They're Playing My Song

Matthew Wilder - "Break My Stride"

by Bruce Pollock

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They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Matthew Wilder.

"Break My Stride"

Artist: Matthew Wilder
Writers: Greg Prestopino/Matthew Wilder
Label: Private I
Year: 1983
Chart Position: #5 US, #4 UK
Matthew Wilder, who runs Ellen DeGeneres' record label, Eleveneleven, is not your typical 'One Hit Wonder.' The artist and writer of the Top 5 hit "Break My Stride" in 1983 is a music industry lifer, who signed his first record deal in 1972. After "Break My Stride" faded, he went back to his prior career as a staff songwriter, working for David Geffen and then Jimmy Iovine. In 1994, he produced a couple of Jimmy Cliff songs for the film The Air Up There, which came to the attention of the A&R man on the project, Tony Ferguson, who had signed the group No Doubt to the label. "Tony and I hit it off," said Wilder. "As he's sitting in the studio he actually said to me, "Have you ever produced a band before?" I said, "No." He said, "Would you like to?" I said "Sure. What you got?" The project was No Doubt's third album, Tragic Kingdom, which had already run through several producers. "By the time I came on board," said Wilder, "we were locked and loaded and there was no turning back."

After the success of that album Wilder was "all over the map. I wrote a musical based on a novel by Anne Rice. We showcased it in Canada and it was a miserable failure. But there were Disney scouts up there that saw the workshop and asked me to come in and talk to Disney, who at the time was, I guess, coming up against some competition across the street from Dreamworks and was looking to expand their staff of writers. I got lucky. I wound up landing the gig writing the score to Milan." For which he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1998.

And yet, according to Wilder, "'Stride'" is really the touchstone for how most people know me and use that as the presumed starting point in my career. But I had a record deal when I was 19 years old." Nevertheless, he was happy to talk about the saga of "Break My Stride."
Matthew Wilder:
I was one of two artists from this production company in LA that Clive Davis signed to Arista Records in 1981 or '82. Clive set up a very competitive environment between the other artist and myself where he told us, one artist is going to get the album deal and one artist is going to get the singles deal. So I drew the short straw where he felt that I needed to prove myself on the basis of singles. So it was a very long, arduous journey. I think they released one single, called "Work So Hard," which was a Steely Dan-esque kind of a thing. I mean, stylistically I was casting my pole in every conceivable pond of what was going on in pop music at that point. Clive even had me record a song he found for me, three times with three different producers. But he wasn't getting the results he wanted and I wasn't getting results I wanted. I was in the circular bin, so to speak. I was not making any headway. There was no glory in being signed to a label, because there was no revenue stream whatsoever. So this was just another hiccup for me in a long journey of hiccups. At that time I really didn't have two nickels to rub together. I was signed to Seals & Crofts publishing company, I believe. There were all these ancillary things that were happening in my life, which also added up to a big donut. So, in the 11th hour of my relationship with Clive and the label, the production company and I went in on the graveyard shift to Spencer Proffer's studio on Melrose. Spencer Proffer had discovered Quiet Riot. So we went in in the wee hours of the morning and recorded "Break My Stride" on our own dime.

My relationship with Clive Davis was precisely the impetus for my writing the song. There are lyrics in there that are indirectly referring to the circumstances that were governing my life at that point. And so we went in and we had all our buddies from our own little Wrecking Crew come in and contribute. And there was a party at a friend's house, and at the end of the record we asked everybody to come in and sing on the back end of the record, hence the rather sizable sound. I mean, it felt sizable at the time. When I go back and listen to the record now, it sounds like you could put in on the head of a pin.

So now we're around Christmas, 1982. I had submitted several songs as sort of my last ditch effort to win people over at the label. And not only did I not receive any feedback, I had to get on the phone and call over to the label to say, "What's going on?" The head of A&R happened to take the call. He said, "Clive didn't get back to you?" And I said, "No, I did not receive any word from him." So I heard him scrambling across his desk to find the cassette of tunes. Clive was notorious for writing notes, and all those notes would always accompany the cassette, or actually be attached to the cassette. So I hear him reading Clive's note to me, and he mentions every tune but "Break My Stride." I said, "What about 'Break My Stride'?" And he reads Clive's note that says, "Interesting song, but not a hit." When I heard that, I said, "Listen, I've been at this label for two years, and if you guys can't hear this, there's nothing I can do for you anymore. I think you should let me go." I don't even think I got to the G in "go" before the phone was ringing from the attorney for the label after I hung up with the A&R guy, saying, "I understand you want to leave the label." I said, "No, I don't want to leave the label. I want you to release my material, I want to put it out there." And then, for all intents and purposes he told me, "Look, I come in at the beginning and at the end of relationships with artists at the label. Yours happens to be at the end. And you and I have never spoken before, and this is a little awkward, but we're going to let you go."

