Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

As the hard rocking 1970’s drew to a close, American bands ruled. Aerosmith and Kiss were all over the radio; Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent were routinely selling out enormo-domes across the country, and relative newbies Boston and Cheap Trick broke in a big way. Readers of the popular rock rags of the day couldn’t escape pictures of Gene Simmons’ tongue or The Nuge’s loincloth. Soft rock hits by Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles rubbed shoulders with Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty’ in the Top 40.

With this kind of massive success, U.S. record companies did what record companies always do: milked it to death. Labels signed up anything that rocked, plucking average bar bands from relative obscurity, packaging them as arena rockers, and marketing them as the next big thing. The Machine wanted what Creem magazine referred to as ‘AeroKiss’; and that’s exactly how these bands were marketed to young buyers. While most of these bands would never have gotten a shot at the big leagues without allowing themselves to be molded into the styles and shapes of the bigger bands of the era, this ‘devil’s bargain’ denied them the possibility of ever making it on their own merits. This dynamic made for an interesting bunch of bands; here are a few of my favorite examples…

Starz

New Jersey’s Starz evolved from the remnants of pop band Looking Glass, who had a #1 hit with ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)’ in 1972, and Stories, who also hit #1 with ‘Brother Louie’ in ’73. The unofficial ‘5th member’ of Kiss, Sean Delaney, recommended Starz to Kiss’, manager Bill Aucoin, who secured the band a deal with Capitol Records. In order to make sure this new band sounded nothing like Stories or Looking Glass, Aucoin secured legendary hard rock producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, the Runaways) to toughen up their overall sound. Aucoin, always image-conscious, had a killer logo designed, tweaked their look (lead singer Michael Lee Smith, brother of Rex Smith, had the frontman appeal of Paul Stanley… and the lips of Steven Tyler) and the transformation into AeroKiss was complete.

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The debut album by Starz is a decent enough arena rock debut; a little clunky here and there in the songwriting department (Delaney gets a co-writing credit), but weren’t the debuts from Aerosmith and Kiss, as well? Second record ‘Violation’ is widely considered their best. Two songs from ‘Violation’ got a decent amount of radio play; check out ‘Sing It, Shout It’ and ‘Cherry Baby’ and see if they don’t sound familiar. The third record, ‘Attention Shoppers!’ suffers from the absence of Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair, and trades hard rock muscle for power pop bounce. After a line-up shift, 1978’s ‘Coliseum Rock’ returned Starz to a hard rock sound. It’s a solid, confident record, and the single ‘So Young, So Bad’, returned the band to rock radio. Unfortunately, ‘SY,SB’ sounded so much like Kiss that it confirmed this band was never going to make it past the ‘AeroKiss’ jokes. They split in 1979 after being dropped by Capitol.

Angel

Angel’s origin story doesn’t include any #1 hits, and can be traced back to a band working the bars on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. BUX included guitarist Edwin Lionel Meadows (soon to be immortalized as ‘Punky’) and bassist Mickey Jones, as well as singer Ralph Mormon. BUX were managed by Frank Connolly, who was also managing Aerosmith at the time; Connolly managed to secure the band a deal with Capitol Records. The band recorded their debut in 1973, but the label shelved it after the band split, with Meadows and Jones decamping to DC and forming Angel. The BUX album was finally released in 1976 to capitalize on Angel’s second album buzz. Mormon moved to Boston and eventually became the frontman for the Joe Perry Project (you know, Joe Perry of Aerosmith?).

As the story goes, none other than Gene Simmons saw Angel play in a nightclub in DC, and quicker then you can say ‘Bat-Lizard’, the band were signed to Casablanca. Angel’s 1975 debut is devoid of the usual Casablanca gimmickry (that would come later) and is an amazingly strong debut. If these guys had been left alone to sound and look as they saw fit, their music would have been taken a lot more seriously. Alas, Casablanca being Casablanca, Angel were transformed into shtick for the artwork for their second album ‘Helluva Band’. Again, the visuals took over: another nifty (ambigrammatic!) logo was designed, ridiculous outfits and spectacular stage show were conceived, and Angel became too much of a joke for their music to be taken seriously.

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‘Helluva Band’ is a GREAT album, and deserves to be appreciated without all of the Casablanca-bullshit attached. Combine Styx’s ‘Equinox’ with Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ and you’ll get a close approximation. But it’s a lot more fun than either of those two records, and so ‘HB’ deserves its status as a cult classic. Third record ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ rocks as well, and contains some of the band’s strongest material (including an old BUX tune, ‘White Lightning’). Sure, there’s a Queen rip here, a Boston steal there… but it’s still a great record. ‘White Hot’ followed in 1978 and earned the band some airplay, most notably via ‘The Winter Song’, which hit #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. A Christma-tized version of the song was released, as ‘The Christmas Song’, but strangely enough, that one never got any play. ‘White Hot’ is good fun, an adventurous hard rock record with a overall commercial feel. Things were looking good for the ‘Anti-Kiss’…

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… Until their fifth and final studio album, ‘Sinful’. Originally titled ‘Bad Publicity’, the album art was to depict the band in street clothes, partying with some hot babes in a wrecked hotel room while members of the press observe (a few promos did sneak out with this title and cover art). This cover concept was scotched at the final minute, and the record was re-titled ‘Sinful’. The cover art was changed to something much less ‘dangerous’: a soft-focus black and white shot of the band in full angel regalia. The music itself was decidedly more commercial than on Angel’s previous releases, with each song sounding like a stab at pop rock radio. Coming packaged in what looked like a magazine add for hi-end shampoo, the relative ‘wimpiness’ of the record was magnified. For fans of the band’s earlier music, their credibility was now all but gone. A waste-of-time double live album followed, but a disco single (‘Twentieth Century Foxes’, featured in the 1980 movie ‘Foxes’) sealed the deal.

The Godz

Midwestern biker band The Godz were no better/no worse than a thousand other bar bands in America in 1977, but someone in the Kiss organization saw God knows what, and booked them as the opening act for Midwestern leg of Kiss’ Love Gun Tour. Soon after, they were signed to Casablanca Records and a debut record followed in 1978. Truth be told, The Godz were a pretty terrible band, possessed of exactly ONE great song, ‘Gotta Keep A Running’. The Casablanca marketing machine, well known for pushing style over substance, played up the tough guy biker image but forgot that people would eventually listen to the records.

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‘The Godz’, produced by Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer, is the sound of a band that doesn’t get it’s own joke. It’s truly dumb record, with dumb songs, dumb lyrics , and a (dumb) 11-minute cover of Golden Earring’s ‘Candy’s Going Bad’. Somehow this record has gained some sort of cult stature; I’m a huge fan of the aforementioned ‘Gotta Keep A Running’, but after that, there is absolutely nothing on this record that I can recommend. Second album ‘Nothing’s Sacred’ rips off its cover art from Judas Priest, playfully mis-spells almost every word in its song titles a ‘la Slade, and somehow manages to be even more dumberer than the debut.

The Aerosmith/Kiss connections are inescapable. It’s as if the monster success of these two bands created opportunities for anyone even peripherally connected to them. It’s also apparent that the Kiss mafia had its fingers in a lot of pies. Hey, those two arena champs needed opening acts, so why not just make them to order? Unfortunately, some decent bands got caught between the gears in the process, with a few brief brushes with greatness their only reward. I love all of these records dearly (yes, even the two by the Godz), due to the both quality of the music and the undeniable cheese factor. Nothing wrong with a little American cheese in your musical diet.

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