’s official release of Turned Inside Out: The Official Story of Obituary — not to mention the kickoff of the 2022 Decibel Tour featuring Obituary co-headlining with Municipal Waste — Decibel is proud to share the second and final excerpt from the 328-page hardcover book authored by David E. Gehlke (No Celebration: The Official Story of Paradise Lost, Damn the Machine: The Story of Noise Records). The following passage takes readers back to 1992 when, fresh off the breakthrough success of their sophomore album, Cause of Death, Obituary’s were about to release what would become their best-selling album, The End Complete.
Obituary were still holding onto the masters of The End Complete when they decided to bring up their contract situation with Roadrunner. Obituary felt that since Cause of Death sold so well, they reserved the right to renegotiate their contract going into their third album, which, in all likelihood, would outsell its predecessor. (It did.) Well aware that The End Complete was a priority for Roadrunner in 1992, the band—through Debbie Abono—informed label owner Cees Wessels that they would not be turning in the masters for The End Complete unless they could work on royalty and publishing increases.
Roadrunner North American label manager Doug Keogh says a move like Obituary’s was not uncommon for Roadrunner artists. He says Jeff Waters of Annihilator used it for 1990’s Never, Neverland and Slipknot went the same route for 2001’s Iowa. “It wouldn’t have been a big deal to us,” says Keogh. “Withholding masters was a popular power play by artists at the time. That happened to us several times. The Obituary guys were kind-hearted and didn’t have heavy-handed management, so that wouldn’t have been very threatening to us. They would have needed that album to have a timely release more than we did at the time. That being said, Obituary was a productive artist for us, had shown their commitment, and was one of those meat-and-potatoes bands that Roadrunner rightfully valued. They were probably due a contract upgrade based on their track record, and since they weren’t hardball negotiators, it wouldn’t have been difficult for us to make enough concessions so that both parties were happy with the changes.”
Realizing the value of Obituary and understanding their demands, Wessels agreed and promised the band their contract would be updated in time, reflecting the first royalty payments for The End Complete in late 1992. But when Obituary received their royalty statements for The End Complete, they noticed the figures were still the same. According to Peres, “I showed John our statements and said, ‘Look at this shit.’ I circled the figure and said, ‘Now, look at our older albums. See those numbers?’ John went, ‘Yeah, nothing has changed.’ Those numbers were supposed to double.”
The situation wasn’t rectified for more than a year when Obituary were on tour in Europe and Peres asked Wessels to dinner: “I called him beforehand and said, ‘Hey, we need to talk about this.’ He said, ‘Well, yes, I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t know what happened.’ I’m like, ‘Come on, Cees. You know what happened.’”
Peres reminded Wessels that Obituary asked to renegotiate before the release of The End Complete. Wessels charged back: “You signed your original contract. You knew the details.” When the two men sat down for dinner in Amsterdam, Wessels told Peres he was still unsure whether he could agree to increase royalties and publishing. Peres sniped back, “Here’s the deal, Cees: We ain’t writing music ever again. We’re done. I’m sorry. I love you, dude, but this is bullshit.”
Four weeks later, Wessels called Peres. He told the guitarist, “We’re making this right. There’s a large sum of money in the band’s bank account to make up the difference.”
While Obituary have never been fully satisfied with their Roadrunner contract, no one can dispute the amount of time and energy the label put into the band. The press gauntlet for The End Complete was double, possibly triple the size of Cause of Death’s. Peres and Donald Tardy took up the herculean task of handling all album promotion, including hundreds upon hundreds of interviews, to the point where Peres estimates (albeit jokingly) he did “over 5,000.” Roadrunner hosted the pair at their Amsterdam headquarters since it was cheaper to fly them out to Europe instead of racking up thousands of dollars in international phone charges.
Peres and Donald’s return flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport on March 22, 1992, had to be diverted to Philadelphia due to a heavy snowstorm. Lead Roadrunner radio man Mark Abramson was slated to pick the duo up. While waiting for their arrival, he saw another plane “fireball down the runway” and immediately thought Peres and Donald were aboard. Instead, it was a flight bound for Cleveland that tumbled off the runway and into Flushing Bay. Nineteen people died.
“We were coming in and were like, ‘What the hell are we doing landing here?’” says Peres. “It’s snowing, we’re coming down, but we’re 500 feet from the landing strip when all of a sudden, a plane pulled out of the landing strip to take off. We started circling for a bit; then we were taken to Philadelphia to land. That’s when we found out that the plane crashed into a ball of fire on the other runway. We were landing at the same moment it happened. Mark was there to pick us up. This was when you could go to the gates and pick up your friends or family. He was watching that plane blow up when we were supposed to be landing. He thought that was our plane.”
