Cult Heroes No. 12: Starz
In our latest Cult Heroes instalment, Xavier Russell takes a look at one of the most underrated American hard rock bands of all time – namely New Jersey’s very own Starz. Check out all the Cult Heroes so far.
Words: Xavier Russell
How Starz never cracked the grand ol’ US of A must, annoyingly, remain one of life’s great unsolved mysteries. Indeed, 1980s American glam bands such as Mötley Crüe, Poison, Twisted Sister and Ratt have all cited Starz as a stepping stone for developing their own careers. And a certain Jon Bon Jovi was also a big fan; it’s been claimed that seeing Starz in concert was a source of great inspiration to the young John Francis Bongiovi (as he was known then). Is this story true?
”Yes, he came up to me at one of his shows, where I was backstage with my son who was 11 years old at the time,” recalls Starz guitarist Richie Ranno. “Not only did he tell us that, but he told the crowd the same story. He finished the rap with: ‘Remember, always shoot for the Starz!’ He was very cool about it. Would be even cooler if he would cover one of our songs!”
With folk like Bon Jovi singing Starz’ praises they should have been one of the success stories of the 1970s. So what happened? Wrong label? Wrong time? Wrong universe? These are questions that need answering, and the man to set the record straight is Ranno himself.
But first, let’s go back to the beginning of the Starz family tree to see how it all began.
Back in the early 1970s, there was a New Jersey-based power-pop combo called Looking Glass, who had a mega hit single Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl), which sold over a million copies. Two members of this band were bassist Pete Sweval and drummer Jeff Grob (later to rename himself Joe X. Dube). Looking Glass would morph into Fallen Angels and sign a deal with Arista Records. An album’s worth of material was recorded, but shelved.
Richie Ranno, meanwhile, was passing time in New York band Stories, who had a big hit with Brother Louie, a cover of the famous Hot Chocolate song. The band split up in 1974 when Richie relocated to Los Angeles, hanging out with his New York pals Kiss, who were at the Village Recorder Studios working on their second studio album Hotter Than Hell. It was August 1974, and the birth of Starz was just around the corner.
Ranno picks up the story:
”Hanging out with Kiss was a blast; I had known the band for quite a while. I met their manager, Bill Aucoin, who in turn put me in touch with Kiss’ road manager Sean Delaney (informally known as the fifth member of Kiss!). He told me he was involved with this band Fallen Angels and that they were looking for a new guitarist, and suggested that I should go for an audition.
“So I phoned them up, and it went something like this. They said: ‘Are you the world’s greatest guitarist?” To which I replied: ”Probably not.’ Then they said: ‘Well, come down anyway’.’ So I did. I plugged in and just played some powerchords at them; thankfully they were blown away. ”You’re in,’ they snarled. I later found out that they had auditioned some 60 guitarists! Once I joined, we became much more guitar-based; the keyboards had to go… and so did the name!
”Sean Delaney rightfully pointed out that there were too many bands with a name like ‘Angel’ and it was he who first came up with the name Starz. We weren’t sure about it at first, but once he had commissioned graphic artist Michael Doret (later to design Kiss’ album covers for Rock And Roll Over and Sonic Boom) to come up with a logo design for Starz… the end result was nothing short of stunning, it really stood out. From that moment on everything suddenly clicked into place. Two months later we were in Detroit, rehearsing material for our first album.”
This raises the question about the fact that, with Bill Aucoin taking on the band’s management and therefore obvious Kiss connection, was it deliberate or pure coincidence that Starz had a song called Detroit Girls, while Kiss had Detroit Rock City?
”You are not the first person to raise this question. We had nothing to do with Kiss, really. Despite sharing the same management, the two bands were kept very much apart. Our song was not influenced by Detroit Rock City; the only real similarity is the fact that both songs came out in 1976! We were in Detroit for about 12 days, did two gigs, and spent most of our time hanging out with a lot of hot chicks – and they sure liked to have a good time and party hard! So the song came from the wild times we had with them: ‘Talkin’ bout you Detroit girls, the sweetest in the whole damn world.’”
