Summer, 1985: Pat Mastelotto, drummer for the rock band Mr. Mister, pulls up to an L.A. stoplight and hears his group’s song Broken Wings wafting from the radio of the car next to him. His reaction: stupefaction. “I thought they had our production cassette, and that they were related to the band somehow,” he recalls. But lo, when he fiddles with his own dial, there the tune is, actually getting airplay. Then the announcer comes on, and brings Mastelotto back to earth. “That was Mr. Mister,” she intones, “playing Broken Arrow.”
Spring, 1986: Times have changed. “It’s gotten to the point,” says Mr. Mister’s lead singer and resident dream-boat, Richard Page, “where my friends call me up and say, ‘You know, I really like your band and I like your song, but God, I am so sick of hearing it!’ ”
To which, Page hastens to add, he always replies, ” ‘Great! Thanks! That’s good!’ ”
Dang straight, it’s good. It’s also part of the reason that Mr. Mister currently holds a unique position in American popular music: They are probably the Most Successful Band That You Know Nothing About. How successful are they? Try this: Their album, Welcome to the Real World, was the No. 1 album in the country for a week in February, at the same time its second single, Kyrie, also sat at the top of the Billboard charts. The first single, Broken Wings, had already been there. How unknown are these guys? Quick: Can you name one member of the band? Can you name their last LP? (It was I Wear the Face, and peaked at No. 170 on the charts in 1984.) Can you name one person any of these guys ever played with? (One answer: guitarist Steve Farris spent a year with Eddie Money.)
Mr. Mister is four Los Angelenos—Page, Mastelotto, Farris and keyboardist Steve George—who until recently made the bulk of their livings as studio musicians. They are surprised by the magnitude of their success but find it difficult to explain how they created the hits that made them suddenly hot. “Broken Wings was written really quickly, like letting a breath out,” says Page, who co-wrote Mr. Mister’s singles with George and a lyricist friend John Lang. “It was just an experience that occurred while I happened to be there; it came through me. Kyrie was the same thing. It just happened.” The title and lyric of the latter come from a Greek phrase in the Catholic Mass, “Kyrie Eleison,” which means “Lord have mercy.” “It’s something I grew up with in church,” says Page. “My father is a choir director and my mother’s the organist.” The song, however, isn’t meant to have Christian overtones, says Page. “It could have been a statement from the Jewish text, or it could have been a Buddhist word. It just happened to be ‘Kyrie,’ and it means ‘Lord have mercy,’ whatever Lord that is. We’re not preaching, or telling anybody how they should live.”
Mr. Mister owes its existence to Andy Hardy, which—in addition to being a famous movie character played by Mickey Rooney in the ’30s and ’40s—was the name of a soul band that George played for as a teenager in Phoenix, where he grew up. Page joined Andy Hardy when the band’s only black member left to become a Jehovah’s Witness. “It was amazing,” Page remembers. “All these white guys doing all-black music, stuff from Kool and the Gang and Parliament Funkadelic. But it was a real funky band.” After leaving Andy Hardy in 1973, Page briefly attended music school in San Diego before reteaming with George in L.A. to start another band, Pages. The group produced three flop LPs and instilled in Page a pragmatic outlook toward record making. “I relate albums to children,” he says. “You put as much into them as you can, and try to make them stand up on their own, to make them go out and make you proud. Sometimes they fall down or don’t live up to your expectations. You just can’t predetermine what’s going to happen.”
Between bands, Page and George found safe professional havens as L.A. sidemen, working for such disparate artists as Amy Grant and Mötley Crüe. “It was terrific money and a great opportunity,” says Page. “We got a lot of experience from that.” Not all of the experience was musical. “I was right in the middle of the era when you weren’t really a good musician unless you hung out and partied and did coke,” says Page, whom a recent L.A. Times article described as “one of the heartiest partiers” of the time. “Especially in L.A., being a studio musician meant you hung out after a gig and got high. I think that’s all going away now. I notice a lot of new bands, guys 10 years younger than myself, who haven’t even considered drugs.”
Page, who claims he has given up drugs, says that Mr. Mister’s music is about growing up. The current band formed in 1982 when Page and George teamed up yet again and hired Mastelotto and Farris, both veterans of the L.A. music scene. Connections left over from their Pages days got them a contract, but the first album went no-where. “Our frame of mind then was to do all the right things, use the formulas,” says Farris. “The calculated songs you think are going to be hits sometimes are the ones that aren’t.” The second LP, says Page, came “more from the gut” and from the band members’ sense of impending adulthood. “Welcome to the Real World is about responsibility, about becoming a functioning adult and waking up. That real immature kind of partying stuff is a trap, and I got caught in it. I worked my way out of it, that’s all.”
Surprising as it may seem in a rock band, their claims of adulthood have at least a slight ring of truth. Farris, at 28, is the only member of the band who is under 30; Mastelotto and George are both 30, and Page is 32. Mastelotto, Page and George are married, for an average of six years each, and have four children and step-children among them (with a new Page due this summer). Farris, the band’s only bachelor, relishes “being a member of a group, not just working for a solo artist,” but the others talk about success in family terms. “I’m finally moving out of the apartment I’ve been in for 11 years,” says George, who, like the rest of the Misters, lives in the L.A. area. “It’s exciting to finally have the money to buy a house and to support my family comfortably.” Says Page, “If my wife, Linda, had walked in after all this success, I don’t know whether I’d feel the same closeness. But she was there when there was no money, when she had to pay for gas so I could visit her in Idyll-wild [north of L.A.]. That makes the relationship special.”
As to how long Mr. Mister’s special relationship will hold up, that depends on whom you talk to. There’s a new LP due in the fall and a subsequent U.S. tour as headliners (their biggest live exposure so far has been opening for Tina Turner). But ask them where they’ll be in 10 years, and the lack of a unified vision is clear.
“I see myself in a lounge chair with a Corona in my hand,” says Page.
“If we can get 10 years out of this thing, it would be great,” says George (to hoots of laughter from his cohorts).
“Ten years?” says Mastelotto. “How about five?”
“Actually,” says Farris, “I was looking at June.”