Near-death experiences aside, Abramson recalled a drastically altered landscape for Obituary in the three years since their debut. When he first started to pitch Obituary to college radio, he relied on the extremity of John Tardy’s vocals and their “mysterious” presence due to the silhouetted photos on the back cover of Slowly We Rot. Much of the mystery was still present for Cause of Death, but now the band had an unbeatable set of songs to back it up. For The End Complete, there was an expectation placed upon Obituary that they would deliver something even more significant on their third album.
“We were no longer trying to convince people that death metal is for real,” says Abramson. “Look at where we are at this point: Roadrunner, in the metal world, we’re now the 800-pound gorilla. When you think about when Slowly We Rot came out, you’re talking about Sepultura and still King Diamond and Annihilator on the label. A few years later, with The End Complete, you still have Sepultura, Deicide and Suffocation. To radio, it was more like a, ‘Listen, you better be playing this shit’ kind of thing.”
Roadrunner’s marketing plans were met with a collective shrug by the members of Obituary, especially John, who was always more interested in immediate, in-person fan response instead of charts, projections and spreadsheets. His expectations for Obituary always differed from Roadrunner’s, prompting surprise when The End Complete started generating strong sales figures. The album reached number 16 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart and, to date, has sold nearly 102,000 copies.
“There were a few times where we made the Billboard charts,” says John. “For music this extreme, that was big for us. I don’t think any of us ever expected to sell lots and lots of records. But back then, it was always funny to me how Roadrunner came up with their plans for our records. It was everything to try and hit those numbers for the first week. To this day, I just never cared about it.
“I don’t know why they cared so much about that push,” he continues, “because I was always more interested in what it does after three years when it’s done selling [and] wholesaling, and everything else is done, like promotion and touring. Who cares about the first week? I want to see what happens after that. Does it actually sell itself after a few years? But I know The End Complete sold fairly well, though. It was a good record for us.”
Off the back of The End Complete, Obituary embarked on their most ambitious run of touring to date, starting in Europe in May 1992. Titled Campaign for Musical Destruction, the tour featured co-headliners Obituary and Napalm Death, with Sweden’s Dismember in the opening slot. The tour took place at the height of death metal’s power. Many shows were sold out or close to it, with a mass of sweaty longhairs moshing, headbanging and throwing their bodies around. The tour also cemented the relationship between Napalm and Obituary, with some members plotting a spin-off band at the tour’s conclusion.
When touring activities continued in North America that summer with Agnostic Front, Cannibal Corpse and Malevolent Creation under the Complete Control banner, fans were just as raucous. Donald recalls their July 19, 1992 date at Todd’s in Detroit, Michigan, where things got particularly out of hand. “I’m pretty sure there were skinheads at the show,” he says. “It started getting ugly with them and the stoner metalheads. A fight broke out, and it ended up coming up onstage. The next thing I know, they were beating up our guitar tech, and everyone fell into my drum kit. It was complete mayhem. I think that was the only time that Obituary four songs into a show realized, ‘This is way too dangerous. Someone’s going to die here.’”
Ten days later, the Complete Control tour was reviewed in the New York Times. Written by Jon Pareles, the review is an indicator of how far the extreme metal scene had come, considering the Times’s broad readership. Yet, the review still takes on an elitist bent that was commonplace for mainstream publications covering death metal. Pareles starts by noting that “fear of self-parody doesn’t exist for Obituary.” He then devotes space to the band’s hair, particularly John’s: “And whenever they could, the musicians flopped their long hair, usually straight up and down, though John Tardy, the singer, whirled his in a circle like a combination of a speeded-up shampoo commercial and a circus act.”
The Times review and placement of an Obituary sticker in the 1994 movie Airheads (featuring Adam Sandler, Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi) was the closest the band ever got to the mainstream. Morbid Angel became the first outfit to sign with a major label ahead of the 1993 release of Covenant, and Cannibal Corpse popped up in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (starring Jim Carrey) the following year. None of this registered with Obituary, though. As The End Complete continued to notch high sales numbers, the band continued like it was business as usual.
“We were still some dudes who jammed in a room in Florida,” says Peres. “We were never like, ‘Oh god, okay…what are we going to do going forward?’ We never thought about it. I certainly didn’t. From my perspective, I was thinking, ‘Let’s write some badass songs and make a new album.’ It was always, ‘Just do what we do.’ It was never, ‘People are now expecting something from us after The End Complete.’ For me, it was always about trying to write the heaviest songs I can.”
Order a copy of the hardcover of Turned Inside Out: The Official Story of Obituary right here.