The antihero of Netflix’s biggest show in 2021 loves ’80s hard-rock.
Over three seasons on “Cobra Kai,” blond badass Johnny Lawrence, deftly portrayed by actor William Zabka, has reveled to and repped bands like Ratt, Guns N’ Roses, Poison and W.A.S.P.
Zabka has also given nods to a band a little less famous than those abovementioned Sunset Strip rockers. A band whose music and songs hold up well. And whose connection with Zabka runs deep.
That band is Zebra, a Led Zeppelin inspired trio founded in New Orleans that moved to Long Island, N.Y. and released a hit 1983 debut album on Atlanta Records. Zebra’s signature songs include the ethereal “Who’s Behind the Door?” and searing “Tell Me What You Want.” Zebra’s following releases didn’t commercially connect quite like the debut. But 1984 sophomore studio disc “No Tellin’ Lies” balances metallic riffs (as on “Wait Until the Summer’s Gone”) and tie-dyed prog (including top 20 rock single “Bears”). And Zebra has always thrived onstage, as heard on 1990 release “Zebra Live.”
“Cobra Kai,” of course, is the small-screen sequel of mid ’80s film franchise “Karate Kid.” The show began as a YouTube Original in 2018 before zooming to zeitgeist in 2020 on Netflix.
During episode eight of “Cobra Kai” season two, Zabka is seen wearing a Zebra raglan tee. And in a hilarious video announcing season three’s Jan. 1 release date, Zabka, in character as Lawrence, concludes the show’s Netflix summary he’s typed up with a flourish: “Zebra rocks!”
Zabka’s Zebra fandom began decades earlier. In 2018 for Sports Illustrated, Sabaka recalled his audition on the Columbia Pictures lot for the original 1984 “Karate Kid” film. “I didn’t want to sit in the waiting room,” Zabka said, “so I went in my dad’s 1970 red Volvo station wagon and cranked some Zebra until they called me in.”
With its clever premise, classic characters and entertaining (and yes, sometimes bonkers) arcs, “Cobra Kai” has given pandemic-frustrated viewers welcome escapist kicks. Zebra’s music has yet to be featured on the show. Still, Zabka’s interest in a band that isn’t an obvious ’80s touchstone (even if Zebra’s self-titled debut LP went gold), makes now the perfect time to revisit Zebra’s music and backstory. Maybe not all the 74 million households worldwide who’ve watched “Cobra Kai” on Netflix now, like Zabka, crank some Zebra. But bet your dojo’s headband some do.
To this day, Zebra still features the same lineup it always has: Singer/guitarist Randy Jackson, bassist/keyboardist Felix Hanemann and drummer Guy Gelso. On a recent afternoon, I connected with Jackson, who was at his Saugerties, N.Y. home, for an extensive phone interview. Edited excerpts are below.
Randy, have you seen the “Cobra Kai” season three promo yet where the show’s star, William Zabka, has typed out “Zebra rocks!”?
Yeah, I’ve seen that. I’ve had people forward me that – that was very cool.
Have you guys in Zebra ever met Zabka? Do you have any connection to him?
Yeah, I’ve never met him. The only connection we have is through fans of mine, who have pointed out to me that it was on the show. And I guess it started a couple years ago when the show was only on YouTube.
I did hear the story of him listening to Zebra in the parking lot for his audition. I’ve had people suggest to me that we get in touch with him and stuff like that, and I said, “Listen, you know, it’s great that he’s a fan and everything, but let him do his thing.” And it’s incredible how successful this show has become.
I think William Zabka is originally from New York. I wonder if he discovered Zebra after the band moved from New Orleans to Long Island and was playing rock clubs around New York.
I guess it’s possible. I checked out his Wikipedia page, and he’s 55 years old. So he could have come to the clubs, you know, back when we were doing the clubs in the ’70s, and snuck in. There’s several people that I was unaware of that had come to the clubs to see us, that later became very successful at what they did.