Starz’ self-titled debut album was released through the Capitol label in the autumn of 1976. Yet, despite critical acclaim, it failed to sell by the bucketful. The album, produced by Jack Douglas of Aerosmith fame, was chock full of hard rock classics, such as the aforementioned Detroit Girls, Live Wire (with its Kiss-style intro), and the classic slow-burner (She’s Just A) Fallen Angel, which just builds and builds thanks to the sensitive duelling guitars of Ranno and Brendan Harkin. Then, of course, there’s the classic Pull The Plug, which caused a lot of controversy at the time because of it’s subject matter – euthanasia!
Singer Michael Lee Smith’s girlfriend at the time was being kept alive on a life-support machine, despite the fact she was clinically brain dead. You can almost see the tears in Michael’s eyes as he sings: ‘It’s been so long since your vital signs went/And you don’t look the same in that oxygen tent.’ Some say the song was also influenced by the famous right-to-die case in the press at the time about Karen Ann Quinlan, a 21-year-old student who’d been out on a serious bender and had consumed diazepam, detroproxyphene and alcohol, and then fallen into coma which in turn left her in a persistent vegetative state. There was a big hoo-hah at the time about whether or not to turn off the ventilator machine that was keeping here alive.
Starz went out on the road in 1976, supporting the likes Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Rush and Blue Öyster Cult. However, despite getting encores most nights the band were still failing to set the Billboard album charts alight.
Richie explains why:
”Back in 1976, I thought we would blow America wide open. We had a great stage show, and we loved playing live. It’s true, we did get encores, which is quite rare for a support band. But our problem was we weren’t getting our record played on the airwaves across America, and that’s how you sell records in the US. All you would hear back then were Boston and Heart.
“And when we went out in 1977 to support the second album, Violation, our management put us out on the road with Bob Seger! I went mad with them and tour promoter. Putting us out with him was suicide. And to make matters worse, the radio plugger at Capitol Records never really got behind Violation. So, because of that all you would hear on the radio was Foreigner and not Starz!”
The Violation album is considered by many to be Starz’s best, although I personally still prefer Coliseum Rock (1978). Still, the likes of the poppy Cherry Baby, the driving guitars of Rock Six Times and the footy-style chanting on Sing It Shout make Violation the band’s most accessible album – and it would seem that Richie agrees.
”Yeah, I think Violation holds up pretty well. In fact the current line-up of Starz – which is myself on guitar, Michael Lee Smith (vocals), Bobby Messano (guitar), Insane George D’ana (bass) and Joe X Dube (drums) – are going to re-record Violation as we think it should have sounded. We are also planning to record five or six new songs, deleting Cool One and All Night Long, which should never have been on the original album. We hope to start recording this summer.”
1978′s Attention Shoppers! was the weakest of the four Starz studio albums. Sadly, it ended up sounding more pop than metal, due to the folk at Capitol demanding a more commercial album. Starz were put in a corner, and caved in. The only cut really worth mentioning was the slightly punky and fast X Ray Spex. But this change of direction also caused a split within the ranks. Out went Sweval and guitarist Brendan Harkin, and in came Bobby Messano (guitar) and Orville Davis (bass).
With new recruits on board, Starz had to get the mistake that was Attention Shoppers! out of their system asap, and headed north to Canada to record their finest album, Coliseum Rock, with renowned Canadian producer Jack Richardson.
This was a monster of an album; everything about it was big. Big sound. Big guitars. Big production. And, best of all, big songs.
This opens with So Young, So Bad, which has a Boston feel and talk-box guitar pickin’. Take Me follows – a great thumping bass intro dovetails into twin duelling guitars, that just get louder and louder. Finally Michael Lee Smith’s piercing vocals cut through with the immortal line: ‘Girl I love to see you with your legs in the air/Then I know our love is really getting somewhere.’ But it’s the title cut that really stands out. Just where did Richie get the idea for that amazing intro guitar solo?
‘”That guitar solo had been knocking around for a while. The whole concept of Coliseum Rock was my idea. You know, big coliseums, big guitar sound. Lots of feedback. I first started playing that intro (with its Montrose feel) during the end of Pull The Plug. The song just developed and then morphed into Coliseum Rock. I was really pleased with the album, but the record label sadly never really got behind it. And we parted company shortly after that.
“Sadly there were only 10 or so major labels at the time and we couldn’t get arrested, because the labels were signing up all these goofy new wave bands which were rubbish. It was a very disheartening time.”
