In the mid ‘80s, alternative rock and new wave bands like the Suburbs, the Replacements and Husker Du dominated the local music scene and were starting to break out nationally. Prince was soaring into superstardom with the release of Purple Rain. And somewhere along the way, Jesse Ventura released an EP and toured the Midwest for a year with his band, Soldiers of Fortune.
Little evidence of the wrestling star and former Minnesota governor’s music career exists on the internet, but sure enough, a 12-inch picture disc released in 1984 on Twin/Tone provides sufficient documentation — and raises dozens of questions. As it turns out, the record has a backstory filled with local music history.
A mysterious acquaintance
Mark Orion had just wrapped things up with his theatrical rock band Straight Up (which included Yanni and Xeno of Cheap Trick). With innovative stage antics like video walls and snow machines, the band was a big enough operation to have a support staff of 15, which was based in Paul Stark’s Twin/Tone space in Dinkytown. After Straight Up disbanded, someone from the group’s business office approached Orion.
“So this guy says, ‘I’ve met Jesse. Do you think you could put together a marriage of rock and wrestling?’ And this was before, as far as we know, it had been done anywhere,” Orion said.
Ready for a new creative challenge, Orion put together a two-song demo. After reporting Ventura had given it a thumbs up, the mystery figure never returned. Orion hadn’t learned his name, and couldn’t get a hold of him for weeks. Eventually, he called up the gym that Ventura and his wife, Terry, ran at the time.
“Because of Jesse’s notoriety, they were really suspicious of any phone calls … I told them, ‘I’m the guy who wrote those two songs,’ and Jesse came to the phone, and said, ‘Come see me at the gym,’” Orion said. “So I went into the gym and met with him, and I was amazed what a great guy he was. I mean, from day one. He was so, different from his stage character.”
Orion and Ventura began researching various novelty record labels, planning for just a small project. But plans changed after Ventura signed with Vince McMann, who broke the wrestling status quo. Up until that point, wrestling promoters were generally non-competitive and agreed to stay off each other’s turf. But McMann started recruiting and promoting his wrestlers on national television.
“So Jesse’s career took off all of a sudden. He went from being a local wrestler to being on NBC and bigger. So what we were doing started to get more momentum, because he became a big celebrity,” Orion said.
A snowball effect
Orion approached Stark with the project, who recorded the tracks in the same Roseville warehouse where he had cut the Replacements’ Hootenanny. According to their website, Twin/Tone pressed and sold 2,500 copies before licensing it to another label, which held it in its catalog until 1998.
“His professional wrestling name was Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, so I just did what a writer does. I wrote for that character,” Orion said. “And we never dropped that character at any point ever … That was kind of the goal from the beginning.”
Ventura appears to have kept up that persona in an 1984 News 11 segment, where he tells host Dale Schornack, “The inspiration for the song comes from me, I’ll tell you why. Because right now, without a doubt, I am the best built rock and roller in the world. David Lee Roth, eat your heart out, baby!”
Orion wrote about a dozen more songs for the group, though they never got recorded. Their first show was a televised Metrodome concert, after which a promoter set them up with a year-long tour of the Midwest, mostly playing the same big ballrooms Straight Up did. Ventura and his wife Terry (who provided back-up vocals) took the gig seriously and hosted band practices at their house, Orion said.
“We thought it was just going to be a quick novelty record … but it started taking off, and he started having fun.”
With MTV just gaining steam, Orion recruited producer Bill Bruce, who he had met through Twin/Tone, for a music video. Bruce produced Husker Du’s first tapes, and also did some work for MTV’s news team.
“It was something that I’m really happy I did,” Bruce said. “I worked with a lot of musicians in my time and they were some of the most polite and respectful ones I’ve worked with. And honestly, I didn’t expect that with a professional wrestler. You see that wrestling persona and it’s just different from what you might expect.”
Bruce said he collaborated closely with Orion and Ventura to make a video in the same rock ‘n roll style of the Rolling Stones, one of the wrestler’s favorite groups. Originally, it included footage of Ventura body-slamming Hulk Hogan in the wrestling shots, but this was removed once it went past the World Wrestling Federation for approval. In the performance shots, Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos can be spotted on drums.
“I think the thing I remember is just how fun [Jesse and Terry] made it for us,” Bruce said. “They really got behind it and they worked so hard at doing it and doing it right. It wasn’t just something they were doing on a whim.”
The video aired on MTV and garnered another interview on News 11, where Ventura told reporters: “I ventured in rock n’ roll real quick, I’ll tell you why — because what rock star can be a wrestler? None. But I can be a rock star, because I’m unique.”
But perhaps another factor played into Ventura’s foray into music. Around the same time, he had to take a break from wrestling because of a medical condition.
“The music was potentially representing another thing to do while he morphed out of wrestling. When we were doing our touring, it was such great timing for him because he couldn’t physically be in the ring at that time anyway,” Orion said.
Eventually, the project ran its course and Ventura moved on to the next step in his career as an actor. Ventura used the music video as part of his audition tape for Predator. From there, he stayed busy in the film industry, appearing in 11 movies throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s.
“I have a very fond memory of that whole thing,” Orion said. “We were doing things that had never been done and I’m very proud of the fact that we had the courage to go do them. And we didn’t always get told yes immediately … It was a reminder of how important it is to step out ahead of time and not look for approval before you do a project.”
Photos courtesy Mark Orion