How has getting a little exposure via a big show like “Cobra Kai” impacted Zebra? Have you noticed an increase in awareness or new fans? Or maybe some old fans reconnecting?
You know, the fans in general, are always excited when they see Zebra pop up anywhere. We’ve popped up in cartoons on Cartoon Network and just various places all around. But this one I think is the biggest one that we’ve come across. I remember a couple years ago, we had one of the guys who was one of the lead artists on “The Simpsons,” we found out he was a huge superfan and he came to a meet and greet that we did and gave us all, you know, signed versions of the Simpsons with them wearing Zebra T-shirts and stuff.
My favorite bands are the ones are still the ones that I was listening to in high school. I’m a bit older, I’m 65 now, so for me it was Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and all that kind of stuff. And I think that’s got to be the case with William, is that he probably was in high school when the band came out, and when the records were out and became a fan.
The first Zebra album did really well. It cracked the top 30 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and at one point was selling like 75,000 records a week or something like that?
Well, it was the fastest selling debut record in the history of Atlantic Records. And I think it still is. Some people think it means it’s the fastest selling record – now that’s not that’s not what it is. It is the fastest selling record by new artists where everybody was new. So for instance, when Led Zeppelin came out, Jimmy Page had already been on records. So you couldn’t even consider that. But nobody in Zebra had ever been on or ever released a record. And what it really kind of said to me was that maybe we were the biggest bar band of our time, because all these people were waiting for the first Zebra record. We such a huge live following that we didn’t even need any airplay. I mean, we put the record out and it just sold.
1983 was a hell of a year for rock albums. “Pyromania,” “Shout at the Devil,” “Metal Health,” “Bark at the Moon,” “Kill ‘Em All,” among others. Looking back, are you amazed that among all those heavy hitters, Zebra was still able to breakthrough?
We’re certainly grateful that the music has lasted this long, and that the fans still want to hear it. The fans have been loyal, although we don’t have the kind of following that a lot of these other bands you mentioned do. The fans that we do have stuck with us the whole time. We didn’t just kind of fade out. And it might have something to do with the influences that we had over the years. When we were doing covers, my rule of thumb was to do songs that had already been around for a while, and that had already stood the test of time.
But because of that, I think that the writing kind of lent itself in that direction. I’m just guessing. I wrote most of the songs, but I think there was something about it where … I certainly wouldn’t have thought that 45 years later, we’d still be relevant. I was hoping like, maybe 10 years in the future that the songs would still be valid, and people would still be coming to see us.
Speaking of songs, I’d like to ask you about a couple of Zebra’s signature tracks.
What inspired the song “Who’s Behind the Door?” from Zebra’s self-titled debut album? And where were you when you wrote that song?
Most of the songs that I write, it’s got to be about the music for me first and the melody, and then the lyrics are second. Because in my, in my mind, unless I like the way the song sounds, I’m not going to be drawn to it. Especially as a kid, I had to really like the music. The lyrics came kind of second. But if you had great lyrics with a great song, it made the song like 10 times as good.
For “Who’s Behind the Door?” I’d have to say “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the closest I’ve come to a direct influence on the lyrics to that song. It’s still my favorite sci-fi movie of all time. And I think the reason for it is that, unlike a lot of other sci-fi, space alien movies, you don’t ever see the alien. The alien intelligence is invisible. And it’s all in your interpretation. And I thought that was brilliant.
And “Who’s Behind the Door?” is a song about questioning why we’re here and that really, how limited we are in finding definitive answers. The answers to these questions really have to be based on faith. Science can only bring you so far. And I think that was really a big, heavy theme. That movie really, really struck me.
And where was I when (that song) all came together? I was at my grandparents’ farm in Texas. They had a little farm town called Point, Texas, which is about 70 miles out of Dallas. And so I had a really relaxed, nice summer evening that I got out in their backyard and wrote the song.
Also from the debut Zebra LP, the opening track was “Tell Me What You Want.” Got a cool story about making that one?