Because they hadn't paid for any of the new songs, I was able to walk away with the masters, including "Break My Stride," which we shopped for the next six months. I wasn't the head of the sphere of that particular aspect of my career. I had people who were doing that for me while I continued writing. I do know my then manager took the song to Warner Brothers, but there were political things standing in the way of them signing me. Then I had this prospect with a new subsidiary of Epic called Private I Records, run by arguably the most powerful man in radio at the time, Joe Isgro. I had amassed a new body of work that one of the A&R guys at Joe's label heard, and they decided to go ahead and do an album.
Joseph Isgro, the owner of Wilder's label Private I Records, spent much of the '80s and '90s embroiled in charges of payola and racketeering. Record companies have always found creative ways to encourage radio stations to play their material, often by funneling cash and other goodies through a third party. Payola is very hard to prove, and charges against Isgro were dropped in 1996. In 2000, he was indicted on extortion and loan sharking charges, with the government claiming Isgro was an associate of the Gambino crime family.
"Break My Stride" was released before the album and was being promoted at radio. I remember there was some back room drama with the charts and Joe's ability to do what he does, or did - some of which he wound up in jail for. It's not like I'm making public something that has not been written about before. There's a book called Hit Man which basically is a timeline of my life. I was in the eye of all of that storm that was culminating at that point in time. So, through a lot of fancy footwork at radio, Joe was able to create the illusion that "Stride" was really blowing up on the charts, even at R&B radio. And eventually the tune did seep into the culture and become a legitimate crowd pleaser, and that's when it went Top 40 and then Top 5.

Now the oddity of my experience as a recording artist was this: It was the beginning of MTV. Artists like Cyndi Lauper and John Mellencamp, who were emerging on MTV, all had videos that were supporting their careers. I went to the label, as we were seeing the song ascend the charts, and said, "We've got to do a video." And Isgro's attitude was, "Why do we need a video? It's already a hit." And I said, "Yeah, that's great. But I need a career." I was a big fan of Harry Nilsson and the Beatles and my vision for "Stride" was to to do something that was visually creative, because it was such a fantastical lyric. I wanted it to be an animation/live action thing. And they just kind of laughed at me and said, "Animation? You're not even getting a video."

I did tour a lot in Europe. But, for the amount of money that it took them to put me on the road and tour me through Europe and do all these personal appearances and staying at hotels and all of that, it would have cost a fraction of that to just do the video and then send it out as the ambassador for the song. I certainly could have traveled to fewer regions and economized on how my time was being spent. I would gladly have owed them for the video. I had a band and we played Grad Nite at Disneyland and did shows here and there at the Palace, did a lot of TV, Dick Clark, a lot of promotion on that basis. But, unfortunately, I never got out on the road behind the record.

There were two singles released from I Don't Speak The Language, which was the first album. And then one from the followup album, which was Bouncing Off the Walls (which, ironically, did get a video). But the second album didn't make the charts. Suffice it to say, by the time that second album came around, Isgro was in a lot of hot water with the Feds. So I was dropped from the label. I was a bit disillusioned after that by having hit such a height and then crashing and burning the way I did, having such great difficulty being able to create any momentum in the aftermath of that rather extraordinary experience. So I resorted to what I know and went back to being a writer. At that point, Ronny Vance, who was heading up David Geffen's publishing company, kind of picked me up and dusted me off a little bit and said, "Come work with me." And so I signed a co-publishing deal with Geffen, and slowly but surely started to reinvent myself and recreate, or create, a whole new adjunct to my career. By that time I was a new father, and I didn't have the luxury of sitting around in any kind of Peter Pan mentality. I had to grow up very quickly and adapt.

Whether I received everything that was due me from "Break My Stride" remains to be seen. But the song definitely gave me some cred and enabled me to function exclusively as a musician. Not that I wanted to tour forever on the one hit. My viewpoint on that is, unless you could do it on the level of the Stones or McCartney why bother? On the other hand, I have many semi-famous friends who made names for themselves way back when and then just couldn't give up the ghost and went on and on. I don't mean this disrespectfully to anybody. It's just not for me. I don't really relish the thought of being able to get out there and sing that song for the rest of my life at a Howard Johnson's. I have to really be honest with myself and necessity is the mother of invention. People have to do what they have to do. I'm just saying this strictly from my own perspective, but I was really grateful for it at the time.

You have to understand that "Stride" has become a bit iconic in its own right. It's been covered and used in commercials over and over and over again. Some of the products it's been used to promote, I'm not particularly enthralled by. But by the same token, you'd be surprised at the amount of revenue a song like that can generate over the years. I can't quote a figure off the top of my head, but it's considerable. For instance, Puff Daddy used it in his first big hit and it launched his career. "Nobody Hold Me Down" was an interpolation of "Break My Stride." It was one of those things where it was at the beginning of a whole new movement in rap where he was taking hits and rapping over the choruses. He did the Police on that record, as well, "Every Breath You Take." That was the first I'd ever heard of something like that. They came to us with the finished product and said, "We've used your song" followed by "Can we use it?" And I was like, "You're kidding, right?" So it's been kind of an annuity. It was big in Germany I seem to remember, and Asia. Australia recently used it in a huge commercial. It's been sniffed at for another national here in the US. So again, I don't think a year goes by without some sort of inquiry in some form, and then every couple of years something rather sizeable comes along.

October 19, 2012.
For more on Matthew Wilder, check out

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Comments: 2

  • Dave from Wheaton, IlMatthew was a 2-hit wonder, as, the kid's American hit #33 in Billboard, in '84.
  • Bungy from Auckland, New ZealandThe song "Break My Stride" is used in a TV Commercial in New Zealand by State Insurance Company.
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