Starz - Oh, SO close! Aug 19, 2017 2:28:42 GMT -5
Post by Erik Rupp on Aug 19, 2017 2:28:42 GMT -5
In the 70's, the Rock scene hadn't yet become what it would be in the 80's. The sheer number of bands hadn't yet gotten out of hand (there were a lot of bands, but it wasn't as crazy as it would be a decade later), but despite fewer competitors many of those who did get signed just couldn't find a large audience. Some of them achieved cult status (Budgie, Moxy, etc), and some came amazingly close to breaking it big - but didn't. Two of the most obvious examples are Angel and Starz. Interestingly, both of them had KISS connections.
Angel was on the same record label as KISS, Casablanca, while Starz shared KISS' management company (Aucoin Management) and musical and theatrical advisor (Sean Delaney).
While Angel was a theatrical band, much like KISS, Starz were more of a precursor to the kind of visual band that Van Halen would become. Lead vocalist Michael Lee Smith was a high energy performer on stage, much like David Lee Roth, and he was very athletic, again, much like Diamond Dave. The band started out with a couple of the guys wearing platform boots, like the early ones KISS wore, but there wasn't any make up or outrageous costumes. Well, not as over the top as what KISS wore, anyway.
Where Starz scored a coup over KISS was in the producer they landed for their first two albums - Jack Douglas. Douglas had just made a name for himself producing Aerosmith's classic Toys in the Attic album. KISS had interest in Douglas following their breakthrough album, ALIVE, but they and their management decided to go with Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper) instead. Starz, on the other hand, knew that Douglas was their man, and he was hired to produce their first album. (KISS would then try to land Douglas as the producer for what became their Rock and Roll Over album, but Douglas was busy working with Starz and Aerosmith and wasn't available - which is a shame as Douglas would have been a great producer for KISS!)
But what about that debut Starz album?
It is a fantastic slice of American Hard Rock and Proto-Metal circa 1976. It features a combination of KISS, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Montrose, and Cheap Trick in musical style, and the audio production of the album is very similar to what Douglas got on Aerosmith's Rocks album. The guitars crunch and grind but have great earthy tone underneath that crunch and grind. The drums have snap and punch, and the bass sounds, well, like a well recorded bass.
But the songs - MAN - THE SONGS! They kill! The album features one song after another with killer riffs and catchy, melodic vocal melodies and some amazing hooks. "(She's Just A) Fallen Angel," nearly broke the band out of the gate. Probably the most accessible, moderately toned down song on the album, "Fallen Angel," is a terrific, accessible, crossover Rock song. It rocks, but it's also radio friendly and featured a chorus catchy enough to have gotten played on 70's Top 40 radio - which it did. A little. The song peaked on the Billboard Top 100 singles chart at #95, getting airplay in some regional markets, but not throughout the country. Still, it was a start. The album sold fairly well for a debut album (Rock bands weren't necessarily expected to hit it big with their first album back at that time - Artist Development was still a big thing, as the record company and the band's management would work together to build a band with the second or third album expected to be the band's breakthrough).
The band made a great appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and absolutely hit it out of the park with an electrifying, energetic performance of one of the album's best tracks, "Monkey Business."
But despite, "(She's Just A) Fallen Angel," "Monkey Business," and the infectious, "Detroit Girls," Starz, the album wasn't the hit that it should have been. More than 40 years later there can be no denying the quality of the songwriting, performances, or audio production on the album, but as is often the case, quality doesn't always equal sales. (More often than not it doesn't...)
So the band went back into the studio with Douglas and recorded the follow up, which many fans consider to be their best - Violation. Without question it was their most successful album and featured their only Top 40 hit, "Cherry Baby," a Power Pop song that was even more radio friendly than, "Fallen Angel," and just as catchy.
The album's title track was a solid proto-Metal track about a dystopian future where Rock and Roll had been outlawed (as had all kinds of fun behaviors and activities). It's effective, and not nearly as cheesy as the subject matter could have been (let's face it, in the campy 70's this kind of thing often didn't turn out well).
The album was solid, maybe not quite as hard rock from top to bottom as the debut album, but the boundaries they pushed brought some good results. And yet the album, despite several great tracks and a Top 40 hit ("Cherry Baby" hit #33) failed to break the band to an audience the size of which KISS, Aerosmith, and Ted Nugent were enjoying. (Violation sold better than the debut, reaching #89 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart - not bad, but not a true hit.) So what do do? The band, record company (Capitol), and manager Bill Aucoin decided to go full on Power Pop for album #3 - Attention Shoppers!
Power Pop, ballads, early Pop Punk (Punky Pop?), and even a hint of the style that would morph into New Wave a year or so later - Attention Shoppers was all of that.
And that's where the wheels fell off. Sure, the album featured several very well written songs ("She," was absolutely fantastic), but the audience Starz had been courting was more interested in the harder edged music, and as would happen with KISS a couple of years later when they went too far in the Pop direction, that audience abandoned Starz.
Realizing their misstep, Starz regrouped and went through a couple line-up changes (bassist Pieter Sweval and guitarist Brandon Harkin were both replaced, by Orville Davis and Bobby Messano, respectively). The two new guys joined original members Michael Lee Smith, guitarist Richie Ranno, and drummer Joe X. Dube - as well as producer Jack Richardson (mentor to Bob Ezrin, who was the mentor to Jack Douglas) who was brought in with the plan to recapture the harder edged sound that Starz was known for on their first two albums. The result - Coliseum Rock!
It's a good album. Nearly as good as the first two, and right in that wheelhouse. An album that should have brought back those fans who were turned off by Attention Shoppers' foray into Poppier territiry. But it didn't. Not to the degree that the band, their management, and, most importantly, their record company hoped it would.
Despite solid, high energy, posterior kicking tracks like, "Take Me," "No Regrets," and "Don't Stop Now," the album failed to match the sales numbers of their previous albums and Capitol dropped the band, effectively ending Starz as a viable national act.
The Starz story doesn't quite end there, though. They would regroup a couple times in the early 80's, morphing into the band Hellcats before disappearing for several years, then returning to record new songs in the early 90's only to disappear again until 2003 when various line-ups of the group would reform to play sporadic shows for over a decade. Their albums would be reissued a few times on CD, first by Metal Blade in the early 90's, then by Ryko just over a decade later (in great remastered versions with bonus tracks).
But for a couple years in the mid 70's it looked to many like Starz would join KISS, Aerosmith, and Ted Nugent as major players in the American Hard Rock market. And they almost did. They certainly should have.