It was one of the fastest songs I ever wrote. We had been playing the clubs in New York at that time for about a year and a half, and we were doing pretty well. And after the gigs, I’d usually come back to the apartment where I lived, be hanging out, maybe have some friends with me. And I think that was the case this night – or this morning, actually, because we used to play till like four in the morning.
And the song just came to me like in an instant, the verse. Not so much the complete lyric, but the chorus line, “tell me what you want,” that was there and all I had to do was just fill in the blanks. I had the verse and the chorus written within five minutes. It was just a matter of arranging it after that. And then I wrote the bridge, the F to the D, a little later on, figuring out how the solo was going to go.
You recorded the first two Zebra records with producer Jack Douglas, who many fans know from his work on the early Aerosmith records. What was cool about recording with Jack Douglas?
Besides being a producer, he had started off as an engineer and he’s a musician, too – he played in bands. So he was kind of coming from the same place that I was. I’ve always been a big tech head, and obviously playing music and wanting to do something like that, be a producer, but I certainly hadn’t engineered up until that point.
And so, for me, it was not only getting my record produced by Jack Douglas, but a learning experience that you couldn’t buy. Besides doing the Aerosmith records, I was just floored with what he had done with “Double Fantasy,” the John Lennon record. The sound it was just incredible. And that was what sold me on asking him to do the record first, and we were just really pleasantly pleased that he agreed to do it.
On the other hand, in hindsight, I think I had maybe not enough empathy at the time to realize that maybe what he was going through at the time, was going to really affect the outcome of what we were doing. And what he was going through, obviously, he had lost one of his best friends, John Lennon. It had only been like a year and a half which, in the big scheme of things, is like nothing with something that tragic.
And so I think that it had to have affected him, in ways that we’ll never know. He didn’t bring it into the sessions with him. He wasn’t depressed or anything like that – we really had good times, he’s a funny, funny guy. And the stories are just endless. And I keep I still keep in touch with him. I had him produce a band that I found, some young kids here on Long Island, and he did a phenomenal job with it.
What guitars did you use to record the first two Zebra records?
I had a Les Paul and I was using a B.C. Rich Bitch.
And were the amps Marshalls?
Marshall (JCM) 800s And yeah, that was that was pretty much it. There was a Marshall 800 at Atlantic Records that had a really great sound. I used that for most of the first record.
On “Zebra Live” your band did a scorching cover of Led Zeppelin’s song “The Ocean.” Zebra mixed in other things too, some Yes and Moody Blues, but your band definitely embraced a Zep-like sound. Since you were also on Atlantic, the same label as Zeppelin, did you ever run into the surviving members: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant or John Paul Jones?
I never actually met them in any way, shape or form. But before there was Zebra, the bass player, Felix, and myself were in a band that Felix had put together called Shepherd’s Bush. Did all originals. They were all Felix’s songs.
Felix at the time worked down at a studio in New Orleans called Jazz City Studios. And it was owned by a guy named Cosimo Matassa (also known for recording legendary hits by Little Richard, Fats Domino, etc.). And so instead of paying Felix money, it was easier for Cosimo if we just took it out in recording time, so we would go in the studio and record demos. We were down there quite a bit.
And then one day, we heard that they were going to have a party for Led Zeppelin in the studio, because evidently, Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records, and Cosimo had been partners together in a record company, or maybe it was even Atlantic Records back in the very, very beginning.
And so we were like, “Can we come to this party? I mean, I think I was like 17-years-old. And Cosimo being as cool as he was, he could have just said flat out, “You can’t do it.” But he said, “Listen, I can’t get you into the party. They’re not allowing anybody in. They’re going to have two places where the security are going to check IDs. You’re going to go in once and then they’re going to check your ID to see if you’re on the list and then they check your ID again before you get in the elevator.” So he says, “But there is a utility room that is past both of those security points. But you guys would have to get in here at four o’clock in the morning the day of the party.”