Not surprisingly, Starz disbanded in 1982. But there was (and is) still a market for their music. The band reformed in 2003 and undertook a series of mini tours. But they never came over to Europe, where they had built up a sizeable cult following. There were several tours in the pipeline but none ever materialised. Why?
“Yeah, it’s frustrating. We were down to play Europe several times. But on all occasions the booking agents were very keen for us to come over and play, but not so keen on paying us to play. Well, fuck that! One tour that nearly happened was a joint thing with Angel that would have been fun. We’re still keen to come over to Europe and play. So if you know a booking agent that is keen for us to come over, and will actually pay us for playing live, then we’ll be over on the first available plane (Icelandic volcanoes permitting).”
Ranno, meanwhile, has kept himself busy over the years, with his various projects such as The Hellcats and Richie Ranno’s All Stars, as well as the aforementioned new-look Starz. He’s also constantly raiding the archives looking for old vintage Starz live recordings to release.
The guitarist also played on Gene Simmons self-titled 1978 solo album. What was that like? Is it true he replaced all Joe Perry’s parts on it?
”It was only on one song – Tunnel of Love. Both Joe’s name and mine appeared as a credit on that song, but he’s not on it. I have known Gene a long time, and he just phoned me up out of the blue and said he wasn’t happy with the guitar sound on that track, asking me to come in and have a go. I was only too happy to help out. Anyway, Gene loved what I’d come up with in the studio, and ended up using my guitar part.”
Over the last two decades, the style of metal has changed drastically. However, the influence of bands such as Straz remains profound. For instance, does Ranno know that James Hetfield of Metallica fame is a big Starz fan? I know the band very well and we talked recently about 70s American rock and when the Starz name came up, Hetfield started reeling off all their songs. Which raises the question: does Ranno like Metallica and thrash metal? Has he ever penned a thrash song?
”I have heard that (about Hetfield). Lonn Friend, former publisher of RIP magazine, told me that when Metal Blade Records reissued all four Starz albums (in 1991), he sent a set to Metallica. I also met Lars Ulrich one night, and he was raving about Starz to me. He told me the Coliseum Rock album had a major impact on him.
“You know, I’m not into thrash at all. Can’t relate. But I do like a number of Metallica and Megadeth songs. I’ve noticed that they use a lot of chromatic scales, which means playing every pitch in a descending or ascending manner. The song Don’t Stop Now (from Coliseum Rock) had a chromatic part in it, which was kind of unusual in the 70s. It’s a part that I originally wrote for a song when I was in a band called Bungi, in 1971. I don’t know if it’s coincidental or not. Other than that I don’t hear much of an influence of Starz on Metallica. I really dislike that Slayer type of stuff, hate to call that music.”
Starz were always renowned for their live shows, and if you go onto the official Starz website (see below for link) you will be greeted by an Aladdin’s Cave of live recordings for public consumption. I recall writing once about their unofficial live album Superstars Radio Network Presents – Starz Live In Louisville (a Capitol Records promo album): ‘The greatest never-released live album of all time.’
Ranno chuckles: “Yeah, I remember reading your quote. There is a longer version of …Live In Louisville available. I have a lot of live recordings in the vaults, and the one people keep asking me about is a live radio broadcast from Rochester, New York in 1977. Which I’m still looking to release in the future.”
You can still get the Starz back catalogue on Amazon, or better still go to the following links:
There are also these links related to the band:
Finally, check out some classic Starz:
Tags: Aerosmith, Angel, Bill Aucoin, Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Seger, Bobby Messano, Boston, Brendan Harkin, Cult Heroes, Fallen Angels, Foreigner, Gene Simmons, Heart, Hellcats, Hot Chocolate, Insane George D'ana, Jack Douglas, Jack Richardson, James Hetfield, Jeff Grob, Joe Perry, Joe X. Dube, Jon Bon Jovi, Kiss, Lars Ulrich, Looking Glass, Megadeth, Metallica, Michael Lee Smith, Montrose, Motley Crue, Orville Davis, Pete Sweval, Poison, Ratt, Rich Ranno, Rich Ranno's All Stars, Rush, Sean Delaney, Slayer, Starz, Stories, Ted Nugent, Twisted Sister