Well, sure enough, we did it. We went in there, we had our bell bottom pants, our platform shoes, all ready to go. We sat in that room from 4 a.m. until about 8:30 that night until the party had gotten pretty good. And then we were all decked out, walked out.
And there we were in the Led Zeppelin party, which was just one of the craziest, craziest parties I’ve ever seen. It was a celebration of, I guess, (the album) “Led Zeppelin IV” being so huge. They had just released (the fifth Zeppelin album) “Houses of the Holy, and they were in town for a show and they had the party while there.
And it was a real eye opener to what was the state of rock & roll partying was back then. They had (New Orleans R&B artist) Professor Longhair performing. (Funk bands) The Meters the Neville Brothers were performing. I smoked a joint with Robert Plant in a small group of people. But that was as close as I got to meeting them. I never talked to them.
And then years later, you know, after we got our deal with Atlantic, Robert Plant needed to get another guitarist, and my name came up and they were flying me over to England, and I was going be the guitarist for Robert Plant. That’s like in 1989, 1990. And at the last minute, they decided to give their guitar player one more chance. And I was already packed. My foot was outside the door. [Laughs]
Plant had returned to more of a hard-rock sound around that time.
Yeah. And so I’ve never had any direct contact with them and never really tried. Although I’ve had a lot of managers who had a lot to do with Led Zeppelin. We were managed by a guy named Phil Basile in Long Island when we first came up. He had actually brought Led Zeppelin to the United States, and he was the promoter of the show where they filmed (1976 concert film) “The Song Remains the Same” at Madison Square Garden. So there was always a big connection between Led Zeppelin and Zebra.
The only person in Led Zeppelin that ever saw Zebra live, believe it or not, as far as I know, was John Bonham. Their attorney brought him out to a Zebra show in Long Island. And a guy that was managing us then, it wasn’t Phil Basile, it was a different guy who got (Zeppelin’s) attorney, Steve Weiss, to bring John Bonham out to see the band.
We were kids and our manager says, “Just don’t play any Led Zeppelin.” Of course, we didn’t listen to that. We played some Zeppelin stuff, but we didn’t know when (Bonham) was there. So it could have been a mistake, probably was. You live and you learn.
Do you remember the name of that club where Bonham came to see a Zebra show?
Yeah it was at the Mad Hatter of Stony Brook.
Do you remember what was the first song you mastered on guitar? The rhythm parts, the solo, everything.
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”Allman Brothers.
There are many singers who’ve emulated Robert Plant and many guitarists who do the Jimmy Page thing. But you’re the first musician I can recall who sounded like if Plant and Page were the same person. There’s a talented young band these days called Greta Van Fleet that has a lot of fans but is also frequently criticized for sounding like Led Zeppelin. As someone who hasn’t shied away from a Zeppelin influence, what’s your advice for Greta Van Fleet?
Keep doing what you’re doing. The funny thing about Greta Van Fleet is that I heard of them for a while before they got signed. People were sending me their YouTube videos and stuff like that. And then once they were signed and their first record come out and were selling out all the venues they were doing, I found out that the guy that signed us to Atlantic Records had signed them. His name is Jason Flom.
We were the first band that Jason ever signed. Jason and I hung out, I think it was like, this past summer or the summer before, I hadn’t seen him in a while and we were catching up. And he says to me, “I started off with a Zeppelin band and I ended up with a Zeppelin band.” [Laughs] But listen, music really should be about what you enjoy, and not trying to belittle somebody else for whether they like something or not.
Here’s another fascinating aspect of your career: You played guitar on the 1989 Jefferson Airplane reunion tour, with Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kanter, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy. Got a good story from that? Because there are some big personalities in there.
They were all sweethearts. We had a great time together. We were about halfway through the tour and were doing a concert in San Francisco in their hometown, outdoors in a park. Jefferson Airplane and they had a couple of guys from the Grateful Dead who were opening up, doing like an acoustic show.
But there was 120,000 people. It was a free concert. And I’d never played in front of this many people before. And Paul Kanter is standing by the side of the stage, he’s enjoying this, you know. And there’s a couple of police officers, and he’s smoking a joint, and the officers are talking to each other, and they’re just their security but they’re little irritated that he’s just blowing the smoke wherever.
They walk over to him and say, “Listen, Mr. Kanter, we understand, you smoke pot and everything, but it’s kind of embarrassing for us to have to be standing here, with all your fans watching you smoke pot, right in front of us. Would you mind at least going somewhere else to do it or putting it out?” And Kantner just looks right at them, takes a big puff, and then says, “Write me a ticket.”
That’s awesome. As far as bands go, why has Zebra been able to have the same lineup all these years? That’s hard for any long-running band, let along a trio. ZZ Top’s the only other I can think of.
I think we have the same philosophy. We had the same taste in music. We weren’t so far apart politically. But you know, we always got along in that way.
We almost broke up after five years, back around ’79, something like that, but we got past that point. If you get past that five year point, it’s kind of like somebody who wants to get married and they think they’re going to change the other person if they get married. Well, you realize that that’s not going to happen. So you accept what everybody’s contributing and don’t expect any more, and if more comes then great.
I think that’s something that a lot of bands just don’t do. They’re expecting maybe too much. And I also think that we also had a good handle on what the fans enjoyed about Zebra, which is what the fans enjoy about all the bands that they grew up with. They love the fact that it’s the same group that they saw. It’s the nostalgia part of it. So we’ve always kept that in mind and just stuck to what we’ve always done.
You have a new signature model 12-string acoustic guitar made by Michael Kelly Guitars. Twelve-string guitar has been a part of many Zebra songs, going all the way back to the debut album and songs like “Who’s Behind the Door.” What does playing 12-string bring differently out of you as a guitarist?
It’s a bigger sound. And I’ve always just gravitated towards the 12-string I think because it inspires me more, especially because I use a lot of open tunings. The octave strings (on 12 string) just give a resonance and a ringing you just can’t get from a six-string guitar.
Lately, you’ve been live streaming solo acoustic shows on Facebook.
Yeah, pretty much on a daily basis. I usually play at 3:30 eastern time, and I try to do as much of a variety of songs as I can, that are influences from when I was younger. Zebra never did any Allman Brothers, but I was a huge Allman Brothers fan so I throw some Allman Brothers in there. I do some Jimi Hendrix. I play Al Green. Elton John, David Bowie, Moody Blues, a lot of Beatles. Led Zeppelin, of course, Rush. I play “Drive” by The Cars, that’s the closest I come to doing a song by a contemporary from our era. And I do all the Zebra stuff.
What’s next for Zebra?
Well, with COVID and everybody having to be locked in, we’ve had a lot of time to go over material that we’ve been messing with for year. And so we started to work on a new Zebra record. The first track is in the process of being done right now.
And we’ve got stuff from the vault – a bunch of stuff that that we’d like to release. We’re going to do a rerelease of the first album on vinyl with another disc included that’s going to have demos and just a lot of fun stuff for people to check out. And a lot of artwork from the past, especially for the fans that were with us before the first record came out.
I read you got the band name Zebra from hanging out at (New Orleans bar) The Boot. The story goes you, Felix and Guy were drinking there and saw on the wall an image of a lady riding a zebra. Is that really where the name came from?
Yes, absolutely. And we had gone there to meet specifically to come up with a name for the band, so when we met we each had a piece of paper. I had like 50 names that I had come up with, Felix and Guy had probably an equal amount and we couldn’t agree on any of these names.
And the whole time we’re sitting there, there’s this decoupage of the Vogue magazine cover from 1926 of the woman riding the zebra. We drank a lot of beer. And as we were getting up, I looked up I said, “Man, zebra … Zebra!” And I’ll never forget it, everybody was just like, “Zebra!” and that was it.
(Info/updates about Zebra available via the band’s website, thedoor.com.)
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